House of Lords
Tuesday 9 November 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.
Sport: Transgender Inclusion
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Sports Council Equalities Group’s Guidance for Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport, published on 30 September, and in particular the conclusion that “the inclusion of transgender people into female sport cannot be balanced regarding transgender inclusion, fairness and safety in gender-affected sport where there is meaningful competition”.
My Lords, the Government are committed to promoting diversity and inclusion, as well as safety and fairness, across all levels of sport. We believe that this guidance is well researched and well considered. It acknowledges the complexity of balancing inclusion, fairness and safety and it provides a decision-making framework to help individual sports decide what is right for their circumstances. It thereby helps to address a gap which has been present for too long in the sports sector.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response and I declare my interest as a former chairman of the Football Association. In 2009, we successfully invested £11 million to boost a brilliant sport: women’s football. As with all sports, the aim was to compete in a fair way and to do it with integrity, player safety and inclusion. The Sports Council Equality Group’s report makes it undeniably clear that including male-bodied transgender people in most female sports vitiates these principles and will undermine those sports. Sports administrators admit that their current confused approach is not fit for purpose but they fear an angry response. Will the Minister meet me and other sports administrators to generate advice on securing appropriate transgender involvement while protecting the fairness and safety of female sports—advice which will wholly guarantee women’s genuine sporting competition and integrity?
My Lords, if I may, I will start with the very opening words of the foreword from this guidance:
“We want sport to be a place where everyone can be themselves, where everyone can take part and where everyone is treated with kindness, dignity and respect.”
The guidance is based on evidence and research and it took a lot of views and consultation. It is right that sports bodies have their own rules and will work on implementing these in relation to their own sport. It probably will not be for me to meet the noble Lord, but I will certainly take the request back to the Sports Minister and I am sure he will be happy to have that meeting.
My Lords, the latest guidance allows for the possibility of testosterone suppression to permit transgender women to take part in women’s sports, but this is costly and intrusive for them and does not guarantee fairness for women. Does my noble friend agree that for almost all sports, the only rational solution which is safe and fair for all is to have two categories: an open category for everyone and one reserved for natal women only?
The guidance looks into the question of testosterone suppression, and many people working or competing in sport do not consider that that has created fairness or safety in their individual sports. The evidence is clear that there are retained advantages in strength, stamina and physique for the average transgender women, with or without testosterone suppression; that has not proved the silver bullet that many hoped it would be. That is why the sports councils are encouraging governing bodies to consider alternative approaches for their sport. In some cases that will be universal participation and in others it will not, but it is right that they do that on a case-by-case basis.
My Lords, I do not refer to the debate around this question but I am deeply concerned about the public debate around trans issues and trans women in particular, and the continuous depiction of them as a threat. Therefore, does the Minister agree that whenever we raise issues with regard to any minority, we should be specific and evidence-based and should never knowingly or unwittingly fuel prejudice, hatred or misrepresentation, especially against minorities such as trans women, who daily face dangerous defamation and misrepresentation?
I strongly agree with the noble Lord and I am pleased to say that the sports councils’ work has followed that approach. The intention of their guidance is to encourage sports to think in innovative ways to ensure that nobody is left out. I am mindful that these exchanges will be followed by many people affected on a personal level, so I want everyone to hear very clearly that we want everybody to have every opportunity to enjoy, compete in and excel in sport.
My Lords, does not that mean that we should ensure that there is a way to have full, open and tolerant debate; and that those organisations that proselytise a “no debate” concept and accuse people who raise legitimate issues of being transphobic should desist? The Minister cannot instruct sports organisations what to do; he can encourage them to have courage to take on board what is in this guidance.
Again, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of tolerant debate, such as we have in your Lordships’ House. As the sports councils say in their guidance:
“We hope to see sports bodies across the UK engaging in the conversation in a respectful way and develop policies in this area which help facilitate access for everyone to participate.”
A number of governing bodies have already said what they will do in the light of it, and we encourage others to look at it as well.
My Lords, the report seems a fairly reasonable attempt to try to square a circle between the safety and integrity of sport and the right of inclusion. Will the Government assist those governing bodies in making sure that they do not have a policy that excludes people from low-level recreational sport if they are in the trans category? Will they also ensure that it is not used in any way to restrict people in sports where men and women compete on even terms? I refer to the equestrian sports as a starting point.
Yes, I agree. The sports councils’ guidance supports that as well, as it aims to help governing bodies determine the right position for their particular sport. As the guidance says,
“what is right for one sport may not be right for another.”
Of course, it looks at low-level and recreational sport as well as competitive sport, and that is a job for the governing bodies then to take forward in relation to their sport.
My Lords, for many of us, sport is a unifying force, whether it is taking to the pitch with a diverse group of teammates or supporting a team from the grandstand. As the Sports Council Equality Group noted, the two main views on this matter “couldn’t be reconciled”, requiring
“a reset and fresh thinking.”
Rather than attempting to shut down this exercise, as some might, does the Minister endorse the group’s suggestion that individual sports explore whether more than one version of their sport can be offered in order to meet different aims?
Yes, as the guidance says, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach that covers every sport at every level in the country, and that is why it is right that the governing bodies look at what might be appropriate in their particular sport, so that they can balance, as far as they can, inclusion, safety and fairness.
My Lords, allegedly, the Ministry of Defence’s inclusive language guide, which quotes verbatim from Stonewall, advises staff to take care using “female”. The aim is to avoid erasing gender-nonconforming people and members of the trans community. As this risks erasing women instead, and cuts across the Defence Secretary’s drive for the military to become more female-friendly, is this an example of a lobbying group obstructing the policy of the elected Government?
I will leave colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to answer about their guide, but the sports councils’ guidance does not contain this wording or offer any advice on language. It aims to helps sports consider how to be inclusive without erasing anybody.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that we should do all we can to increase participation in sport, so does he share the aspiration of the five sports councils to see increased transgender participation in sport and support their message to create novel or modified versions of some sports to increase inclusion?
Yes, increasing everybody’s participation in sport is the main aim of the Government’s strategy, Sporting Future, so I certainly support the message from the sports councils to individual governing bodies to think in innovative and creative ways to ensure that no one is left out. As the noble Baroness says, that might involve novel or modified versions of their sport. Creating the right environment is important so that everybody, whoever they are, can take part and get active.
My Lords, it is clear that trans women cannot belong in the female sports category because they have a male performative advantage, however they identify, which is inherently unfair. Obviously, trans women should be able to compete fairly in sport. Will the Minister meet Dr Nicola Williams and colleagues from Fair Play for Women, which has some excellent, detailed proposals for including trans people in sport without disadvantaging women, and is courageous enough to open up the debate, not close it down?
My Lords, this varies from sport to sport. I took part in your Lordships’ full-bore rifle shooting match against the other place, which I regret to say that we lost. That is a sport on which men and women already compete on an equal basis. Some sports are games of skill, some of stamina and some of strength. That is why it is right that there is a case-by-case approach for each sport. I will take forward the meeting suggestion, as I did for the noble Lord, Lord Triesman.
My Lords, sport really does have the power to change lives. I saw that when I was Sports Minister. Competition is also hugely important for enjoyment in sport, but it must be fair and it must be seen to be fair. Does the Minister agree that the evidence increasingly suggests that the approach of simply measuring testosterone levels in the blood does not take into account the full breadth of biological differences between those who have gone through male versus female puberty, and that this can lead to unfairness in competitive sport?
As I said, the sports councils looked into this and said that
“the research that we currently have shows that testosterone reduction or suppression does not negate all the physiological advantages of having developed testosterone-driven strength, stamina and physique.”
That is why the advice to the individual governing bodies is to look at what is right for their sport and to balance inclusion with fairness and safety, so that people can enjoy sport, whether it is competitive or recreational.
Sarah Everard: Home Office Inquiry
My Lords, the Home Secretary, in consultation with the chair, determines that if the inquiry cannot fulfil its terms of reference on a non-statutory footing, it can be converted to a statutory basis.
My Lords, just yesterday we read that the Centre for Women’s Justice is proposing to judicially review the Home Office on this matter, complaining that correspondence with that department has been substantively unanswered from the middle of last month. Does the Minister not agree that the breadth of concern, the depth and importance of the problem, the need for independence to be seen and done and the need, unfortunately, for powers to compel co-operation, all point to every rational criterion for a full Lawrence-style statutory inquiry having already been met?
My Lords, the duty to co-operate is already in place. It has been in place since February 2020. Regarding the Centre for Women’s Justice, we have not ignored the letter. We have been focused on identifying a chair so that the details of the inquiry’s scope and how it will operate can be confirmed as quickly as possible. The inquiry can then start addressing our concerns, those of the public and those of organisations such as the Centre for Women’s Justice. We will respond to them as soon as possible.
My Lords, the Macpherson report has been quoted many a time in this House because it stands for many changes in the legal system and beyond. In the case of Sarah Everard, many women up and down the country are demanding a judge-led inquiry where witnesses can be called to give evidence. I know how important it is to have a judge-led inquiry. As in the Stephen Lawrence case, the truth must come out, so will Her Majesty’s Government support a public inquiry into the Sarah Everard case?
I could not agree more with the noble Baroness that the truth must come out—both at pace and conducted in a way that would satisfy the family. As I have said, if the non-statutory inquiry cannot meet its commitments, it can be converted to a statutory inquiry.
The Minister must be aware of the deep public concern following the Sarah Everard case. Does she not agree that the fiercely independent Macpherson inquiry and report into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence went a long way towards restoring the trust of the black—and wider—community in policing? Can the Minister suggest any reason why a similar, judge-led inquiry with similar powers, now under the 2005 Act rather than the Police Act 1996, would not be the obvious best way of examining predatory police culture in certain quarters and restoring the trust of young women in this country in our police force, which is surely a vital consideration today?
I think the House agrees that trust and confidence in the police must be restored. We wish this inquiry to proceed at pace and to get to the nub of the various issues that it will look into. If the Home Secretary is not satisfied that a non-statutory inquiry is fulfilling those commitments, she can convert it to a statutory inquiry, but I must say that I think the whole House seeks the same end from this inquiry.
My Lords, on a slightly separate, but related, matter, what are the implications of the Sarah Everard inquiry for the Daniel Morgan inquiry, which reported in June, described the Met as institutionally corrupt and found numerous failings? Some work has already begun but, given the potential for overlap here and the Morgan family’s long wait for justice, will the Government consider including the delivery of the panel’s recommendations in their cross-government task force?
My noble friend is absolutely right that there is inevitable overlap here. HMICFRS is already inspecting the Metropolitan Police Service in relation to vetting and countercorruption, at the Home Secretary’s request, and findings from this will feed into the broader inspection that she has asked HMICFRS to undertake across all forces. There is work ongoing in the Metropolitan Police Service and in the Home Office to respond to the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel recommendations, and the Home Secretary has already committed to provide an update in due course. Of course, any relevant evidence from this work can then be considered by part 2 of the independent inquiry, which will look more broadly at standards in policing.
We have made it clear that there must be a full statutory inquiry. The Government say that a statutory inquiry is too slow, yet the Home Office review of the Daniel Morgan case, which has already been referred to, took years, precisely because its work was made more difficult by the fact that the panel was not established under the Inquiries Act 2005, with its powers of compulsion. The evidence also indicates that the public spotlight of a statutory inquiry, and what it reveals during the hearings, promotes action while the inquiry is in progress and makes it harder for the final recommendations to be ignored or watered down, which is at least as important as any issue over the length of time the inquiry takes. Why do the Government continue to resist a full statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, in which the public can have full trust and confidence?
My Lords, as I have said, given the need to provide assurance as swiftly as possible, this will be established as a non-statutory inquiry because we want to get to the stage where conclusions are reached and changes are recommended quickly. This cannot be an inquiry that takes years to get to that stage. A non-statutory inquiry allows for greater flexibility, can be tailored to the issues and is likely to be faster, but we are able to turn it into a statutory inquiry if need be.
My Lords, the Minister keeps saying that the truth must come out at pace, but the Macpherson inquiry—a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act—took 20 months and the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel took eight years, mainly because the panel did not have powers of compulsion. What makes the Government think that the police have changed, when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary only a few weeks ago described a “culture of colleague protection” in the police service?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that at the time there was not that duty to co-operate. The various things the noble Lord mentions will all be looked at in the course of the inquiry. He is absolutely right that some of the culture and practices will be interrogated deeply to see whether any changes are needed.
My Lords, having served on your Lordships’ Select Committee examining public inquiries legislation, I am still baffled as to why the Government are reluctant to announce having a statutory inquiry now. Why the prevarication? Surely when there is great public disquiet, particularly as to the safety of women, the Government’s preference should be for a statutory inquiry. No one, particularly the police at the highest level, should be able to avoid giving evidence on oath if the powers are there to compel the giving of such evidence.
