House of Lords
Tuesday 20 April 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of London.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber and others are participating remotely but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I shall immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Can those asking supplementary questions keep them to no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Gambling: Early Mortality
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the research by Dr Naomi Muggleton linking gambling and early mortality, published in Nature Human Behaviour on 4 February, what plans they have to transfer responsibility for gambling policy to the Department of Health and Social Care.
My Lords, responsibility for gambling is shared across departments. DCMS leads on industry regulation, which is key to harm prevention. DHSC leads on gambling as a health issue and on treatment, and we work closely together. We are pleased to see more research being done and we are considering the findings carefully. Dr Muggleton’s research shows a correlation between higher gambling spend and lower well-being but does not look at causes.
I thank the Minister for her response. As the recent research suggests, gambling-related harm and problem gambling produce a negative result across a whole variety of indicators, including health. Despite this, the Government continue to hold on to the idea that the industry is a net contributor to the Treasury, without taking into account the huge other costs being incurred. Will the Government consider undertaking a comprehensive study of the direct and associated costs, such as health, incarcerations, homelessness and social welfare, all caused by gambling harm, which materially affect the Treasury’s receipts?
The right reverend Prelate raises important points. He will be aware that Public Health England is doing research at the moment, looking at how to reduce gambling harms and how to recoup the costs to society, which I hope will go some way to reassuring him.
My Lords, the excellent Select Committee report may not have endorsed the current split in policy leadership but it made it very clear that DCMS had a lot to do. In that context, can the Minister confirm that the online harms Bill will deal with underage gambling and issues raised by the question put by the right reverend Prelate, such as an association between gambling and early mortality—and if not, why not?
My Lords, with reference to my interests as set out in the register, and bearing in mind the good advice that prevention is always better than cure, would my noble friend tell the House how many schools have included teaching students about the risks of potential gambling harm in PSHE classes or, indeed, whether schools are being actively encouraged to incorporate that important subject?
The Department for Education does not record how schools teach their pupils about gambling, but young people will be taught about gambling risks as part of the statutory health education curriculum, including the accumulation of debt. Training modules have been developed for teachers, including a specific section on gambling.
My Lords, only 3% of problem gamblers currently receive treatment. The planned new gambling clinics will help, but far more is needed. Given that one gambling company owner earned nearly £0.5 billion last year, much of it from problem gamblers, should not all gambling companies pay more to fund treatment through a compulsory levy?
As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, that is one of the issues that will be considered as part of the review of the Gambling Act. I can update the House that there has been an increased donation this year to GambleAware from the industry of £19 million, up from £10 million last year, and next year’s donation is forecast to be £26 million.
Does my noble friend agree that Dr Muggleton stressed that the report could not say whether the association between gambling and any negative effect, including increased mortality, was causal? As a result, does she agree that in government DCMS should continue to focus on the most vulnerable through advertising and the location of betting shops in impoverished neighbourhoods rather than make policies drawn on direct causal links which the research does not conclude?
I can agree with my noble friend’s first statement. I would just expand on his suggestion about the role of DCMS. The department is very clear that we have an important role in protecting vulnerable people who may be harmed by gambling in particular, and we work across government to achieve that.
My Lords, I cannot support the change in departmental responsibility suggested in the right reverend Prelate’s Question, but this is clearly a matter that raises the responsibilities of a wide range of government departments. What are the Government’s arrangements for enhancing departmental co-operation in addressing this crucial issue? Will they, for example, establish a bespoke departmental committee to co-ordinate action?
Does the Minister agree with the comment of the Lancet Public Health last January, that:
“Gambling disorders often remain undiagnosed and untreated”,
and its call for a scientific inquiry into this
“urgent, neglected, understudied, and worsening public health predicament”?
If not, how would she describe it? Are the Government, as part of their review of gambling, considering the practicalities of a statutory duty of care for gambling companies, similar to the one we expect to be in the online safety Bill?
The noble Lord raises an interesting point. It is significant, in relation to disorders such as gambling problems remaining hidden, that the Gambling Commission has recently appointed a panel of individuals with lived experience to advise it formally on player safety. We hope this means that currently hidden issues will become more visible, and we will be able to address them.
My Lords, despite the Government’s cross-departmental insistence that treatment for gambling problems will be prioritised, the scope of the call for evidence in the review of the Gambling Act 2005 made no mention of a public health approach. Such an approach would allow the treatment of gambling problems to be delivered in the same way as drug and alcohol addictions are treated. The Minister is aware of this. What action does she intend to take to rectify it?
I recognise the noble Baroness’s point about the specific language around public health, but if we look at what constitutes a public health approach, we see that it is inherent in the work being carried out. In particular, the Gambling Commission, as part of its role, looks broadly at the products, the players and the environment in which they operate.
The vast majority of people who follow horseracing and football have no gambling problems whatever. Addiction manifests itself in many different ways. Does the Minister agree that it is the role of the Department of Health and Social Care to get into the precise causation that creates addictive behaviour, in whatever form it manifests itself?
The noble Lord is right. That is why the Department of Health and Social Care is leading on the addiction strategy and the addiction treatment strategy for the Government, and why the review of the Act seeks to strike the right balance between consumer freedom and preventing harm.
My Lords, nobody doubts my noble friend’s commitment, but in view of the need to protect, in particular, vulnerable children from gambling addiction, can she say when the Government last convened a meeting with the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury to consider these issues, which are clearly of great importance?
National Marriage Week
My Lords, there are no plans to recognise National Marriage Week. We recognise the role that marriage can play as the basis for family life. The public sector equality duty requires us to pay due respect to the impact of policy and decisions on different people, including those who are married or in civil partnerships. The family test helps ensure that policy decisions take into consideration impacts on family relationships and functioning, including for people who are married.
I thank my noble friend for her Answer. Is she aware that it is 10 years this year since a Minister last recognised National Marriage Week? There are many Members who regret this and would welcome some recognition of the stability found in marriage and the benefit that stability brings to children. Government as a whole is clearly not reluctant to recognise and celebrate many sorts of days, weeks and months, but, as I say, it is 10 years since some positive recognition of marriage came from a Minister. Will my noble friend undertake to speak to the Secretary of State for Education, who now holds responsibility for family across government, and ask him to provide Members of both Houses with details of how he intends to promote marriage within his new role?
My Lords, we recognise the role that marriage can play as the basis of family life for those couples who want their relationship to be recognised through this lasting commitment. But families come in all shapes and sizes, and we want to ensure that any type of family can provide a nurturing environment for children so that they can succeed and lead happy, fulfilling lives. The Secretary of State for Education, in his role to improve outcomes for families, would, I am sure, be happy to discuss these issues further with my noble friend.
My Lords, I certainly commend National Marriage Week to this House, especially as one of the themes this year is that a wedding does not have to be an expensive extravaganza. The fees for a church wedding or a simple registry office ceremony are very modest indeed, but the wedding industry is busily ramping up expectations of what a special day should involve. How will Her Majesty’s Government work to encourage couples to understand that marriage itself matters far more than the commercial trappings of a wedding day?
I have to agree with the right reverend Prelate on the ever-increasing cost of weddings. I am not sure that the Government can get involved, but what has been happening with smaller weddings because of Covid-19 has perhaps made people think they do not need the huge weddings they have had in the past.
My Lords, as marriage is so important in helping to ensure stability and security for families, especially for children, will the Government ensure that the best tax arrangements are in place to promote marriage, rather than discourage it?
My Lords, in the clunky language of the Office for National Statistics, there were estimated to be 71,000
“same-sex married couple families”
in 2020. There was a roughly similar figure for “civil partner couple families” in the same year. Is the Minister able to confirm that any support given by the Government for marriage, whether in recognition of National Marriage Week or in the development of policy, will always include support for same-sex marriages and civil partnerships?
I think that having an exception for a new family, where two families get together, would be perceived as unfair to those families with three or more children who stay together and receive support from CTC or UC for two children, when more recently formed families would potentially receive support for more than two children. Therefore, I do not think the Government will consider this.
My Lords, statistics show that 60% of the marriages of couples aged between 20 and 25 years end in early divorce. Are the Government satisfied about the effectiveness of the PSHE curriculum? Will the Minister ask her noble friend, with his new responsibilities, to look into whether it adequately provides young people with proper and relevant information about marriage, enabling them to make well-informed decisions for the future?
My Lords, in both primary and secondary schools, we are increasing the amount of relationship education we provide. At the end of primary, we expect that pupils are taught that marriage represents a formal and legally recognised commitment of two people to each other that is intended to be lifelong. At secondary schools, we build on the teaching about that important relationship and the opportunity that marriage provides.
My Lords, family breakdown is not simply an inevitable consequence of modern society. On average, in OECD countries, around 84% of children under 15 still live with both parents. In Finland, 95% of children under 15 still live with both parents, whereas in the UK, as few as two-thirds do. Given that the evidence is clear that family breakdown sits in the backdrop to so many broken lives, entrenching individuals in intergenerational cycles of poverty and instability, what steps are the Government taking to support marriage and, specifically, the couple relationship at the heart of the family, rather than just childcare policies and support for family breakdown—the approach to family policy that is so often taken?
My noble friend is absolutely right. However, the Government are committed to reducing conflict between parents, whether they are together or separated, to help them manage their differences; conflict can be damaging to children and impair parenting skills. Sometimes, separation can be the best option for a couple, but even then, continued co-operation and communication between parents promotes better outcomes for children. DWP’s Reducing Parental Conflict programme is encouraging councils across the country to integrate services and approaches that address parental conflict into their local provision for families.
My Lords, marriage is a protected characteristic in our equalities legislation and results in more stable families, as we have heard already. What plans do the Government have to increase the value of the married couples tax allowance in recognition of these facts or otherwise address the UK tax burden on single-earner couple families with children, which is 25% greater than the OECD average?
My noble friend always brings up a difficult issue. The recipients of the marriage allowance have benefited from large increases in personal allowance; that is linked to the marriage allowance, which has almost doubled in the last decade. The Government remain committed to recognising marriage and the commitment it entails in the tax system while supporting low-earning families. The Government keep all aspects of the tax system under review, including the marriage allowance, and any decisions on future changes will be taken by the Chancellor as part of the annual Budget process.
My Lords, the Minister is, of course, correct in recognising that everyone has a choice in their relationships, but does she agree that the evidence is indisputable that children benefit from growing up within a stable marriage? Of course, there are wonderful exceptions, but socially and academically, marriage is of huge benefit to children. Can she confirm that the Government agree with this and outline what they intend to do to support it?
The Government’s view is that a strong, stable and happy family life is important for children and young people. That can come in many guises. It could be marriage—which could be a same-sex relationship—or one of the numerous other relationships we have in our modern society.
Gender-balanced Parliament and Male Primogeniture
My Lords, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we want to see more women in Parliament. That is a much wider issue than male primogeniture, but reform of the succession to hereditary peerages and baronetcies raises a variety of complex issues, and therefore any changes need careful consideration and wider engagement.
My Lords, I am very grateful for my noble friend’s reply. Does he agree that small, symbolic issues matter in our gradual progress towards female equality? The monarchy having shown the way in the matter of the inheritance of titles, will Her Majesty’s Government take whatever opportunity next presents itself to engage in the detailed consideration to which my noble friend refers?
Is the Minister aware that, since 1958, only 326 life Peers created have been women, representing 21% of the total? Not one woman hereditary Peer sits in this House today, and that is why I fully agree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Does the Minister agree that in any other place this would be regarded as totally unacceptable and could be reported to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as blatant discrimination?
My Lords, hereditary peerages are not currently created. There are life Peers in your Lordships’ House and the life peerage is gender-blind. There are 223 female Peers currently, 28% of the Members of the House of Lords. The Government’s aspiration is, of course, to see more.
My Lords, do the Government accept that the simplest and quickest way to make progress in this direction, so far as this House is concerned, without complex legislation, would be to abolish the by-elections for hereditary Peers, since all the candidates are male? This temporary political fix of more than 20 years is well past its sell-by date. Will the Minister undertake to communicate to his colleagues the overwhelming view of this House that this should be included in the Government’s legislation for the coming Session?
My Lords, my noble friend will be totally aware that I am a product of male primogeniture, and he will realise, no doubt, that I have an interest in the whole subject. What plans, if any, do Her Majesty’s Government have to amend male primogeniture in the hereditary peerage and baronetage?
While it is encouraging that the Prime Minister supports a 50:50 gender-balanced Parliament, it is very disappointing that progress has been so slow, and we still have a law that discriminates against women. What steps will be taken to ensure that women from minority communities are not left behind in whatever initiative is taken in this direction?
The noble Baroness makes a very important point. Improving the diversity of Parliament is something to which I believe all political parties assent, and this Government no less than any other. Beyond your Lordships’ House, where we must sometimes look, there are now 220 female Members of Parliament; that is more women in the House of Commons than ever before. That is surely progress.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raises the issue of male primogeniture, which is clearly unfair, but I have to say that, of all the issues of gender equality where I would seek to make a difference, it is probably not top of my list. I bring the Minister back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. Hereditary by-elections have had their day; the legislation is outdated. If we want to address what is clearly an inequality, in that there are no female hereditary Peers in this House—the issue of peerages outside the House is a completely different one—surely the Government should support the Grocott Bill when it will undoubtedly come before your Lordships’ House again, and not let it be wrecked by a few. It is time for the Government to show some courage on this issue.
My Lords, I have to declare an interest as a hereditary Peer but one who has only a daughter. I suggest that the Government will lose nothing by bringing forward something that allows this to happen. As for hereditary by-elections, given that people who were conceived after the system was instituted are now voting adults, surely it has had its day and has not worked as a stimulus to further reform.
My Lords, I think we have discussed the issue of hereditary by-elections. On the matter of succession to titles, any change would affect many families, many of whom have no claim to be Members of your Lordships’ House, and all those issues and interests would have to be considered.
My Lords, male primogeniture is indefensible and damages our striving for equality and justice. Ever-increasing numbers of Members are being appointed to this House and, continuing in the time-honoured tradition, men are favoured, leaving just 223 female Members in this Chamber, as the Minister indicated. I welcome the Minister’s assurance and the Prime Minister’s promise, but, given the perceptible resistance to recognising institutional gender and race discrimination, what plans are in place to remedy this?
My Lords, until we have full reform of your Lordships’ House, if Parliament decides on that, recommendations for life peerages are in the hands of leaders of political parties. Of Peers appointed by the current Prime Minister, 32% have been women, as against 29% under Gordon Brown and 23% under Mr Blair. Again, I suggest that that represents progress.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a hereditary Peer. My noble friend the Minister said that this requires careful consideration and is a complex matter: that is everyday meat for any Government. Will my noble friend encourage his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to undertake a review of this matter once and for all, so that the eldest child can inherit a title where that is applicable?
My Lords, I am sure my friends and I will read the views of my noble friend, and indeed all others who have spoken, with due respect. However, I believe that, at the height of this pandemic, and given the need we have to recover, it may well be that some people in the country have other priorities.
Whether or not hereditary peerages remain, it is time to get some sex equality into this House. The husbands of noble Baronesses get second-class treatment, and this is highly symbolic. Only a few days ago, the entire nation noted the essential support given by Prince Philip to his wife, but the support given by the husbands of noble Baronesses is ignored compared with the recognition, by the title “Lady”, of the wives of noble Lords. Does the Minister agree that our husbands should be given a title equivalent to that granted to the wives, or that the latter should lose theirs?
