Monday 17 May 2021
The Grand Committee met in a hybrid proceeding.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I shall immediately adjourn the Committee. The time limit for the first debate is one hour.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps and Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.
Relevant documents: 52nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Session 2019–21, and 48th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, Session 2019–21 (special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, we are here today to discuss the regulations allowing the move to step 2 of the coronavirus road map, a decision which not only allowed us to reclaim some normality in our lives but set the platform for today’s move to step 3. Getting to this point has taken remarkable perseverance and resolve; I am hugely grateful to everyone involved in getting us there. We are clearly not free of coronavirus yet and, while we have met the first four tests that have enabled the move to step 3, the disease still poses a clear and present threat.
The Prime Minister’s address last week clearly highlighted the threat from variants of concern and we must remain cautious and vigilant. We are putting in place measures to combat variants. The evidence so far suggests that the vaccine is effective. I am heartened to hear that teams deployed to Bolton over the weekend were well received and reported a positive atmosphere—a result of strong community engagement and an effective communications campaign conducted in the area. As the Prime Minister made clear on Friday, while we progress further along the road map today, we must continue to exercise caution and common sense because the choices we have to make in the coming days will have a profound effect on the road ahead.
It has been a year like no other but we are taking significant steps forward to regaining our freedom. It is this combination of the public’s dedication, our world-leading vaccine programme and the unrelenting hard work of our health and care workers that has allowed us cautiously to unlock the country.
The road map seeks a balance between our social and economic priorities and the need to save lives and avoid another surge in infections. The decisions to move to step 2 and 3 were both informed by the latest scientific evidence and based on the assessment that all four tests set out in the road map had been met.
The tests are as follows. First, the vaccine deployment must continue successfully. We continue to make great progress in vaccinating the most vulnerable, having offered a first dose to the nine priority cohorts, which included everyone aged over 50, front-line health and care staff, residents in care homes for the elderly and those deemed clinically vulnerable. As of 15 May, more than 36.5 million people have received their first dose of an approved vaccine and another 20.1 million have received their second dose. In total, a staggering 56.6 million Covid vaccine doses have now been administered in the UK.
On test 2, the evidence suggests that the vaccine continues to be effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths. Public Health England reports that the UK Covid-19 vaccination programme has so far prevented more than 12,000 deaths in those aged 60 and above. Furthermore, it is reported that 33,000 hospital admissions have been prevented in those aged 65 and older.
On test 3, we need to determine that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions, which could put undue pressure on the NHS. Currently, hospital admissions continue to fall and case rates among the over 60s are also declining. The NHS emergency alert level has been dropped from level 4 to level 3, mirroring how the NHS was operating in the summer of 2020.
On test 4, our assessment is that the risks have not fundamentally been changed by the variants of concern. We will continue to monitor variants closely as we ease restrictions and the Government will not hesitate to take firm action as necessary and where needed to protect lives and livelihoods. Having met these four tests on 12 April 2021, we were able to take the next cautious step in easing restrictions. Today we are debating this move to step 2, as set out in the regulations agreed by the House on 25 March. They were as follows.
The first was the reopening of non-essential retail, personal care and indoor leisure, including hairdressers and gyms, and additional outdoor settings, including the hospitality sector and attractions. Outdoor hospitality is no longer required to provide a substantial meal alongside the serving of alcohol, although there is the requirement for table service. As well as ordering via table service, if the venue sells alcohol, payment must be taken at the table or another outdoor location wherever possible. Further to this, the early closures imposed on pubs and restaurants were removed.
Step 2 also allowed the resumption of indoor childcare and supervised activities for children, provided they are not in private homes, and includes indoor sport, and parent and child groups of up to 15 people. It also allowed wedding ceremonies for up to 15 people, with wedding receptions permitted outdoors for up to 15 people in the form of a sit-down meal. This has changed again from today, with up to 30 people being able to attend weddings and other life events, and the capacity limit at funerals is removed. Furthermore, smaller outdoor events, such as fetes, literary fairs and fairgrounds can restart, as can the use of self-contained accommodation for single households or bubbles. Finally, social restrictions remain the same as those in place from 29 March, with the rule of six or two households allowed to mix outdoors only.
I thank the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for its crucial and tireless work in scrutinising all the secondary legislation that the Government bring forward, and I acknowledge the committee’s report on the wider steps regulations, which are amended by the regulations that we are debating today. I am pleased to say that we have already implemented responses to some of the issues the committee raises, through the regulations that we are debating today, and we have brought forward more amendments as part of the separate step 3 regulations.
It is unfortunate that there was a delay in debating these regulations. However, the content of each step received the prior approval of Parliament during the extensive debates on 25 March, and it was essential to bring these measures in quickly once it had been determined that the four tests had been met. As ever, no restrictions should be in place longer than is necessary, and it remains extremely important that decisions on the road map steps are informed by the latest evidence.
By way of closing, I just say this: as we journey through the road map we are making great progress but will maintain caution; we are not out of the woods yet. New variants are a risk—we remain in a global pandemic. Events in India show the heartbreaking and devastating impact this disease can cause. We must all remain vigilant; it is vital that people continue to follow the restrictions in place to minimise the risks to themselves and others—hands, face, space, fresh air and take up the offer of a vaccination as soon as it is offered.
We hope that the continued successes of the vaccination rollout, and our increased testing capabilities alongside falling infections and hospitalisations, will allow us to continue to lift restrictions. In light of the most recent data and advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, we have not only moved to steps 2 and 3 but the UK Chief Medical Officers and the NHS England national medical director were recently able to announce that the UK alert level should move from level 4 to level 3. This is another positive sign on the road to recovery. We must continue the cautious approach and be guided by the latest data and scientific evidence before moving to step 4. However, considering all that we have achieved to bring us to this point today, there is reason for cautious optimism. I commend these regulations to the House.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. The debate takes place as we take the next step out of lockdown, but it also comes as concern rises about the impact of the Indian variant. Getting the balance right between getting back to normal as soon as possible and understandable caution about the risk of opening up too soon will always be an incredibly difficult judgment. But the Government’s record of vacillation and delay over key decisions does not inspire confidence, and the delay in placing India on the red list is at least questionable, given the rate of Covid cases in that country at the beginning of April.
The SAGE meeting on 13 May pointed to the multiple fast-growing clusters of the B16172 variant, most noticeably in the north-west of England, with transmission faster than that of the B117 variant most prevalent in the UK. SAGE concluded that it is a “realistic possibility” that the Indian variant is
“as much as 50% more transmissible”
“In the areas where numbers of infections are increasing rapidly under the measures”
“in place, an even faster increase can be expected if measures are relaxed.”
Of course, today, they have been so relaxed. SAGE warned that if the Indian variant
“were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to B.1.1.7 … it is likely that progressing with step 3”—
which we are doing today—
“would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations.”
“Progressing with both steps 3 and 4 at the earliest dates could lead to a much larger peak.”
It is therefore legitimate to ask the Minister why, in view of that, we are going ahead with step 3 today. What factors will be taken into account in respect of a decision to go ahead with step 4? What will the Government use as metrics to decide whether tougher restrictions need to be imposed nationally or locally? As we will not know until mid-June at the earliest the full impact of step 3 on hospitalisations and deaths, does the Minister agree that decisions on further steps out of lockdown must be considered after this information becomes available?
SAGE also pointed out that
“increasing regional vaccination in areas where it is prevalent could dampen growth in infections”.
Why do the Government seem to have been so slow to respond to health bodies in the north-west which wanted them to approve an emergency vaccination programme? The Minister may have seen reports today that health officials in Bolton have fast-tracked vaccination to residents as young as 17. What is the Government’s view on that?
My Lords, these regulations were laid on 7 April. It is ironic that we are discussing them today, as we start moving to step 3. If they had been discussed earlier, the facts on 9 April might have been raised to help us keep all local areas safer. On 9 April, Bangladesh had the South African variant but not the Brazilian variant but was put on the travel red list. Pakistan had neither the South African nor the Brazilian variant on that day but was put on the red list. India had both the South African and Brazilian variants and the emerging Indian variant but was not put on the red list. On 9 April, cases per 100 million on a seven-day rolling average were 21 in Pakistan, which was put on the red list, and 43 in Bangladesh, which was put on the red list. India had 84 cases per million—four times as many as Pakistan—but was not put on the travel red list.
Why, with more cases per million and with both the Brazilian and South African variants present, and the emerging Indian variant, was India left off the red list on 9 April? If the Government had followed the data, it would have been put on the red list. However, the Government were following a date—24 April—so that the Prime Minister could go on a trade mission. Dates, not data, yet again, will cause problems for individuals, families and businesses. In the period between 9 April and putting India on the red list, 900 people a day entered the country—nearly 20,000 people. They could have been carrying the South African, Brazilian or new Indian variants.
One can only assume that this was yet another abject failure of government to act with speed and good judgment to secure the nation’s borders and keep people safer. When trade deal trips trump the public health and safety of individuals and businesses, you have to ask when a government Minister will take responsibility and resign. By not putting India on the red list and by following a date and not data, the Government have put businesses and individuals at risk of illness, death and bankruptcy. It is time now for an independent inquiry to learn lessons and to put in place secure border restrictions to ensure that people stay safe and what we see in Bolton is not replicated in any other community in this country.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his thorough introduction to these regulations. These amendments were necessary at the time, and therefore need approval, albeit retrospectively, as we go into step 3 of the journey. But journeys are rarely irreversible, and the road map may at some stage, at least in part, have to be reversed.