As I have said, there is the duty to co-operate. That has been in place since last year. I take this opportunity, given that the noble and learned Lord has served under every Prime Minister from Wilson to Blair, to wish him a very happy 90th birthday for last week.
I might have the answer why the Government do not want to make it a statutory inquiry: since the inquiry can compel police officers and other witnesses to come forward and tell the truth, what comes out might be extremely embarrassing for not only the police force but the Home Office. Could it be that the Government want to protect those organisations rather than hear the truth?
My Lords, if the Government wanted to protect the organisations, we would not be calling an inquiry. We absolutely want to get to the bottom of this for every woman and girl in this country, or any mother or daughter, who feels so keenly what happened to Sarah Everard.
Gametes and Embryos: Storage Limit
The department has been working with the regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, to ensure that it gets a chance to input into how the new scheme is implemented and that the fertility sector is properly prepared for any future legislative changes. The department has just completed a focused technical consultation that informs the final policy detail for certain categories of storage. We will bring forward legislation to enact the new policy when parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of the HFEA. For years, there has been disquiet over the arbitrary 10-year storage period for frozen eggs, which has forced women to make less than optimal decisions about their careers and fertility. My Bill to extend the period was in 2019 and the Government’s consultation closed in May 2020. In September 2021, the Government rightly responded that the period should be extended to 55 years, but that has not happened yet. Thousands of women know that the period will be extended but face the misery of seeing their eggs destroyed because it has not yet happened. The two-year pandemic extension will soon expire. Will the Government commit to making that change now by an amendment to the Health and Care Bill or by regulation? Will they put a moratorium on the destruction of any frozen eggs right away?
The Government are still considering the responses from the technical consultation in terms of extension of storage, but as I said previously, and I hope the noble Baroness will be assured by this, we hope to bring forward legislation to enact a new policy when parliamentary time allows. If an amendment is laid, we will give it due consideration.
My Lords, accurate information about the benefits, risks and success rates of egg freezing is essential to enable women to make their own decision. What progress is being made by the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority to investigate whether the provision of information is done accurately and ethically?
I thank the noble Baroness for raising this very important issue, because not everyone is aware of the biological facts around fertility, particularly the decline of fertility with age. If a woman freezes her eggs in her 20s, she has a higher chance of success than if she does it in her 30s. In fact, while IVF treatment has improved over the years, the success rates of IVF are still only around 30%, so it is important that as many women and couples know as much as possible. On the detailed questions that she asked, I will write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I am enormously encouraged by the Minister’s warm words and look forward to holding him to account for them. We know that women have a much better success rate when freezing their eggs at a younger age. However, the Minister knows that there are also proposals to introduce requirements to renew storage permissions every 10 years. What arrangements is the Minister considering to put in place to ensure that this does not become a bureaucratic nightmare and does not create disappointment for those who somehow do not keep up to date?
I thank my noble friend for his work on the subject when he was the responsible Minister to help change the policy so that all people, regardless of medical need, may benefit from greater choice about when to start their family. The 10-year renewal periods will be put in place to give people the opportunity to decide whether they wish to continue with their storage of gametes or embryos. The department is currently working with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to set out the plans for detailed implementation, including on how the renewal periods should be handled by fertility clinics to ensure that they work.
Fertility clinics will be expected to contact people storing their gametes or embryos a year before a renewal period has ended, so there would be 12 months’ notice. In addition, people will have a six-month grace period following the expiry of any renewal period, in which they can get in touch with clinics to re-engage storage if they wish. I am sorry that I am going on longer than usual, but this is an important issue. It is our view that we would provide an appropriate amount of time for clinics to contact their patients, and for patients to decide what they wish to do with their gametes or embryos in storage.
My Lords, I return to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, because we need some clarity here. For some people, months count. They will be having their eggs destroyed now, in the next few months. Therefore, while I congratulate the Government on the regulations that added two years to the 10-year period in recognition of the need to provide an extension during the pandemic, the Minister needs to be absolutely clear because time is fast running out. Are the Government going to provide interim transitional arrangements before the legislation is before the House? From these Benches, we are very keen and across the House there is an enormous amount of support for this to happen. Frankly, if the Minister brings forward the regulations tomorrow, they will go through.
I thank the noble Baroness for that very kind offer, but we have already stated that it is the Government’s intention that no one misses out on the opportunity to extend the storage of their eggs, sperm or embryos. As she will be aware, in 2020 in light of the Covid pandemic, we took steps to extend the storage. We are currently considering options to make sure that no one misses out on the benefits of the new policy. Given the detailed consultation we have just been through, we hope to announce details in due course. Of course, if an amendment is laid to the forthcoming Health and Care Bill, we will consider it.
My Lords, the Minister will have seen in the press today the case of Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evans, a lesbian couple required to undergo 12 cycles of treatment before they can access NHS-funded fertility treatment. In effect, that makes it impossible for them to access safe, well-regulated healthcare in this country. That is contrary to the aims of the Act under which lesbians were enabled to access fertility treatment, so will the Government move to stop it?
The noble Baroness raises a very important point about same-sex couples’ access to insemination services. In England, details of the local fertility services are determined by the clinical commissioning groups, which take account of the NICE fertility guidelines. These were updated in 2013 to include provision for female same-sex couples who have demonstrated a clinical infertility. The criteria in the guidelines were developed as a way of achieving equivalence between opposite-sex and male or female same-sex couples. However, it is clear that the NICE guidelines are now outdated, and the department has therefore agreed with NICE to start a review of these fertility guidelines. We want the same thing as the noble Baroness: equality.
My Lords, the Ministerial Code is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day and is customarily updated and issued upon their assuming or returning to office. Any amendments to the code are a decision for the Prime Minister.
My Lords, that is a disappointing but not unexpected Answer. However, does the Minister agree with me that the ways in which the Prime Minister dealt with the Hancock affair, the Jenrick planning fiasco and the Priti Patel bullying saga—where the wrong person resigned—were not exactly models of integrity and transparency, as required in the code? Will the Government now reconsider the recommendations of the Institute for Government and others that the code should have a statutory underpinning and that the independent adviser should be given some real powers before our parliamentary democracy becomes a laughing stock around the world?
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord’s more general observations. I agreed with Mr Speaker in the other place yesterday that we should speak softly on these matters. The Prime Minister’s constitutional role as the sovereign’s principal adviser means that the management of the Executive is wholly separate from the legislature. The Prime Minister alone—we have discussed this in this House before—advises the sovereign on the exercise of powers in relation to government, such as the appointment, dismissal and acceptance of resignation of Ministers. Therefore, it is right constitutionally that the Prime Minister of the day has responsibility for the Ministerial Code, and I cannot see the Government being persuaded that a statutory basis for an inherently prerogative function would be appropriate or desirable.
Does the Minister to any degree share my sense of shame and outrage at the extent to which the requirements of the Ministerial Code have been trashed by this Government? As there are no planned changes to the Ministerial Code, can we at least anticipate that the Government will take their existing responsibilities seriously as a solemn and binding duty to the British people?
My Lords, of course. Again, I do not agree with the political comment at the outset. The Government will carefully consider comments made by parliamentarians in both Houses, as well as the work of Mr Nigel Boardman, the CSPL and PACAC, when the committee reports. We will make a policy statement in due course but, as your Lordships would expect, we intend to consider these matters carefully.
Will my noble friend agree that, while some Members of your Lordships’ House may have had memory blackouts of before 2010, they have always previously been very happy for this to be a non-statutory body? Does he agree that it is right that the Prime Minister, who is elected, is the sole arbiter of who serves in his Government.
I agree with my noble friend, but I will continue my policy of not throwing political stones—we all know that they exist. The Prime Minister is accountable to the electorate, as well as to Parliament. As my noble friend says, the electorate will be the ultimate judge of what I consider to be his high service to this country.
My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, does the Minister understand why the Ministerial Code being made statutory is such an issue now? I put it to him that, whether it is ignoring the judgment of HOLAC about the appointment of Conservative Party donors to your Lordships’ House, ignoring the judgment of the independent adviser on allegations of bullying by the Home Secretary, or the shenanigans that have brought shame on Parliament as the Government attempted to defend Owen Paterson and defy the Commons standards commissioner and the committee, there is increasing evidence that this Prime Minister considers the rules to be for other people and not to apply to him or his close chums. Will the Minister now accept, as many others have done, and as my noble friend Lord Foulkes raised, that this Prime Minister—this Prime Minister—cannot be trusted to uphold the Ministerial Code?
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is fully briefed on the report last week from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Paragraph 2.25 says:
“It is clear to the Committee that the degree of independence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code … falls below what is necessary to ensure effective regulation and maintain public credibility.”
Do the Government accept this criticism and, if so, are there plans to strengthen the independence of the adviser on ministerial interests?
My Lords, I have partly answered that, in saying that the Government are obviously considering all the very important and thoughtful reports that have been presented on these matters in recent weeks and months. We take matters of ethics extraordinarily seriously, as I believe every Member of your Lordships’ House does, on all sides. I give an assurance to the House that we will come back with a Statement on these issues in due course.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the vast majority of Ministers, of all parties, have been honourable, decent, hard-working people, committed to the public weal, and that the current Ministers have been facing a challenging pandemic and emergency of unprecedented character, and that the sound of the wolf pack in your Lordships’ House is particularly disedifying?
My Lords, I would never characterise Her Majesty’s Opposition as wolves, but my noble friend makes a point of great importance. We should all reflect that the overwhelming character of British government and public life is not corrupt but driven by a sense of public duty that goes right to the top of this Government.
I feel for the Minister. I know him—indeed, I think the whole House knows him—to be a particularly honourable Member, and we value everything that he has done here. However, I have to ask him whether he is at all ashamed of some of his colleagues in the other place.
I beg noble Lords’ pardon; I have moved rather too quickly away from imperial measures.
The Prime Minister certainly did not contribute—he spoke softly. The issue is not one of changing the code. Is not the real problem getting the Prime Minister to implement it?
My Lords, I have explained the constitutional position. So far as the Prime Minister’s movements are concerned, I am thankfully not responsible for them, but he was on a prearranged official visit to the north-east. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who heads up the Cabinet Office and is responsible for this, led in the parliamentary debate. The Speaker was informed that both my right honourable friend and the leader of the Scottish nationalists would be unable to attend.
My Lords, until a generation or so ago there was almost no statutory regulation of Ministers, Members of the other place, or Members of this Chamber. Does my noble friend the Minister see a danger that the proliferation of codes, statutes and commissions skews incentives, encouraging politicians to tick the boxes, rather than asking themselves whether their behaviour is, in the broader sense, moral or edifying? Is there not a danger that we are replacing a culture of conscience with one of compliance?
Does the Minister agree that, when you are in position of leadership, asking people to do things, it is always good if you can set an example? Can he give us two examples of where the Prime Minister has done something under the code to set an example to other Ministers?
My Lords, with nine seconds left, I deliberately gave rather a short answer to my noble friend to enable the noble Lord, who I very greatly admire, to make his point. I wish it had been a better point. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister adheres to high standards of behaviour, and he expects the highest standards of behaviour from Ministers every day—far more than on two occasions; every day.
Afghanistan: Food Shortages
Private Notice Question
I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In doing so, I declare an interest as the co-founder of a school for girls in Kabul, more than 20 years ago. I also note that there is a drafting error on the Order Paper. The Question should say: “the authorities in Afghanistan”, not “the Government of Afghanistan”.
My Lords, as we all know, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire and of deep concern. It has been a central subject of all our conversations with all players, including at an operational level with the Taliban. We have pressed the Taliban directly to respect humanitarian principles and to allow aid agencies to operate freely. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has announced that the UK will double its assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million this financial year and, on 31 October, my right honourable friend allocated £50 million for immediate needs. This will provide around 2.5 million Afghans immediately with life-saving food, emergency health services, shelter and warm clothing.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. It is agreed generally that there is no time now to use food or indeed money as bargaining tools. The severe food shortage in Afghanistan has long been anticipated, and the purchase, transport and distribution of large amounts of grain takes time and organisation. I ask the Minister to work not only through the UN but with a larger number of NGOs, both here and abroad, that still have a presence in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, which, if co-ordinated with judicious cash injections, could help to stabilise market grain prices and distribute food in the worst-hit rural areas.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, and I assure her that the Government are doing exactly that. I myself, as the Minister responsible for our relations with Afghanistan and south Asia, have been working closely with near partners. We have been working directly with UN agencies, including OCHA, UNHCR and UNICEF. We have been having regular calls on this issue. I am happy to discuss the engagement in detail with her. Yesterday, for example, I had a further meeting with UNICEF on the importance of humanitarian support and health provision in Afghanistan. We continue to work with key partners and other international near neighbours as well as the wider global community.