My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on another issue which has its own sensitivities. Reform of courtesy titles in the honours system as well as the peerage system—this is not a matter of heredity—may not be straightforward, but there is a need to consider how to deal with existing entitlements.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was deputy to two women Secretaries of State—Clare Short and Helen Liddell, now my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke—who were both excellent Cabinet Ministers? Since Boris Johnson has only five women in his Cabinet, could the Minister use his undoubted influence and have a word with him to appoint more women instead of old Etonians and male clones?
My Lords, I hope the noble Lord does not see in me a clone of the Prime Minister—my hair is a different colour, for a start. I would love to have the noble Lord as my deputy. I repeat that the aspiration of the Prime Minister, reflected in peerage creations and the number of MPs in the House of Commons, is to see more women in Parliament.
Domestic Air Travel
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the passing of a law by the National Assembly of France to prohibit domestic flights to destinations that can be reached by train in two and a half hours or less, what consideration they have given to reducing domestic air travel in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, domestic air travel in the UK ensures regional connectivity and often assists ongoing international travel. It is also vital for supporting jobs, trade and investment and ensures that social connections can be maintained. The Government recognise the critical role that aviation plays in delivering the UK’s net-zero commitment, and we support a variety of technology, fuel and market-based measures to address aviation emissions.
It is interesting that our Government are slower to see the societal changes happening because of the pandemic than the French Government. In France, people do not want to travel as much; they have found that remote working is very effective and it has not affected the economy of most big businesses. Will the Government, after all their fine promises today, stop airport expansion and create some policies which will enable jobs to be green instead of planet-destroying?
The noble Baroness has deviated far from the Question at hand. Of course the Government are very focused on a green, sustainable recovery. As she will have noted in media reports today, the Government will announce further details on carbon emissions later this week.
My Lords, as high-speed rail lines seem to attract stronger opposition in this country than in France, does my noble friend agree that a better course of action than that suggested by the noble Baroness would be to prioritise investment in electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft to better serve the regional network?
My noble friend is quite right that we need an aviation sector strong enough to be able to invest in decarbonisation for the future. Alongside the aviation industry, the Government are investing in the Aerospace Technology Institute, which is leading work on the delivery of zero-emission aircraft. This includes FlyZero, a £15 million project that will last for 12 months and is an in-depth study into the potential for zero-emission aircraft by 2030.
My Lords, given the Prime Minister’s very welcome endorsement of climate control, does the Minister agree that the statistic that on a similar route an aircraft emits 77% more CO2 than a train is clearly striking? On the other hand, does she also agree that France will probably scrap only five routes as a result of this initiative, so in this country—depending, as we have heard, on the efficiency of trains—there are sadly not many routes to which this initiative would apply?
The noble Lord is quite right; I have looked at this and there are probably three routes to which this would apply—for Manchester, Leeds Bradford and Exeter. Our expectation is that many passengers travelling on those domestic routes would be making an international connection, so even in France their flights would not be banned. This Government do not propose to ban domestic flights; we propose investing in high-speed rail and ensuring that our aviation sector as a whole contributes to decarbonisation.
My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the speed of the French TGV had an enormous impact on the internal aviation market in that country and that timings under HS2 such as two hours and 17 minutes to Newcastle and 67 minutes to Manchester, as well as the hope for three hours to Glasgow and Edinburgh, will have a similar impact on Britain’s internal aviation? I know that she is not a member of the Green Party, but perhaps she could help me out and explain on its behalf why it is in favour of slower trains on Victorian infrastructure yet against modern high-speed trains on new infrastructure.
I would love to help the noble Lord. I fear that I am unable to explain it, and the irony in this Question is very clear to me; investment in High Speed 2 is clearly good for the environment and should be continued. As he identified, the journey time savings can be significant as well as capacity.
My Lords, yesterday I obtained the figures of the cost of travelling from London to Manchester and Newcastle, and from Paris to Lyons and Marseilles. The costs in France by train in all classes are at least half what they are here, and in France you go twice as fast. You get a double benefit for the money spent. A lot of answers need to come from the Treasury as to why rail fares in Britain are so much higher than they are elsewhere.
The noble Lord is quite right that customers could and should make various decisions based on price. That is why the Government asked for the Williams Rail Review to be done; I recognise that it has not yet been published, because of the pandemic, but it will come out shortly. The way we reform our railway systems should have a very positive impact on fares.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a group of Green Party members who call themselves Greens for HS2? They say on social media:
“we should support HS2 because it has a big role in a low-CO2 sustainable transport network for the UK in the 2030s and beyond. HS2 supports our sustainable transport goals, nationally and locally.”
Does the Minister agree that our HS2 project will support the climate case to shift travel from air and road and, indeed, improve wildlife biodiversity? While we are about it, can she confirm that there is no question of delaying the eastern leg of HS2 to the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds?
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, indicated to me in the Chamber just then that they are a very small group within the Green Party. I, for one, offer them my wholehearted support, given that they are able to take over the Green Party’s transport policy and align with the Government, who want to see HS2 built.
I point out to the Minister that the Greens are now a very respectable party. They will probably go into coalition with the CDU and they are on the point of destroying the German Social Democratic Party. It is therefore not surprising that they support HS2; it is completely in line with the way in which they are re-evaluating themselves. Will the Minister welcome this change from the Green Party, stick a note on her office wall and use it regularly in debates in this Chamber?
My Lords, may I suggest to the Minister that she too establishes a new party, “Conservatives for the eastern leg of HS2”? She used to support this policy, but it has now been delayed and no date has been given. As a result of the delay, there will be no through trains on HS2 between London and Edinburgh—a route that is one of the main sources of domestic aviation. I strongly urge her to be the founding member of “Conservatives for the eastern leg of HS2”.
I have neither the time nor the energy to set up a new political party, but I reassure the noble Lord that the integrated rail plan will be published soon and will set out plans for the north of England. We are taking great interest in journey times to, for example, Scotland, under the auspices of the union connectivity review being undertaken by Sir Peter Hendy.
My Lords, I must declare an interest as I am speaking from France. Does the Minister agree that this is about not only the practicalities—it may affect only four routes—but setting an example in the year in which we are to host COP 26? Does she agree that by taking this action on domestic flights, scrapping support for electric vehicles and slashing the Green Homes Grant, the Government are setting a very poor example?
I wish the noble Baroness well in France—and I am sure that I join many in this House in saying that I would quite like to join her. On the premise of this Question, I have outlined that the Government clearly do not support banning domestic flights. That would be absolutely wrong. The noble Baroness also mentioned some other interventions. We have not scrapped electric vehicle grants, as she well knows. The amount of money available is the same, but we want to ensure that it gets to the people who need it most: those who will buy slightly less expensive cars because they probably have a lower income. Therefore, we wanted to make sure that the support that the Government give goes to those cars. Of course, it also encourages the manufacturers to reduce the prices of their cars.
Arrangement of Business
Football: European Super League
Private Notice Question
My Lords, the Government will not stand by and watch football be stripped of the things that make millions across the country love it. We will continue to look at everything within our power to stop this proposal going ahead. The Secretary of State spoke to the FA, the Premier League and UEFA yesterday to give them the Government’s full support in pushing back on these proposals in the first instance. However, we stand ready to do whatever is necessary to represent fans and protect their interests.
My Lords, the six English clubs that have signed up to this grotesque project have, in the words of Stephen Fry on social media yesterday,
“brought together the whole divided nation, indeed all of Europe—everyone united in disgust & revulsion at such greed and stupidity.”
I look forward to hearing more in due course about how the Government plan to stop it. Meanwhile, I welcome the announcement of the setting up of the Government’s fan-led review into the administration of English football, chaired by the excellent Tracey Crouch MP. Can the Minister assure me that the terms of reference for the review will definitely include the possibility of establishing a statutory independent regulator? Reform here is long overdue.
My Lords, do the Government agree that many people regard this proposal as an attack on our cultural heritage? In light of that, will they be even fiercer in trying to prevent these clubs forming in effect a cartel to control the revenues of the biggest spectator sport in the world? Will they make sure that other European nations are actively involved with them in preventing this?
My Lords, the clubs supporting this proposal often claim that their fans are the beating heart of all that they do, yet sometimes it seems as if the loyalty of these very fans counts for little. Yesterday’s ministerial Statement was most welcome, but can the noble Baroness assure the House that, before any further action is taken, each of these clubs will be required to put the proposal to a vote, at least of their season ticket holders?
My forecast on the outcome of the Super League proposal will be some resolution through the courts, not the legislatures. The last time the courts were involved in football governance we ended up with the Bosman ruling, which just created more and more millionaire players and their agents, which was hardly in the public interest. Do this Government accept that they may well be powerless to intervene when my learned friends on both sides of the channel start to challenge the cartels that run football on behalf of the Super League?
I hope that my noble friend’s prediction about a resolution in the courts is wrong, because that implies a long and drawn-out process. As I have said, the Government are exploring all options to prevent this proposal, and we will continue to work with the football authorities and our counterparts across Europe to achieve this.
My Lords, I commend the robust stance taken by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have condemned this proposal for a so-called super league. It is unfortunate that five of the six clubs involved are foreign owned, with clearly no understanding of the depth of feeling of British supporters, who recognise that the football league structure is based on our heritage. Therefore, we must fight to ensure that this Super League is swept away and that football does not fall on the altar of greed and avarice. It was one of the great football managers, the late Bill Shankly at Liverpool, who once slightly exaggerated the interpretation of football’s importance when he said that football is not,
“a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.”
If Bill were here today, what would he think of his beloved Liverpool pursuing this act of folly? Will the Minister go along with the football supporters to show this group of individuals the red flag, or should I say the red card?
My Lords, I too express my disgust at this development. It is the culmination of many years of the style of ownership that has been so permissible under the way football has evolved. I am extremely sad that my own football obsession, Manchester United, is right in the middle of it. I applaud the Government’s seemingly strong stance. In this regard, I echo the call from the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for an independent regulator to stop things persistently falling through the cracks of the structure of the FA, the Football League and the Premier League. Will the Government be prepared to go as far as introducing legislation to encourage a partial fan-based ownership model, similar to that currently operating in Germany? It is almost definitely, with no surprise, among the reasons why no German teams have been announced as part of this ridiculously named European Super League.
The Government have been consulting with fans and football stakeholders throughout the past year to understand exactly what is needed in the review. The Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State have both said that legislation is not ruled out, but we should not pre-empt the work of the review, which will start shortly.
My Lords, I, too, commend the Government on their robust response. As a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, a club that is involved in this, I, too, join in the condemnation of this idea. It seems to revolve around money rather than football. I ask my noble friend whether the Treasury might consider international tax co-ordination to address this issue via financial means?
My Lords, I thought Gary Neville spoke for millions of us football fans at the weekend when he condemned the Super League proposals. Can the Minister set out the sort of legal measures the Government are prepared to deploy in order to protect the competition laws that govern the current fair access system on which the football pyramid has long been built? When will the Secretary of State set out the terms for the fan-led review announced yesterday, when will it start and how will it seek to draw on the fan anger rightly directed at this football-destroying proposition?
With regard to the fan-led review, we will be releasing the full terms of reference imminently. In relation to the noble Lord’s question about what the Government can practically do to prevent this, we are looking at everything from governance reform, as I mentioned, to competition law and all the mechanisms which allow football to take place. We have been in close contact with colleagues from BEIS and the Competition and Markets Authority, who are examining whether this would contravene competition law.
Does the Minister agree that the outpouring of concern about the proposed European Super League shows that the organisation of professional football is not just a matter for private clubs to determine among themselves and that the relationship between clubs and their fans is not the same as that between a supermarket and its customers? Has not the time come to create a regulatory framework within which the governance and finances of the game can be managed with a degree of competence that has been sadly lacking in recent years?
My Lords, I react with some horror to the proposals for yet another regulator, which will end up simply being gamed by the big clubs, as most regulators tend to be. Instead I second the remarks of my noble friend Lady Altmann, who said that there should be a fiscal solution to this problem by way of imposing a non-dodgeable tax on sports clubs joining closed leagues, which I suggest should be equivalent to 100% of their broadcasting revenues. Would my noble friend be willing to put this to the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
There is great elegance in the apparent simplicity of my noble friend’s suggestions, but I just repeat that in the first instance, it is for the football authorities to deal with this and respond to the outpouring that we have heard from across the country.
My Lords, clubs cannot hoover up £300 million a year and pay the world’s best players wages that nobody else can match so that they can dominate domestic competitions as well. Fans of other clubs, such as Leicester, West Ham and my club, Villa, could never dream of competing for domestic trophies ever again. It is a closed shop cartel, anti-competition, anti fair play, and anti the very ethos of sport. Of course the football authorities should take a tough line, but the Government should be looking at this as well. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, is entirely correct: given that this is just about money, would not the threat of a windfall tax make the clubs think again?
I share many of the noble Lord’s sentiments, other than the implication that we are not taking this seriously: we are taking it extremely seriously. The Prime Minister had a round table this morning with all the relevant authorities and, as I said, nothing is off the table.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that this outrageous proposal is a consequence of men who are rich enough to buy a football club but who do not buy into the values of football in this country? We all accept that Tracey Crouch is someone we have confidence in to undertake a review, but surely there is an urgency about this that requires action at the moment along the lines that have been suggested, including early legislation for an independent regulator, an assurance that fans can have a golden share and whatever fiscal measures might be needed to make it not worth the while of these clubs to go down this path?
I know the noble Baroness is hugely knowledgeable and passionate on this subject, and I have enjoyed listening to her in the Chamber in debates on football ownership and governance in the past. It is important that we separate out the immediate urgencies of the issues raised by this proposal. It will not surprise her to know that Ministers and officials were working on this over the weekend as soon as we became aware, as well as addressing some of the wider governance and regulatory issues and funding issues that affect the whole pyramid.
Audiovisual Media Services (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL]
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask all Members to respect social distancing.
There are no counterpropositions to the Commons amendments to the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill, so the only speakers are those listed and the Minister’s Motion may not be opposed. Short questions of elucidation from listed speakers after the Minister’s response are discouraged. A Member wishing to ask such a question must email the clerk.
1: Clause 22, page 13, line 30, leave out subsection (2)
2: Schedule 8, page 68, line 29, at end insert—
“(iv) an offence under the law of Scotland which arises under any other provision of the ANO 2016 and relates to unmanned aircraft, except an offence which is triable only summarily;”
My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House for long with my explanation of these amendments, save only to note that the Bill had a relatively incident-free passage through the other place, which I, to a great extent, attribute to the careful consideration it received in your Lordships’ House.
The Bill has returned to enable consideration of two minor amendments made in the other place. The first is Commons Amendment 1, which removed the privilege amendment, as is the norm in these cases. The second amendment—here is the mea culpa—will correct an omission, or an error if you must, in the Bill that resulted from government amendments made in your Lordships’ House on Report.