What analysis is being conducted of the effectiveness of the various regulations and restrictions so far? We cannot wait for the eventual inquiry to produce its results; we need to know now what has been effective and what has not.
Step 2 saw the opening of non-essential retail and gyms. Personally, I have always thought that gyms had to be a risk if the virus was around, but I would like to see some analysis of whether gyms have been responsible for carrying Covid. As the Minister knows, I really do not understand why non-essential retail could open and galleries and museums could not. Can we have some analysis of that? It would be useful, in case we have to return to level 2-type restrictions.
Can the Minister give us an indication of where the Government really stand on the importance of continuing to work from home if one can work from home? For instance, what guidance has been given to civil servants? It is important for our town centres that people return to the office. Are we really to wait until step 4 before that happens?
On travel, my understanding was that having an amber code for a lot of countries meant that those who wished to travel there and were prepared to quarantine on their return could do so. But we now hear the Foreign Secretary say that people should certainly not take holidays in amber-list countries. Understandably, the travel industry is unhappy about this and would like firm guidance on the Government’s position on foreign travel.
Finally, I read over the weekend that the Government are in talks with airport operators about how to deal with travellers coming in from red-list countries. Surely, at this stage, to be in talks with the authorities is fairly ridiculous. The stories from Heathrow about the intermingling of travellers are quite terrifying. Can the Minister give us some indication of when talks might turn into action?
The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
My Lords, nothing I shall say to the Minister is addressed personally to him; he is not in charge of this.
On 21 April, a devastating report was published by the Hansard Society and the Constitution Unit about the marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid. Although it was specific to the Commons, it applied to Parliament as a whole. Of the five ways in which powers have been undermined, I just want to deal with those in paragraph 2, headed “The erosion of parliamentary control: regulations”. It says:
“Over 400 Coronavirus-related Statutory Instruments … have been laid … All have been subject to little or no scrutiny, a situation described as ‘totally unsatisfactory’ by the Commons Speaker … An unusually high share of Covid SIs have been subject to the ‘made affirmative’ scrutiny procedure—meaning they became law before being scrutinised, and require only retrospective … approval”.
This is such an SI. The report continues:
“This mechanism, which severely undermines accountability, has been described as ‘addictive’”
by those who watch us. It goes on:
“The government’s casual approach to the scheduling of debates on SIs means they have often been in force for weeks before MPs could consider them … Frequent errors that need to be corrected, the lack of Impact Assessments, and discrepancies between law and guidance have all compounded scrutiny problems … for the wider public”.
This is such an SI, as it corrects errors in another: No. 364. As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, it was made at 10.30 am on 9 April, laid before Parliament at 1 pm on 9 April and was in law on 12 April. It was debated in the Commons on 26 April for 24 minutes. People would have been lonely in the room because, as far as I can see, only two people spoke. On 17 May, it was in the Lords.
The preamble to this SI is essentially a two-fingered salute to Parliament. It is about time the Commons got off its knees, and the Lords should encourage it to do so. I shall develop this theme further on Thursday in the debate on Covid and the Lords.
My Lords, it is of great concern that we are moving today not to step 2 but to step 3 of the road map, while the more transmissible Indian variant is spreading—Professor Whitty expects it to become predominant in the UK. I make no apology for repeating the concerns of other noble Lords. While the vaccine will provide a high level of protection to those who have received it, unvaccinated people could now be at high risk of serious disease and the NHS again of being overwhelmed.
The Prime Minister finally put India on the red list on 19 April, a few days before he was due to fly to India to discuss the trade deal he so desperately needed after Brexit. Many commentators believe the two facts are linked. Will the Minister give a clear answer to the following questions about India?
Why was India not put on the red list on 2 April, at the point when it had the same level of incidence as Pakistan and Bangladesh? By 9 April, cases in India were four times higher than in Pakistan, yet the Government waited another 10 days to act. During those three weeks’ delay, around 20,000 people came here from amber-listed India. Do the Government know whether they all quarantined for 10 days, as required, and had the necessary tests?
When red-list powers were announced in mid-February, the Government said they could be implemented in hours. Why, then, did they wait four days before implementation, allowing 900 people per day to come in from India without red-list restrictions? Why, when travellers arrived from India, were they forced to mingle at immigration with hundreds of people coming in on flights from other countries? Why have the Government not insisted on dedicated arrival facilities for passengers arriving from red-list countries? What support is being given to those people arriving from India who find it difficult to quarantine?
Why have the Government not learned that the characteristics of variants of concern are not the only reason to put countries on the red list? The cases in India had been rising exponentially for weeks before 19 April. There were more than 100,000 cases a day in India on 5 April, and the cemeteries were overflowing. Why did the Government not act when that level of cases was being reported?
The BMA and several scientists are seriously concerned about the further lifting of restrictions while this highly transmissible variant is spreading. It is one of the Government’s own tests. In Scotland, the First Minister has postponed the easing of restrictions in the south of Glasgow and in Moray, where cases of the Indian variant are growing. Will the UK Government do the same?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who has made some extremely important points. I thank my noble friend for setting out the purport of these regulations, applaud his work ethic and say that what I shall say, just as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, is no personal reflection on him.
These regulations are part of the road map setting the way out of lockdown, which I support; the approach is correct. I would like some reassurance from my noble friend. As we are out of the eye of the hurricane, it is about time we saw these regulations in advance of them becoming law. We are looking at these some 37 days after they became effective. Frankly, it is just not good enough. It is about time that we started to see these ahead of their becoming law rather than in the rear-view mirror, as has become the case. There may have been a time when that was justifiable, but that time has now passed.
I will take my noble friend up on some of what he said about the Indian variant. I am sure that we will look at this whole issue of why action seemed slow in relation to India when it was not so slow in relation to Pakistan and Bangladesh. It seems strange. Are flights still arriving from India in any way, as I have heard is the case? That might not be true. Could my noble friend also provide some reassurance about our border controls, which seem all too porous? People from countries where there is a known risk mingling with other travellers when they arrive is, frankly, amazing and needs to be stopped forthwith. I cannot understand why that is happening.
My noble friend the Minister spoke about action at the weekend in Bolton, which I certainly welcome. Could he tell us whether similar action has been taken elsewhere, in other communities where there is clearly a threat from this variant, such as Blackburn, Bedford and so on? Could he indicate where that is the case? If he is unable to provide a detailed list—there might be many areas that this applies to—perhaps he could undertake to write and put a copy in the Library.
In short, while the vaccine programme has been highly successful and the Government certainly deserve praise for it, it is not the sum total of what is happening. We have to look at the whole position. The position at our borders is worrying. The Minister himself said that one of the four tests, quite rightly, is whether there are variants of concern. He said that this test was being satisfied. He said later in his speech that new variants are a risk. Frankly, one of those statements has to be right; I suspect it is the latter. I would welcome the Minister taking that point up as well. I have these concerns and look forward to hearing from my noble friend on these points.
My Lords, as has been said, even by recent standards the timing of this debate is particularly ironic. On the very day that we move to step 3 of the easing of lockdown restrictions, here we are debating the move to step 2, which happened five weeks ago. To make matters worse, given the much more transmissible Indian variant, which the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the weekend could “spread like wildfire”, this easing now feels fraught with risk. I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, just said about the need for us to scrutinise regulations in advance.
The Indian variant has caused great anxiety in recent days. For many people it feels as if, just when the sunlit uplands were coming into view, they are being snatched away by a new variant when more efforts could and should have been taken to avoid it. The Sunday Times reported this weekend that at least 20,000 passengers who could have been infected with the new variant were allowed to enter the UK because the Prime Minister delayed imposing a travel ban from India. I add my voice to those of other noble Lords asking whether the Minister can explain why India was added to the red list only on 23 April, three weeks after the announcement of a ban on flights from Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of which had lower case rates than India.
The combination of moving up the steps and the Indian variant makes having an effective test, trace, isolate and support system ever more critical. I place particular emphasis on the last two words—isolate and support—which is where things are still breaking down. The major problem reported by local resilience forums is that people are still not self-isolating and will not until they get their income paid. It is those on zero-hours contracts, those doing jobs that you cannot do from home and families living in multigenerational households who need the support most. People do not want vouchers; they want their earnings reimbursed. Reimbursing earnings is substantially cheaper than running the test and trace functions and, if a serious case of Covid occurs, the cost to the NHS.
I end by asking what planning is under way for a third wave, especially for paediatric care, given that as more adults are vaccinated it is possible that a variant may affect much younger children than in previous waves. Both the USA and Canada are reporting much higher cases in children than before and are starting to vaccinate children in the 12 to 15 age range. What plans are being developed for vaccinating children in this country?
My Lords, today signals a historic move in the Government’s approach to tackling the Covid-19 epidemic—a significant move away from detailed government regulation and restrictions; a return to personal responsibility; a renewed emphasis on individual choice; and an “up to you to decide” policy rather than the Government legislating over the intricate details of every aspect of social behaviour. While this is welcome to the population at large, to government and, in particular, to the libertarian instincts of many politicians—not least the Prime Minister—it raises a number of important questions for government.
Having decided to go ahead with a move to phase 3, the Government are in practice demonstrating their belief, driven by the evidence, that vaccination levels have now reached the point where we have decoupled the number of people in our country being infected with Covid-19, in particular variant B1617, from those who would require hospitalisation or become ill with long Covid, leaving those who, if infected, will have increased resistance and can be treated at home with improved medication to counter the illness. If the Government are absolutely satisfied that, yes, we have reached that point, we are right to take our foot off the restrictions and move to an era of personal responsibility. If not, this is the most serious risk the Government will have taken during the epidemic, and the scientific evidence they rely on will rapidly lose public confidence.