My Lords, many people are in danger of starvation in Afghanistan and the death rate will be highest among young children. To stop huge numbers of deaths, action is imperative. Will the Government intervene to secure the release of some of the Afghan assets that have been frozen in the USA and elsewhere, doing so in a targeted way that will support the prevention of complete economic collapse in that country? Will the Government provide additional funding for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is continuing to operate in Afghanistan across public services, including education, but especially in the provision of healthcare?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s first point, we are working with international partners including international financial institutions on the issue of cash that is held, but of course there are notable provisions and conditionality in terms of releasing funds to the current Administration. On her second point, I further assure her that I have met Peter Maurer at the ICRC on a number of occasions, and part of the £50 million funding that I have announced will be in support of the ICRC programmes on the ground.
My Lords, the International Relations and Defence Committee of this House, which I served on when we carried out our inquiry into Afghanistan, laid bare the challenges, particularly for women and young girls, and this crisis will have a disproportionate impact on them. One month ago precisely, Simon Gass, the Prime Minister’s envoy, met the Taliban. Part of that discussion was about the normalisation of relations. On a number of occasions the Minister has directly indicated to me that we will not be working directly with the Taliban. Have the Government received any commitments that humanitarian aid and foodstuffs through international bodies will actually be directed via Taliban authorities to the people who need it most? What assurances have the Government been given that the humanitarian assistance committed to will get through to the people?
I am engaging directly with a number of women leaders. Most recently I met Hasina Safi and Fatima Gailani to inform our policy in the medium term, particularly on the issues of girls’ education and women’s health. On the point about direct humanitarian aid, we do not intend in any of our support to give money directly to the Taliban. Its co-operation is required but the money will be handed to established players operating on the ground, such as the ICRC and the Aga Khan Development Network—I recently met with it—which is operational and is a respected partner for the UK as well.
My Lords, no one who heard the interview yesterday with John Simpson could have failed to have been moved and angered. Will my noble friend assure me that Her Majesty’s Government will raise this matter as one of urgency at the United Nations Security Council with a view to getting an international delegation to assess the situation and act urgently on it?
My Lords, as far as the Security Council is concerned, I assure my noble friend that I myself directly engaged in a recent debate on Afghanistan. On delegations, we are engaging at senior level with near partners, including other key countries such as Pakistan and Qatar, and we are of course working directly with the UN agencies that are already on the ground. Now is the time to get aid through the door and to the people, and that is what we are focusing on.
While I welcome the Minister’s comments, on 18 October only £35 million of the £286 million had been allocated, according to the Government. I welcome the £50 million he has announced today, but David Beasley—who I know, and the Minister knows—is not one for hyperbole, and he has said that the position is absolutely dire and that the WFP requires $220 million a month. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we get that aid out quickly to stop the disaster that David Beasley said would happen?
My Lords, I share the view that the noble Lord has expressed, and indeed of what my noble friend said about the report of John Simpson. I have met directly with those fleeing the Taliban, and I have been long engaged on the evacuation process. These heart-rending stories are not just stories for me; they have been direct testimonies. I assure the noble Lord that I am engaging on practically a daily basis to ensure that our funds are allocated at the earliest opportunity through trusted partners, some of which I have already named. Equally, we implore other countries to stand by their verbal commitments to ensure that money and, importantly, humanitarian support get through immediately.
My Lords, I declare my interest as an ambassador for the Halo Trust, a charity engaged in mine and improvised explosive device clearances in Afghanistan. Looking at this objectively, we invaded the country and left the people to fend for themselves—is not the least we can do to save them from starvation?
My Lords, it is quite clear that one of the reasons for starvation in the country is that so many women and girls are now no longer able to work and are being deprived of that. One of the conditions that must be imposed on the Afghan Government is that those women and girls can go back to proper employment and not be barred, as they are today.
Again, I agree with my noble friend, who speaks with great insight on this issue. Let me assure him that we are focused on dealing directly with women leaders in identifying which provinces we have seen real progress in. Indeed, in certain provinces we have seen girls returning to higher education and to work and employment. We are focused on ensuring that the objectives that he just highlighted are part of our discussions.
My Lords, I have not minced my words. I do not believe the Taliban has changed; I have always sustained that belief. However, with every dark cloud there is a glimmer. For example, we have recently seen the Taliban supportive of the continuation, or restart, of the polio campaign, and we need to take encouragement from that. But logistics are a challenge, and that is why we must work with trusted partners which have the established networks. The ICRC, UNICEF and the Aga Khan Development Network are three organisations which have such structures in place.
My Lords, would the Minister care to look at and reflect on the experiences learned from the early days of aid distribution in Afghanistan, which quite frankly were a total mess even from the aid community and the head of the whole body? Maybe there will be some lessons learned going forward.
My Lords, 22.8 million people are identified as food insecure in Afghanistan, a position that has become more acute with the Taliban takeover. While I welcome the financial announcement today, could the Minister indicate what further work will be undertaken with the World Food Programme in Afghanistan, with particular reference to addressing poverty and reducing malnutrition?
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we have engaged at the highest level with the World Food Programme, established agencies on the ground and, indeed, all UN partners. I have engaged directly with the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General and all the heads of the different agencies and we are working directly with the World Food Programme. What is needed is co-ordination on the ground and that is why we have implored the UN to ensure that all humanitarian activities are co-ordinated. I assure your Lordships’ House further that both my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the new Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend Liz Truss, are engaging directly on issues with key partners. Indeed, she is currently visiting Asia, where she will be having discussions specific to the role of the Muslim world in leading on ensuring that the Taliban stands up for its promises. She will be having discussions with the likes of Indonesia, and continuing discussions with the likes of Qatar and Pakistan.
My Lords, will the Minister agree to revisit the list of ODA cuts to NGOs that are running programmes of volunteering within Afghanistan to do with health, education and food distribution, such as VSO, for example, to check whether, in these circumstances, instead of their budgets and programmes being cut, they could be cranked up and reinforced instead of being decommissioned?
My Lords, I have already said that the Government have announced an increase in funding to £286 million, but it is appropriate that we allocate this funding in a structured way, with trusted partners, to ensure support gets through to the people who need it most. On the issue of volunteering, the challenge in Afghanistan is that volunteers at the moment, particularly non-Afghans, are unable to enter. Equally, Afghan nationals are unable to operate.
My Lords, may I say how pleased I am that the Minister mentioned the role of Muslim countries? What discussions has he undertaken with the Administration of Afghanistan and the leadership of Qatar to ensure that not only the ICRC, the World Muslim League and the Qatar Foundation are taking a lead, but also that we do not become oblivious to the vulnerable families while they become statistics of gross poverty, death and destruction, as has happened in Yemen?
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that operationally, as I said, Sir Simon Gass and Martin Longden met with the Taliban and pressed on the importance of human rights within Afghanistan, as well as humanitarian corridors. Through our close liaison with UN agencies, we have seen that those corridors are operational and that support is beginning to get through, but it needs co-ordination. The picture is sketchy, depending on which province of Afghanistan we talk about. On the role of the Muslim world, and the Islamic world in particular, I am very clear that there is no better way of challenging the negative narrative on women and girls that the Taliban peddles than through esteemed leaders who are from the Muslim world—and, yes, they are women as well. We need to ensure that we reel in behind them to show that Islam does not negate women’s rights but actually promotes them.
My Lords, co-ordination with the Taliban is clearly crucial if aid is to get through to the people, but, alas, the Taliban is not wholly in control of Afghanistan—certainly not of large swathes of it. To what extent does the Minister assess that the conflict between the Taliban and ISK will hinder the delivery of aid to the people?
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord speaks from great insight and experience of the region. He is quite right about the situation with ISKP, but he will also be aware that there is fragmentation within the Taliban; there are different parties within the Taliban who are also wrestling for control and, depending on who has the greatest influence, they will have the greatest influence over respective regions. We are working through the nuances of that. There is one thing I will say about the Taliban—it is realising that it may have wanted administration, but being in government is not an easy job.
I am sure the Minister knows well enough that even prior to the national takeover by the Taliban, large swathes of Afghanistan were in effect controlled by the Taliban, and in those areas, although it is patchy, there was co-operation between the Taliban administration and NGOs, food agencies and the like. Can he tell us whether that is still the case now that there has been a national takeover? If not, what circumstances have changed?
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct. Indeed, in the initial stages of the takeover by the Taliban of Afghanistan, it was very clear that in those areas that had been under its control—not in all, but in some—there had been operational co-operation with aid agencies: UNICEF, for example. My first meeting very early on, in August, verified that fact and, indeed, UNICEF has increased its footprint, not decreased it, since the Taliban takeover. The other area we are still working through, of course, is that until we have the security in place to ensure that aid can be delivered, we need to work province by province and ensure that, whichever agency has the greatest influence on the ground, we can leverage its operational capacity and support it accordingly.
My Lords, the time allocated for this PNQ has now elapsed.
Commons Reasons and Amendments
That this House do not insist on its disagreement with the Commons in their Amendments 31A and 31B on which the Commons have insisted for their Reason 31D, and do not insist on its Amendment 31C in lieu to which the Commons have disagreed for the same Reason.
31D: Because the Bill and Amendments 31A and 31B make appropriate provision in relation to guidance and the independence of the OEP.
My Lords, this is a momentous month for the environment. We are hosting the world at COP 26, the world’s best chance to reach agreement on the action needed to avert catastrophic climate change and support those already experiencing its effects. Huge global progress has already been made in this forum. Over 130 countries representing more than 90% of the world’s forests have committed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. We have secured an unprecedented $20 billion to protect the world’s forests. Financial institutions with assets worth nearly $9 trillion have committed to align with nature. We secured the commitment from the big multilateral development banks, including the World Bank, that they too will align their portfolios not only with Paris goals but with nature as well. And, crucially, we secured a commitment from the 12 biggest buyers of agricultural commodities—including China Oil and Foodstuffs Corporation—that their buying policies will be aligned with 1.5 degrees and our overall deforestation goals. Each of these commitments is new and unprecedented; combined, they are mutually reinforcing, and this represents a turning point in our relationship with the world’s forests. Our job is now to inject real accountability into the process and to ensure that these promises are kept in full. This landmark Environment Bill, which we hope is now so close to its conclusion, will be an integral part of that action.
Noble Lords will have seen that this Government have moved significantly on a number of the issues which your Lordships’ House insisted on at Third Reading. I will begin by discussing Amendments 31C and 75C, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and Amendments 31A, 31B, 75A and 75B which have been re-tabled by my honourable friend Minister Pow in the other place.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for their work in this important area. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in particular for his conversations with me and with the Secretary of State on the power in the Bill to offer guidance to the OEP. As a direct result of those conversations, there are a number of points that I would like to put on the record today, in the knowledge that ministerial statements in Hansard could be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation in the future.
The OEP is and must be an independent body capable of holding public authorities to account on their environmental responsibilities, including through the use of their enforcement functions. That is why the Government have given the OEP a remit and powers of unprecedented breadth in this Bill. In order for the OEP to work effectively, it must act strategically and take action only when there is an environmental and public interest in doing so. On this point, everyone is agreed.
As the Secretary of State is ultimately accountable for the OEP’s performance and use of public funds, the Government consider that this accountability power in Clause 24 is necessary to ensure that the body continues to use public resources effectively to achieve the greatest public good. However, I must be clear that the content of guidance is limited to the areas of the OEP’s enforcement policy listed in Clause 22(6). It cannot be used to direct the OEP as to the content of any report they might produce or any advice to the Government. Indeed, it cannot be used as a power of direction at all. It would also be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on specific matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State for Defra, given that there would be a conflict of interest.
I do not want to be disingenuous: the OEP would be expected to have regard to any guidance issued, but it retains the ability and discretion to make its own decisions and is not bound to act in accordance with the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others have previously raised concerns that the Secretary of State might be able to use guidance to preclude the OEP investigating a broad category of individual cases or subject areas, such as nuclear power stations. I must say unequivocally that it is our view that the power could not lawfully be used in this way.
Any guidance issued must be consistent with the duty in paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 for the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to protect the independence of the OEP. Any guidance that diverts OEP scrutiny away from entire policy areas, outside existing statutory steers on prioritisation, would not be in keeping with that duty. This is not a power that could be used simply to divert the OEP away from investigating issues that could be in some way inconvenient to government. The provision for guidance on how the OEP intends to exercise its functions means that the guidance will in its nature be on the OEP’s approach to these issues, rather than defining specific areas to prioritise or deprioritise.
The OEP will operate with a very high degree of independence, especially when it comes to making individual enforcement decisions. In exercising its discretion in individual cases, the OEP would need to have regard to all relevant factors, but ultimately must take all its decisions objectively, impartially and independently of government.
Furthermore, the Environment Bill already provides that the OEP should focus on cases that have national implications. Guidance could not be issued that goes against these existing provisions and could instead add further detail. However, it will remain up to the OEP, within the framework provided by the Bill and any guidance, to determine whether cases that have a discrete local impact also have national implications, or for some other reason have sufficiently broad or widespread impact to be considered serious, or to be prioritised, for the purposes of its enforcement functions.