If I may explain: Schedule 8 provides the police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and custodial institutions with the powers they need to protect the public from the unlawful use of unmanned aircraft. Paragraph 5 of Schedule 8 sets out the meaning of “relevant unmanned aircraft offence”. Prior to the government amendment made in the other place, the offences in the Air Navigation Order 2016—ANO 2016—included in this definition were summary-only offences. In relation to Scotland, this definition should also include offences in ANO 2016 that are triable either way or on indictment. These offences were included in the definition of “relevant offence” in the Bill as introduced in January 2020. They were inadvertently omitted—that was the error, for which I apologise—by the government amendments tabled on Report in the House of Lords when the provisions setting out the definitions that apply in relation to the power to enter and search under warrant and the supplementary power to retain anything seized were restructured. If not moved, there would be no power for a justice of the peace, summary sheriff or a sheriff in Scotland to issue to a constable a warrant to enter and search premises in relation to offences in the ANO 2016 that relate to unmanned aircraft and can be tried under indictment. The supplementary power for a constable to retain items seized using powers in Schedule 8 for forensic examination, for investigation or for use as evidence at a trial would also not apply in relation to these offences.
The policy intention of the Bill remains unchanged and this amendment will not add any offences or powers not already in the Bill as introduced in January 2020. With humility and apologies from the Department for Transport, I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the Commons amendments as technical changes necessary for the functioning of the Bill. The aviation industry is critical to the UK economy, and since any recovery will no doubt be prolonged, I hope the Bill will provide legislative backing for a modernisation strategy that supports that recovery. Any restructuring must be supported with a transitional strategy, for workers and our regional economy, that capitalises on the opportunity to grow industries in green technology. I look forward to the House revisiting this in the future. I am grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, has engaged with the Opposition Front Bench during the passage of the Bill. I also thank all those from across the House who have taken part in its stages.
My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, for her gracious apology on behalf of the department for its omission. Of course, I accept that the amendments are necessary and, like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I thank all the people who have been associated with the Bill during its fairly long passage. I hope it may now pass into law.
My Lords, I too support these amendments. Finally, this Bill, which started its passage through Parliament in January 2020 is to reach the statute book. I am sure that, with a justified sense of pride and relief, the Minister and all those in her Bill team, who worked so hard to achieve this outcome, deserve the commendation received from all sides of the House.
It is a piece of legislation that will not stand still. The announcement that the CAA has approved trials of beyond-visual-sight operation of drones will need to be reflected in the instructions for policing unmanned aircraft presently set out in this legislation. That process will continue, I hope smoothly, as technology and experience help to chart the way ahead. Meanwhile, I join in commending the efforts made to enact this important business, for air traffic management in particular.
Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I express my thanks to noble Lords from across this House for their helpful insight and support throughout proceedings. In particular, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, Lady Thomas, Lady Andrews, Lady Randerson and Lady Greengross, and the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Greaves, my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.
I also thank the National Association of Local Councils, the Local Government Association and the Valuation Office Agency for their engagement during the passage of the Bill. I am especially grateful to the British Toilet Association for its support of the Bill and for taking the time to meet me and noble Lords last month.
Finally, I thank my department’s Bill team: Rhys Tomlinson, Nick Pellegrini, Luke Turner, Alan Millward, Nick Cooper, Lee Davies and Tom Adams, as well as Sam Loxton from my own private office, for their support throughout the passage of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, for his engagement in this small but important Bill. I am pleased that it is finally now going to pass; this is the second time I have worked on this Bill—because it was lost before the general election—so it is something I am very well aware of. I thank the noble Lord; he has been very helpful, as always. I join him in thanking all the organisations he mentioned—the LGA, the National Association of Local Councils, the British Toilet Association and others—for their helpful advice, guidance and support. I also thank Ben Wood from the Labour group office for his help and support on the Bill.
I thank all noble Lords who engaged in the Bill, particularly Lord Greaves, whose last speech in this House was on this Bill, as noble Lords may remember, some weeks ago, before he sadly passed away. Although Tony was in a different party from me, he was well respected in the House and was a very good man. He worked as a local councillor and as a Member of this House and he will be missed by us all. I am delighted that the Bill is going to pass.
My Lords, I point to my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a member of Kirklees Council. Liberal Democrats support the measures in this Bill, and during the debate we have sought to improve accessibility and to extend the reach of the Bill to include other public buildings. I thank the Minister for his positive responses during the passage of the Bill, and for the meetings he held to enable an exchange of ideas. I also extend my thanks to those associations that have helped in the progress of the Bill, so that we all understood exactly what we were trying to achieve.
The Bill was the last time my noble friend Lord Greaves spoke in the House before his sudden and untimely death. It was typical Tony: promoting the value of parish and town councils, making a strong case for the very basic and essential public services provided for communities by local government, and exploring the meaning of the word “mainly”, used throughout the Bill. Tony will be greatly missed on these Benches for his humanity and commitment to communities. I rest my case there and thank the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, for his help in getting this Bill passed.
My Lords, it is my pleasant task, on behalf of these Benches, to thank the Minister for the gracious way in which he has conducted this Bill. We have had no Divisions. The Bill has survived unamended, but it has certainly not been without interest, and the Minister has been faced with some powerful contributions during our debates that he has had to answer. We are grateful to him and the Bill team for the care that has been taken in examining the various points that have been raised.
It will not have escaped the Minister’s attention that two of us participating from these Benches had a professional interest in the subject. One was a valuer, with an interest in the valuation aspects, and I am a lawyer, interested in the legal aspects. For both of us, the question was how one could accommodate the undoubted need for public lavatories, in the places where people need them, within the valuation and ratings system. Standalone premises, which this Bill is about, present no problems of that kind, but increasingly, the provision of publicly accessible lavatories within other premises, such as public libraries, is a different matter. The two of us were very much in sympathy with others who were asking the Minister to be more imaginative and generous in searching for a solution to the problem, but we found it as hard as he did to see how this could be done within the boundaries of the existing law and practice of how buildings are valued for rating purposes. In short, the narrow focus of the Bill has been the problem.
Everyone recognises that this is a significant public health issue and an environmental issue. Everyone—young and old, healthy or infirm—needs access to decent lavatory accommodations. There is genuine regret on these Benches and throughout the House that the Bill was unable to go further than it has in finding other ways to meet this need. I hope that the Government will take away from these debates a better understanding of ways in which this could be done by the ideas that have been put forward by various amendments from all around the House. If so, the time that we have spent developing these ideas in debate will have been time well spent. I hope and expect that we have not heard the last word on the subject of public lavatories.
My Lords, we have seen the very best of this House. I really appreciated the professional expertise on the Cross Benches, from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. It was incredibly helpful. This is a very complicated area of public policy and it is great to have that expertise to hand.
I add my personal tribute to Lord Greaves. I did not know him particularly well, but he welcomed me as a fellow traveller from local government, where our political paths were very similar. He was almost schooling me on the nature of a probing amendment. I do not think that I have ever had such a lengthy discussion about the word “mainly”. He will be sadly missed.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. I ask Members to respect social distancing. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. As there are counterpropositions to one of the Motions, and everything is to be taken in one group, any Member in the Chamber may speak on this group, subject to usual seating arrangements and the capacity of the Chamber. Anyone intending to do so should email the clerk or indicate when asked. Members who do not intend to speak should make room for Members who do. All speakers will be called by the Chair. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are discouraged; a Member wishing to ask such a question must email the clerk.
The grouping is binding. A participant who wishes to press an amendment other than the lead amendment to a Division must give notice in debate or by emailing the clerk. Leave should be given to withdraw Motions. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely wants their voice accounted for if the Question is put, they must make this clear when speaking on the group. Lords following proceedings remotely but not speaking may submit their voice, content or not content, to the collection of voices by emailing the clerk during the debate. Members cannot vote by email; the way to vote is via the remote voting system.
Fire Safety Bill
4F: Because the issue of remediation costs is too complex to be dealt with in the manner proposed.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for engaging in this important debate throughout the passage of the Bill. We all share the same concerns about the impact that the cost of remediation is having on many leaseholders and tenants. We all agree that we have to protect leaseholders as far as practicable. All in this House agree that residents deserve to be and feel safe in their homes.
I will go on to explain why we consider the proposed amendments in lieu to be both inappropriate and unworkable but first, I want to outline in the strongest way possible the importance of the Bill and the risk that these remediation amendments are creating. Let us be in no doubt about what is at stake here.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have all agreed with the fundamental purpose of what we seek to achieve. We all want to ensure that there is no legal doubt that, under the fire safety order, the responsible person must assess and, as appropriate, identify any fire safety risks relating to the external walls and entrance doors in multi-occupied residential buildings.
We also agree that the current legal ambiguity under the fire safety order is unhelpful. If we do not rectify this now with this Bill, there will be significant ramifications. If we do not clarify this legal ambiguity, responsible persons can continue to argue that they can lawfully and deliberately ignore the external walls and flat entrance doors in their fire risk assessments. This inaction will mean that important defects will not be identified and be left unremedied, potentially increasing fire safety risks for anyone living in such buildings.
Given the repeated agreement, across both Houses, that we need to act, I think we would all also agree that this Bill should go on to the statue book in the next few days. The Commons has already voted against two different remediation amendments put forward by your Lordships’ House, and by substantial majorities of 115 and 69. Prior to that, the issue of remediation costs was discussed at both Commons Committee and Report stages, so the Commons has considered the issue of who pays at four different stages and voted on it twice—each time supporting the Government’s view that provision of this kind is unnecessary. This House has done what is right and proper as a revising Chamber, namely, to ask the Commons to think again—not once, but twice. It is time for your Lordships’ House to respect the will of the elected Chamber. To continue to deny the wishes of the democratically elected Chamber, particularly where the result is an increase in fire safety risks, could ultimately cost lives.
I underline that this Government are committed to protecting leaseholders and tenants from the costs of remediation. Hundreds of thousands of leaseholders will be protected from the costs of replacing unsafe cladding on their homes, as part of the Government’s five-point plan to provide reassurance to home owners and build confidence in the housing market. The £5.1 billion grant funding made available to leaseholders is unprecedented. We take these issues seriously and we are acting. To say otherwise is misrepresentative and simply not correct.
The Government are also taking forward a comprehensive programme of reform to end unfair practices in the leasehold market, from the abolition of ground rents to revising the use of forfeiture. Our plan to alleviate the burden of paying for remediation costs is, and should be, considered as part of this comprehensive programme.
We recognise that the implementation of the Fire Safety Bill will lead to more remediation issues being identified, but there will be occasions when other measures to mitigate the risk are required, rather than extensive remedial works. To suggest that this Bill will unleash hundreds of thousands of costs is incorrect; we have always argued that building owners must take a proportionate, risk based-approach that takes into account the possibility of risk to life in properties, which for most leaseholders is mercifully low. This Bill applies to all buildings with two or more dwellings; the number of buildings that require substantive remedial works is relatively small, as the vast majority of lower-rise buildings will not require the type of remedial work discussed in the House today.
If noble Lords cast their minds back to the previous stages of the Bill, they will find widespread support for clarifying the fire safety order and legislating to implement the Grenfell inquiry recommendations. In fact, the criticism was that we should have introduced sooner and gone faster. It is therefore getting increasingly difficult to square the sentiment of noble Lords at the beginning of the passage of the Bill with the actions of some Peers now.
Let me point to two examples. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for his candid engagement with me during the passage of the Bill. He tabled amendments in Committee and on Report to, in his words,
“make progress in respect of the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.”—[Official Report, 17/11/20; col. 1367.]
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, urged the Government at Second Reading to get on with the process of legislating. She said that she supported the direction of travel the Government are taking on the Bill but, in her words,
“the route being taken is too slow.”—[Official Report, 1/10/20; col. 350.]
Tabling and voting for these amendments is inconsistent with pressing the Government to act quicker. Pushing the Fire Safety Bill back to the other place jeopardises it completing its passage before the end of this Session. When I last spoke on the Bill in this House, I said that this Government intend to bring forward regulations to deliver the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase one recommendations before the second anniversary of the inquiry publishing its report, but this is subject to the Bill first gaining Royal Assent. If the Bill is not finalised in this Session, there will be a delay of potentially a year or more in delivering the inquiry’s recommendations.
I will comment in detail on the amendments in lieu in my closing address but, for now, I leave everyone across this House with two key points. First, the Government are unreservedly committed to protecting leaseholders from the costs of remediation. We have announced an unprecedented level of funding in this regard and will publish more details on how it can be accessed.
Secondly, do not let this issue prevent the Fire Safety Bill getting on to the statute book. Pushing the Bill back to the other place this close to the end of the Session risks that, and risks not implementing an important legal clarification that will improve fire safety and help to protect lives. I beg to move.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)
4J: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Prohibition on passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants pending operation of a statutory scheme
(1) The owner of a building may not pass the costs of any remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act on to leaseholders or tenants of that building.
(2) This section has effect only until a statutory scheme is in operation which ensures that leaseholders and tenants of dwellings do not have to pay for remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act.
(3) Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to a leaseholder who is also the owner or part owner of the freehold of the building.””
My Lords, I give notice of my intention to seek the opinion of the House when the time comes, and declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA.
When there is a crisis, we look to Her Majesty’s Government for radical and rapid action. Ministers are good at calling stakeholders to gather around the table. Just yesterday, in the other place, Minister Oliver Dowden said he was appalled by a situation. He promised Members that they should
“be no doubt that if they cannot act, we will … We will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening … Put simply, we will review everything the Government do to support”
this. He went on:
“We will do whatever it takes.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/4/21; col. 676.]
Indeed, this situation is so important that it is said that the Prime Minister has decided to rearrange his busy diary and intervene personally to hold a round table to resolve the problem. The trouble is that the radical action being talked about concerns the European Super League, not the hundreds of thousands of people who, at this very moment, are facing desperate dilemmas.
I deeply regret having to come back; I know that it is a nuisance and that people are fed up. But this is the first time in my ministry that I have been stopped on the street in St Albans three times in a week by people saying, “Thank you for what you are doing”. So, I come back hugely reluctantly. I want to see this Bill get on to the statute book, I really do. I hope that we will do all we can, if necessary sitting late, to make sure that when it comes back, if it has to do so, it will get on to the statute book; I do not want to hold it up. This is a good Bill, which seeks to implement a recommendation from the Grenfell inquiry. It is of the utmost importance that our dwellings are safe and people can sleep at night.
However, the consequences of this legislation have a huge impact on leaseholders. The Government, whom I thank very much, have committed £5 billion. I accept that this is unprecedented and a wonderful thing; I want to affirm what the Government have done. However, as things stand, the promised grant and loan schemes are not even operational. I am grateful to the Minister—we have had two meetings in the last week—and I know that they are working as hard and as fast as they can, but the schemes are not operational, there are no dates and no assurance has been given on, for example, whether it will be possible to apply retrospectively.
The moment that the Bill passes, those who would ordinarily be excluded from paying for replacement cladding under the government scheme could, within months, be handed very large bills. Likewise, these bills will be handed to those who should have replacement cladding costs capped at £50 per month under the government scheme. The result, I fear, will be bankruptcies, enormous mental health strains, and possibly worse. Part—though only part—of the problem is that there have been no assurances to prevent the remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders until the Government’s own scheme is operational. This shows the complexity of what we are facing. I do not pretend that this is easy, or that my proposal will solve everything but, for example, other historical fire safety defects not covered by this scheme still have the potential to bankrupt leaseholders. I remind the House again of the additional financial issues crippling leaseholders: interim fire safety costs and high insurance policy premiums. Just today I received an email about a building where the insurance last year was £11,963 but, in one year, has gone up to £242,400 because the insurers believe that the building is not safe.