On the one hand, the evidence is strong that the time is right for phase 3. Since the winter peak, we have seen a reduction of 96% in those requiring hospitalisation. With test and trace, free lateral flow tests now available and improved medication, many will agree with the Government that the time is right. Yet, with variant B1617 potentially 40% to 50% more transmissible than the UK variant, step 3 could lead to a large resurgence of cases. Many scientists are arguing that we need more time to assess the impact this surge is having on transmissibility, infection and severity of illness.
However, my major concern today, shared by my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft and others, continues to be the transport policies: international travel and the mixed messages regarding holidays and business visits; the traffic light system; the time allowed for a massive influx of people from countries signalled to face future restrictions just days before they come into effect; and inadequate border control measures when they fly here. It is not surprising to learn that the mayor has today indicated that in London there were some 400 recent cases of the Indian variant, of which 100 were associated with travel.
I call on the Government to provide clearer and more effective travel policies, to review the policies they have set and to continue with clear restrictions on international travel. The weakest element of our overall policy since the first lockdown has been our travel policy. For all my strong support of the vaccination policy and the work the Government and my noble friend the Minister have done, especially this year, our policies on transport have been unclear, often poorly timed and, frankly, ineffective. We have encouraged tens of thousands of people back to this country on crowded flights after announcing impending travel bans.
My Lords, once again we meet to approve a statutory instrument that has already come into effect. As others have said, it relates to the easing of lockdown by moving from step 1 to step 2 on 12 April, but is being discussed in your Lordships’ House on the day England moves to step 3. Irony is not dead.
Can the Minister explain why the travel regulations, a 92-page document, were replaced and published last Friday evening to come into force today? We also had the amendment to shift us into step 3 published only on Saturday morning. Why was this done so last minute? The Prime Minister confirmed the move days before, and the amendment could have been ready to go. We say again: this is not a way to make the law or for Parliament to scrutinise it. On these Benches we have been asking for more than a year why there is not more planning about the publication and presentation to Parliament of these SIs.
I also note that the steps legislation is due to expire on 30 June. I ask the Minister now: what arrangements will be put in place in the event that the Government have to extend these regulations in light of the Indian variant beyond the end of June? With all the Minister’s rightful warnings about having to take action if needed, surely this is a clear case of being able to plan, publish and debate it earlier. I also ask the Minister about the following comments from the JSCI:
“The preamble to these Regulations contains a statutory proportionality statement in respect of the Steps Regulations but not in respect of the Enforcement Regulations.”
The department responded
“that no statement is required for the amendment of the Enforcement Regulations made by regulation 3, because it does not impose a restriction or requirement under section 45C(3)(c). The Committee believes there are arguments either way … the Committee notes the Department’s approach and accordingly reports regulation 3 for requiring elucidation, provided in the Department’s memorandum.”
Can the Minister comment and tell us when that elucidation will be available?
My noble friends Lady Tyler of Enfield, Lady Walmsley and Lord Scriven all asked why the Government have been so slow to add India to the red list. On these Benches we have raised the importance of controlling our borders effectively, first in January and February 2020, in relation to why the UK did not follow World Health Organization advice and enforce quarantine from countries with Covid. We saw the consequences of that with Covid coming in and spreading fast in our communities, causing the first lockdown. So, with a year’s experience, why did the Government not add India to the red list on 2 April when Pakistan and Bangladesh were added? Was it anything to do with the Prime Minister hoping to go to India and then having to cancel his trip at the very last minute? And why do we hear today on Radio 4’s “The World at One” that there is still no guidance for airports on passenger separation once landed and while queuing to go through the checks?
Tim Hawkins from the Manchester Airports Group said that it was still awaiting government guidance. He said that it would expect to put red-list countries into a separate process but there is an element of mixing at certain points at the moment. Last week we heard that Border Force was instructing people to get used to long queues as there would not be extra staff at the passport and Covid check desks. This is intolerable; because of government inertia, there is no guidance, no extra border staff, and people arriving from red list countries are still mixing with those from amber and green countries. That includes up to four flights a day from India into the UK. If the Indian variant is 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant, we risk rapid spread beyond those coming in from those red-list countries. Quarantining and self-isolation are vital to effective management of transmission and what the Prime Minister has called whack-a-mole.
Directors of public health and scientists from SAGE and alternative SAGE continue to ask for better support for people having to self-isolate. In particular, we on these Benches ask the Government to pay the earnings of those self-isolating, as happens in a number of other countries that achieve a much higher success rate of self-isolation. Local authorities report that the administration of the £500 grant has been so rule-bound it is almost impossible for people to claim it. That is not good enough, especially when the vast majority of people who really need it—who need to pay the rent and put food on the table—cannot manage 10 days without their regular pay cheque.
Finally, while it is encouraging to hear that tracing is now primarily in the hands of the experts in local resilience forums, can the Minister assure the Committee that they are being given explicit extra funding to be able to carry this out? Their roles are vital in controlling Covid because without effective test and trace, isolation and quarantining, this Government’s actions will not keep people safe.
It is regrettable, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said with a certain amount of robustness, that yet again the House is being asked to retrospectively approve significant legislation that impacts on individual liberty, well-being and livelihoods, five whole weeks after it came into effect and after it was further amended, on the day when a new lifting of restrictions is taking place—I suppose we will get to discuss that some time in the next month.
The regulations state that
“the Secretary of State is of the opinion that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make this instrument without a draft having been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House”.
Nothing in the regulations or in what has been said by the Minister today justifies using the emergency procedure to introduce previously announced policy changes at the 11th hour. We are now well over a year into the pandemic and, while we encourage the Government to be proactive and driven by data, that does not prevent or exempt them from following parliamentary procedures. The Minister will be familiar with this repeated complaint.
The countrywide road map for lockdown lifting announced on 22 February advised that England would enter stage 2 on or after 12 April. This date was confirmed at a government press conference on 5 April, yet these regulations were not laid before Parliament until 9 April, coming into force three days later. While that is definitely an improvement on the three hours’ notice that we have had for some regulations in the past, there is simply no excuse for the Government’s continuing indifference to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.
We have so many errors in the regulations given to us; that is another reason why they need to be subject to proper scrutiny before they become law. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, alongside the stage 2 easements the instrument also makes
“minor drafting changes to remove superfluous wording and to amend references”
in the original steps regulation. I am not sure that these are minor. The Minister will be aware that the JCSI report raised a number of serious concerns about these regulations: first, because of their unusual or unexpected use of enabling powers; secondly, because of defective drafting; thirdly, because they required elucidation; and, fourthly, because they failed to comply with proper legislative practice. Frankly, you would have thought that after a year the Government would have got used to all this, that they would be experts and certainly that they would not be making mistakes in the drafting of legislation.
That is quite a sad list of failures for one statutory instrument whose purpose is to see us safely opening society following lockdown. In one instance, the regulations are so unclear that the Joint Committee said that the law being laid down was unsatisfactory in terms of the rule of law. If a committee of legislative experts is unsure what is or is not meant by certain regulations and does not believe that they give sufficient certainty and clarity, how will the rest of us fare, and how can an average person expect to understand them? This is deeply unfair on those required to enforce the rules and on the businesses grappling to comply so that they can safely resume trading. I fully expect the Government’s use—or misuse—of the emergency procedure and the impact of defective drafting to be covered by the inquiry, but I sincerely hope that the Government will get a grip on this now, especially given the continued threat posed by new variants and the risk of a third wave, which many noble Lords mentioned.
Noble Lords will be well aware that the steps regulations have been further amended, with provisions to move England into stage 3 coming into force today. It is therefore important that the Minister addresses those changes, especially given the growing concern about the B16172 Indian variant in the UK and calls from leading experts to postpone the planned easements. I will not repeat the information given by other noble Lords, because that has been very well covered. However, can the Minister confirm how many people to date have been hospitalised with the Indian variant of concern and how many of those had been partially or fully vaccinated? Over the weekend, the Health Secretary suggested that many coronavirus in-patients in Bolton had not been vaccinated, despite being eligible. I would like the Minister to address how that is being tackled. He has already mentioned that, and I know that my honourable friend Yasmin Qureshi, the MP in Bolton, has been very active on this. Surge vaccinations have been introduced in many hot-spot areas, with some bringing forward second doses and others extending eligibility to younger age groups. Can the Minister confirm whether that is happening and what is the JCVI’s position on this?
It is clear that it was a mistake to delay adding India to the travel list and not to implement a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy. This morning, the Health Secretary, Mr Hancock, said that people should not travel to amber countries except for essential reasons and “certainly not” for a holiday, because of the risk of coronavirus. This is not what the regulations state. The Minister needs to confirm whether the regulations will be updated to reflect the Health Secretary’s comments or whether this is yet another case of the Government’s mixed messaging.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful, at times passionate, but at all moments detailed and challenging points. Rather than dwell on the regulations themselves, I will address the three key themes that have been raised in this important debate.
The first theme I will address is that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and others on the presentation of the regulations themselves. I completely acknowledge the specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I fully acknowledge the power of scrutiny, the consideration that noble Lords give to legislation and the benefits of that scrutiny, but I do not accept the implication of the noble Lord’s comments that there has in some way been a grand injustice or that these regulations have in any way undermined the power of the policy behind them.