It is important to note that the Secretary of State is also able to offer guidance on how the OEP should respect the integrity of other bodies and existing statutory regimes. With such a huge and broad remit, the OEP will be able to scrutinise all public authorities, including many expert scientific bodies. This ability will be important for the OEP to be able to take a broad view and identify systemic issues.
Although I am sure the OEP will be extremely effective, it will be a relatively small body with a broad remit. The decisions of organisations such as Cefas, for example, which employs hundreds of world-leading marine scientists, will be based on deep expertise and often highly technical scientific data. The OEP will need to be mindful of this in its own decision-making when scrutinising these bodies. It is important to get this balance right to maintain confidence and integrity within existing regimes, and guidance could help to address this.
We believe that this power is important to ensure accountability, so that the OEP can contribute to delivering environmental improvements in the way I think we all agree it should: by acting strategically, not just in the short term, but long into the future. I can also confirm that this Government will not issue guidance to the OEP before its initial set-up or before it has had the chance to develop its own enforcement policy.
I recognise the points that noble Lords have raised, which is why the Government previously reintroduced a provision for Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to scrutinise any draft guidance before it is issued. I hope my assurances regarding what this power could and could not be used for, as well as the additional parliamentary scrutiny we have provided for, serve to reassure noble Lords about this provision.
Turning to Amendments 33B and 33C, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions on this topic, but in particular the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, for his detailed and continuously constructive conversations with me and my officials. On environmental review, the key area of debate has been the remedies available in the event that a breach of environmental law is confirmed by the court. At the heart of this issue has always been the fact that, through environmental review, the OEP will have the ability to bring cases to court outside standard judicial review time limits, potentially long after the decisions in question have been taken. For this reason, the Government have maintained that bespoke provision is necessary to ensure certainty and fairness for third parties who have acted in line with decisions made by public bodies, and to protect good administration.
The OEP may pursue cases for enforcement action only if it considers that the conduct in question would constitute a “serious” failure to comply with environmental law. Clause 23(7) states that the OEP must have regard, among other things,
“to the particular importance of prioritising cases that it considers have or may have national implications”.
While the OEP will have discretion to interpret these criteria, setting out its approach in its enforcement policy, it follows in the Government’s view that cases which only have a local concern—for example, the majority of individual planning and environmental permitting decisions—are unlikely to have sufficiently broad or widespread impact to be prioritised. The OEP could pursue such cases if it considers them indicative of a broader or more systemic issue or failure, or if especially serious harm has resulted, or may result, from the potential failure. The OEP, for example, could consider this in relation to the destruction of a nationally important population of a rare and protected species, but this should not be the norm.
However, we have listened to and carefully considered the views and concerns raised in this House and in the other place and agree that it is important that these protections are balanced with the need to prevent or mitigate serious environmental harm. As such, I am pleased to be able to propose an amendment in lieu which strikes this important balance. In introducing it to your Lordships, I must repeat my earlier acknowledgement that ministerial Statements in Hansard could be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation in the future, as I put a number of points firmly on the record.
This amendment will ensure that a high bar is still set for the granting of remedies where third parties may be affected. This is set out in Condition A of our amendment. However, critically, it will also provide that, even where Condition A is not met, if the court is satisfied that it is necessary to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or human health, and there is an exceptional public interest reason to do so, the court will be able to grant a remedy. This is set out in Condition B, which provides the court with discretion to undertake a real and meaningful, albeit weighted, balancing exercise. This means that there would no longer be a blanket prohibition on the granting of remedies where third parties are likely to suffer substantial hardship or prejudice.
In the rare cases where third parties may be affected, however, I would like to illustrate how this provision could operate with an example. Potentially, on an environmental review, the court could rule that an environmental permit had been granted to a factory operator with such inadequate conditions that it was unlawful. If the court concluded that Condition A was not met, because substantial hardship to the factory operator would be likely to result from the quashing of the permit, it would then turn to Condition B. If in the absence of a quashing order it is likely that the factory would continue to release harmful air pollutants with serious impacts for the health of the local population, the court may conclude that it is necessary to grant a remedy to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or human health.
At this point the court would need to weigh the public interest in preventing serious harm against the public interest in preventing substantial hardship occurring to a third party. To grant a remedy, the court would need to be satisfied that the public interest in preventing this serious harm substantially outweighed the interest in preventing hardship, thereby constituting an “exceptional public interest reason” to grant the remedy. In cases such as this, where severe damage to the environment or people’s health could occur or continue if no remedy was granted, the court may choose to grant a remedy.
Given the types of serious cases the OEP is likely to bring, we consider that this test strikes the appropriate balance. I have every faith that it will do so, and that this amendment will therefore serve to be a valuable addition to the OEP’s enforcement framework as a whole. I hope that this amendment serves to provide reassurance that the Government are thoroughly committed to protecting against environmental harms through the OEP’s enforcement functions. On this basis, I hope that noble Lords can support this amendment so that we can proceed to finalise the Bill, establish the OEP in law and enable it to begin its important work.
Finally, on Amendment 45B, tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and Amendments 45C and 45D, tabled by Rebecca Pow in the other place, I recognise at the outset the enormous efforts of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and my noble friend Lady Altmann in their work on this issue.
I am pleased that the Government’s amendment in lieu, which I announced on 26 October, was agreed yesterday in the other place. The frequency with which sewage is discharged from storm overflows into our waters is of course absolutely unacceptable. I want to be clear with the House that there have been some factually incorrect claims online that the Government are somehow through this Bill legalising sewage dumping; that is not only not true but very clearly the opposite of the truth. Claims to that effect are factually inaccurate and undermine the integrity of this debate.
I am pleased to confirm that our new amendment says that water companies
“must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges”
from their storm overflows. The word “must” means that we are placing a direct legal duty upon water companies to do this. Water companies face a choice: reduce sewage discharges or face the consequences of strong enforcement action.
Turning to the specific amendment from the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, we have redrafted it to ensure both proper legal effect and more effective implementation, and we have gone further in places. My counterpart in the other House has had many discussions with the noble Duke in recent days and weeks, and I would like to reiterate some of the points that she has made for the benefit of this House.
First, this amendment is a clear duty on water companies to deliver improvements, which the noble Duke pressed for throughout the passage of the Bill. Indeed, our amendment contains a stronger duty than in his initial wording; it will ensure that they have to take the necessary steps relative to the size of the problem.
We have taken the “progressive” reduction wording directly from the Lords’ amendment. “Progressive” means that water companies must continue to take action even after the next price review period and even after they have achieved a significant reduction and tackled high-priority sites, as required in the draft policy statement to the regulator, Ofwat.
We have also gone further than the noble Duke’s amendment in other areas. First, our amendment clearly specifies that “adverse impacts” includes impacts both on the environment and on public health. I know the noble Duke was particularly interested in enforcement, and rightly so. Our version goes further because it will dock in with the existing enforcement regime in the Water Industry Act. This means that Ofwat can issue enforcement notices to direct specific actions, or fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover, which could run to many millions of pounds. The Government will also be able to take enforcement action and we will not hesitate to do so if we do not see sufficient progress. Furthermore, the OEP will be able to take enforcement action against the Environment Agency, Ofwat or the Government should it feel that any of us are not adequately discharging our duties.
I extend my thanks very sincerely again to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for championing the cause of our rivers, and I hope that he will now be able to support our amendment today. More broadly, I acknowledge the exceptional work on the Bill by all noble Lords, whose scrutiny and advice has led to it being immensely strengthened, with new, world-leading measures added to it. This is a testament to the cross-party working, dedication and expertise of noble Lords in protecting our natural environment. Noble Lords have improved our Bill immeasurably, and I hope that, like me, they want to see it pass into law today, as the world is watching from Glasgow. I beg to move.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)
Leave out from first “do” to end and insert “insist on its disagreement with the Commons in their Amendments 31A and 31B on which the Commons have insisted for their Reason 31D, do not insist on its Amendment 31C in lieu to which the Commons have disagreed for the same Reason, and do propose Amendment 31E in lieu—
31E: Clause 24, page 14, line 30, leave out subsections (1) and (2) and insert—
“(1) The OEP has complete discretion in the carrying out of its functions and in preparing and publishing its budget (but subject to this section).
(2) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to the OEP on the matters listed in section 22(6), but this should not include matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
(2A) The OEP must have regard to the guidance in preparing its enforcement policy, unless there are material considerations that indicate otherwise.””
My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Bill team for the very helpful discussions that I have had with them throughout, and particularly during the last week. In spite of this, here I am with a further amendment, and I feel slightly embarrassed to be pressing yet again on the matter of the independence of the OEP. However, the strength of opinion across this House was clear at the first stage of ping-pong, when my amendment passed with a majority of 51.
The Government clearly have an umbilical attachment to the guidance powers in Clause 22, and my amendment makes a major concession in that it does not seek to remove the guidance power. I expect that there will be some noble Lords who believe that this concedes too much. However, the proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment would introduce a specific constraint on the Secretary of State in issuing guidance, namely that guidance cannot be issued on
“matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State”.
The aim of this subsection is to prevent the Secretary of State having a conflict of interest. Without it, he or she could, in effect, mark their own homework.
The proposed subsections (1) and (2A) of my amendment state that, in spite of any guidance, the OEP
“has complete discretion in the carrying out of its functions”,
and that, while it
“must have regard to the guidance”,
the OEP does not have to follow it if
“there are material considerations that indicate otherwise.”
These subsections are designed to ensure that the OEP has the operational independence that we all want, in spite of the guidance power.
I turn to the Minister’s opening speech and quote back two key sentences. The first is:
“It would also be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on specific matters relating to the enforcement of environmental law against the Secretary of State for Defra, given that there would be a conflict of interest.”
The second is:
“the OEP would be expected to have regard to any guidance issued, but it retains the ability and discretion to make its own decisions and is not bound to act in accordance with the guidance where it has clear reasons not to do so.”
Although the wording is slightly different from my amendment, the implications of the points made in the Minister’s speech are more or less identical. I hope that, later in this debate, the Minister will confirm that my interpretation is indeed correct. The only piece that is left out is the OEP setting its own budget, but there are some other safeguards in other parts of the Bill.
I consider it a great pity that the Government were not prepared to accept my amendment, as the Minister’s speech implies that its intent has indeed been accepted. However, as the Minister stated at the start of his speech, ministerial statements in Hansard could be used by the courts in future as an aid to statutory interpretation. I look to the lawyers, because it is well above my pay grade to judge the value of that statement and, therefore, whether what we have heard is a sufficiently robust protection for the OEP’s independence.
The Minister also made three other important points that respond to earlier concerns expressed about the guidance power. First, the guidance power could not be used to preclude the OEP from investigating a broad category of cases. The example I used in an earlier debate was new nuclear power stations. Secondly, it is up to the OEP to decide whether cases have national implications. For instance, a case that has specific and local implications, such as the destruction of a unique habitat, could also be of national significance. Thirdly, the Secretary of State will not issue guidance to the OEP before the initial setup and before the OEP has had a chance to develop its own enforcement policy.
I thank the Minister for his speech. I believe that we have converged on a way forward that protects the operational independence of the OEP. The solution may not be perfect, but it gives me some reassurance on this absolutely central plank of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, it appears that there has been some sort of rapprochement—albeit, I suspect, reluctant. On the one hand are us, from all sides of the House of Lords, who wish to see a strong and independent OEP; on the other side is the current Defra team, which still, I get the impression, wishes to guide its activities as far as is politically possible. It would appear that we are gradually getting closer together. Sadly, however, we are not seeing a total volte-face by the Government, as we have over sewage and CSOs—or, for that matter, on breaches of parliamentary rules on lobbying.
Unfortunately, the independence of the OEP, a body that has yet to exist, is a concept too esoteric for the public to even know about, let alone to get hot under the collar about. If they knew about it, bearing in mind the Government’s behaviour in recent weeks, I should have thought that they would be concerned that future Secretaries of State could be exercising guidance over this body, whose primary function, let us face it, is to hold the Government, its Ministers and their quangos to account.
As my noble friend Lord Krebs said, his Motion A1 is very much in line with what my good friend Rebecca Pow, the Minister in the other place, has already said on the Floor of that House, as echoed by the Minister in this House today. It would have been good to get it on the face of the Bill to make the sentiment more certain and, above all, more durable, because that is really what matters. Bearing in mind that we are unlikely to get another environment Bill for some decades, I for one would have preferred us to move beyond just the commitments of this excellent team of Ministers and to a properly constituted, independent OEP that will stand the test of time. However, although I strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Krebs, I recognise that the rapprochement we have achieved is now probably as far as we are going to get.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, that we have achieved some rapprochement, I was looking for total independence for the office for environmental protection and the consequences of that for Northern Ireland. While welcoming the progress, I am therefore still disappointed that the Government have rejected attempts to strengthen the independence of the office for environmental protection in law. I felt that needed to be placed on the face of the Bill.