Leaseholders face bills of around £6,000 each, to pay within days. This leaves them with a dilemma: sell their lease and take on the debts resulting from negative equity or stay in these leases and face huge debts in the form of remediation bills; or possibly, in some cases, declare bankruptcy. Surely these leaseholders, who went into this as people of aspiration—trying to get their place to live, saving for their deposits—could have had no indication that this was coming. It is one of those dreadful tragedies. Nobody is pointing the finger at the Government or anything like that; it is a dreadful tragedy that could not have been foreseen.
I agree with the Minister that the Fire Safety Bill is not the ideal place to deal with the issue of remediation costs. However, in the absence of an adequate plan or scheme to deal properly and fairly with the issues of remediation and the consequences of the Bill, I simply feel that I have no other option. I believe it is my duty as a Member of this House to stand up when I see this train coming down the track at such huge speed. Without proper protections on leaseholds, the Bill will have far-reaching consequences, negatively affecting thousands of innocent and aspirational individuals. I want to do what I can to prevent that happening. Whether my amendment is the best way to deal with this issue remains an open question; I totally admit that. I have tried in this amendment to the Motion to put the onus on Her Majesty’s Government to bring forward their own scheme rather than find a solely legislative solution to the matter.
One area on which I am unwavering is the principle underlying this amendment of the need to find an alternative way to approach remediation costs, as well as all the other costs now hitting leaseholders. The Government could have extended the current scheme to cover all historical defects and delay remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders until the new scheme is operational. Leaseholders would still be in an unenviable situation if this happened, but it would be a vast improvement on the current offer—which, in my opinion is not acceptable given the costs these individuals face. However, in the time since the Bill was last in the House, nothing has changed. This is why we are left to present broad-stroke solutions to very complex issues. I have argued that the onus in this case has always been on the Government to show leadership in the face of what is so evidently a market failure. I believe this is an occasion where the Government have not to pick up the bill but somehow to act as a backstop, to enable a solution so that these costs can be shared out and solutions found.
In conclusion, I hope that the Government will seriously take on board what we have said and try to present a way forward on this very real problem. I beg to move.
My Lords, if Motions A1 and A3 were both agreed to, A3 would replace A1.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and to speak to Motion A2 in my name. I refer to my vice-presidency of the LGA and my professional involvement with property and construction over many years. I thank the Minister for keeping his door open for discussion; that has been enormously helpful. This amendment is an attempt to find a way out of what I see as an impasse, which, if not dealt with, may cause unquantifiable financial loss, bankruptcy and hardship—as referred to by the right reverend Prelate.
I am indebted to my local fire and rescue service in West Sussex and to the National Fire Chiefs Council, for briefing me on the task ahead of them. I am sure we all agree that they do a fantastic job in keeping us all safe and dealing with risks in a fair and proportionate manner. I am also indebted to Members in another place who have convinced me that the issues I seek to address cannot simply be brushed aside. This is not a challenge to the essential principles of the Bill, which I entirely agree are critical in the light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The problem arises because although the Bill is short and apparently inoffensive, and from a fire safety standpoint is the necessary reaction of any Government to a post-Grenfell inquiry, its means of implementation have much broader and effectively retroactive results. In amending the existing fire safety order’s scope, it extends to any building comprising two or more residential units. It relates not just to cladding but, ultimately, to a much wider range of fire safety issues and to buildings not previously subject to that safety regime.
Noble Lords should bear in mind that there are two lead organisations here: the local authority through its housing functions in respect of houses in multiple occupation and student blocks, and the fire and rescue services, particularly for higher-risk and taller buildings.
Every time there is a fire in a flatted building, it adds to the malaise. When, in the wake of the Grenfell fire, a four-storey block in Worcester Park was destroyed in September 2019, it became clear to me that no Government can risk specifying a cut-off point of safe versus unsafe buildings, and I acknowledge that. So as matters stand, many relatively low-rise buildings, where risks are considered fewer and without a clear threshold, will, for a time, be caught by this long enough to cause serious problems for a significant number of tenants and leaseholders. It is this unconstrained exposure to uncertainty and risk, and the reaction of the markets to it, that has created the problems that we now encounter.
Crucially, there is a significant gap between now and the time when the first 12,000 over-18-metre buildings in England will have been checked, a process which is estimated to be completed by December this year. Then there will be a further period, lasting until some 68,000 further buildings in the 11 to 18 metre height range have been dealt with. During this period, the issue of proportionality and risk will be left to the febrile mortgage and insurance market. I have no doubt that fire safety inspectors will take a fairly strict approach, and indeed would expect them to, at any rate until further guidance is available—which guidance itself might be an outcome of the analysis of the first tranche of inspections of the highest-risk buildings. That delay occurs before one gets to the design and specification of the remediation works by those who might have to satisfy their own professional indemnity conditions, followed then by tendering and ultimately remediation.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, in her amendment, endeavour to protect the tenant and leaseholder from the effects of the Bill by saying that they shall not bear the financial burden. I am compelled to express the view that this needs to be taken further: if, as a result, the building owner as freeholder is made liable for something that they in turn cannot afford or cannot be made responsible for, beyond the assets of whatever corporate ownership vehicle holds the freehold or other superior interest, then the liquidation of the holding company and the vesting of the negative-value asset in the hands of insolvency practitioners will do little to get the building remediated. To that extent, the responsible person under the Bill might be a man of straw, and that I see as a weakness in what the Government propose.
To deal with this, one needs a scheme, and the Government have commendably said that they will introduce one to fund remediation, but this suffers from several limitations. First, it applies only to cladding. Secondly, it does not cover all buildings with claddings—even less the other fire safety issues that the Bill might also trigger. Thirdly, I very much doubt that the sum allocated is enough. That said, I am extremely grateful for the government commitment to making £5 billion in funding available, as the Minister has explained.
Apart from properties becoming unsalable, uninsurable and unsuitable for mortgage lending, in some cases they might well be so risky as to be declared unsafe for occupation, pending remediation works. Displaced occupiers will be wondering what it is in the principle of safety and proportionality in relation to their own home, given the nightmare imposition of unimaginable costs and liabilities, that justifies rendering them homeless in addition. Of course, it might well not come to that, and it is my purpose to encourage the Government to ensure that there is a scheme to make certain that it does not. The full extent of the problems may still be yet to come, but I strongly suspect that many of the responsible persons are holding on until this Bill receives Royal Assent before proceeding further.
No Government can simply look on and say that it is not an issue of a very serious kind when people have been seriously threatened in their own homes by negative equity, bankruptcy and worse. With an entire market section being blighted, action is essential. By the same token, no agency apart from government has the power to procure a change, which ultimately must be by some form of consensus, but which requires regulatory and other powers—or the threat of them—and a degree of arm-twisting involving some very powerful players. There are too many interests and moving parts here, and neither constructors, owners, leaseholders, tenants, insurers or mortgagees can procure effective solutions on their own. It is a systemic failure, in which it is right for the Government to intervene. Indeed, taking these hard decisions is why we have government intervention at all.
By the same token, if there is to be a government safety net of a type that is effective, no leaseholder can simply expect the taxpayer to foot the Bill for all and every fire-safety shortcoming. This is where, particularly in relation to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I differ from that approach. I do not suggest that any of this gets construction warrantee providers, approved inspectors, designers, constructors, housebuilders or building managers off the hook. It will take time to establish liabilities; it is time that those finding themselves in financial fetters do not have at their disposal. That is the problem. Absolutism by government on the one hand and by leaseholders alike will not get the necessary work done or erase the terrible personal tragedies that I fear will result.
The deal is this: for a monthly sum which should be affordable, even if most unwelcome, the capital cost of remediation could be amortised via a loan, funds for early inspection and remediation raised, and works put in hand as soon as possible. This might also fund short-term interim safety measures. The long-term bond so created would, I believe, be saleable. The important thing for affected flat owners is that they could not be charged until a scheme was in place, but the scheme has to be driven initially by government, and that is what this amendment is about.
The current government scheme seems to be based on rolling things out in due course. I appreciate the Minister’s point that he does not wish the Government to be unduly pressurised or under the cosh on this, but the need to get this safety net into place right now is overwhelming. By the end of this coming summer, impossibly large bills are most certainly likely to have dropped onto doormats, prohibition notices and evacuation orders may be in place, and bankruptcies may have grown to a national scandal. I hope that we avoid this, but I for one cannot simply stand by and let that happen unchallenged or by default. I realise that it goes against what some have been asking for, but what is better: to know that you are innocent but that your home remains unsalable and you risk being put in an impossible financial position or rendered homeless, or to know that there is at least some means of funding the remediation so that, in any event, at least some benefit is salvaged out of this debacle?
I know that it also goes against the grain of government to interfere with private legal arrangements and liabilities, but the circumstances are truly exceptional, and the scope of the works is relatively specific. The alternative is a high level of sector-wide economic damage and individual financial destruction.
I know that the Minister is not minded to accept any of the arguments that I have put forward, or my solutions. I make it clear that I do not intend to press this Motion. It is my wish to get further explanations from the Minister. My questions are these. If not this amendment and scheme, then what? If not in this Bill, which triggers it, or even in the building safety Bill, then how? If not now, with the ill-effects so apparent and very likely worse to come, when? Further, if not by government, by whom and by which agency?
If, as I suggest, the objection to broadening things comes from HM Treasury, I ask whether the Government have considered the political and economic enormity of the outcomes if this problem is not addressed now. To that end, could the House be advised what impact assessment has been made of the wholesale value of write-offs and the risk of sectoral market collapse? Lastly, if the Minister feels my concerns are misplaced and things are not as bad as I have suggested they might be, surely then the risk of exposure for the taxpayer is of itself a stopgap, a confidence-building measure, rather than a serious run on the Exchequer.
All areas of activity carry some risks that are considered acceptable, and there is no zero-risk existence to be had anywhere. We allow vintage bangers on our roads and service conduits that are more than 100 years old, permit antique furniture containing horsehair possibly from anthrax-infected animals, cherish Tudor box-frame houses with no foundations to speak of, accept asbestos in buildings according to practical risk, and occupy a Parliament building that is a known hazard in waiting. Total risk aversion is not a viable way forward.
However, the Bill, having raised the bar, now needs to be accompanied by safety nets, back-stops and proportionality in what follows. They must be put in place forthwith or parliamentarians will be faced with questions as to how the danger from fire has become a factor that puts families at serious peril, if not actually out of their homes. These are hard decisions that cannot be avoided, and they are ones that any Government must address.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a member of Kirklees Council.
This has so far been a very good debate, with the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, using his expertise to detail the problems and suggest solutions to them since, as he says, they have yet to be resolved and need to be resolved, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans with his passionate exposé of the real difficulties facing individuals in this position.
We know that a property purchase is the largest single financial commitment that the majority of us ever make, yet the guarantees, the warranties and even buildings insurance for leaseholders fail to provide anything approaching adequate provision for those who find themselves living in a home where building regulations have been openly and plainly breached. Those living through this construction crisis and cladding scandal exposed by the awful tragedy of Grenfell are left with nowhere to find redress for the inexcusable failings of the construction companies.
That is in stark contrast to manufacturers of, for example, cars and white goods; where faults are discovered, even where the goods are out of warranty, the manufacturers call them in and make the repairs at their expense. What a difference with the construction industry, where only some of those involved have made any provision for remediation works—the bare minimum that they feel they can get away with. The total estimated cost of remediation so far is £16 billion. The Government are expecting construction companies to pay £200 million a year towards the remediation costs. With the government-funded scheme, that leaves a full £9 billion to fall on those who, throughout, are the innocent victims.
The purpose of the amendments in my name and that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans is to extend the principle already agreed by the Government: that this serious problem can be successfully fixed only with up-front funding from the Government that can then be recouped from developers, construction firms and manufacturers.
Throughout this debate I have sought to draw the attention of the House to the real and serious consequences for the individual leaseholders and tenants. Take Alison, who has recently had a bill for £28,000. That is just her share of the costs of putting right the construction errors in her block. It is not for cladding removal; the other construction failings are not covered by the scheme that the Government have introduced, but they still have to be remedied. How is that bill to be paid? She carefully budgeted for the costs of her mortgage and the service charges but has no means of raising the finance needed. Where on earth can she turn to save her home?
Another flat owner has written to me, as they apparently have to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, about the further consequences of the scandal. They told me about their buildings insurance premium, and it is so shocking that it is worth sharing again. The insurance premium for their block was just £11,963 last year but that has rocketed to £242,400. How on earth can people living in that block of flats have budgeted for that sort of exponential rise in their insurance premiums? Further, how on earth can they have budgeted or indeed find any finance to pay the bill, which they expect within a week, of £6,000 for each and every one of them without the Government doing what Governments can and should do, which is to protect individuals from situations where they are the innocent victims?
As a consequence of the complete lack of effective government action, bankruptcy has been the only route out of this scandal for many already, while others are on the brink of choosing that as the only option left. Yet these are the very people who have done everything right and nothing wrong. Some are even those who have been supported by the Government through the Help to Buy offer. What are the options after bankruptcy, when everything that you have worked for has been taken away? For those without dependants, the situation is very difficult. They become homeless through no fault of their own. It cannot be right that the Government are allowing this to happen.
I do not envy the Minister his task today as he seeks to defend the indefensible. I feel sure that he will point to the building safety Bill as the cure-all for the failings of the construction sector, but that Bill has yet to start its deliberations so its potential remedies will come far too late for those caught up in this crisis.
The Minister has argued that the Fire Safety Bill will fall if agreement is not reached. He argues for the need to act, but he fails to say at what cost and indeed at whose cost. I thank him for reminding me of my words at Second Reading but he has been a bit selective. I have always said throughout the passage of the Bill that leaseholders must not be asked to pay. Yes, across the House we support the Bill, but equally its consequences need to be thought through as well. The Government constantly state that they are helping leaseholders; indeed the Minister has repeated that today, but he failed then to say that that is unfortunately at a minimal level and the extent of the help is not adequate.
I have asked the cladding groups whether they would suffer if the Bill fell. Their view was unanimous. They concluded that they would be no worse off if it fell and they say that if it does not pass, to some extent it provides them with precious time to get the issue properly addressed.
Yesterday, the Government announced that they would change the law to refund investors in the London Capital & Finance mini-bond scheme. The Government have accepted that the FCA failed to regulate the firm properly. The similarities with this construction scandal are many. Innocent victims are set to lose out due to the failure of regulatory control. However, in the case of the cladding scandal, innocent victims are set to lose everything they own and have worked hard for. That is not right.
The amendment in my name seeks to put right this awful wrong and to establish the rollcall of statistics of bankruptcy, homelessness, mental ill-health and worse, of relationships broken and careers lost. Hundreds of thousands of individuals and families are watching and waiting for the decision of this House. They are willing us on to help find a fair and just solution to a problem that is not in any way of their making. Yet they are the ones who are being asked to pay the price.
If the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans wishes to divide the House, the Liberal Democrat Benches will fully support him. If, however, he chooses not to do so, then I will wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, the following Members in the Chamber have indicated that they wish to speak: the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Cormack. I will call them in that order. First, I call the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley.