I gently remind noble Lords of the immense complexity of the policy we are trying to apply in these regulations. They are extremely legally delicate and subject to judicial review. It is therefore quite reasonable that legal colleagues wish to spend as long as they possibly can getting them right. The environment in which they are drafted has been fast changing, as this debate has very clearly illustrated. They often require a very large amount of cross-government consensus and collaboration, which in itself brings in delays and a certain amount of complexity.
Given all those considerations, I pay tribute to the officials, the clerks and the legal support, who have done a heroic job tabling these regulations. It is of course up to the House of Lords itself to determine the sequencing of House business. I am afraid it is above my pay grade to comment on that, but when the inquest is finally done I think that the regulations will be a huge testimony to the thoughtfulness and effectiveness of our democratic processes. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that the regulations are tweaked at the last minute to accommodate the changes in the situation we face. That is why they are sometimes laid at the last minute. I remind noble Lords that the House of Lords Constitution Committee is looking at processes around emergency legislation. My noble friend Lord True and I have given evidence to that committee. I very much look forward to its recommendations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, asked about learning on the job, as it were, and what we are putting in place today for our future pandemic preparedness and to prepare for any potential third wave. I assure her, my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that we are doing a huge amount to put in place new systems, institutions and practices. The launches of the UK Health Security Agency and the office of health promotion have been brought forward to ensure that we have the institutional resilience to meet any future pandemics, and to bring the learnings from the handling of this epidemic in real time. They are already making huge strides in the institution-building and management systems necessary to upgrade our arrangements.
The investment in diagnostics is remarkable. Last week, I visited Leamington Spa, where I stood by a machine that could do 13,000 tests in one go. It reminded me of the days last March when we were struggling to do 1,300 tests in a day. In terms of our outbreak management, we have learned a huge amount from the success of Project Eagle in containing both the South African and Manaus variants, although the escape of the Indian variant demonstrates how a highly transmissible variant is something that even the best systems cannot fight.
To the noble Lord who asked about the stay-at-home protocols, I clarify that the guidance as of today is that people should continue to work from home wherever possible, but we look forward to a moment when we can have a general return to the offices.
We are looking at ways of dealing with new variants by potentially introducing booster shots in the autumn, introducing VoC vaccines through other providers and investing in therapeutics and antivirals. A huge amount of work is going into every level of our pandemic preparedness.
Let me tackle head-on the key issue of the India variant and our travel arrangements, which several noble Lords raised. On 8 April, we had the benefit of more surveillance, more genomic sequencing and more analysis of the infection rates in the UK than any other country. It is easy to imagine that all that data, which is so impressive to look at in retrospect, somehow gave a clear projection of what was going to happen, but at that date the India 2 variant with which we have now become so familiar had not been ascribed as a variant of concern. There were in fact three variants in India, all of which were competing with each other, none of which we had here in the UK—we therefore could not analyse them hands-on—and the anecdotal evidence from India was extremely unclear, whereas we had a lot more information on the presence of the South Africa and Manaus variants in the other neighbouring countries.
At that time, it was right that we invested in our red-list capacity, and I pay huge tribute to the officials managing the managed quarantine system, the airports and transport partners running an extremely efficient travel system, and the hotel and transport partners doing so much to ensure that the system for both red and amber-list countries is as good as possible. The red-list system has been an incredibly impressive mechanism for containing variant spread. It has grown dramatically since launch to contain a very large number of travellers each day. No other similar country has quite such an effective system in place. It continues to be an effective way in which we can maintain flights in and out of the country—something we are extremely reluctant to turn our backs on.
On ongoing travel, to clarify for my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, it was not legal to travel until step 3 was brought in. It is now lawful, but it is not advised. Whatever was heard on the radio this morning, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that we are not in talks with airport operators—we have been in daily contact for many months, running a complex and detailed managed quarantine scheme, and I pay enormous tribute to both Heathrow and the Border Force for the incredibly impressive arrangements that they have in place. I say to my noble friend Lord Bourne that, yes, there are still direct flights to India and Pakistan. It is actually better to channel passengers from those countries in direct flights to avoid what has become known as the Maldives hop and to avoid mingling wherever possible.
My noble friend Lord Bourne asked about the VoC map, which is available on the department and the Sanger institute websites, and I would be glad to send a map.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I pay enormous tribute to those in Bolton who have done an enormous amount to upgrade the vaccination of local people there. I remind her that the priority is still very much to get the most vulnerable vaccinated—those who are older or with pre-existing morbidities. That is more important than getting young people, who are relatively low-risk with regard to the virus. The priority is to get those who have had a first jab and convert them into having a second jab, because it has emerged that, with the Indian variant, the second jab is all the more significant.
In conclusion, the good news is that the vaccine does seem to work. The Indian variant is highly transmissible, but the vaccine is protection for all people against severe illness and death. We should give thanks for that, but we are not counting our chickens quite yet and we remain extremely diligent and determined to contain any other variants that may come along. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering, except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Cash Searches: Code of Practice) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, in moving this order, I shall also speak to the following draft instruments: the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Search, Seizure and Detention of Property: Code of Practice) Order; the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Cash Searches: Code of Practice) Order; the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Recovery of Listed Assets: Code of Practice) Regulations; the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Investigations: Code of Practice) Order; and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Investigative Powers of Prosecutors: Code of Practice) Order 2021.
The Government are taking wide-ranging action to crack down on crime and make our communities safer. One important part of that mission is our drive to stay one step ahead of criminals seeking to move, hide or use the proceeds of their illegal activities, and seeking to frustrate attempts by law enforcement agencies to recover them. The Criminal Finances Act 2017 was introduced to amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and significantly improve the UK’s ability to effectively trace and recover the proceeds of crime. The Criminal Finances Act has not been fully commenced in Northern Ireland. The reserved aspects of that Act—the counterterrorist financing and tax evasion provisions—were commenced, but the devolved provisions, primarily those pertaining to asset recovery, are outstanding.
Noble Lords may recall that the Assembly was dissolved during the passage of the Criminal Finances Bill, meaning that it was not possible to secure a legislative consent Motion. It was decided that the devolved provisions should remain in the Bill. At that time, we signalled our commitment to the central principles of the Sewel convention by openly stating before Parliament that we would not commence provisions on matters devolved to Northern Ireland without the appropriate consents having been obtained. Following the reconstitution of the Assembly, and in the absence of a mechanism to seek legislative consent in retrospect, the Justice Minister agreed that the outstanding powers should be commenced and—after engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive Committee and the Justice Committee and advising all Northern Ireland Assembly Members—asked the Home Secretary to commence the relevant provisions. We plan to commence the powers on 28 June this year.
I am pleased to introduce the draft instruments that we are debating, which form part of the package of legislation required to complete commencement. These draft instruments will each bring one of five distinct codes of practice into force. Each of the five codes of practice has been revised to reflect the extension of Criminal Finances Act powers to Northern Ireland. Some further minor amendments have also been made for clarity.
The first draft instrument brings into force a code of practice providing guidance for UK-wide agencies exercising reserved functions in Northern Ireland. That code governs powers of search, seizure and detention of property located in Northern Ireland to preserve it for confiscation. While it applies only to Northern Ireland, the code is issued by the Home Secretary because it relates to reserved bodies and their functions in Northern Ireland.
The four remaining instruments before the Committee bring into force revised codes of practice to provide guidance on search powers for recovering cash, powers to search personal assets, and investigatory powers. Three of the four remaining codes are issued by the Home Secretary and one is issued by the Attorney-General and Advocate-General for Northern Ireland specifically to provide guidance to prosecutors in the exercise of investigation powers.
The new powers that give rise to the revised codes of practice were debated extensively by both Houses during the passage of the Criminal Finances Bill. They are: the extension of various powers to officers of the Serious Fraud Office; a change to the definition of cash for the purposes of cash seizure and forfeiture powers to include gaming vouchers, fixed-value casino tokens and betting slips; the creation of new powers to seize, detain and forfeit certain personal assets; a broadening of the use of disclosure orders, which may now be sought in support of a money laundering investigation; and the introduction of unexplained wealth orders, which require certain persons to explain the origin and legitimacy of any assets that appear disproportionate to their known income.
Codes of practice must be revised, or new ones brought into force, when certain changes are made to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That Act mandates that the Secretary of State must publish a draft, consider any representations made and modify the draft in the light of such representations, prior to laying revised codes. The draft codes of practice we are debating were subject to a nine-week public consultation spanning from the end of last year to the beginning of this year. Information on the consultation can be found in the Explanatory Memoranda that accompany the statutory instruments. Additional codes of practice have also been publicly consulted on and revised by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice.
To be clear, this debate does not concern the powers themselves. Rather, we are here to debate the codes that provide guidance about the use of those powers. The revisions that the Home Office and Attorney-General’s Office have made to the codes are technical and minor. The draft codes of practice largely replicate the published versions, as debated and approved by both Houses in 2017 and 2018.
The Proceeds of Crime Act and its subsequent amending legislation are complex. The codes of practice are therefore required to aid law enforcement officers’ understanding of the appropriate and proportionate way to utilise their powers. Additional record-keeping requirements imposed by the codes ensure that the public and judiciary can scrutinise the circumstances in which the powers are used, or are intended for use.