I have carefully read what the Minister in the other place, Rebecca Pow, said yesterday on this important matter and note that she put some helpful statements on the record, including to confirm that the Government have no intention of issuing guidance before the OEP is up and running and has developed its own enforcement policy. She also recognised the conflict of interest inherent in this guidance power involving the implementation of environmental law by the Defra Secretary of State.
While these are welcome statements, my fear is that they could be forgotten or ignored by future Secretaries of State. I repeat the point made in several debates on the importance of future-proofing. I recall that I had amendments about the need for the independence of the OEP in Northern Ireland in Committee, on Report and during the last ping-pong. My great wish remains for such assurances to be written into the Bill, but sadly—like the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington —I believe we have achieved as much as we possibly can. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, I will write to the DAERA Minister in Northern Ireland to ask for similar assurances to be provided.
I ask the Minister here to tell the House whether he is confident that the Bill and this OEP will be totally accountable, and what discussions he has had with the DAERA Minister in Northern Ireland regarding the accountability of the OEP. We have a five-party Executive in Northern Ireland, and it is not always easy to achieve consensus on a wide range of issues. I would welcome answers to those questions.
My Lords, having pestered the Minister since well before Second Reading for meaningful judicial remedies on environmental review, I will speak to Motion B and Commons Amendments 33C and 33D, which I believe are the product of negotiations between a variety of departments —some of them powerfully opposed to what they see as constraints on development.
While I thank the Minister and his colleagues at Defra for shouldering that task, I sense that the imprint of the Treasury and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities is visible on the end result. The good news is that the courts are now to be trusted with a discretion over whether to grant a remedy, even if substantial hardship or prejudice may be caused to developers or other third parties. The bad news is that this discretion is, as the Minister has said, weighted: weighted in favour of the developer. Uniquely in our law, the court will be barred—save for an exceptional public interest reason—from granting a remedy in such cases, even if it is satisfied that a remedy is necessary to prevent serious damage to the environment or to public health. The Minister’s example of the harmfully polluting factory makes just that point.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, spoke in Committee of an underlying feeling that environmental law is to be
“a grade below some other laws so that, although you fail to comply with it, you can still be all right”.—[Official Report, 30/6/21; col. 815.]
I regret that, while this amendment does achieve a limited upgrade for environmental law, a good deal of truth remains in his comment.
It was tempting—but would in the end have been futile—to fight on so, making the best of it, I end with two positive remarks. First, I draw attention to the helpful indication that the Minister has just given about what is intended by the obscure phrase “exceptional public interest reason”. By his own account, such a reason will exist whenever the public interest in preventing serious harm to the environment or to human health substantially outweighs the interest in preventing hardship to a third party. Less benign interpretations of that phrase might have been imagined, so I am grateful to him and his counterpart in the other place, Rebecca Pow, for their clarity and their express acknowledgment that their statements may in future be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation under Pepper v Hart.
Secondly, I take comfort in the fact that even after what we must assume to be the passage of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the full panoply of court remedies will remain available on judicial review—if not at the suit of the OEP, which will be allowed to bring judicial review proceedings only in urgent cases, then at least to other claimants with a sufficient interest. In that context, I note the Government’s view, expressed from the Dispatch Box on 30 June, that
“the OEP’s complaints and enforcement functions would not affect the rights of other persons to bring legal challenges against public authorities by way of a judicial review”.—[Official Report, 30/6/21; col. 823.]
In those circumstances, with profound thanks to the noble Lords from all parties and none who have signed and supported various amendments on this theme, and to the Minister and the Bill team, I offer a qualified but sincere welcome to Amendments 33C and 33D.
My Lords, I will speak specifically on Motions A, A1, B and D. My noble friend Lady Quin will then return to Motion C later in the debate. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, for their perseverance and commitment to achieving proper OEP independence and enforcement powers. As we have said repeatedly, these measures are necessary to ensure that the environmental standards set out in this Bill, and indeed elsewhere, are protected for the longer term. I am also grateful to the Minister and the Bill team for listening and engaging on the issues that we have raised.
However, what we have before us today is not ideal, and we believe that the Government could have gone further to amend the Bill to give the assurances for which noble Lords across this House have repeatedly pressed. Throughout the process, we have supported the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in his determination to protect the independence of the OEP. This has been a fundamental issue and we continue to support Motion Al, which he has tabled today. We believe, as his amendment sets out, that the OEP should have complete discretion to carry out its functions free from the interference of government.
In this context, there have been a number of areas of detail which have been helpfully clarified by the Government in the Commons and, again, in this Chamber by the Minister today. For example, despite the Government’s insistence on the right to issue guidance to the OEP, we welcome the recognition that this should be limited to the areas of OEP enforcement policy listed in Clause 22. Quite rightly, it has been made clear that the Secretary of State cannot issue guidance on enforcement issues against the Defra Secretary of State, as this would be a clear conflict of interest. It has also been helpfully clarified that it would be within the scope of the OEP’s remit to investigate broad categories of individual cases that might have a common theme. This includes cases that have a discrete local impact but national implications.
We also reiterate our support for the proposal that Parliament should scrutinise the draft guidance before it is issued. All this goes some way to providing reassurance on an issue that we nevertheless believe continues to represent a flaw in the overall construct of the legislation. Can the Minister also assure us that before the Government publish any draft guidance, they will consult the OEP? Can he also assure us that the framework which will be agreed with the OEP will also set out its commitment to a five-year indicative budget? These are issues which the Minister will know are outstanding from earlier debate.
On the issue of enforcement, we welcome the tabling of the Government’s amendments to Clause 37(8), which address the concerns that the threshold for achieving a successful judicial review was insurmountable and anyway gave precedence to the interests of third-party polluters rather than those of the environment and the community. The amendment recognises that, on occasions, granting a remedy to address behaviour or damage will be necessary even if it may cause substantial hardship to the rights of a third party.
We have argued from the beginning that the courts should have the discretion to weigh all these factors equally in the balance. The Government’s amendments do not achieve that objective, but nevertheless we support the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, in the view that this compromise wording is a step forward and the best that we will get at this stage of the process. No doubt the exact meaning of “the exceptional public interest” test will be played out in the courts in years to come, and we very much hope that the widest possible interpretation of it will become the norm.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we still have reservations about the final wording in the Bill on these issues, but nevertheless, we accept that progress has been made, and hope that he can reassure us on the remaining outstanding questions about the OEP’s independence.
My Lords, I speak to Motion C, introduced by the Minister.
Members of both Houses of Parliament and the public have become increasingly aware during the passage of this Bill that our rivers, of which we are so proud, are being despoiled every day by sewage discharges, both legal and illegal. The BBC and national newspapers have carried so many disturbing stories and even Ministers have learned to what extent our aquatic environment is being continuously mistreated.
I thank the Government for tabling in the other place the amendment in lieu, which the House of Commons passed last night by a large majority. I also thank Rebecca Pow, the Environment Minister, for discussing the amendment with me last Thursday and I thank several Ministers and the Secretary of State for various meetings which we have had in recent weeks.
Since this House passed the cross-party amendment on 26 October, which placed
“a duty on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged”,
there has been considerable public support for this wording. Even Water UK, the industry body which represents the water companies, put out a statement the following day that MPs should back the Lords amendment to strengthen the Environment Bill. I was surprised by this as I had assumed that the water companies would oppose my amendment, but they want the Government to go further. Specifically, they want the Government to instruct regulators—I assume that means Ofwat—to authorise investment in sewers. From the Minister’s words when moving the Commons amendment, it appears that the Government will be giving suitable directions to Ofwat. The government amendment requires by law that the water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges. I particularly welcome the reference to “public health” in the new amendment.
Part of the problem at the moment is that there are very few prosecutions. My original amendment would have required the Secretary of State and the regulators to exercise their powers of enforcement. The Government have chosen to reword this. Now, the duty on the water companies is enforceable by the Secretary of State and others, and I was pleased to hear the Minister in the other place, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, state that Ofwat and the Government will not hesitate to take enforcement action and are able to fine water companies up to 10% of their annual turnover. In addition, the office for environmental protection will be able to take enforcement action against the Government, the Environment Agency or Ofwat if it feels they are not adequately discharging their duties.
I cannot disguise my concern that the new government amendment is weaker in certain respects than my own, but the Minister’s statement last night and the noble Lord’s from the Dispatch Box this afternoon have greatly strengthened the amendment. It is interesting that both in the other place and here the Ministers have specifically said that they wish to put a number of points on the record in the knowledge that ministerial statements in Hansard could be drawn on by the courts as a legitimate aid to statutory interpretation in future.
I regret that I cannot support Motion C1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. Although it is worded very similarly to my amendment from last week, the Government’s amendment takes on so many of my points. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that they have been pushed to this point by strong opinions in both Houses of Parliament and in the country. In fact, it is surprising that Governments of both parties have allowed the pollution of our rivers to continue for so long and to such a degree.
As a result of improvements to this Bill, Parliament and the public will be better informed about sewage discharges, and the Government will have the power and, we hope, the will to take action. It will be a measure of the success of this part of the Bill if these discharges are dramatically reduced in the near future. Ministers are now required to report to Parliament on progress, and I know that we will want to hold Ministers to account on this matter.
Pollution of our rivers by sewage is a national embarrassment; I hope that these clauses in this Environment Bill will bring it to an end. I conclude with this thought: our children and grandchildren will surely be surprised that we allowed this revolting state of affairs to continue for as long as it did.
My Lords, my coughing is not Covid, in case anybody is concerned.
I am so sad and disappointed that we have got to this place: we are under pressure, because of the primacy of the other place, to pass a Bill that is not as good as the one we amended. It seems that the Government do not understand what they have done in stripping out some of the safeguards we have put in. This will come to haunt MPs, because people will not forget the campaign to stop the sewage discharges into our rivers. Some people were also concerned about the office for environmental protection. This will not be forgotten.
I know the Minister said that this was not true, but I would argue that the Government have legitimised the sewage discharges that will be happening from now on. There is no timetable and there are no targets. Quite honestly, it seems that the Government do not understand the pressure that is coming from the grass roots—from dog walkers, fishing enthusiasts, Surfers Against Sewage and wild swimmers, who have seen this and really care about it. We have returned to the 1970s version of ourselves as the “dirty man of Europe”.
I hope that the Government will now admit the deliberate confusion that they created about the cost of stopping any further discharges. The figure—was it £60 billion or £600 billion?—that they put forward was absolutely outrageous; of course, they quickly withdrew it when people started to check. The Government could loan the money to the water companies to put in the infrastructure that we need to prevent discharges in a relatively short space of time. However, that would mean, of course, that those water companies could not pay dividends to investors, senior people and shareholders until the debt was paid off. If we had a tough regulatory system, the scandal would never have been able to escalate in the way that it has. It has been a failure of the Government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency and, unfortunately, the Environment Bill does nothing to deal with our relatively toothless system of enforcement.
I had hoped that we would be able to pressure the Government even more. Quite honestly, if any votes are put this afternoon—I cannot give up—I will vote for them, because the Government have still not achieved what we hoped would be achieved and what the general public want us to achieve: a cleaner Britain. I am hoping that the Government will at some point come forward with more safeguards, but at the moment I am not holding my breath and, as I said, I will vote for any amendments that are pressed.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, on bringing us this far and I add my congratulations to my noble friend the Minister.
I want to ask two small questions. My noble friend said that he would look for the water companies to achieve a progressive reduction in the discharge of sewage over a period and admitted that this would go beyond one price review. As we are so far into the current price review, what will the level of expenditure be within this review, and does he admit that the majority of expenditure will probably fall in the next price review?
He is aware of my concern about the delay in introducing the regulations under Schedule 3 of the water Act 2020. Does he not share my concern that we will still potentially be front-loading raw sewage as surface water will be allowed to mix with the overflow from the combined sewers, pumping more raw sewage into the rivers? I am deeply unhappy that we have not yet fulfilled one of the outstanding requests of the Michael Pitt report from 2007, when surface water flooding first became an issue, and even after the awful floods that we have had since. We have not managed to achieve an ending to the automatic right to connect and, until these regulations are introduced, we will not do so.
Is my noble friend able to put a timetable on when these regulations will finally come into place, so that we can have a pincer movement on the raw sewage going upstream and downstream, as addressed by the amendments before us this afternoon?
My Lords, I will speak to Motion C1. I know enough about military strategy to know that where a Duke of Wellington does not lead a forward manoeuvre, it may be unwise to try to advance when he is not leading. So I am very mindful of the views of the House, and other noble Lords will speak before I decide whether to press Motion C1.