My Lords, it is with some reluctance, especially at this late stage of the Bill, that I have decided to speak in support of these amendments. I do not want unnecessarily to delay legislation that aims to make homes safer and I am very sensitive about the dangers of undemocratic overreach and defying an elected Chamber. However, I speak because there is an urgent risk that rather than this well-intentioned, important Bill being remembered as a law that will save lives by tackling the fire safety defects at the heart of the Grenfell tragedy, instead, if passed unamended, it will become known as the Bill that ruins lives and makes tens of thousands bankrupt and homeless, their homes transformed from places of safety to sites of anxiety, stress and penury.
I have not spoken on the Bill previously but have followed the debates carefully. I have heard eloquent, passionate, evidence-based and constructive interventions from noble Lords on all sides of the House patiently explaining to the Government how the Bill, unintentionally no doubt, has weaponised fire safety measures and targeted not developers, freeholders, cladding manufacturers or builders but the most blameless constituents in all this—leaseholding home owners. They will pay horrendous, mind-boggling amounts of money to foot remediation costs to cover defects in order to make their homes safe when they have purchased those flats in good faith.
I assumed that the Government were listening and that they understood, after all this—Ministers here and elsewhere have given lots of public assurances—that leaseholders would not become the fall guys. I believed them. I was pleased to welcome the £5 billion long-term loan scheme and the £50-a-month cap on repayments. That reassured me. But I am speaking today in desperation because I am utterly shocked to discover that this government scheme is not yet operational and that no date is available for when it will be. Yet, at the very moment that the Bill comes into force, if unamended, leaseholders will be landed with even more astronomical bills and demands to pay within days or weeks. That is on top of the immiseration already occurring, caused by ensuing costs.
The Government will not even clarify if they will allow retrospective acquisition to the scheme for those already handed extortionate bills, or the debts being accrued for historic health and safety defects. This feels particularly mean-spirited and, if I may say so, tone deaf. We are being urged to fast-track the Bill, but the Government could fast-track the scheme. Actually, this discussion is about more than money; it is about moral leadership. If the Grenfell tragedy has revealed institutional failures at multiple levels and the failure of those in authority to listen to the warnings of tenants—those on-the-ground concerns were contemptuously dismissed, as we know—this leaseholder tragedy feels similarly related to institutional intransigence. It is box-ticking safety without nuance. It is, or seems to be, an example of a refusal to listen to the voices of leaseholders and their advocates here and in the other place, who are pleading with the Government to hear their warnings of the disastrous consequences for home owners if this legislation is passed unamended.
I should declare an interest as a leaseholder of a local authority maisonette in Haringey. My block of flats had a serious fire in the middle of the first lockdown. Thank God, no one was hurt but 22 families were evacuated. The fire ripped through the roof. Our possessions and homes were ruined by extensive water damage and smoke. One year on, we leaseholders are still effectively homeless. We have been told that we will not be returning home until spring 2022—two years after the fire. To be honest, it has been heartbreaking but I am not here for noble Lords’ sympathy but to tell them that one of the worst aspects of the whole experience has been that, despite lots of emails and phone calls, queries to the leaseholders’ team at the council go unanswered. The main communications that we have received from it have been demands for council tax and service charges, even though my temporary accommodation is not in Haringey. While I am not an expert in fire safety, I have some insider knowledge of how it feels to be ignored and treated shoddily as a leaseholder.
However, I know that I am privileged and it is lucky that I am not facing the problems my fellow leaseholders now have with the cladding issue. Can we just remember who those leaseholders are? They are friends and colleagues of mine who are predominantly not wealthy and often can get on the housing ladder only by becoming a leaseholder, as I did 20 years ago. Some 56% of them are first-time buyers—the very people the Government are so keen to encourage, and who are commended for doing so.
The stories of leaseholders who are trapped and crippled by building-safety debt are devastating. For example, there are those in Waterside Park who are now paying £650 a month for waking-watch patrols alone. Who lives in Waterside Park? Many are key workers, pandemic front-line workers in east London earning less than £2,000 a month. They now face additional remediation costs estimated at £75,000. Or can one imagine being those hard-working householders in Brindley House, Birmingham whose service charges have risen from £1,300 a year in 2017 to £4,550 today, and whose remediation costs are £45,000 for a one-bedroomed flat and £78,729 for a two-bedroomed property?
I was particularly moved by a letter from a vicar and his wife about the plight of their 30 year-old son, his wife and two year-old disabled grandchild. The son earns less than £25,000 a year, so he signed up for the Government’s Help to Buy scheme and his parents drew significantly on their pension to help him. The young man and his family now face homelessness and hopelessness through no fault of their own. His desperate parents wrote, asking who will take moral responsibility for what they call
“life-changing financial and emotional catastrophe”?
The Minister might be interested to hear that they say:
“We, as previously Conservative voters, feel betrayed by this Government who have, after all, promoted home ownership”.
Indeed, the Government have, and I commend them for it. Only yesterday the Conservative Party put out this advert:
“Today we launch our scheme to back 95% mortgages, helping first-time buyers and homeowners, turning generation rent into generation buy.”
So why then today would we pass this piece of legislation unamended which is going to turn generation leaseholder into generation bankrupt?
I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for their perseverance in pushing this issue. I do not think that they are well-known trouble-makers or going out of their way to be sectarian—it is because this matters. The amendments would not solve every problem and leaseholders would still shoulder ongoing safety costs, but at least it would ease some of the financial burden. It would also give the Government some breathing space to resolve the myriad other challenges without ruining people.
No one here pretends that these issues are easy to solve. Costs are spiralling; even the Government’s estimated remedial costs of £9,000 per leaseholder looks naive when the real figures of tens of thousands are the reality. Sadly, any new regulation creates new layers of bureaucracy; there are consultants all over this. Then there is the risk aversion, leading to sky-high insurance premiums, a reluctance to sign off EWS1 forms and lenders’ reluctance to accept them.
I know that there is a lot to tackle, but I want to say to the Government, “You aren’t alone”. This is not a blame game or a party-political issue; it is a case maybe of unintended market failure, and it requires the sort of collective state-backed intervention that we have seen from this Government with issues such as furlough. It needs a bailout or safety net, and the Government are more than capable of doing that. The Government have allies here to come up with creative solutions; here and in the other place, they have heard some fantastic ideas and ways of solving this. If you talk to the rank and file leaseholder groups, they are full of innovative policies that can solve this. But to access those ideas, the Government have to talk to people and to listen. I hope that the Minister listens today and accepts this amendment. I know that the Government mean well, but they are not doing well.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as a leaseholder in a block of flats that faces major fire and remediation works.
When we last debated this Bill, I teased the Minister by suggesting that he was behaving like Sir Humphrey in the TV series “Yes, Minister”, by coming up with a series of bureaucratic reasons for not taking any action. After the debate, I was a bit worried that I might have been a bit unfair to him, so I reread his speech just to make sure. I fear that, if anything, I had underestimated the extent to which the Government were hiding behind stock bureaucratic arguments for not doing what they know is required to clear up the scandal. He has repeated some of those arguments today.
Last time around, the Minister, as he has today, accepted that something more was needed. Last time he said that it was
“unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about the cost of fixing historic building safety defects.”
He also acknowledged that the Government believed that
“building owners and industry should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders.”
So far, so good. But when it came to actually dealing with removing that worry, in his response to the amendments from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lady Pinnock, at great length and somewhat repetitiously he explained why the Government had no plans to fix the problem.
The reasons were as follows. First, the Minister said,
“it would be impractical and confusing to include remediation measures in the Bill.”
Well, it would not be confusing if they were clear. Secondly, he said that it was too soon to include comprehensive measures in the Bill. He said that it was
“important to ensure that the practical implications of any legislation are properly worked through, rather than being rushed”.
Well, we would not want the Government to rush to solve the problems of people who are being forced into bankruptcy today, would we?
Thirdly, the Minister said that the amendment was “too narrow” and did not
“take into account remedial works that arise outside the fire risk assessment process”.
He said that the amendment would go beyond “focusing on service charges”.
Fourthly, the Minister said that the amendment was not detailed enough
“and would require extensive drafting of primary legislation”.
It is not that this Government or any other Government fail to know how to draft extensively—look at the length of the statute book. Fifthly, he said that it would delay the implementation of the Bill, which would be highly regrettable. The Minister has spoken at great length about the costs of delay today but, as my noble friend Lady Pinnock pointed out, it would be highly regrettable to the Government but not to people who are going bankrupt, because this Bill does nothing for them.
Sixthly, the Minister said that loose drafting would lead to litigation. How terrible. Seventhly, he said
“the amendments do not reflect the complexity involved in apportioning liability for remedial defects.”—[Official Report, 17/3/21; cols. 323-26.]
Perhaps the amendments did not but, in my experience, owners of blocks of flats are pretty good when it comes to apportioning liability for costs, because we somehow seem to get that job done every year when we get our service charges. Finally, he said that it would be “self-defeating” as landlords could decide simply to walk away.
Sir Humphrey would have been very proud of the Minister’s performance, but leaseholders listening to his arguments would have realised that they amounted to one depressing fact: the Government were not prepared to fashion a legislative response which dealt with their legitimate concerns. In effect, they were simply saying that they would like to resolve the matter but it was too difficult. There was no willingness on the part of the Minister to commission civil servants to do the work necessary to find a workable solution. Some three and three-quarter years after Grenfell, the Government are completely failing to relieve leaseholders of their concerns and failing to find a way in which to require building owners and contractors to make buildings safe without passing on the costs.
The amendments before us today are a further attempt to move the Government towards meeting what they say are their desired outcomes. They have shown no will to do so of their own volition and it therefore falls to your Lordships’ House to insist again that they do the right and decent thing.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the representative body of housing associations in England. The fact that these issues are before the House again demonstrates the enormous concern that blameless leaseholders should be protected from suffering the costs of those building safety remediation works that have come to light since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower almost four years ago. Like others, I pay tribute to the commitment and tenacity of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for keeping the Government’s feet to the fire.
Housing associations have worked tirelessly since 2017 to uncover and put right the urgent building safety issues with which since the Grenfell tragedy we are now all too familiar. The safety of their residents is an absolute and immovable priority for the housing association sector. They are also acutely aware of the stress and heartache that leaseholders have experienced and have pursued every avenue available to them to ensure that those responsible, the developers of these buildings, pay for their mistakes. The funds that the Government have already made available for building safety works have a very important part to play in tackling this crisis, but they are by no means a complete solution. It is just not acceptable that under the established scheme some costs will still fall to leaseholders.
I have said before, in early discussions on the Bill, and I stress again today, that social housing providers cannot access this funding for remedial works on properties where tenants live. The funding applies only to leaseholders. That means quite simply that these charitable organisations, which do not make a profit and are set up with the primary purpose of housing people on lower incomes, are facing an enormous bill to set right errors not of their own making—a bill that, at a modest estimate, will exceed £10 billion.
I hope the Minister will agree that, over the past year, housing associations have played a vital role in communities up and down the country. They have been at the forefront of both the local and the national response to the coronavirus pandemic. Not only have they provided safe and secure homes for their residents, at a time when home has never been more important to us, but they have delivered services that have helped to keep people’s heads above water over these most harrowing months. Their role as community anchors will be ever more important in the months and years to come, because many of their residents are likely to suffer the social and economic fallout from the pandemic.
On top of this, the housing association sector is central to our efforts to beat the country’s housing crisis, and to meeting our net zero ambitions. It is the driving force behind building thousands of new sustainable homes each year, as well as making existing properties greener. Bluntly, this work will be far harder to deliver if there is not the funding to cover building safety costs. Safety must be a top priority, so resources will have to be diverted away from improving residents’ properties, providing community services, building new homes and tackling the climate crisis. So can the Minister please tell the House what assessment his department has made of the impact that the remediation costs for tenanted properties will have on the wider work of the housing association sector?
Manufacturers, developers and those responsible for building these properties created this crisis, and they should pick up the bill. It is clear that there is a huge amount of support among Members of the other place for this to happen, but that will take work, and some time, to achieve. The only logical immediate answer to this intractable problem is for the Government to provide up-front funding for all remedial works, and to recoup the cost to the taxpayer later by establishing developers’ liabilities.
I urge the Minister to confirm today that the Government will move to protect leaseholders, social housing tenants and social housing providers by making funding available up front for this essential work to be done.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans will have heard the strong support across the House for his amendment. He said at the beginning of his remarks that he intended to press the matter, and I would strongly encourage him to do so. It looks to me as if he will have a commanding majority across the House.
The Minister’s speech was very odd. Indeed, it was so odd that I cannot think that he actually wrote his own speech. It must have been written by some political adviser in his department, who just put together a set of remarks that he thought would basically tell the House of Lords to get lost. That was the gravamen of his argument, presumably hoping that, the third time around, we would not press this—indeed, that we would not even get into the arguments.
The Minister said—I noted it down carefully—that the proposal in the amendment in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans was “inappropriate and unworkable”. I was waiting for him to describe to the House why it was inappropriate and unworkable, but he did not. He said that he would not comment in detail at the beginning, but would do so at the end. That is not much use to us, because the debate takes place before his closing remarks, not afterwards, and we have no means of replying to them. That argument is clearly of no account, unless the Minister has such compelling arguments against the right reverend Prelate that, on hearing them, we will be completely silenced.
When we read the amendment, it is impossible to see how it could be described as inappropriate and unworkable. The right reverend Prelate proposes, first, that the costs may not be passed on to leaseholders or tenants—an argument in its absolute state, which the Minister has objected to, and I understand his arguments. However, the crucial part of the amendment is subsection (2) of the proposed new clause:
“This section has effect only until a statutory scheme is in operation which ensures that leaseholders and tenants of dwellings do not have to pay for remedial work attributable to the provisions of this Act.”
What is inappropriate and unworkable about that? The right reverend Prelate proposes simply that the Government’s own scheme, which one assumes will not be inappropriate or unworkable, must be before Parliament and subject to consideration before people are faced with costs—unless I have missed something in the arguments. The right reverend Prelate is nodding in agreement, and the Minister has not said anything to the contrary.
By definition, that cannot be inappropriate and unworkable, because we are talking about the Government’s own scheme. All that the right reverend Prelate seeks to do, which it is absolutely within the role of a revising Chamber to insist on, is that leaseholders should not be subject to these costs, which could bankrupt them and cause them enormous distress, being simply unmanageable, until there is a scheme. The scheme must have been presented and agreed before they face these costs.
We have heard harrowing stories from people with individual and personal cases at stake, but also, as the right reverend Prelate so rightly says, there are potentially—we are not quite sure what the numbers are—hundreds of thousands of people affected. What impact will that have? It is not unreasonable for this House to insist that before leaseholders are faced with those costs, we must know what the scheme is and it has been subject to proper consideration.
What makes it all even odder is that the Government themselves say that that is their intention. When the matter last came before the House of Commons, the Minister responsible, Christopher Pincher, said:
“We have been working hard to ensure that those with broader shoulders and those that should pay do pay.”
That is precisely the principle we are all seeking to establish. He continued:
“That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced at the Budget that there will be a levy on tall buildings and a tax on the sector. We do not want to absolve the industry of its responsibility. We are finalising how the levy will be calculated and the Treasury is leading on the development of the tax. Of course we want to ensure that it works effectively, and that small and medium-sized developers are not unfairly disadvantaged. We want to get it right and we want to get it done as quickly as we can … We will bring forward as soon as we possibly can the workings of the financial support scheme that we announced at the Budget that will ensure that leaseholders in buildings below 18 metres pay no more than £50 a month.”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/3/21; col. 707.]