Certain powers governed by these codes of practice are intrusive; they may involve significant interference with individuals’ rights to privacy and peaceful enjoyment of their property. That is not to say they are not justified, but it is clearly right that we provide guidance on the exercise of those powers to safeguard against improper use. The codes of practice achieve this not only by clarifying the circumstances in which the powers may be exercised but by ensuring a consistent application of those powers. That is of vital importance given the broad range of law enforcement agencies to which the powers apply. When new powers are introduced the codes must be revised and scrutinised to ensure that the safeguards within are up to date. That is what these draft instruments and these debates provide.
These five draft instruments are necessary to deliver the Government’s objective to bring outstanding provisions of the Criminal Finances Act 2017 into force in Northern Ireland. We are determined to use every possible tool to trace and recover the proceeds of crime. The draft codes that we are debating ensure that those powers are used effectively, not only to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains but to help prevent further offending, therefore supporting our efforts to protect the public. I commend the instruments to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these instruments, which stem from the Criminal Finances Act. The Minister will no doubt recall that I spent a fair bit of time trying to encourage more and faster steps during the passage of that Act. However, today’s instruments relate to the codes of practice for enforcement, and I wish to speak around that more generally rather than on the particular extension to Northern Ireland.
The codes are important because they give guidance on how officers exercise their functions, and are of interest to persons who may be the subject of the powers. While I have little sympathy for wrongdoers, functions must be exercised lawfully and proportionately. There may also be parties inadvertently dragged into scope. I therefore have no quarrel with the content of these instruments as such, but there are surrounding matters of interest and I am taking the opportunity of the time available for this debate to see whether the Minister can provide some more information.
My first point is that the code of practice will be of use only if it is backed up with a proper and robust training package by the NCA’s Proceeds of Crime Centre. The Home Office’s Asset Recovery Action Plan of July 2019 stated that the Government would conduct an independent review of the Proceeds of Crime Centre by March 2020. Earlier this month, the Government released a statement of progress on the economic crime plan, which states that this review has been completed and its recommendations are being implemented. The fact of that follow-up is good, one supposes, but the review has not actually been published and requests for its release under the Freedom of Information Act have been rejected. Therefore, it is not possible to know what the recommendations from the review that are being implemented are, what the background to those recommendations is or how effective they will be, because the information is not published. Given the centrality of the Proceeds of Crime Centre to ensuring effective training on the code of practice, will the Government make public that review and put a copy in the House of Lords Library? If that is not being done, can the Minister explain why not and what other information is available to Parliament?
My second point relates to the first: these powers will also be effective only if the UK has properly resourced financial investigators and law enforcement to investigate and prosecute for proceeds of crime. Again, there is an unpublished review, in Sir Craig Mackey’s independent review into law enforcement capabilities for tackling serious and organised crime and the cost of implementing the 2018 serious and organised crime strategy. The Government published the executive summary of Sir Craig’s review in March 2021, but that summary does not cover one of the key areas of the review’s terms of reference: the funding for law enforcement to tackle serious and organised crime. That is despite the fact that the review was specifically commissioned in 2019 in the context of the comprehensive spending review. Again, requests for the report or a summary of its recommendations on those matters to be released under the Freedom of Information Act have been rejected.
The Government have committed in their economic crime plan to develop a sustainable long-term resourcing model for economic crime reform. As part of that they have announced that they will introduce an economic crime levy, which they expect to bring in £100 million per year. The consultation closed in October last year and we are still waiting for its results. They have also made a one-year £63 million settlement with the Home Office to tackle economic crime, but the director-general of the NCA said in 2019 that the UK needed a £2.7 billion investment over three years in tackling serious and organised crime, which was estimated to cost the UK at least £37 billion a year. Without serious funding, these codes of practice will surely be used a lot less than they might be.
Will the full review be published? If not, why not? What further information will be given to Parliament? Without publication of the reviews, one is left to postulate that the content is embarrassing, but right now the embarrassment is in the extent of organised crime, and that ultimately it falls as a cost on society and the individual, yet the numbers indicate it should be possible to recover far more.
Finally, the code of practice lays out how law enforcement can use unexplained wealth orders, among other investigative tools. However, recent case law, the Baker judgment, has exposed significant gaps in the legislation for implementing unexplained wealth orders and exposed how, without greater protection against costs, law enforcers are unlikely to use these tools against wealthy, litigious kleptocrats, if at all. It has been suggested that there might be additional reforms, such as allowing production orders to be used before an account freezing order needs to be made. Is that reform something that the Government intend to pursue?
The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Dodds.
My Lords, I begin by saying that I fully support the SIs that the Minister is proposing. I welcome her detailed explanation of the purpose of the regulations and that they will allow the full commencement of the Criminal Finances Act provisions in Northern Ireland at long last. This will unlock better outcomes against organised criminality, protect our economy and reduce harm in those communities that are particularly affected by organised crime gangs and paramilitarism, which has bedevilled many communities in the area that I had the great privilege to represent for many years in north Belfast.
The Criminal Finances Bill, as the Minister said, received Royal Assent back in April 2017 and has been fully commenced in England, Scotland and Wales. The fact that it has not been fully operational—the reserved matters have been, but the devolved issues have been disrupted and delayed by the previous suspension of devolution—is a matter of deep regret. We certainly saw the fall of this legislation, which proceeded in the other parts of the United Kingdom, as a major disadvantage to the collapse of devolution. It has led to a disparity in powers available to authorities in other regions of the United Kingdom in the fight against serious organised crime—and my goodness we need it in Northern Ireland perhaps more than anywhere else.
The Justice Minister in Northern Ireland has rightly said that she wants to see this introduced as quickly as possible, and there have been widespread calls, including from Members of the Assembly, for the commencement of the powers, particularly in relation to the new unexplained wealth order, account freezing and forfeiture provisions. We do not want Northern Ireland to have a weaker regime than other UK jurisdictions. It is therefore welcome news that these SIs have been laid.
It has been frustrating, as I say, but I hope that we can now look forward to the forces of law and order and the NCA having all the tools at their disposal to tackle organised crime gangs. As the Minister said, this will not just deal with those who have been directly engaged already but act as a severe deterrent to others. When I was an elected representative for north Belfast, time and again residents would ask me, “How is it that so-and-so around the corner is driving an extremely fancy car and is able to go on foreign holidays? We’re all here looking at this, we know what’s going on and the police seem powerless to act.” It was a severe problem and still is today.
The unexplained wealth orders in particular are extremely welcome and will go a long way to tackling paramilitarism and organised crime. When people do not see clear action taken in the face of obvious wrongdoing, it erodes confidence in law enforcement agencies’ ability to deal effectively with the problem. I hope that this will really give the police and others the tools they need.
There was a recent documentary on Northern Ireland television—I do not know whether it was shown on the mainland as well—about the Northern Bank robbery, one of the biggest bank robberies in the history of the UK, when £26 million was stolen by the Provisional IRA back in December 2004. Many millions of that money are still unaccounted for. People have been searching out how it has been used to finance all sorts of nefarious activity. It would be really good if some of these powers were used to track down that money and seize some of those assets from those who should not have them and are using them for nefarious purposes.
The extension of the National Crime Agency to Northern Ireland was, of course, resisted in the usual quarters, but it is playing a vital role in disrupting and dismantling organised criminality in our Province. Increasingly, protocols have been agreed with the PSNI to focus the National Crime Agency on major-impact disruption, and it is important that this does not lead to a diminution of activity towards smaller groups, particularly where the criminal finance element does not meet the threshold for some of the powers afforded by today’s code.
I believe that there is scope for the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland to examine the potential for a new assets-recovery agency, in line with the recommendations of the Independent Reporting Commission and the Policing Board, to better capture the economic harm and proceeds of crime held by paramilitaries. There is a need to continue to focus all the time on how we can increase the effectiveness and targeting of tools to enhance outcomes against these groups. If we cut off their finance, we will go a long way to putting them out of business. It is one of the greatest priorities we have in Northern Ireland. Make no mistake: some of these groups are still very active as crime gangs and drug gangs across Northern Ireland. I welcome the Northern Ireland Justice Minister’s intention to establish new offences of participating in and directing organised crime, as well as aggravated offences.
I very much welcome this very positive step forward. It is overdue, but at least come June we will be at the point where these powers are available in Northern Ireland. That is very good news indeed for the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the explanation of these instruments, all of which are important in the fight against crime and criminality, and to ensure that the ill-gotten gains from crime do not fuel further levels of criminality in our society. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, I welcome these prescribed codes because they will enable the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland and those involved in tackling crime and criminality, such as the National Crime Agency, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Assets Recovery Agency, which was subsumed into SOCA, to do their job more effectively. We are fed up of seeing these criminal gangs feeding off their ill-gotten gains at the expense, in many instances, of deeply marginalised and vulnerable communities, particularly in urban areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to one of the greatest acts of criminality—the Northern Bank robbery, about which there was a documentary and a BBC Sounds drama in recent weeks. Two of the people abducted lived quite near me, and were my constituents when I was a Member of the other place and of the Northern Ireland Assembly. They vividly told me what happened to them on that night, when they were imprisoned in their own homes and the husband was taken away to the Northern Bank to participate in the robbery of his own place of employment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, I agree that these new codes of practice should be used to find out how and why that money was stolen, where it is being used, how it has been disbursed and in what ways it is strangulating our society in Northern Ireland.
All these instruments are very important for the recovery of cash obtained under illegal circumstances. I have already referred to Northern Ireland; that is my starting point and, I suppose, my end point. I note that the revised code is required due to the commencement of outstanding provisions in the Criminal Finances Act 2017 in Northern Ireland, which grants additional powers to law enforcement and prosecution agencies that are already available in England, Scotland and Wales. All these codes have been amended to reflect the commencement of new powers in Northern Ireland. The Minister for Justice has been looking for these enhanced powers, which could not have been enacted earlier because of the lack of functioning political structures in Northern Ireland for three years. Thankfully, those were reinstated in January last year with the launch of New Decade, New Approach.