The point he made, which I think still holds, is that, although there has been movement on the part of the Government, in two key respects—the scope of the duty on water companies and the timescale in which it is intended to be met and in which we are intended to see improvements—the amendment that the Government have moved is unsatisfactory. I think there is general recognition in the House that we are not talking about a minor matter. We are talking about 400,000 discharges of raw sewage into Britain’s rivers in the last year alone. All the evidence is that the number is increasing, not reducing. We are not moving in the right direction; we are moving in the wrong direction and indeed, because of the impact of Brexit and the supply chain problems and all of that, and the shortage of relevant chemicals, the Environment Agency has issued formal advice exempting water undertakings from having to meet their prior conditions.
The noble Duke’s first amendment referred to taking “all reasonable steps”, which would imply a short timescale, and my amendment refers to
“a period specified by the Secretary of State”
in which defined objectives are to be met. My question to the Minister, which I think will be of great importance to the House since there is no reference to any timescale in his amendment, is: in what timescale does he envisage that there will be significant reductions in sewage discharges?
The second issue relates to scope. The noble Duke’s amendment put a direct duty on water companies to improve the performance of sewerage systems to get at the heart of the problem—inadequate sewage treatment facilities to reduce discharges of raw sewage. Now, the Government’s amendment refers to reducing
“the adverse impact of discharges”,
which is an indirect duty and does not require at all, necessarily—but certainly not in a defined timescale—significant improvements in the performance of sewerage systems. I ask the Minister why the Government are so focused on the indirect impacts—which we accept are important, and the noble Duke referred to that—rather than a direct duty on water companies to improve the performance of their sewerage systems?
A final point of some significance is: who can enforce this duty? Because, as everyone has accepted, without enforcement the duty will probably go unfulfilled. Philip Dunne—to whom we pay tribute and who has done great work in the other place on this issue—in his speech yesterday referred to his continuing concerns about enforcement, particularly in the context of a cut in the Environment Agency’s staffing and budget of two-thirds in the last 10 years, which has dramatically reduced its capacity to enforce or indeed even to inspect—and of course, unless you have inspected, you cannot enforce.
The noble Duke’s amendments would have given any individual or body corporate the power to enforce or to bring enforcement action or legal action because of the non-fulfilment by a water company of the duty. I think in particular of local authorities. Of course, it is local authorities that best know what is going on in their area and have the professional staff who are able to make assessments. Under the Government’s amendment, only the Secretary of State and defined state institutions can hold water companies to account for the enforcement of their duties. That is a very significant limitation on the noble Duke’s amendment.
So my third question to the Minister is: why are the Government not prepared to allow local authorities and non-state bodies, many of which are highly expert in this area, to bring proceedings against water companies that are not fulfilling the duty that is now set out in the Government’s amendment?
To me, these are three very significant issues: timescale, the scope of the duty and enforcement. In all three respects, the Government’s amendment is wanting at the moment. It does not lead me to have any expectation that the noble Duke’s aspirations, which we all share, will actually be fulfilled, because the timescale for meeting these objectives could be inordinately long. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords, and in particular of the Minister at the end of the debate, before I decide whether, even if the noble Duke himself is retiring from the field, others of us might feel that it is in the public interest that we should attempt to advance none the less.
My Lords, in response to the public outcry at the Government’s opposition to the noble Duke’s original amendments, the Government promised us that they would deliver the wishes of the public in a new amendment, in keeping with the intentions of the Duke. That is something that we really should bear in mind today when we consider the intricacies of the back-and-forth of the various comments that have been made.
It would have been better if, yesterday evening, our MPs had stood firm and insisted on clarity and action by Ministers. That is what is needed to stop our rivers and seas being treated like an open sewer by the water companies. It is the case that the public must never again be faced with an annual figure of 400,000 releases of raw sewage into our rivers and seas.
In that regard, I have three quick points to make. Will the Government confirm that they will, in due course, do three things? First, will they work with the Environment Agency to immediately start setting tougher permits for sewage works and CSOs, and on the monitoring, inspection and enforcement regimes, by way of ministerial direction? Secondly, will they tell Ofwat that it has a central role to play in cleaning up sewage using existing regulations, and will they make Ofwat accountable to Parliament on an annual basis for progress in reducing sewage discharges? Finally, will they strengthen current schemes to generate clear investment plans, backed by resources, to begin eliminating the worst and most damaging sewage pollution?
I think we all understand that the public will be watching, particularly in the towns and villages represented by those MPs who supported the Government so robustly in the other place last night.
Although this is not strictly relevant, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the important international agreement on rainforest protection in recent days. I am so pleased.
I am content with the government amendments as outlined by my noble friend the Minister, especially the improved parliamentary scrutiny that is provided for on guidance. I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, or indeed with the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, which we have not really been able to debate properly. I think we are on the way to a cleaner Britain through these proposals, so I am extremely grateful for them.
However, I have a question for clarification on the new untreated-sewage provisions, which I do not think has been covered by what has already been described. How will we know what is happening in terms of the success of progressive improvements in sewage disposal into our rivers and the sea? What are the monitoring arrangements? These are important to all of us and to the water companies, on which we rely for our water and for investment, whatever the agreed timetable on the new proposals.
My Lords, I shall also speak to Motion C. I begin by giving my renewed congratulations and thanks to the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for all his efforts, which have not only caused the Government to concede in various ways but highlighted the issue to the wider public, so that many of our citizens who were previously unaware of the extent of sewage discharges are now very much engaged and determined to see that these large-scale problems are addressed. It is a pleasure to have been involved in the cross-party work with the noble Duke, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates. I wish the Government had included all the elements of the noble Duke’s amendment, but I recognise some of the commitments that have been included, and which represent a considerable improvement.
I will make three brief points which I think have not been fully covered so far. The first point is about cost. There is a lot of controversy about the costs of the clean-up, and the Government’s estimates of the costs have been challenged by many people as being far too large. I hope that the Government, in determining the costs as they move forward, will consult widely—not just with the water companies but with all stakeholders and communities—particularly looking at the claims of some people who believe that much more can be done quickly and relatively more cheaply than the Government claim.
For example, the Thames tideway scheme is claimed to be able to eliminate 90% of storm overflows at a cost of £20 to £25 on London water bills a year, which is not a huge cost, given some of the figures that have been bandied around. Many individuals and environmental groups think that a substantial reduction of spills can be achieved in the short term without, for example, having to replace wholescale networks of Victorian sewers. We need to look at what can be achieved with a fairly modest increase in water bills.
Secondly, I still believe that we need improved take-up of technology by the water companies. For example, when looking at the figures on smart meters and comparing what is happening in this country with the United States, we can see the introduction of technology in a much more widespread way in the United States.
Thirdly, we need a holistic approach to particular rivers and coastal waters. It makes no sense to upgrade—as sometimes happens—one treatment works on a river but not another one just a few kilometres downstream, which means that the environment for aquatic life improves only for the distance between the two and there are no proper, fundamental effects. Within an overall approach, there must also be priorities. I believe that the chalk streams and the SSSI areas—particularly sensitive coastal areas and places where there is an effect on health—should still be very high priorities.
I share some of the frustrations expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, particularly when she talked about European battles of the past. I remember campaigning, a long time ago, and feeling ashamed that our own country was so far behind in, for example, the clean-up of waters around our beaches and coastal areas. It is very depressing that we need to once again express shame for what is happening in our rivers and coastal waters today.
In conclusion, I welcome the progress that has been made during the course of the Bill’s passage, but the issue remains a crucial one. I hope that the Government will find themselves under close scrutiny from all parties, across both Houses, to ensure that they deliver on their promises, and that we will see an end to the appalling amount of sewage discharges which have occurred in recent months and years.
My Lords, on Motion C, I too congratulate my noble friend the Duke of Wellington on all his amendments throughout the passage of the Bill to which I have added my name. It has been a pleasure to work co-operatively across the House, including with the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates.
Indeed, noble Lords’ scrutiny has achieved many important improvements. I therefore thank our excellent Ministers—my honourable friend Rebecca Pow in the other place and my noble friend the Minister—my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, and the entire Bill team for their engagement, hard work and willingness to be persuaded to finally accept the need to place duties on the water companies. I also commend the work of my honourable friend Philip Dunne in the other place, who did so much to move this forward.
At last, the Bill places a direct legal duty on the water companies. The government amendment seems to me to produce what we and my noble friend the Duke of Wellington were aiming to achieve with the most recent amendment. There is considerable public concern that the Environment Agency is not using its existing powers, has relied too much on self-reporting and has consistently tolerated repeated illegal discharges which damage our waterways and public health. I am grateful to the Government that they have now specified both the environmental and human health aspects.
It will also, as other noble Lords have said, be important to monitor and oversee sewage discharges far more rigorously and to track and reduce such unacceptable discharges so that companies do not rely on not being caught as the most cost-effective way to proceed. I have sympathy with the frustrations of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, but I believe that, although in an ideal world we would not want to start from here, we are not dealing with the situation that we would all wish to see. After years of neglect and companies having behaved so egregiously, I do not believe that this can be addressed instantly. Therefore, it will take time to undo the neglect. I believe that the Government must and will take the necessary actions, but of course we will see over time.
Currently, we have two excellent Ministers who are committed to the aims of the Bill, for which I am most grateful. I also briefly congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson, on the pressure they have put on to improve the independence of the OEP. Overall, I believe that this House has achieved a significant amount. We have pushed the Government as far as we possibly can, and I hope that we will now accept the government Motions and be rightly proud of this landmark Bill.
My Lords, I have rightly stayed silent up to now, having been content with listening, as I have done throughout. I think noble Lords are hugely to be congratulated for encouraging and indeed pushing the Government into a much more favourable position which I think, as the noble Baroness has just said, we ought to accept. I remain particularly concerned about one thing: the discharge of sewage into rivers and chalk streams. How on earth will the Government really see that this is properly monitored? Because if it is not monitored, it is a waste of time.
Very briefly, I was very keen that all the amendments in your Lordships’ House, when they went down to the other place a couple of weeks ago, should be accepted, but we are where we are and it is a good illustration of a degree of co-operation between the two Houses. I do wish that the other place would not look on us as competition, or adversaries, but rather as a complementary Chamber very much influenced by those with real knowledge and experience, as has been marvellously illustrated this afternoon by the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Krebs and Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington.
Led by our Cross-Benchers, we have achieved a considerable degree of improvement to a Bill that started out as a somewhat flawed flagship. I think now we can take a certain quiet pride. It is not perfect; it would have been better had more of our amendments been accepted and had those before us not been doctored a little, but we must not be churlish. However, I do hope that the other place will come to regard your Lordships’ House as not a competitor or an adversary but a complementary Chamber that can add real value. If one compares the depth of the debate in your Lordships’ House with what happened rather briefly in another place, we can be gently satisfied and quietly proud of what this House has achieved.
It would be churlish to sit down without saying to my noble friend Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park that we appreciate what he has done. However, in future Bills it would be a good idea if Ministers in your Lordships’ House were given a little more latitude to be responsive at the Dispatch Box—a little more authority, because they deserve it, and my noble friend Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park has given a lifetime of service to the causes embraced in the Bill. This is a satisfactory afternoon and it would be spoiled by any Division.
My Lords, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, with regard to the Minister and his team’s unfailing co-operation and ambition for the Bill, which is the most important Bill on the environment that we have seen in this country for at least the last 30 years. When it came to us at Second Reading, all of us welcomed it but said that it needed to go a lot further. It would be churlish not to reflect on the fact that it has gone somewhat further, if not as far as most of us—perhaps including the Minister—hoped we might be able to achieve.
On the three final hills on which we have chosen in this House to fight today, we are in the position of having to accept that we are where we are, given the majority of the Government on the other side. On the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson—he has indeed been a champion redoubtable—on pushing for remedies for the OEP, that is an incredibly important issue and it is of deep regret that it will not go into the Bill. However, I hope, like I am sure other Members around this Chamber, that the assurances that the Minister has given today can bear fruit should there be—as I am sure there will—instances in the future in the courts as these issues are challenged.
On the independence of the OEP, on which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, led so skilfully on behalf of this House, he is right to say that the Government seem to have an umbilical attachment to not wishing the OEP to have the independence that absolutely all in this House agree that it should. It is of deep regret that that has not made its way into the Bill. However, I think all of us in this House have confidence in the current holders of the OEP, and we hope that they will use the discretion given by Rebecca Pow in the other place so that they are not bound to the guidance if there are good reasons for not taking it forward. I hope that they will make full use of those powers and challenge the Government should they so feel the need.
Personally, where I am most concerned that the Government still have that guidance power to contain the independence of the OEP is on the issue of planning, which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned. The Government still retain the ability to perhaps constrain the OEP from taking enforcement measures on planning applications, which may appear local and discrete but have nationally significant biodiversity implications. Given the fate of the biodiversity in our country at this time, we know just how important that may be.