Those commitments and statements by the Minister are completely consistent with the proposal of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, which simply says that the scheme must be ready, approved and operable before leaseholders pay any costs. The Minister’s substantive argument—that the right reverend Prelate’s proposal is inappropriate and unworkable—is clearly nonsensical and wrong.
The Minister’s other argument was that we were somehow delaying matters. The House of Commons last debated this issue on Monday 22 March. The date today is 20 April, a month later. The reason for the delay in considering this Bill has nothing to do with your Lordships, nothing to do with the leaseholders, nothing to do with the right reverend Prelate, and everything to do with the Government.
Indeed, on the same day as the House of Commons considered our amendments to the Fire Safety Bill, they also considered our amendments to the Trade Bill. Those of your Lordships who multitask—some of us do more than one Bill at a time—will know that the amendments to the Trade Bill were dealt with in your Lordships’ House within a matter of days. It was, I think, three or four days later, because it was still the twenty-something of March when we dealt with them. The reason why we have not considered this matter until 20 April, very close to the end of the Session, has nothing whatever to do with your Lordships, and everything to do with the Government.
We still have time between now and the end of the Session. As the right reverend Prelate so rightly said, if the Prime Minister can spring into such dramatic action in response to developments in the Football League, he and the Government can certainly get their act together to consider and put forward proper proposals in respect of a scheme. Much more pertinently, if they say that the full resources of the Government, drafting and all that, are not available, because the parliamentary draftsmen are on holiday or whatever and so cannot do it—the noble Lord, Lord Newby, could read out more “Yes Minister” excerpts on this—all he needs to do is to accept the amendment in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. That is what we are urging him to do. It would give him the time to do it, because its key provision is that leaseholders will not be faced with these charges until the statutory scheme is in operation, so he will have the time that he needs.
However, it is not just that the reason for the delay is the Government and not this House; we are dealing with a situation that is nearly four years old. It is not as if Grenfell happened a few months ago, we are still trying to estimate what the impacts were, and we are being rushed into legislation and the design of a scheme. It has been four years, and there is a whole public inquiry, the first stage of which has already reported. Again, the reason for the delay in this respect has nothing to do with the leaseholders, nothing to do with this House and everything to do with the Government.
What was the special adviser who wrote the Minister’s speech actually seeking to do? I think it is pretty clear, because most of us here are seasoned politicians. They were seeking to see that the Fire Safety Bill becomes law before the impact on the leaseholders is fully known. We need to get to the heart of what is happening here. Obviously, in response to the urgent and compelling safety crisis that we face, there had to be changes in the safety regulations. More precisely, we had to see that the existing safety regulations were actually enforced. That is what we are really talking about as the fundamental point of principle here.
The Government do not want leaseholders, who may face large bills of potentially tens of thousands of pounds and who in many cases may not be covered by the schemes, which are only in outline at the moment in their descriptions, to be faced with those costs or any knowledge of what they might be before the Bill becomes law. However, that is all the more reason why Parliament should not be prepared to play the Government’s game, because this is not a political game or a script of “Yes Minister”; these are the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who face bills of tens of thousands of pounds. It is perfectly reasonable that this House and the House of Commons should at least know what the schemes are, in respect of which people are going to have to pay these sums, and should have given their assent to them before they become law.
The Minister said that the right reverend Prelate’s proposal was inappropriate and unworkable. There is nothing inappropriate and unworkable whatever about ensuring that a statutory scheme must be in operation before leaseholders face bills that could, as I say, run into tens of thousands of pounds. The only reason for the delay in the past and now is because of the Government. This could all be sorted out in the next few days, before the end of this Session, if there is a will to move.
For that reason, I strongly urge the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, on behalf of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who have a right to expect fair play from Parliament, to press this amendment to a vote.
My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd and chair of the Heart of Medway Housing Association.
It is most disappointing that we are back here again, because the Government have neither listened to nor recognised the plight of the people trapped in their homes. For me, that is extremely disappointing. I have spoken to a number of the innocent victims over recent weeks. Think of the stress, worry, concern, costs and lives on hold. For many, there is no end in sight. It is not good enough, and we must ask the other place to think again on this issue. We must stand with the innocent victims, the leaseholders and the tenants. It is a disgraceful, monumental scandal, and the Government cannot be let off the hook today. We hear lots from the Government about levelling up; it is one of their new phrases that we have heard over the last year. What about some levelling up for the victims of the cladding scandal? That is what we need to hear today.
You buy your home—often your first home—you pay your mortgage, you pay your taxes, you play by the rules, you do the right thing, and you are a good citizen. What you want is your Government to stand with you, to be by your side, to stand up for you and to make those responsible for this scandal put it right. That is what they want today: for those who are responsible, not the innocent victims, to put this right—be that the companies who built these defective properties, the people who signed the buildings off as safe when they were not, or those who provided the insurance guarantees that they would put right anything that went wrong. That is why we on these Benches very much support Amendment A1 in the name of the right reverend Prelate, and we will be in the Lobbies with him when he, I hope, divides the House.
For me, it is clear, simple, effective and time limited. If the Government’s word means anything, they should support the amendment too. The Motion would prevent the owner of a building from passing on any costs of remedial work and, as my noble friend Lord Adonis said, remains in force only until we have the statutory scheme in place, which of course will then deal with the issue of costs and the scandal. It would provide welcome relief and respite. It would show that there is a way out of this nightmare. It would show that the Government are with the victims of this scandal, who are the innocent people here.
The Government highlighted the weakness of their own utterly ridiculous position. The Government control the other place. They have a majority of 80. We have heard that they have held this up for a month; they could have discussed it weeks ago. We could have discussed it in this House. Now they tell us that the Bill is at risk if we carry on. That is just not acceptable; it is just not good enough. The only way the Bill will fall is if the Government choose to let it fall and do nothing about that. The hold-up is purely caused by the Prime Minister and the Government deciding that they just do not want to go here. That is what the problem is.
Like the right reverend Prelate, I was also pleased to hear about the urgent action that the Government were taking: the summit at No. 10, the calls that it will not happen and the demands for urgent action. But, of course, as the right reverend Prelate said, that was about the European Super League. If we can have a summit for the Super League, why can we not have a summit for the insurance companies in No. 10 this week to ask what they are doing? Why can there not be a summit for the building companies this week in No. 10? Why can there not be a summit for the victims in No. 10 this week? Apparently, if it is the Super League, everybody can come in straightaway. It is just not good enough.
We need these summits. We need the Government to actually act and stand by victims. If the fate of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are a matter of the gravest concern for No. 10, surely the victims should be as well. It is just not good enough. I hope that the noble Lord will go back to the Prime Minister and tell him how angry this House is with where we find ourselves today.
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, powerfully set out the Government’s failure to do this and how wrong they are. There is no good reason at all for not acting today. The Government should support this amendment, because it is really well drafted and takes us forward. The Government have made pledges and promises to the victims, and they will have to honour them.
I had not read the words of Chris Pincher, but when my noble friend Lord Adonis read them out, I thought, “That is the Motion that we have here”. He wants to have a statutory scheme set up, for no one to pay anything, to make sure that the scheme is in place and to protect the victims. That is what the Motion before the House today would do, so I just do not understand why the Government are not supporting it.
I very much hope that the right reverend Prelate will divide the House when we get to that point if the noble Lord will not accept the Motion, because it really is just not good enough. The Government will have to act and protect the victims.
My Lords, it has been an interesting debate, to put it mildly. I did not think we would be invoking the spirit of the European Super League quite so much, but I have to say I stand with noble Lords in being utterly opposed to the proposals, including from the club that I support.
The idea that we are unleashing a torrent of issues for leaseholders as a result of the Fire Safety Bill—one of the points the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, made—is overstated. That is not going to happen. We recognise that building owners will have to take a proportionate, risk-based approach that takes into account the true possibility of risk to life in properties. Life risk is mercifully low, as I said in my opening remarks.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that the solution has been outlined by the Government. Noble Lords can query the scope, but the solution will always involve three basic elements: a level of grant funding—we have had the ACM fund of some £600 million and the building safety fund of £1 billion; some kind of financing scheme that provides a loan facility to pay for these works; and taxation or levies. The Government are introducing all three elements, and that is ultimately the only solution that can be offered. I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that the solution in all those areas does not need to be statutory—in fact, in order to be timely, it cannot be statutory. The grant funding exists, and we will be publishing further details of the financing scheme very shortly. The Treasury’s lead is needed on taxation and levies, as the noble Lord will know.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, it would be nice to put more money on the table, but over £5 billion, as I am sure she recognises, is a considerable sum. Leasehold properties in those buildings are protected. We know that a number of housing associations are applying to the building safety fund. I recognise that we could go further and protect the full remediation costs of those buildings, but it is nevertheless the case that many housing associations are applying for funds for the removal of unsafe cladding. In addition, a very generous affordable housing programme of some £12.5 billion has been announced, which housing associations can access.
By way of clarification to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the building safety fund does exist and the money is being accessed. It is clear that the additional money the Government have announced will be added to that fund. We are in danger of running out of money, frankly, in a matter of months, without the additional amounts committed by the Government. The other things I mentioned will happen, but none of them requires statute to implement, so it is simply not the case that a statutory solution is the only way forward.
I want to reiterate why these amendments, which I believe are unworkable and impractical, should be rejected.. I do not have the benefit of political advisers as a Lords Minister. I am always happy with extra help in drafting my speeches, but I do not have a special adviser helping me in this regard. I do not think the amendments deliver the solution; all they do is put the legislation at risk. We have had the Easter Recess, which is one of the reasons we are now short of time.
As noble Lords have heard before now, it is impractical and confusing to amend the fire safety order to include this issue. The main aim of the fire safety order is to ensure public safety by reducing the risk to life from fire. This is done through responsible persons complying with their duties and regularly reviewing their fire risk assessment to identify and put in place appropriate fire precautions. These amendments do not include measures that provide public safety or set out how the responsible person should reduce the risk to harm from fire. Instead, they cover the relationship, including financial obligations and liabilities, between freeholder and leaseholder. These matters do not sit naturally with the fire safety order, as some noble Lords have admitted.
In his amendment, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, wants to add further protections to leaseholders by insisting that building owners seek government support through our grant or financing schemes before passing costs on to leaseholders. Noble Lords will note that a similar provision already exists in our draft Building Safety Bill in Clause 89(17P), which places obligations on the landlord to deduct from leaseholder charges any funding received. We are adding to this clause with the purpose of ensuring that building owners must explore other cost-recovery mechanisms before passing costs on to leaseholders.
In addition to this proposed legislative protection, the existing building safety fund application process already requires building owners to demonstrate that they have already explored other cost-recovery avenues as a condition of government funding. Including this sort of provision in the Building Safety Bill removes a clear practical difficulty in this clause. By extending the requirement to explore alternative funding sources before approaching leaseholders to all building safety risks, leaseholders will now have to work out which costs are directly attributable to the provisions of the fire safety order and which are not. In the interim, building owners should already be accessing all the government support available to remediate unsafe cladding, and we are supporting them through this process.
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for his engagement over the last few weeks, but I am afraid that his amendment will not work either. It would orphan liability. We have looking to assign liability to freeholders or orphan liability of works until such times as a statutory scheme is in place that pays for the work directly attributable to this Bill. I have already talked about the difficulties of defining which works might be directly attributable to the Fire Safety Bill provisions and which might not.
Some of the works that may be required will be low cost, where anyone would reasonably expect leaseholders to pay. Does the right reverend Prelate really want to stop the passing on of relatively minor costs, such as for a new smoke alarm? The amendment does not differentiate between the costs of the work which could lead to delays in important minor works. He is talking about stopping something even as minor as putting in a smoke alarm as a consequence of the amendment. No taxpayer scheme for such minor works would be forthcoming, and we would reach an entirely avoidable impasse.
The amendment does not take into account safety defects that are identified outside the fire safety risk process—for example, necessary works brought into scope as a result of another incident. In such cases, this will not prevent costs being passed on, and the amendment will not, therefore, achieve what the right reverend Prelate intends. Since this amendment is not sufficiently detailed and will require extensive drafting of primary legislation, it would continue to delay the implementation of the Fire Safety Bill and the important reforms that it intends to carry out.
We also recognise that there could be protracted legal action from building owners to claim for costs they feel they are entitled to pursue from leaseholders. Stating in legislation what the landlord can and cannot recover from the leaseholders, and when, could contradict the provisions set out in the contractual terms of a lease. This would affect the Government and, to that extent, taxpayers. The amendment should ultimately be self-defeating as the pace and progress of all fire safety works would be stalled, leaving leaseholders still in an invidious position.
I must admit that I had a strong sense of déjà vu when reading the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. The House will remember that an almost identical amendment was laid during the previous stage of this Bill and rejected by the Commons. As with the previous amendment, it would orphan liability and leave leaseholders no better off, with no clear route for buildings to be remediated, without a clear cost recovery mechanism. Noble Lords will also remember that the scope of this amendment is extremely broad; it is applicable to not just external walls but all and every defect regardless of whether it has been caused by wear and tear. This is neither proportionate nor appropriate. It is certainly not the best use of taxpayers’ money.
The Government are focused on supporting the Grenfell Tower public inquiry to uncover the full truth that led to the fire and ensure that lessons are learned from this national tragedy. This is in parallel with ongoing work to make homes safer, thoroughly reform the entire regulatory system and provide redress to the community and to leaseholders. The Government are also providing a globally unprecedented package, in excess of £5 billion—this is not a minimal sum; £5.1 billion is a substantial amount—to pay to make homes safer from unsafe cladding. It is unclear what a further independent inquiry would deliver.
I ask that noble Lords exercise sound judgment, listen to the will of the democratically elected other place and recognise that, while this amendment and others may be based on good intentions, it is not appropriate or a means to solve very complex problems. This is the wrong place for this kind of legislation, and in any case the amendment is likely to be ineffective and possibly risky. It is a big risk; in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I say that the risk of litigation is not something to pooh-pooh, because the risk is not only that is it an additional cost that leaseholders potentially face paying but that the remediation will not be carried out. I must emphasise once again that all the solutions put forward will in no way solve this problem. The Government certainly cannot support them.
I finish by reminding noble Lords that the Government have provided an unprecedented level of support for leaseholders, in excess of £5 billion. Noble Lords have a choice; it involves supporting getting this highly important Bill on to the statute book and not delaying its implementation any further, which will allow the Grenfell recommendations to be implemented and help make homes safer.
I have received a single request to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
My Lords, we are talking about three different amendments; I am focusing on that from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. In so far as I could tell, the detail of the Minister’s objection to the right reverend Prelate’s amendment was that further delay could be caused by uncertainty over the attribution of costs and that he objected to the amendment’s requirement that the scheme be statutory. Further delay depends on how long it takes the Government to come forward with their scheme; they are in complete control of the timescale. On the statutory scheme, to foster peace and good will between the right reverend Prelate and the Government, I suggest that “statutory” be replaced by “government” scheme—which need not necessarily be statutory, for the reasons the Minister gave. Would he be prepared to entertain this?
I am very new to this place but, as I have tried to highlight, I do not believe that the solution in large part involves statute. The noble Lord is asking for a further commitment that is really about putting more government money up front to pay for the significant costs faced by leaseholders. It would not be helpful to amend the amendment by removing that word, because I do not think we could accept the amendment in any way whatever. We have set out that we want to focus on the remediation of unsafe cladding because cladding on the outside of buildings is the major fire accelerant. That is what we will focus on and we are putting forward over £5 billion to do precisely that—a significant, globally unprecedented amount. I do not think amending that one word moves us any further forward.