While I support and underline the importance of these prescribed codes, I would like the Minister’s reassurances that they were subject to an equality impact assessment. If not, why not? Are they human rights compliant? As others have mentioned, it is important that the prescribed codes themselves, in their guidance and in the powers, are proportionate and that they reflect good human rights practices. I am also in absolutely no doubt that many communities in Northern Ireland, particularly in urban areas but also in rural areas, have been left in a perilous state because of the actions of paramilitaries and gangsters who have tried to escape these rules in order to pursue and perpetuate their ill-gotten gains. That, I believe, must be stopped.
The National Crime Agency and the Assets Recovery Agency have important powers that need to be used proportionately and assertively. The Serious Organised Crime Agency concentrated on international crime, which was and is important, but it changed the threshold for crime detection. As a result, many others involved in paramilitary activity and gangsterism in Northern Ireland have escaped the net. It is important that those issues are looked at.
While I agree with these rules, it is important that we look at this in the all-Ireland sphere, because many of the paramilitary operations, with their gangland assets and ill-gotten gains, operate on an all-Ireland basis. They also operate through drug trafficking. Many drug barons operate in the south of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. There needs to be a greater level of co-operation. What efforts can be made with the Irish Government to look at this as an all-Ireland operation to tackle such crime, using these prescribed codes?
I am very happy to support these instruments because I believe that we and the Government must have the intention and power to deal with drug trafficking, money laundering and bank robberies on an all-Ireland basis to free our communities from the danger of paramilitarism and racketeering.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining these statutory instruments. My noble friend Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted has raised important issues relating to the operation of the legislation more broadly, but as far as these SIs are concerned, the first relates to the code of practice covering cash searches under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which needed to be revised as a result of the powers extended by Section 22 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017. Although these new powers were brought into effect in Great Britain shortly after Royal Assent, as the noble Baroness explained, the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly in February 2017, until its reconstitution in January 2020, prevented the Home Office seeking the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly to commence the relevant provisions of the 2017 Act in Northern Ireland. The Home Office has now secured that approval, hence this and the other four SIs.
Although this SI and the others being debated simply bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, and there is a good reason why this was not possible before, there is one aspect of this first SI on which I seek further information from the Minister. The Explanatory Memorandum says that the codes of practice require
“an officer who is contemplating using the powers to consider the impact on the community in their use, balanced against the public interest and the benefit … the powers would add to the case.”
For me, who has no knowledge or experience of Northern Ireland, that still has particular resonance for Northern Ireland. Could the Minister explain further what the impact might be of the use of these powers in the light of the circumstances in Northern Ireland? Is there a potential for the use of these powers to be particular sensitive against the background of the Province? The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, mentioned that there was a protocol between, I think, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the National Crime Agency. Is this further evidence of such sensitivity? The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, wondered whether there was a diversity impact assessment and a human rights assessment, again suggesting that there might be particular issues in Northern Ireland that are not as relevant to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The second SI relates to revised codes of practice relating to the investigative powers of prosecutors to cover unexplained wealth orders, interim freezing orders, disclosure orders, extending the powers of members of staff of the Serious Fraud Office, detained property and frozen funds investigations. These are again the result of the Criminal Finances Act 2017 amending powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. As with the other SIs, other than drafting changes and responses outside the scope of the SIs, there were no responses to the public consultation. In addition, I understand that the Home Office has invited representations from the Attorney-General’s Office, Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland and the Scottish Government, in accordance with the Proceeds of Crime Act, and each organisation has confirmed that it is content.
The third SI relates to revised codes of practice for investigations concerning the use of general asset recovery investigation powers in Chapter 2 of Part 8 of the Proceeds of Crime Act, as amended by the Criminal Finances Act 2017, now that these provisions are being enacted in Northern Ireland. These are codes of practice for officers and other persons exercising their functions under POCA, as opposed to those for prosecutors contained in the second SI.
The fourth SI relates to the need for a revised code of practice in connection with the search, seizure and recovery of certain listed assets, such as precious metals and stones, watches, art works, vouchers and postage stamps, as opposed to the first, which relates to cash, gaming vouchers, fixed-value casino tokens and betting slips.
The fifth SI relates to a revised codes of practice in connection with the search, seizure and detention of property, such as cars, jewellery, electric goods and clothing, that is often of high value and can be easily moved, hidden or sold during a confiscation investigation following a criminal conviction. As with all these SIs, the need for the change is the result of the enactment of changes to the Proceeds of Crime Act made by the Criminal Finance Act 2017 that were delayed in Northern Ireland as a result of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a result, with the exception of the community impact concerns, we are content with the orders.
My Lords, as we have heard, these orders are being brought forward to reflect the extension of the Criminal Finances Act provisions to Northern Ireland. I say right at the start that I fully support the orders and welcome the fact that they are with us this afternoon.
I recall our extensive debates in the Chamber on the Criminal Finances Act. It is about tackling money laundering and terrorist finance, among other things, and being able today to bring forward these orders to apply to Northern Ireland is very welcome. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that it was regrettable that the Assembly was suspended and we could not get them in place earlier, but now that it is up and running again, it is welcome that we are able to do so today.
I very much agree with the noble Lord that the measures will deal with criminality—that is really important—and act as a deterrent to others who are thinking of getting into criminality or paramilitarism. It is very important we are seen to give a strong lead there. I endorse the remarks of my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, in her support for these measures and what she hopes will be their positive effect. It is really important if they can help track down those funds from the Northern Bank robbery. I saw the documentary; I have not heard the stuff on BBC Sounds, but will have a look for it. It is important that we recognise what the money that was stolen there has been able to finance.
I do not know Northern Ireland as well as either the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, or the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, but I have been there many times and I have many friends who live in the Province. I think that it is absolutely right, no matter what community you come from, to look at the effect that this sort of activity will have on marginalised communities and on all communities, on their prospects. If we can stop people being dragged into this sort of behaviour in future, that is a really good thing, and all communities will benefit from that. I very much welcome that.
I also endorse the comments from my noble friend Lady Ritchie. It is important to work with the Government in the Republic as well, because there are cross-border issues there. That is a very important issue.
The order updates the codes of practice. I am aware that Naomi Long has asked for these powers to be extended; she actually asked for that in June 2020. My only regret is that we have not been able to do this sooner, which I suppose is because of the pandemic and everything that has been going on. The sooner we get these powers in place, the better.
I have a couple of questions, although nothing of any major significance, because many points have already been raised. It is very good to get the orders in place, as I say, but can the Minister confirm the reasons for delay, given that the request was made in June 2020—nearly a year ago now? Is the delay because of the pandemic? It is quite unusual to bring in legislation to be retrospectively consented, three years after the Bill became law. I know that that is because the Assembly was suspended; I am delighted that it is up and working now, and we hope that we never again get a situation when it is not up and running. It would be useful to understand that.
What is the Minister’s opinion about how the legislation works in the rest of the United Kingdom? It has been in place for three years now—has it been good? I have seen a number of reports of when unexplained wealth orders have been granted against individuals. Will the Minister tell us a little about what she thinks the effect of the law has been? What additional training and oversight has been put in place to help officers and others to ensure that they can actually enact this legislation and use the power that they have been granted properly and forcefully so it can have the effect that we all want it to have?
With that, I fully endorse the orders before us today and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. So many questions were asked that I can hardly keep up with them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, asked about training for law enforcement, which is a perfectly reasonable question, because of course the powers will apply to them. The powers will largely be exercised by asset recovery specialists, who require little to no additional training; this includes officers of the NCA and the Serious Fraud Office. Our operational partners have a strongly embedded practice of supporting one another in our asset recovery endeavours. That can involve referring all aspects of the case to other agencies with particular expertise to ensure maximum proceeds of crime are removed from the system.
Noble Lords may also be aware that accredited financial investigators, individuals who support the traditional law enforcement agencies to disrupt economic crime, are trained, accredited and closely monitored by the Proceeds of Crime Centre in the National Crime Agency. Accredited financial investigators are subject to continuous professional development requirements and have their accreditation reviewed every two years. To ensure that recruitment, retention and training of financial investigators is robust and effective, an independent review of the current training provided by the Proceeds of Crime Centre—or POCC—was commissioned. It was completed in 2020, and we are working with the NECC and wider stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan for reform. That will ensure that the training offered to our financial investigators is among the best. To that end, we intend to have a multiagency approach to the reform of POCC, and progress will be overseen by the multiagency strategic asset recovery group of Ministers.
The noble Baroness is also right to make the point about resourcing; we understand those concerns and it is important that agencies have the required resources to implement the new powers, which is why a proportion of the proceeds of crime recovered by law enforcement agencies is reinvested into the system under the asset recovery incentivisation scheme. The more an agency recovers, the more it receives to be reinvested in law enforcement capability. It is also important to recognise that, although powers are necessary to keep pace with criminals’ ever-changing modus operandi, these new powers will not necessarily demand additional resource. For example, existing resource that may have been used exclusively to address criminal cash five or 10 years ago may now be better deployed across cash forfeitures and forfeiture of funds held in bank accounts.
The upcoming economic crime levy will also be used to drive reforms to the sustainable resourcing of economic crime and could be used to fund an uplift in financial investigative capacity. On the SOC review, it has always been our intention to publish its key recommendations and we did so on 16 March by releasing the executive summary. The full report will not be published because of its sensitivity, but we have made it available to the appropriate partners.