Finally, on the issue of sewage, we on these Benches—particularly my noble friend Lord Oates, who has worked so closely with other colleagues from other Benches—thank the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, for the campaign that he has taken forward, and indeed Philip Dunne, who I see is with us this afternoon. It is good to be able to say to them that we in this House thank them both for their campaigning to bring this appalling issue, which is really important for both the environment and human health, to the attention of the Government and the public more broadly. On behalf of all of us, I thank both of them for doing that.
As I say, we have probably pushed the Government as far as they are prepared to go on this issue. However, in having made the general public so aware of what is at stake, the Government can be under no illusion that, while we have done our job here today and in preceding weeks, if they do not listen, act and take the necessary steps to stop these appalling sewage discharges, the public will notice, and it will not just be the environment that pays the price in the future. The Government will pay the price at the next general election.
My Lords, I will particularly address the amendments from the Government and in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis on water quality, in Motions C and C1. First, I thank the Minister and Defra officials for their time in listening to our concerns throughout the passage of this Bill. While we welcome the government amendment to improve water quality, we must be clear that the Government did not want to include stronger provisions in this Bill to improve and protect our rivers and waterways, including from sewage discharges. We have the government amendment before us today because of the refusal of your Lordships’ House, Philip Dunne in the other place and in particular the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, to give up on campaigning to protect both our environment and public health. Once again, the Minister has been dragged back to debate this because people have been disgusted that the situation was allowed to continue. The Government truly brought the pong into ping-pong.
While the government amendment before us today does improve the Bill, noble Lords have said that they are finding it in some ways unsatisfactory, as it does not go far enough to address some of the concerns that have been raised today. The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, talked about the considerable public support for his amendment, including from water companies, which he said just want more public investment from the Government in order to improve the sewerage system. He also expressed concern that the government amendment is considerably weaker than his in some aspects. We strongly supported the Duke on this issue, and believe that his original amendment was better than the government amendment before us today, and it is disappointing that Government refused to just accept it. My noble friend Lord Adonis has now picked this up, and he clearly laid out his reasons for doing so: his concerns that discharges have been increasing; that enforcement has not been what it should be; and that this is partly down to cuts to the Environment Agency, which have reduced its capacity to both monitor and take action.
I will now draw particular attention to three concerns raised by my colleague Luke Pollard in the other place. First, on prosecutions—the noble Duke mentioned their lack—will the Minister commit to reviewing the system of fines and penalties? The current penalties clearly do not have the effect of stopping certain water companies form routinely dumping raw sewage into our waterways. Penalties must be meaningful so that they change behaviour, or they are pointless. Water companies and the regulator, Ofwat, have consistently failed to stop damaging discharges. They know they that they are currently allowed to discharge raw sewage only in exceptional circumstances, but take no notice, which is why penalties and fines must be reviewed. Southern Water had committed no fewer than 168 previous offences before being fined this summer.
Secondly, we need to strengthen the duty of Ofwat to take action, to give water companies a clear direction on targets, ensure that there is a priority to clean up the most polluting discharges, and have oversight on progress from the relevant parliamentary committees. The regulator should have environmental experts available to strengthen its decision-making.
Thirdly, can the Minister further clarify what is meant by “progressive reduction”—the timescales mentioned by my noble friend Lord Adonis? By when, and by how much? Yesterday, I attended COP 26, as mentioned by the Minister in his introduction. Much is being made there of the importance of putting nature and the environment at the centre of policy-making and legislation. We know that one consequence of climate change in the UK is likely to be heavier rainfall. Without progressive reduction being pinned down properly, we are a very long way away from seeing an end to this persistent pollution.
In yesterday’s debate in the other place, the Minister, Rebecca Pow, ran out of time to respond to these questions from my colleague, so I would be grateful if the Minister could take the opportunity to answer these points today. I also look forward to his reply to other concerns raised by noble Lords in this debate, including my noble friend Lord Adonis, and whether he can reassure the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that there will be proper parliamentary oversight and progress on ending the practice of discharging raw sewage into the waterways, because without proper oversight on progress, it will, as I said, take a very long time to change this behaviour at all.
I also look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions from my noble friend Lady Quin and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, regarding the true cost of tackling this issue. If he cannot answer these questions, can he explain why the Government are refusing to commit to addressing these very real concerns, which we have raised time and again?
Noble Lords are right: the Bill is in a better place now than when it started, and that is mainly down to concerns raised by your Lordships. But it is a shame that the Government have not been able to completely accept today’s important improvements.
I thank your Lordships for your contributions to this debate. This is a landmark Environment Bill, the benefits of which will undoubtedly be felt by future generations both in the UK and, as a result of, for example, our due diligence legislation and more besides, internationally. I thank your Lordships for the collaborative and expert manner in which you have approached this Bill. Your constructive support and knowledge have been invaluable in enabling the passage of this Bill and making it better than when it first came to this House.
I will begin by addressing points made by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, whom I thank again for sharing his expertise, time and patience on this important issue, and for his words today. I am happy to reiterate my earlier statement, also in response to questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that, in exercising its discretion in individual cases, the OEP would of course need to have regard to a range of relevant factors but ultimately must take all its decisions objectively, impartially and independently of government. Furthermore, I am happy to confirm that the Government are committed to ensuring the operational independence of the OEP.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked whether, in preparing the guidance, we would consult the OEP. The answer is, of course, yes we would. She also asked whether the framework document that the Government will agree with the OEP will make explicit reference to the Government’s commitment to a five-year indicative budget ring-fenced within each spending review period. The answer is that the framework document will make explicit reference to the five-year indicative budget and Defra will provide a ring-fence within each spending review period, in line with previous government commitments. It will also add detail that will guide and give further clarity to the relationship between the OEP, Defra and the rest of government.
To answer the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, I assure her that Defra Ministers and officials continue to have very regular discussions with DAERA, as has my noble friend, who I see up in the Gallery now, as they have throughout the passage of this Bill. Northern Irish Ministers have consistently sought parity as far as possible between the two Administrations with regard to the OEP. I know that my friend, Minister Pow, will continue these discussions and will support Northern Ireland in setting up a fully independent OEP.
Turning to Amendment 33B on the environmental review measure, I reiterate that the changes made by the Government in the other place will provide discretion to the court to grant remedies if it is satisfied that it is necessary to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the environment or people’s health, and there is an exceptional public interest reason to do so. They also ensure that a high bar is still set for the granting of remedies where third parties may be affected.
I place again on the record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for his important contribution to improving the Bill and the manner in which he has engaged with me and my officials. I am glad that my words have at least gone some way to reassure him sufficiently today.
I turn to Amendment 45B in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and Amendment 45C tabled by Rebecca Pow on storm overflows. The Government’s new amendment in lieu will underpin the storm overflows measures in the Bill by requiring water companies to secure a progressive reduction—I will come to the definition of that in a moment—in the adverse impacts of their storm overflows. It will make our expectations unequivocal in law and enforceable with the full suite of sanctions available under the Water Industry Act 1991.
A number of noble Lords mentioned cost and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Jones, mentioned figures. The £600 billion figure—I say at the outset that no one pretends it is a scientific figure; a huge range has been described, from £150 billion to £600 billion, which is partly a reflection of the fact that we do not know—is the cost not of dealing with the problem in the manner we are describing and discussing in this House but of eliminating all storm overflows. I do not think that is what anyone is pushing for, as elimination of storm overflows would also remove, for example, the use of sustainable drainage systems, reed systems and the like. That figure is not made up. It may be wrong—I will not pretend that we know for sure it is right—but it is not a figure that has been plucked out of thin air. It was set out by the Storm Overflows Taskforce in November. As I said, I do not think anyone anticipates spending anything like £600 billion to eliminate storm overflows. Our job will be to eliminate the harm from storm overflows; that is the basis on which we are continuing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, mentioned the Thames tideway project. The cost of that is around £5 billion. That is for one river—albeit a big river—and £5 billion for one solution in one area strikes me as a very large sum of money, so it is not completely out of sync with the figures we have discussed in relation to what the cost would be for the whole country.
I hope I will not ruin her credibility by saying so, but I count the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, as a friend and someone who I think has instincts that are absolutely right. She has been campaigning for many years on the environment in a very effective and positive way, so I say this with genuine respect, but I think she is wrong that we are heading backwards in any respect at all. There is an argument—it is one she has made—that the Bill does not go far enough, and we have discussed the issue many times. If it becomes a law, the Bill in its current form represents a big step forward. The protections we will have for our waterways, rivers and ocean will be greater than at any point in our history as a consequence of the Bill. Again, there can be argument about whether the laws have been sufficiently strengthened, but the idea that we are going backwards in any sense is just not objectively true.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington—and I extend my comments to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann—asked for acknowledgement by me that this amendment is a reflection of and testament to extraordinarily effective campaigning by both them and Philip Dunne, who is sitting over there. I really appreciate the pressure that they have applied because, as they know, decisions are made by the whole of government and pressure on one department enables that department to win arguments with other departments. I sincerely acknowledge the beneficial impact of the noble Duke’s very effective campaigning. On the back of that clear success, I hope noble Lords will feel able to support these amendments.
As your Lordships’ House will be aware, the Bill requires the Government to prepare and publish a plan to reduce storm overflows by September 2022. We have been clear that this plan—not secondary legislation, as would be required by the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—is the right place to set out guiding principles to reduce harm from storm overflows, including our level of ambition. The Bill requires us to consult publicly on that plan, and I can announce to the House that we will consult on the draft plan, including the level of ambition over the lifetime of the plan, in spring next year. The plan will help to inform and underpin the wider price review process, including guidance from the Environment Agency, the Water Industry National Environment Programme and the water industry strategic environmental requirements.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, all talked about the importance of enforcement. Our amendments will dock in with the existing enforcement regime in the Water Industry Act, which means that Ofwat can issue enforcement notices to direct specific actions or, as I said earlier, fine companies up to 10% of their annual turnover, which is a very significant deterrent. However, I acknowledge the point, and I think that the Government across the board would acknowledge that those tools needed to be more effectively used. I do not think there is any argument there; we need a much more muscular approach.
I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who asked about the definition of a “progressive reduction”. We took that term directly from the Lords amendment. “Progressive” means that water companies must continue to take action even after the next price review period and even after they have achieved a significant reduction and tackled high-priority sites, as required in the draft policy statement to the regulator, Ofwat.
In response to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, I say that the new monitoring requirements added to the Bill include near real-time reporting and attach a new duty to the Environment Agency. The need for very up-to-date and rapid reporting and monitoring is embedded in the amendments we have put forward and, indeed, across the Bill.
If the monitoring is done in the manner in which this legislation requires, that data will become immediately available, but it is for the regulators—indeed, the Government—to ensure that the data is processed and understood and that it informs next steps. It is hard to be more specific; that is the Government’s job and if the Government fail in their duties there are a number of other accountability mechanisms which we are introducing through the Bill—not least the OEP—to ensure that the Government do their job.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about timelines. We have committed to review Schedule 3; I have put that on the record in the past, work has begun, and the review will report early next year.
I hope that I have answered the questions that were put to me today. I thank all those who have contributed to this debate and to the hours of debate since the Bill was introduced. It has had a challenging passage, but I have sincerely appreciated contributions—or most of them—from across the House and in the other place in support of the environment that we all cherish.
I once again thank all noble Lords who have tabled amendments throughout the passage. I also thank the stakeholders, who have used their voices so effectively. I particularly thank my counterparts on the opposition Benches—the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Bakewell, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I very much take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, about the pong in the ping-pong, but the work—
I am so sorry—I have just transferred that brilliant joke to another party. It may have been a brilliant joke but there was some truth in it—many a truth is told in jest, as someone said. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, makes a very good point, but I genuinely believe that the work of this House has removed much of the pong, and the ping-pong has, as a result, improved the Bill considerably. I genuinely thank her and others across the aisle for the work that they put into this.
I equally thank my exceptional private office staff, who have worked above and beyond the call of duty. This has been a very long process; it is one of the biggest Bills we have had to deal with. They have been working—in some cases—around the clock and I am very grateful to them and of course to the Bill team, who have been absolutely superb and extraordinarily patient, not just with colleagues in this House but with Ministers. I really appreciate their efforts and I look forward—as I know many in this House do—to the Bill continuing the crucial work that we have already begun to restore our appallingly depleted natural environment, improve the quality of our air and water, and end the scourge of plastic waste pollution. I commend this Motion to the House.
My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this debate and will reiterate something that was said at earlier stages of the Bill. The amendments I have been involved in, and many of the others, have been genuinely across all groups, and it has been a particular pleasure for me to work not only with the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Parminter, but with colleagues on the Conservative Benches: the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank and others. The concerns we have expressed are not partisan: they are genuine concerns about wanting to improve the Bill and protect the environment for our grandchildren and generations to come.
I also thank the Minister. In his reply, he did indeed utter the words I was hoping he would: namely, that the Government’s intention is to protect the operational independence of the OEP. I am very grateful to him for confirming that.