My Lords, I am hugely grateful for the extraordinary range of speeches made today. I acknowledge what Her Majesty’s Government have done; I take the point that this is unprecedented and a major contribution towards trying to sort out this very difficult problem. The Minister knows that I have said on many occasions that I am terribly naive about all this. I was hoping Her Majesty’s Government would help solve it because I am just an amateur paddling around in the shallows. I am hugely grateful to people such as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who is a real expert in this area.
I still believe that my amendment is a practical, helpful and just way forward which is in the spirit of what Her Majesty’s Government want and have committed to. I was hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for quoting the Minister in the other place. I am still sufficiently positive—noble Lords will probably say naive—about our political system to believe that this amendment could well commend itself to people in the other place when they see that it is within the spirit of what the Government want to do. I hope that it will be taken back to the other place and considered there, or that the Government will wish to introduce something like it, to help us move this forward. I would like us to get this on to the statute book as quickly as possible but, in the light of what I have heard, with reluctance I feel I have no other choice but to divide the House on this Motion.
Motions A2 (as an amendment to Motion A) and A3 (as an amendment to Motion A) not moved.
4G: Because it is supplemental to Lords Amendment 4C to which the Commons disagree.
4H: Because it is consequential on Lords Amendments 4C and 4D to which the Commons disagree.
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 19 April.
“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on coronavirus. This virus is diminished, but not defeated. Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are back to the levels we saw in September. Throughout the crisis, we have protected the NHS, and there are now 2,186 people in hospital with Covid across the UK—down 94% from the peak. The average number of daily deaths is 25—down 98%. Because of this brighter picture, we have been able to take step 2 on our road map, and it is brilliant to see the high streets bustling with life once again and to hear a real-life crowd back in Wembley this weekend—especially if one is a Leicester City supporter.
Now, with fewer Covid patients in hospital, the NHS is already turning to focus on the work to tackle the Covid backlog. Step by step, we are returning this country towards normal life, and we are on track to meet the road map set out by the Prime Minister. Last week, we hit our target to offer a vaccine to priority groups 1 to 9, and we are on track to offer a vaccine to all adults by the end of July. However, we must be vigilant, cautious and careful throughout, because we want this road to be a one-way street.
The vaccine uptake has been astonishingly high. For all over-50s, uptake is 94%. Enthusiasm among those in their late 40s was so high that they briefly overloaded the website when we opened up the booking system last week. We can see the result of that uptake in the real world. The latest data show that 98% of people aged between 70 and 84 now have Covid-19 antibodies, which are crucial to the body’s ability to fight the disease—98%. That is the protection our vaccination programme is spreading across the whole United Kingdom. Uptake among all ethnic-minority groups continues to increase. Public Health England estimates that the vaccination programme prevented over 10,000 deaths up to the end of March, and it will protect many more as the rollout continues.
We know that the first dose gives significant protection, but the second dose is crucial to make people as safe as possible. On Friday and Saturday, we saw record numbers of second doses—over 499,000 on each day—and I am delighted to tell the House that, as of midnight last night, we have now given second doses to over 10 million people across the United Kingdom. Three-quarters of over-75s have now had both jabs, rising to four-fifths of over-80s. The vaccine is our way out of this pandemic, and I am delighted that it is being taken up in such huge numbers.
We will do everything in our power to drive uptake, especially when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable. The vaccination rate among care home staff is currently below 80% in over half of all local authority areas. Many care homes have called for vaccinations to be required for those who work in such settings. We have therefore launched a consultation into whether we should require care home providers that care for older adults to deploy only workers who have received their Covid-19 vaccination, unless they have a medical exemption. We all know that older people living in care homes are at the greatest risk from this virus, and we have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable, so we will consider all options to keep people safe.
As we deliver on stage 2 of the vaccination programme —to vaccinate all remaining adults in the UK—we must also turn our attention to what comes next. The biggest risk to our progress here in the UK is a new variant that the vaccine does not work as well against. We know from our response to other viruses, such as flu, that we need updated vaccines to tackle mutated viruses. I can tell the House that as we complete the programme for first and second jabs, we are ramping up plans for a booster shot to make sure that our vaccines stay ahead of the virus. We have already procured enough vaccine doses to begin the booster shots later this year. We will be working with our current vaccine suppliers and new suppliers such as the CureVac partnership to work out which vaccines will be effective as a booster shot and to design new vaccines specifically targeted at the variants of concern, such as the variant first found in South Africa.
Our goal is to ensure that the vaccine protects against this dreadful disease whatever it throws at us, to keep us safe and protect our much cherished return to a normal way of life. The booster shot is important because it will help protect against new variants, but until then we must remain vigilant in case a new variant renders the vaccines less protective. New variants can jeopardise the progress that we have made here in the UK.
Thanks to our early investment in Covid genomic sequencing, we have in this country one of the best systems to spot and supress new variants wherever we find them through a combination of tough measures at the border, our genomic sequencing capability and a massive testing system. I would like to inform the House of another new development in our testing system. We have been piloting Pharmacy Collect, a system in which people can go and pick up tests for free from a pharmacy. I am delighted to tell the House that following the successful pilot, we have now rolled out Pharmacy Collect to over nine in 10 pharmacies, meaning that the universal testing offer, through which everyone can get tested up to twice a week, is now freely and easily accessible to anyone who wants it. You just have to go to your local pharmacy, Mr Speaker.
I would also like to update the House on our response to two new variants. One is the variant of concern first identified in South Africa. We have now detected a total of 557 cases of this variant since it was first identified in December. We have seen a cluster of cases in south London, predominantly in the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark, and identified single cases over the last week in Barnet, Birmingham and Sandwell. Around two-thirds of these cases are related to international travel and have been picked up by the day 2 and day 8 testing for international arrivals. However, we have seen a small amount of community transmission, too.
As soon as those cases were discovered, we acted quickly to put in place enhanced testing, tracing and sequencing in Lambeth and Wandsworth. We have brought in 19 mobile testing units in our largest surge-testing operation to date, and we are distributing test kits to housing estates, secondary schools, places of worship and workplaces. I would urge everyone who lives in these areas, whether they have symptoms or not, to get tested regularly and help us keep the variant under control.
Secondly, we have recently seen a new variant, first identified in India. We have now detected 103 cases of this variant, of which, again, the vast majority have links to international travel and have been picked up by our testing at the border. We have been analysing samples from those cases to see whether the variant has any concerning characteristics such as greater transmissibility or resistance to treatments and vaccines, meaning that it needs to be listed as a variant of concern.
After studying the data and on a precautionary basis, we have made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list. That means that anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen cannot enter the UK if they have been in India in the previous 10 days. UK and Irish residents and British citizens who have been in India in the 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival. These rules will come into force at 4 am on Friday. India is a country I know well and love. Between our two countries we have ties of friendship and family. I understand the impact of this decision, but I hope that the House will concur that we must act, because we must protect the progress that we have made in this country in tackling this awful disease.
Another way that we have kept the country safe is through maintaining a strong supply of personal protective equipment. At a time of massive global demand, we secured supply lines, created a stockpile to see us through the winter and created onshore manufacturing capacity here in the UK. I am pleased to inform the House that, since February last year, we have distributed more than 10 billion items of PPE to protect people working in the NHS, social care and public services right across the country. Delivering so much PPE at such speed and scale has been an extraordinary effort that has not only helped us through the crisis, but provided a lasting legacy for the future.
Let me make two further points. I would like to inform the House that today we have appointed Professor Lucy Chappell as the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care. Professor Chappell has a stellar track record in science and research, including leading on the work on vaccinations in pregnancy. She has worked closely with our National Institute for Health Research, for which she will now be responsible. I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating Professor Chappell on her appointment.
Finally, last month we laid before the House our one-year status report on the Coronavirus Act 2020. I am sorry to say that the report contains an error relating to Section 24 of the Act, which concerns Home Office measures on data held for national security purposes. Full details are set out in a Written Ministerial Statement being laid today. The error does not change the substance of the report, as we will be laying the regulations to expire Section 24 alongside other provisions as soon as parliamentary time allows.
In summary, we are moving down our road to recovery, vaccinations are rising and the pressure on our NHS is falling. As we enjoy the freedoms that are returning, let us take each step safely. We must hold our nerve and follow the rules while the vaccinators do their vital work. I commend this Statement to the House.”
I thank the Minister for the Statement made in the Commons yesterday. I pay tribute again from these Benches for the amazing work of all the NHS staff and volunteers in delivering the vaccine to so many millions of people. However, as the chief medical and scientific advisers have repeated many times in recent weeks, the virus is still among us, creating new strains and threatening our recovery in the UK. It is therefore vital that the Government continue as we emerge from this lockdown to be led by data, not dates.
It is clearly right to add India to the red list. In the UK we have deep ties and bonds with India of course, but it was the correct thing to do in the circumstances and it is also right that the Prime Minister should postpone his visit. Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of which have lower rates than India, have been on the list since 9 April so I wonder why it took so long to add India.
Can the Minister update the House on the presence of all three new variants identified—the Indian, Brazilian and South African—and their presence and spread in the UK? Indeed, can he update the House about the global co-ordination of surveillance of the new variants?
With regard to protecting our borders, this week Hong Kong identified 47 Covid cases on a single flight from Delhi. Before the Friday deadline there will be hundreds of people arriving on flights from India. Is this not very risky?
Even with high levels of vaccination across the population, there will be significant groups who are not vaccinated—children, for example—so the virus will be endemic. As the Chief Medical Officer has recently confirmed, papers from SAGE model a third wave this summer. How do we avoid that?
The poorest and lowest paid in the most insecure jobs do not isolate as they should because they cannot afford to do so. From these Benches we have pointed out time and again that one way to ensure self-isolation—and therefore help the Government tackle this—would be to pay higher sick pay and expand its scope. Will this happen?
There is no mention in the Statement of vaccine passports. Does the Minister anticipate that they will soon be needed for football games and concerts?
I regret that we need to turn to the media stories about lobbying and the revelations in the Sunday Times regarding the former Prime Minister acting on behalf of Greensill and the payday financing scheme. As my right honourable friend Jon Ashworth said in the Commons yesterday:
“This was not an act of altruism to staff in a pandemic but an investment plan to package up loans to sell to investors, with the former Prime Minister, not nurses, in line for a payday windfall. Cameron wrote in one of his emails: ‘As you can imagine, Matt Hancock’ is ‘extremely positive about this innovative offer.’”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/4/21; col. 659.]
What was being sought was a partnership with NHS Shared Business Services, which is jointly owned by the department, to access the personal and financial data of thousands of NHS staff for their electronic records for commercial gain. I expect the move would next be to the social care sector. We know that at least 30 trusts may have spent valuable time considering the adoption of this untested payday lending scheme as a result of the lobbying by Mr Cameron. Can the Minister ensure that publication of all the text messages, emails and correspondence with David Cameron will happen? Can the Minister tell the House how many NHS leaders and officials Mr Cameron and Mr Greensill lobbied and met? How many NHS trusts in total were approached about this expensive—and, indeed, unneeded —scheme? Even today, we see further allegations of contracts being granted without proper scrutiny and governance, following the Secretary of State’s own links with Topwood. Questions about conflicts of interest are inevitable.
Apart from the issue about pay levels in the NHS which might necessitate such a scheme, can the Minister accept that NHS staff deserve a pay rise and support, not payday loan apps forced on the NHS by speculators trying to make money out of the pandemic? What is his view of this? Does he appreciate that honesty, probity and transparency are directly linked to people’s acceptance of and adherence to the rules we have all obeyed for many months to beat this pandemic?
Last year, a former Conservative chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Feldman—who was running a lobbying firm with healthcare clients—acted as an unpaid adviser to the Minister himself. When I was a Minister I was told that one must not only be scrupulous and transparent in one’s dealings but that one should not do anything that could be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
I hope the Minister will not just get angry as he has in the past and say it is all not true and how hard everyone is working to get the pandemic under control—everyone knows how hard he and the public servants are working—as he will be missing the point. The point is about the reputation and standing of government, democracy and accountability. Does he believe it would be a good thing for the Government to reflect on the Nolan principles of public life, particularly with regard to recent procurement processes, and the lessons that might be learnt?
My Lords, I add my tributes from these Benches to all those who continue to work well above and beyond the call of duty in all areas to do with managing the Covid pandemic. This includes the vaccination teams, the invisible workers—the scientists working in labs and all those who we do not see on a daily basis—as well as our overtired doctors, nurses and other clinical healthcare workers, and those in social care who are still taking remarkable precautions.
It is worth noting despite the reduction in cases, hospital cases and deaths that daily cases are still double the level that they were at the lifting of lockdown 1, so it is good that the Government are not speeding things up. We need to continue to move carefully and steadily, as later parts of the Statement talking about the India and South African variants give cause for some concern. It is also reassuring to see that uptake of the vaccine is excellent. However, the Statement is silent on when all adults will have been offered the second vaccine. That is important because, as scientists constantly remind us, two doses are needed. Focusing only on the first vaccine is giving the vast majority of the public overconfidence about protection. If people want to go on holiday, one dose of the vaccine will not be enough, whether that holiday is in the UK or abroad.
That leads also to those who are immune-suppressed and to those under 18, because until all are safe, none are safe. Can the Minister say if there is any news on the OCTAVE clinical trials on the ability of those who are immune-suppressed to make and retain antibodies? Those formerly shielding—including me—still need to avoid mixing with people. They are still waiting for news to see if they can relax, even after two doses of the vaccine.
What is the news for children? I understood that the trials on over-12s had been halted following the blood clot issue with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Is that still the case? What are the long-term plans to ensure that our under-12s and, indeed, our under-18s are safe? The Statement says that:
“The vaccine is our way out of this pandemic”.
Not on its own, it is not. We must continue to test, trace and isolate to keep people safe. The Government are to be applauded for the large number of lateral flow tests because they are useful, but they are not as effective as PCR tests for really tracking the virus.
Had I not been unable to do so, I would have loved to have been at Wembley on Sunday supporting my team, which, sadly, lost to Leicester. I would have been delighted to have been part of a testing arrangement to see what happens, but other fans have said that they were only asked to be tested in advance and that there is no testing afterwards. Is that correct? In other words, how detailed is this testing for moving back into normal life going to be?
I am a member of the All-Party Group on Coronavirus, and this morning we heard from scientists who are bemused that immediate contacts of those who test positive are still not routinely PCR tested, which all the countries with a truly effective test and trace system operate. That is vital with the high percentage of people with Covid still having no symptoms, so they would believe that there is no reason for them to be tested, and it is particularly important with the information about the spread of the variants from South Africa and India.
I have family who live in Wandsworth. This time last week, as the announcement about mass testing across Lambeth and Wandsworth was made, we were told that everyone in those areas would be publicly informed. Three days later, not only had my son heard nothing, but he walked past a newly set up testing site a few hundred metres from his house, went in, and discovered that he did need to be tested. So, he and my daughter-in-law had their tests. It transpires that the only notification from Wandsworth Council before the weekend was a tweet, with none of the mechanisms used elsewhere such as texts via GPs, posters up in the street, word of mouth, or even leaflets. How on earth can that be real surge testing if only a small percentage of the population see a handful of tweets?