An impact assessment has not been prepared for the instruments because we have considered the overall impact of commencing the Criminal Finances Act in Northern Ireland rather than preparing separate assessments for each statutory instrument in this package. On what has delayed it, the EU exit statutory instruments —of which there were many—have to a large extent been impacting absolutely everything we have done for the last couple of years, so that is the answer.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is right to ask how the Act is working; I think it is working well. The Criminal Finances Act has been vital in dealing with just the sort of people that the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, spoke about—those driving around in big cars and you wonder where the heck they ever got the money from; that is absolutely right. On the utility of the regulations in Northern Ireland, the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, asked whether we are going to bring in new legislation. Clearly, we will keep them under review, which is very important, and update legislation where necessary.
In Northern Ireland, civil recovery investigations enhanced by the use of unexplained wealth orders, where appropriate, could play an integral role in tackling organised criminality and, as the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, said, paramilitarism, which is a key priority for the law enforcement agencies represented under the Organised Crime Task Force and the Paramilitary Crime Taskforce. Indeed, the Independent Reporting Commission recommended that the powers in the Criminal Finances Act were commenced in Northern Ireland as an utmost priority. Stripping criminals who are linked to organised crime and paramilitarism of their proceeds of crime can prevent those engaged in criminal activity benefiting financially or materially. This, in turn, will discredit them and prevent funding of other illicit activities.
On the thresholds that the noble Lord asked about, noble Lords may recall that the Criminal Finances Bill originally specified that only property valued in excess of £100,000 could be the subject of an unexplained wealth order and that that was then lowered to £50,000 after the Government tabled an amendment following representations from the devolved Administrations that the value of property varies considerably depending on where it is held in the UK. Having a value threshold as a qualifying criterion is considered to be a necessary safeguard against what is essentially an intrusive investigatory power.
I underline the point that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that the statistics demonstrate that the Proceeds of Crime Act powers are having a good impact. However, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, they are of course always kept under review.
I think I have answered all the points that noble Lords put to me and, with that, I beg to move.
Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Investigative Powers of Prosecutors: Code of Practice) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Investigations: Code of Practice) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Recovery of Listed Assets: Code of Practice) Regulations 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Search, Seizure and Detention of Property: Code of Practice) (Northern Ireland) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering, except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2021
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Order 2021, which was laid before the House on 25 March, be approved.
I am grateful for the advice provided by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which has helped to inform the order before the Committee. The proposed amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which I shall henceforth refer to simply as the 1971 Act, follows the ACMD’s self-commissioned advice published on 29 April last year about benzodiazepines.
The draft order before your Lordships relates specifically to three of those benzodiazepines: flualprazolam, flunitrazolam and norfludiazepam. Due to their potential harm and the evidence of the prevalence of these drugs in the UK, the ACMD recommended controlling all three substances under class C of the 1971 Act. The ACMD also concluded that these three benzodiazepines should be scheduled under Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 because, as confirmed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, they have no recognised medicinal use in the UK. This is the first proposed addition to control further benzodiazepines under the 1971 Act since the control of 16 benzodiazepines in May 2017, which are also controlled under Class C of the 1971 Act.
Benzodiazepines are associated with a high dependency rate and severe withdrawal symptoms from even short-term use. Furthermore, their combined use with other recreational drugs—in particular opioids and other central nervous system depressants—is associated with an increased risk of mortality and contributes to a significant number of drug-related deaths each year. Data provided by the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths showed that in England between 2006 and 2015, there were 5,740 benzodiazepine-related deaths. Of these, just under 4% recorded benzodiazepines as the only compounds implicated in the cause of death, which may indicate the frequency with which they are associated with polydrug use.
I can provide some further background on the three benzodiazepines covered by this order. The first is flualprazolam. The ACMD’s report states that as of March 2020, there have been 12 flualprazolam-associated deaths in the UK recorded by regional statistical agencies. It also states that the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction issued a report on flualprazolam in March 2019. This detailed deaths with confirmed exposure to the compound in 24 reported cases in Sweden and two in Finland. In eight of these cases, flualprazolam was cited as a contributory or possible contributory factor.
I move on to flunitrazolam. It is likely that the potency of flunitrazolam is greater than that of the already highly potent flunitrazepam, or Rohypnol, which is controlled as a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. A small number of seizures were made at the UK border between October 2014 and 2019. The ACMD report highlighted that small-scale seizures of a mixture of tablets and powder had also been notified in Germany in 2016 and Denmark in 2017.
I move now to norfludiazepam, which has been identified in the UK twice, both in 2017: once from a police seizure and once by the drug identification provider TICTAC. Small-scale seizures also took place in Germany in 2016, Sweden in 2017 and Norway in 2018. There has also been anecdotal reporting of the use or purchase of norfludiazepam by PostScript 360, a charity that provides treatment for withdrawal from benzodiazepines.
As well as the recommendation for control under the 1971 Act, the ACMD also recommended that the three benzodiazepines be placed in Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 and part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) (England, Wales and Scotland) Order 2015, as these drugs have no known medicinal use in the UK. Subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament of this draft order, it is intended that a further statutory instrument, subject to the negative resolution procedure, will come into force at the same time as this order, being 28 days after the date the Order in Council is made. This further instrument would make the amendments to the 2001 regulations and the 2015 order.
Parliament’s approval of this order to control flualprazolam, norfludiazepam and flunitrazolam under class C of the 1971 Act, and the scheduling of these under Schedule 1 to the 2001 regulations, as per the recommendations of the ACMD, would make it unlawful to possess, supply, produce, import or export these drugs except under a Home Office licence for research. The maximum sentence for possession of a class C drug is up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine or both, while for supply it is up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
We know that illegal drugs ruin lives and have a corrosive effect on society. It is clear from the advice we have received that these benzodiazepines can cause serious harm, and that is why we are taking this action. I hope I have made the case to control them, even though I have not managed to pronounce them very well, and I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I support this measure and congratulate the Minister on her very clear explanation of the reasons for it, and on her pronunciation, which I will not attempt to follow.
I am pleased to see that the Government have accepted the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on this matter. As has just been stated, the arguments in favour of it are straightforward in relation to the potential of these compounds to cause harm, the evidence of their prevalence in the UK and the absence of any clinical need for them. Benzodiazepines all have similar effects, but some—including, the evidence suggests, some of these—are more powerful and addictive than others. There are already more than enough licensed for clinical use and there is no clinical need for more.
As the Minister knows, I shall also take the opportunity as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence to draw attention to the scale and severity of this problem in the UK. These three drugs are obviously very relevant to that matter. In 2018, 11.5 million adults had one or more prescriptions for drugs that can create dependence. Research suggests that at least half experience withdrawal symptoms but only 3% of the population have access to withdrawal services. It is likely that these figures are now higher following the pandemic.
There are large financial as well as personal costs involved. Overprescribing—that is, unnecessary prescribing —of these drugs is estimated to cost between £320 and £642 million annually, and the costs and problems associated with withdrawal probably make that figure much higher. Of course, the personal misery is unmeasurable.
I acknowledge the work of the chief pharmacist Keith Ridge and his team, who are overseeing implementation of the Public Health England recommendations on prescribed drug dependence, but this is going very slowly. We need more urgent and timely action from the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England given the millions who are taking benzodiazepines and other drugs of dependence beyond what is clinically necessary.
I understand the time and cost it will take to set up new services but recognise that it would be quick and relatively inexpensive to set up the helpline we have recommended. This will benefit patients and clinicians alike and, at last, begin the process of putting appropriate services into place. Will the Government set up the helpline in the near future?
In conclusion, I very much welcome this measure but also note that millions of people are suffering and millions of pounds are being wasted. It is time that the Government acted decisively to stop this. I know that these issues are not the Minister’s responsibility but I would be very interested in her comments and in her addressing these concerns to the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England.
My Lords, it has taken some time for some very simple action to be taken on benzodiazepines. I first recommended this action in 2003 in the House of Commons and was ignored. I do not want to take issue with the Minister—I hope she does not feel that I am—but there is a concept which she and the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, raised, which I want to disagree with. It is about the unintended consequences of it, and it is not nit-picking, because of where the logic comes from.
Part of the justification for the proposal to the Committee—I entirely endorse the merits of agreeing it today—was that these three benzodiazepines have no identifiable health benefit. That rather misses the point, because even if they had a health benefit, the use of benzodiazepines in the illicit-drug-using and problematic-drug-using communities is prodigious. It can of course take place elsewhere, and there is a huge market for the resale of prescribed drugs; the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, alluded to that. That same market is particularly problematic when it comes to problematic users, by which I mean users whose drug dependency is such that it dominates their entire life and leads them into forms of behaviour that damage others. That is distinct from those who suffer misery by themselves in their own home, which can be through illegal drugs but which is far more often through the misuse of prescribed drugs. That latter category of people do not tend to buy the drugs illegally; they simply get them through perfectly legal prescriptions. However, there is a huge market in the sale of all products, some of which are obtained technically illegally—they are prescribed and then sold on—while others are in the entirely legal market, such as these three particular benzodiazepines.