On the India variant, scientists also told the APPG this morning that the estimated figure of 103 cases was considerably lower than the likely number of cases circulating because only 10% to 15% of positive lateral-flow swabs are sent on to laboratories where they are scanned for variants. This might mean that the actual number is 10 to 20 times the official estimate. This brings us full circle, back to test, trace and isolate. Even with vaccines, it is vital to have an effective test, trace and isolate system to keep people safe. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, outlined, adding India to the red list but giving people three-and-a-half days’ notice before implementing it, means that a large number of cases are likely to slip into the country. Even if they are caught through positive testing, we are unlikely to have a real sense of the actual number of cases.
This follows on from the concern that we from these Benches have had about successful self-isolation and quarantining for a year. The APPG heard evidence this morning that demonstrated that arrangements at our borders, particularly in airports, are not Covid safe, either for travellers or staff, and they risk becoming breeding grounds. This now needs to include effectively separately passengers who arrive from red-list countries from those who arrive from others, and ensuring that all quarantine rules are observed. We heard evidence that people were leaving their quarantine hotels early, and that others, quarantining at home because they did not come from red-list countries, were being forced to use public transport to get to testing centres for their day eight tests. Worse, border staff are discovering around 100 fake Covid test certificates daily, and there are probably many more. If that does not signify a real worrying standard for the possibility of vaccine passports, I do not know what does. When will a proper test, trace and isolate system be put in place that includes immediate contacts and more lateral-flow tests being tested for variants, along with vital, proper, paid arrangements for self-isolation, including quarantining and proper separation in the transport arrangements for those coming from abroad?
Finally, I will spend just one minute on Greensill. It is not just Greensill: we need desperately to see full publication of all meetings and correspondence—informal and formal—that Ministers have had regarding all contracts, whether it is payday loans, PPE or testing arrangements. This also includes the new quarantining partners; the Health Secretary said on Monday that two have already been sacked, having been in place only for a short time. It is vital that the smell-test on all these contracts is evident and sure.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to both the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Thornton, for such thoughtful questions. I totally and utterly endorse both with regard to their massive thanks to NHS staff, to the vaccinators and, in particular, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who thanked the invisible workers. I am acutely and particularly aware of the lab technicians, many of whom have worked unbelievably hard in difficult circumstances, often located far from their homes, supporting our laboratories up and down the country. There are many other categories of invisible workers in our healthcare system and they deserve our huge thanks.
I am as concerned as the noble Baronesses about the threat of variants of concern. It is an absolutely frustrating and anxiety-making fact, that we simply do not know a huge amount about what the impact of these variants will be on transmissibility, severity and escapology. We are throwing absolutely everything we have got at this to try to understand the features of this disease. However, it is true that while we can study them in a mathematical or computer-generated model, we get only so far with that. We can study them on the workbench and get a little bit further, we can stick them in a tube with some serum from someone who has had a vaccine, and maybe figure out a bit more, but it is only when we have the real-world data of how the vaccines have worked in real life when put up against the virus that we can accurately conclude what the impact will be. Therefore, only the passage of time will give us the critical data we need to go forward.
In the meantime, we are standing up a huge international effort to try to understand the variants that are emerging around the world. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked me about global co-ordination. Britain is absolutely playing its role; it is using its chairmanship of the G7 to full effect. As noble Lords are, I am sure, fully aware, we have a world-leading facility in genomic sequencing. We have made a massive, open-hearted offer to the world to sequence the genomes of any variants of concern, from any country in the world, through the newly launched New Variant Assessment Platform. We are working to set up hubs to develop expertise in that capacity around the world. We are working extremely closely with multi-laterals such as the WHO, with the relevant major trusts such as the Gates and Rockefeller foundations and the Wellcome Trust, and with individual countries, to provide the insight, the fast-turnaround analysis and the assessment of new variants as they turn up.
Within our own country, it is concerning that variants have made landfall, but I reassure noble Lords that we have put in place remarkably diligent efforts to close down any spread of variants of concern when they have occurred, whether they are from India, Brazil or South Africa. It is a fact that the Operation Eagle process, which is supported by local authorities, DPHs, test and trace and by the JBC, has so far—touch wood—proved to be extremely effective at closing down community spread. We have numbers of the variants in the UK but a very large proportion of them are known to be related to travel and they have not yet created clusters of infection of the kind that might cause concern. The MQS—Managed Quarantine Service—has played an absolutely critical role. I pay tribute to the MQS team, who are at this very moment putting in place arrangements for managed quarantine for flights with travellers from India. They have put in place the necessary pre-testing, the hotels and the assessment.
While I hear, loud and clear, the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about that process, I reassure her that her list of concerns is quite different from the operational notes that I am given every day. The truth is that it has kept a lid on any spread of VOCs in the UK to date. On Wandsworth, I pay tribute to the enormous civic response to our concerns around the cluster there. I recognise the concerns of the relative of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in that area, but there has been an absolutely massive news and community-marketing promotion of the home testing, pharmacy testing, MTUs and ATSs in Wandsworth. Very few people indeed cannot have heard of the arrangements that are in place.
With regard to the OCTAVE clinical trials, that is of grave concern to all those who have immunosuppressed circumstances. We are working extremely hard with Birmingham University, with Professor Paul Moss, to understand more about the response of those with immunity issues. It is a frustrating fact that those with pre-existing immunity issues are likely to be the ones who have the lowest and least response to the vaccine. We are trying to understand as best we can how that can be supplemented. As noble Lords may know, we have already invested considerably in new arrangements for therapeutics and antivirals that we believe will support those with immunosuppressed conditions. I would be glad to write to the noble Baroness about our arrangement for vaccines for the under-12s.
If there are any other questions that I have not had time to answer, I would be glad to write to the noble Baronesses with full answers.
My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes for Back-Bench questions. I ask that noble Lords keep their questions as short as they can.
I am extremely grateful for that perceptive question. We are looking, at this very moment, at our arrangements for the autumn. For the flu vaccine, we hope to double down on our hugely successful efforts from last autumn. We hope to build on the experience of the Covid vaccine to ensure that a much wider range of people have the vaccine, so that we can deal with those who might head towards severe illness, and to stop transmission. When it comes to the Covid vaccine, we are beginning to try to understand whether a booster shot will or will not be necessary to address the threat of VOCs. As I said earlier, we are still at a stage where we do not have the full science at our disposal but, if necessary, we will roll out a vaccine booster programme in the autumn.
My Lords, India being placed on the red list will cause real hardship to many UK citizens with close family ties in the subcontinent. Does the Minister agree that, while this has necessitated the cancellation of the Prime Minister’s visit to India, it will also have prevented him bringing back a virulent strain of the virus Modi-us bigotus, which attacks and can seriously harm a country’s entire democratic immune system?
My Lords, our thoughts are with the people of India at a time when they are fighting the disease in very difficult circumstances. I acknowledge that, for families in the UK with family and business ties with India, the arrangements under the red list are extremely inconvenient, and we are doing it only because it is absolutely necessary.
I am sure the Minister knows that those from deprived communities are more likely to catch Covid-19, be admitted to ITU and to die from the disease. They are also less likely to take up a vaccination. Could the Minister update us on action by the Government to ensure that Covid-19 does not continue to be a disease of poverty?
The right reverend Prelate hits the nail on the head. It is extremely sad, frustrating and hard to acknowledge the fact that those who live in deprivation are often those who are hardest hit by this awful disease. We have worked extremely hard to get the vaccine, and testing and tracing, into those communities and to support them with whatever education and community support we can. But the fact remains that this country has an unequal health outcome for too many families, and it is part of our levelling-up agenda that we try to address that. The obesity strategy is one way in which that we can do that, but there are a great many others that we need to look at.
My Lords, 4.7 million people in England are waiting for routine operations and procedures. Some 388,000 have been on waiting lists for more than a year. Even with the extra £7 billion a year, it is estimated that it will take five years to clear the backlog. Can I urge the Government to declare an NHS emergency, equivalent to that of Covid-19, provide additional resources to the NHS, and inform the House of the targets they will set for reducing the waiting list?
The noble Lord is right that the backlog is a grave issue, and we are fighting as hard as we can to address it. The big guns of the NHS are moving from Covid to addressing the backlog, but we should not overstate its threat either. Large parts of the NHS remained open all the way through Covid, and I pay tribute to those in the NHS who worked extremely hard to ensure that many elective procedures and much diagnosis continued. We do them and their reputations no favours if we imply that the NHS was in any way doing less than it should have done to work through Covid. But the noble Lord is right; this is a grave issue, and we take it extremely seriously.
My Lords, overwhelming evidence now exists that lower-paid people are less likely to take a test, self-isolate or isolate for the full period, due to not being able to afford to do so. What extra support will the Government now put in place to deal with this Achilles heel of the test, trace and isolate system?
My Lords, we put in place a considerable amount of support for those on low wages, including the furlough scheme, and a huge amount of economic support. It is true that those on low wages have wage pressure put on their lives, but we have statutory sick pay for those who are sick and out of work, and we have a huge amount of investment in local government and in charities, which also provide support for those who live in deprivation.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend the Minister for just how hard he has worked and for all that his department has achieved over the last year. Will he tell us what plans there are for the development of new vaccines in response to new variants?
My Lords, all the major vaccine companies are already looking at tweaking their existing vaccines, or developing new ones, in response to the new variants. AstraZeneca, for instance, has been working on that for some months. It is not clear, at this stage, whether we will have to start again on the vaccine programme or simply arrange new booster shots, or whether the existing vaccines will, in fact, run the full course. It is unbelievably frustrating to be in this hiatus of short knowledge—that is where we are at the moment—but please be reassured that this Government are investing absolutely everything necessary to ensure that vaccines will be available for whatever comes down the track.
I can confirm what the Minister said about other services in the NHS. The staff at the Macmillan Renton Unit at Hereford County Hospital were working flat out this morning when I went for one of my check-ups. I have two brief questions for the Minister, one of which follows on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, said, in a way. First, there was a reference in the Statement to the flu issue. I understand that our flu jabs have always been made in India, which will be more than occupied producing Covid vaccines for itself and others in the next few months, so where are the UK flu jabs for the forthcoming season later this year coming from? Secondly—if I cannot have an answer now, I would like a letter—who is responsible for maintaining and monitoring the shelf life of the PPE that we have?
My Lords, I join the noble Lord in commending the people who work at Macmillan and all the other important diagnostic centres that have remained committed to their work throughout Covid under extremely difficult circumstances, delivering hugely important healthcare services. The noble Lord is stretching my knowledge of vaccination with this question, but it is my understanding that most of our flu jabs are grown in eggs in East Anglia and we do not rely on Indian supplies for the flu jab. This may seem like an extraordinary fact, and I doubt it, even as I stand here at the Dispatch Box, but I would be glad to write to him to confirm the point.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s consultation on whether vaccines should be required for care staff working with older adults. To make this easier, could the Minister say what plans the Government have to ensure that care staff are paid for time spent being vaccinated, particularly if they have to come in when not on shift or have to take time off because of any short-term reaction to the jab? Also, are the Government prepared to support care homes financially to enable staff who cannot have the vaccine for clinical or other specified reasons to be redeployed to non-front-line work?
My Lords, the vaccine is typically seen as personal medical hygiene. I am not sure if arrangements have been made for people to be paid while they get vaccinated, but I would be glad to write to the noble Baroness to confirm that. She makes an extremely sensible point about redeployment; I do not know the precise details, but would be glad to write to her.
My Lords, one of the very few positives to come out of the pandemic is that the spotlight has shone on the superb life sciences sector in this country. For example, 47% of all global genomic sequencing is conducted in the UK. Could my noble friend the Minister elaborate on any future collaboration plans between the Government and the sector and how we intend to continue to grow our world-leading position in this space?
My noble friend is entirely right: life sciences is a huge national strength. It was a quiet industry that people did not speak of much; now it is centre stage. Post Brexit, the role of the MHRA, as one of the world’s leading regulators, is something of which we can be enormously proud as a country. It is also making a lot of businesses think that the UK should very much be the focus of their investment, going forward. BEIS and the DHSC are working together very closely, through the Office for Life Sciences, to ensure that the message is heard loud and clear, around the world, that Britain is the right place to invest.
My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister tell me what plans are in place to monitor the work being done to ensure that cities such as Leicester, which was in the longest lockdown ever, do not go backwards now that people are being vaccinated? How will they monitor that? Could my noble friend also tell me what is being done to encourage people into the social care sector? There is an enormous demand for care workers, and yet we do not seem able to fill those gaps.
My noble friend is right: the people of Leicester have done a terrific job at getting the rate down. It was once 571 per 100,000, and on 15 April it was 74 per 100,000. This is a huge achievement, but I am afraid that behind that lie some concerns. Nationally, we are at 26 per 100,000, but 23 local authorities have cases above 50, and Leicester is one of them. In some areas of the country, the virus is proving extremely resilient. That is partly due to the deprivation referred to by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and partly due to the cultural and practical habits of those involved. We are working really hard to try to address those knotty problems, and I welcome the civic engagement of all who live there.
My Lords, last week, the Prime Minister said that the lockdown has been doing
“the bulk of the work in reducing”—
—infections, then Simon Stevens said that
“'Vaccines are successfully reducing hospitalisations and deaths”.
Around the world, lockdowns are not being as successful as one might have imagined, so could my noble friend say whether it is the Government’s opinion that the reduction of deaths and serious cases is down to the lockdown or to the amazing success of vaccinations? Secondly, is what I read true—and it may be completely untrue—that the average age of death from Covid is higher than average life expectancy?
My noble friend is quite wrong if he is seeking to imply that there is any doubt about lockdowns working. Lockdowns work incredibly well because they put space between people. The science behind lockdowns is very simple and incontrovertible. That is the learning of the last year, and those who seek to cast doubt on it, time and again, session after session, do us no favours at all. We are at a moment in the cycle of the disease when the weight is being lifted by the lockdown and by the vaccine—it is somewhere between the two. I cannot call it, and Sir Simon Stevens and the Prime Minister cannot call it—it is somewhere between the two. But we should be in no doubt: if there is a variant of concern that makes landfall in the UK and threatens the success of the vaccine, we will be back in lockdown. We should be extremely careful to avoid that eventuality.
My Lords, I join the Minister in thanking all those involved in the vaccination programme. I was surprised that the Secretary of State in another place did not mention in his Statement the important topic of Covid passports. It is reported that Michael Gove, who is in charge of the Whitehall study into their use, is visiting Israel and is a big fan of its use of the “green pass” scheme for entry to venues including gyms, swimming pools, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and the like. Putting to one side whether such a system would be discriminatory, can the Minister explain whether it would include, as well as evidence of vaccination, recent proof of a test or of having had Covid recently? Also, does the vaccination, or recovery from Covid, nullify the chance of reinfection and therefore of becoming a vector?
My Lords, the Cabinet Office is reviewing whether Covid status certification could play a role in reopening our economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety. That work is under way. The noble Lord refers to the importance of social justice and civic rights, and he is entirely right to do so; those are exactly the kinds of issues that the Cabinet Office is weighing up. We need to look at everything that the technical toolkit can provide us with to fight this virus and any others that may emerge from the back of the bat cave. We are trying to avoid the kind of social, health and economic impacts that these 21st-century pandemics have on our country. Technology such as Covid certificates can provide an important defence mechanism.