Part of the dilemma we have and part of the weakness in the system in this country is that the ACMD logic still ties in with what criminal justice sees—and criminal justice still has a tendency not to want too many things to have to regulate and criminalise, because it means more work—as well as with health, and particularly public health, which has had an obsession with the perceived positive benefits of a cocktail of drugs, defined as one drug being used to counteract another drug. That is precisely the kind of use that drug addicts have for benzodiazepines. In my experience, I do not know anyone who has a heroin addiction, for example, who does not also use benzodiazepines. The two go together, although not usually literally together. So the public health input has often been to say, “Things are better out there, because it will help people’s health”. I think that is fundamentally wrong.
Our inability to get on top of drug treatment in this country is partly because criminal justice takes too much of a lead in this. That is not the Minister’s fault, although it is her problem, because she then has a responsibility. I happen to be Lord Mann, of Holbeck Moor in the City of Leeds, and I hope that the Minister will at some stage—I would be happy to accompany her—look at the managed prostitution red light district on Holbeck Moor. It is a health disaster and catastrophe and very unpopular with members of the local community, as I know from listening to them. I in no way purport to represent them; that is for the far more illustrious Members of the Commons. However, the notion of a managed red light district is precisely the kind of problem that has led to so much time being taken to make benzodiazepines illegal.
The Minister is right to bring this forward, but I think we need to knock heads together more, particularly in public health, which is silent too often. It is precisely why usually primary care, although it can be hospitals, has been allowed to overprescribe things that are actually a danger, either through overuse by the individual or misuse by others who get hold of them, sometimes by purchasing them. Benzodiazepines really fit that model in terms of the kinds of markets that are there.
I commend the Minister for this, but there is a great opportunity for this Government to take a leap forward in getting the public health agenda aligned with the criminal justice agenda. For all sorts of reasons, the Government are well positioned to do this in ways that other Governments were more fearful of. I hope that the Minister will look at that. It is not enough simply to make this illegal, because the same people will still be buying it, whether it is legal or illegal. We also need to try to get to the root causes and look at how health does or does not deal with it, and then the country will literally be a healthier place.
My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the Home Office, and this instrument brings three benzodiazepines—forgive me if I cannot pronounce them, but I can send the details—under control as class C drugs under Part 3 of Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, owing to their potential harm and evidence of the prevalence of these drugs in the UK. This order controls these three compounds as class C drugs under the 1971 Act, following advice from the ACMD published on 29 April 2020, owing to the potential for these compounds to create harm and evidence of these drugs in the UK. The Home Office will issue a circular with legislative guidance primarily for the police and courts. The Government will continue to update their messaging on the harms of these substances, including through their information and advisory service online.
Can the Minister explain what fines and prison sentences will be given to individuals who breach these orders?
I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. Lord Paddick?
My Lords, I have to get used to Grand Committee not being able to unmute me and having to do it myself, unlike in the Chamber. However, we shall go now.
I thank the Minister for introducing this order, which brings three benzodiazepines under part 3 of Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act, owing to their potential harm and prevalence in the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, quite rightly highlighted the issues associated with similar drugs that are legally overprescribed. As the noble Baroness mentioned, these drugs are related to Rohypnol, the so-called date rape drug, and to Xanax and Valium—well-known anti-anxiety drugs that are highly addictive, or, as the Minister called it, resulting in high dependency. In addition to their potential use to sedate victims by perpetrators of sexual offences, they are respiratory suppressants that can lead to the shutting down of the respiratory system and death, particularly if taken in conjunction with alcohol or similar drugs.
Of course, we on these Benches take a harm-reduction approach to the misuse of drugs, and the fact that one of these drugs has resulted in 12 deaths in the UK is of concern. Can the Minister give any more details of the circumstances of these deaths? Were they people with mental health issues who were self-medicating? Were they people who had taken these drugs in combination with other drugs or alcohol recreationally? Or were they drugged by others?
I ask these questions as there are concerns that the lack of mental health services for those suffering from anxiety and the extended waiting times for people to receive treatment, together with the stigma of suffering from poor mental health, may be driving people to seek substances such as these as a means of immediate relief from their symptoms, without seeking professional medical help. Pushing people into seeking drugs where there is little or no quality control and where the amount of active ingredient contained in each pill can vary enormously can lead to accidental overdose, with disastrous consequences.
Can the Minister point to any research that demonstrates the efficacy of moving psychoactive substances such as these from being covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 into being included as class C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971? How less likely are people to take these drugs as a result of this sort of order? Does the Minister not agree that, as far as most young people in particular are concerned, it makes little difference whether a drug is illegal under the Psychoactive Substances Act or the Misuse of Drugs Act, and that even the classification of the drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act has little impact on the attitudes of those who misuse drugs towards different substances?
Is it not time for an overhaul of the whole approach to the misuse of drugs, adopting a health-based, harm reduction approach based on educating people, particularly the young, as to the effects and dangers of different drugs, rather than an emphasis of police and other criminal justice system resources on criminalising the misuse of drugs that often have only a minimal effect? Diverting resources away from the so-called war on drugs and into effective mental health provision to reduce reliance on drugs, into drug treatment for those addicted, and into education on the effects and dangers of drugs misuse would be a far more effective way of dealing with the issues that this order is intended to deal with.
Is this order no more than rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic that is the drugs-misuse crisis in the UK? The Government’s failure to have any lasting impact on the supply side of the illegal drugs market surely suggests that the focus should now shift to the demand side, reducing the demand for controlled drugs through adequate mental health provision, education and treatment of addiction. We do not oppose the order, we just ask: what evidence is there that it will be of any benefit?
My Lords, I am very happy to support the order, which, as we have heard, is in response to advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Clearly, where drugs cause harm, they must be classified and action taken. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, these drugs combined with alcohol can prove fatal in many cases because of the effect they have on the body, and can often lead to suicide.
I recall that when my noble friend Lord Mann was in the other place, he did a lot of good work on the issue of drugs in his constituency and many times spoke up about it. To tackle this, it is no good us just adding more drugs to lists, saying that this cannot be done here or that is criminalised there; there must also be the preventive approach, which the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about. We must have both: legislation that says that if you take, sell or use these drugs, those are criminal offences, and, at the same time, a health approach so that people understand. There is an absolute drugs crisis, as my noble friend said, with people taking these drugs with other substances. Unless we can provide people with the support they need to get off drugs, we will not deal with the problem, as with any addiction.
I hope the noble Baroness can respond on that. Does she have any information on what has happened to drug treatment services during the pandemic? What support have we been able to give to people who find themselves in difficulty? The Health and Social Care Select Committee found that funding for treatment had fallen 30% in the three years up to 2019. We must reverse that cut and increase funding. We can say that whatever we like is illegal, but unless we have in place the process to get people off the substances, we will struggle. We have all seen the corrosive effect on individuals, their families and communities—the damage done to them by drugs. As my noble friend Lord Mann said, these are often prescription drugs that are then sold on to other people, but drugs are corrosive.
I will leave it there. I fully support the order but, as many noble Lords have said, there must be another prong to our attack on this process, and that is the health-based proposals many of them talked about.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It is worth stating at the outset that there are benzodiazepine medicines which can be prescribed by clinicians and have specific uses, but today’s focus is on illicit benzodiazepines.
As the noble Lords, Lord Mann and Lord Crisp, said, this is often about polydrug use. These tend to be drugs used not just in isolation, and deaths tend to occur when polydrug use is being practised. I totally take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the criminal justice system approach to drugs must be aligned to public health. When people have got themselves into illicit drug use, you do not want to criminalise them; you want to get them off the drugs that they are on.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, made quite an interesting point about managed red light districts not working. I can think of a clear analogy: drug consumption rooms do not work. They are illegal. They exist in Scotland, but they do not work.
The point by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, about support for those dependent on prescribed medicine is an important one. There is the Talk to FRANK website, which everyone will have heard about. I know that NHS England and NHS Improvement are leading a programme of work in response to the recommendations in Public Health England’s Dependence and Withdrawal Associated With Some Prescribed Medicines: An Evidence Review. The recommendation for a time-limited dedicated national helpline and website has been carefully considered as part of this work. They are also drafting a commissioning framework to help commissioners to optimise the prescribing of dependence-forming medicines, as well as providing support to patients experiencing dependence on prescribed drugs and symptoms of withdrawal. That framework is expected to be published later this year.
Anyone who develops a problem of dependence on medicines should seek help from their GP in the first instance. They might choose to go to a different GP from the one who prescribed the medication, if indeed the medication was prescribed.
The latest prescribing statistics I have are from the ACMD’s 2020 report, which states:
“Prescribing of benzodiazepines by General Practitioners in the UK has been discouraged and has fallen progressively in recent years … from 16.3 million in 2015-16 to 14.9 million in 2018-19”—
that is still huge. It goes on:
“In 2017-18, there were 1.4 million adults in England and Wales who received one or more benzodiazepine prescriptions.”
Public Health England undertook an evidence review of prescribed medicines, which was published in 2019. It concluded:
“Longer-term prescribing is widespread.”
The review covered adults and five classes of medicines, including benzodiazepines, Z-drugs, gabapentinoids, opioids for non-cancer pain and anti-depressants, and some 41 recommendations came out of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about education. He is absolutely right: education is vital. He asked about reform of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We keep drug controls under review but do not intend to reform the laws on drugs at this point in time. Drug legislation is part of the Government’s wider approach to preventing drug misuse, and education in schools is key to promoting healthy living, treatment and recovery and stopping the supply of certain drugs.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also asked me about the specifics of each case where there was death. I do not have the specifics to hand but, as I said in my opening speech, benzodiazepines are often taken with other drugs and alcohol. With that, I finish and beg to move this statutory instrument.
That completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 5.14 pm.