In concluding, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said it far more eloquently and succinctly than I could. We have worked hard to try to improve the Bill and we have made significant gains, but there comes a point at which we say, “Enough is enough. We have done the best we can. We have brought our experience and expertise to bear on the Bill and we think we have got about as far as we can. It may not be perfect, but it is better than it was when we started.” On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw Motion A1.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A) withdrawn.
Motion A agreed.
33C: Clause 37, page 22, line 25, leave out from “if” to end of line 28 and insert “Condition A or Condition B is met.
(8A) Condition A is that the court is satisfied that granting the remedy would not—
(a) be likely to cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person other than the authority, or
(b) be detrimental to good administration.
(8B) Condition B is that Condition A is not met but the court is satisfied that—
(a) granting the remedy is necessary in order to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or to human health, and
(b) there is an exceptional public interest reason to grant it.”
33D: Schedule 3, page 148, line 21, leave out from “if” to end of line 26 and insert “Condition A or Condition B is met.
(5A) Condition A is that the court is satisfied that granting the remedy would not—
(a) be likely to cause substantial hardship to, or substantially prejudice the rights of, any person other than the authority, or
(b) be detrimental to good administration.
(5B) Condition B is that Condition A is not met but the court is satisfied that—
(a) granting the remedy is necessary in order to prevent or mitigate serious damage to the natural environment or to human health, and
(b) there is an exceptional public interest reason to grant it.”
Motion B agreed.
45C: After Clause 78, page 73, line 29, insert the following new Clause—
“Reduction of adverse impact of storm overflows
In Chapter 4 of Part 4 of the Water Industry Act 1991, after section 141EB insert—
“141EC Reduction of adverse impact of storm overflows
(1) A sewerage undertaker whose area is wholly or mainly in England must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from the undertaker’s storm overflows.
(2) The reference in subsection (1) to reducing adverse impacts includes—
(a) reducing adverse impacts on the environment, and
(b) reducing adverse impacts on public health.
(3) The duty of a sewerage undertaker under this section is enforceable under section 18 by—
(a) the Secretary of State, or
(b) the Authority with the consent of or in accordance with a general authorisation given by the Secretary of State.””
45D: Clause 139, page 125, line 41, at end insert—
“( ) section (Reduction of adverse impacts of storm overflows) (reduction of adverse impacts of storm overflows);”
Motion C1 (as an amendment to Motion C) not moved.
Motion C agreed.
That this House do not insist on its disagreement with the Commons in their Amendments 75A and 75B on which the Commons have insisted for their Reason 75D, and do not insist on its Amendment 75C in lieu to which the Commons have disagreed for the same Reason.
75D: Because the Bill and Amendments 75A and 75B make appropriate provision in relation to guidance and the independence of the OEP.
Motion D agreed.
My Lords, before we move to next business. I think we will have a small pause to allow the Front Bench and other noble Lords to change places.
Professional Qualifications Bill [HL]
Clause 1: Power to provide for individuals to be treated as having UK qualifications
1: Clause 1, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
“(3A) For the purposes of subsections (1) to (3)—(a) a condition may be specified under subsection (1) whether or not it is connected to the specified UK qualification or specified UK experience concerned, and(b) a determination mentioned in subsection (2)(b) or (3)(b)(i) may be made—(i) on the basis only of the overseas qualifications or overseas experience concerned, or(ii) on such other basis as the specified regulator considers appropriate (such as on the basis of the overseas qualifications or overseas experience concerned together with the results of any test or other assessment given by any person).”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment makes provision about the additional conditions that may be specified in regulations under subsection (1) of the Clause and makes provision about the basis on which a determination mentioned in subsection (2)(b) or (3)(b)(i) of the Clause may be made.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be back debating the Professional Qualifications Bill on Report. I thank noble Lords for continuing to meet my officials and me over the Summer Recess, and I think we shall see the fruits of those meetings as we progress through this stage of the Bill today.
May I also take this moment to wish many happy returns to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who I understand is celebrating his birthday today? We all find our pleasures in different ways, but I can think of no better way to celebrate one’s birthday than on Report on this Bill.
I thank noble Lords for their careful consideration of this Bill and for the positive reception accorded to the previous iteration of this amendment in Committee. In particular, I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for his careful and helpful consideration of the government amendment in Committee. I also thank him for his own amendment to Clause 1.
As I have said on a number of occasions, regulator autonomy is crucial to maintaining our world-class professional standards and high-quality services, and the public’s confidence in them. This includes, of course, making sure that regulators can take into account all relevant factors when considering applications for recognition. Since Committee, my officials and I have engaged extensively with regulators and have taken legal advice on how to best articulate this in Clause 1. There was consensus from Peers in Committee, and regulators throughout our engagement, that the amendment I previously proposed was helpful. However, there was recognition—and I am happy to acknowledge this—that we could make it yet clearer. I am therefore presenting a new amendment that provides three important clarifications.
First, the amendment would add to Clause 1 a new subsection (3A)(a) stating that other conditions, which could, for example, include regulatory criteria required to practise, can be specified in regulations under Clause 1(1). This is regardless of whether those criteria are connected to the specified UK qualifications or experience. These criteria must be satisfied before an individual is treated as if they had the specified UK qualification or experience.
Secondly, the amendment would add to Clause 1 new subsection (3A)(b). This changes how the conditions in Clauses 1(2) and 1(3) are interpreted. It provides legislative assurance that when regulators are obligated to put in place a process to assess individuals under Clause 1, they can assess applicants’ knowledge and skills on whatever basis they consider appropriate.
Thirdly, the new placement of the word “only” in new subsection (3A)(b)(i) makes it clear that a regulator can consider only overseas qualifications or experience, or—this is important—on any other basis it considers appropriate. This could, for example, include both overseas qualifications and experience, and the results of any test or assessment carried out in the UK. To avoid ambiguity in how this amendment is read, an illustrative example is also now included in brackets in proposed new subsection (3A)(b)(ii).
As I set out in Committee, regulators, including the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, welcomed the previous clarificatory amendment to Clause 1 tabled in my name. I have continued these discussions in recent months and tested this revised amendment with them. They appreciated the clarifications that this amendment provides.
I have also carried out extensive engagement with other regulators. For example, I met with the Bar Council to discuss Clauses 1 and 2. I am happy to reiterate that the power in Clause 1, taken alongside the condition in Clause 2, does not act so as to remove powers from regulators where they already have them. I also met with representatives from the Education Workforce Council to discuss the Bill. I would like to reassure them that it is highly unlikely that the council would be specified in regulations under Clause 1. This is because, quite simply, as I understand it, they already have a global route in place to recognise overseas qualified teachers, underpinned by express legal powers in Welsh legislation, to help meet the demand for the services of their profession.
Clauses 1 and 2 are not intended to affect the existence or scope of any existing powers of a regulator in relation to recognition of overseas qualifications or experience. They are not intended to, and do not, constrain in any way a regulator’s ability to recognise overseas qualifications or experience derived from any other legal source.
Taken as a whole, this means that the amendment provides legislative assurance that the Bill will equip regulators with the tools that they need to make a thorough and rounded assessment and that, in so doing, the UK’s world-class professional standards will be maintained. I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for his input, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his introduction to his amendment and for speaking to this group, and for his very kind words about our very constructive discussions. I reciprocate by saying how much I have appreciated the discussions he and I have had and the support of the Bill team in bringing forward a number of amendments on Report which respond directly to the debates that we had in Committee. And government Amendment 1 is exactly such an amendment.
As my noble friend quite rightly said, we had general agreement that there was a need for the national authority, when making regulations under Clause 1, to do so in ways that enabled somebody with overseas qualifications and experience to be brought into the UK profession on the basis of those or other relevant qualifications or experience, or other factors.
The difficulty with the original Amendment 10, if colleagues can remember back to Committee, was the nature of the word “only” in that context, which ran the risk of being interpreted as meaning that it would either be on the basis of overseas qualifications and experience or on the basis of other relevant and appropriate factors. We did not want that to be the case; we wanted what my noble friend has put into Amendment 1, which says at proposed new subsections (3A)(b)(i) and (3A)(b)(ii) that it will be
“on the basis only of the overseas qualifications or overseas experience … or … on such other basis as the specified regulator considers appropriate”.
That is clarified with the words:
“(such as on the basis of the overseas qualifications or overseas experience… together with the results of any test or other assessment given by any person).”
To keep it simple, if, for example, a language requirement needed to be specified, it could be specified as an additional requirement by the regulator and then be combined with the overseas qualification or the overseas experience to give, in total, the appropriate basis on which to be admitted to the UK profession. For my part, I am very happy that the Government have brought forward the amendment in this form.
The purpose of my Amendment 2 is to make it clear that a UK regulator may have requirements for entry to a profession which extend beyond the relevant UK qualifications and experience. So while somebody from overseas might have something that is directly comparable to that qualification or experience, that is not the sum total of the professional requirements to be on many professional registers. Many regulators also examine people’s background, experience and suitability, and they look to fitness to practice requirements. We do not need to dwell on this at length, just to say that there is potentially a gap between qualifications and experience in a formal sense and fitness to practice in its total sense. If regulators need that gap to be filled, Amendment 2 says that they should be able to do so; the conditions should be specified in a way that enables that to happen.
Looking at it, I am content that, as long as the appropriate national authority consults the relevant professional regulators when making regulations, the power none the less exists in Clause 1 to make the condition one that extends beyond qualifications and experience into all the fitness to practice requirements that might be applied by a regulator in this country. That being the case—and we have the benefit of the consultation requirements that we are going to come on to later, which give us further assurance on this—I think we are in a position where the conditions in Clause 1 would be wide enough without the benefit of my Amendment 2.
In my own defence, I tabled Amendment 2 back in early July, so I am slightly defending Amendment 2 in the light of having not, at that point, seen all the amendments that are coming forward, not least from my noble friend. That being the case, I think we can be fairly confident that Clause 1 will be robust enough if need be, so I have no intention of pressing Amendment 2.
My Lords, I too support Amendment 1. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, who has urged and pushed, with perhaps a little more oomph than we could have done from this side. We are very grateful for what he has been able to do there.
I think the Minister will be thanked by quite a few people in the next couple of hours, though there may still be one or two people with a “please” in there for him. He knows that, right from the introduction of the Bill, we were worried about the ability of independent regulators to decide who is fit to practice. The words that the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, used are useful ones around being fit to practice and whether the ability of regulators to decide that could be undermined by a government diktat to set up a new system to recognise overseas practitioners wanting to come here, and therefore potentially lowering standards to meet a government view that there is a homegrown shortage in the relevant profession.
That was a concern not just to us but to the users of regulated service providers. Their confidence in professionals stems very much from the high standards and, indeed, from the enforcement that our independent regulators are able to give in the interests of consumers. But the Government have heard these concerns.
When most of us were away during the summer, the Minister spent a lot of time in meetings, and that is reflected in Amendment 1, which confirms that the regulators can apply their chosen standards as to who should practice in this country. The Minister has already referred to some regulators, and we know that the Nursing and Midwifery Council, for example, and others, have signified that they are content with the amendments. It clearly has to be for a regulator both to determine standards and to make a judgment on who has actually achieved those and therefore can be let loose on consumers or users in this country. So on this amendment, it is a “thank you” from me, and it does not require a further “please”.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the Minister for having met with me and for having, as I know, consulted extremely widely on the Bill. I seek a tad of reassurance from him on his Amendment 1, fully accepting the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made on the issues around fitness to practise. It would be very helpful if the Minister could confirm that the ability of any regulator to determine fitness to practise and other issues will be up to that regulator, and that that consultation will extend across the four nations of the UK.
There may be differences with some disciplines—a classic is the use of the Welsh language—but that could be taken account of in regulation and would not be overridden by this amendment. So I personally would like some reassurance on this in his summing up. But I would like to thank him and I recognise that my own regulator—I should have declared at the beginning that I am registered with the General Medical Council and so have a vested interest—is much happier than it was when the Bill first came to us.
My Lords, I first apologise for arriving a tad late; I was at the Economic Affairs Select Committee and had to sprint down the Committee Corridor when I saw the Bill coming up.
When this Bill went on its holiday in July, after Committee, I think we were all pleased that there would be a moment of reflection—and it has come back a much-refreshed Bill. The Minister did not go on holiday but worked with us across the Floor to help the refreshing process. We see evidence of that in both this and later amendments. At the beginning, we on these Benches shared the same suspicion that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, had: Clauses 1 and 2 looked as though they might have been Trojan horses for something far more dangerous to the system than the Minister wanted us to believe. This amendment works very well in dispelling that suspicion, so we are very supportive of it.
Briefly, on Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, I agree with him that the combination of government Amendments 1 and 12, which will come later, do a good job in handing over the role that he envisaged to the regulatory authorities. In that respect, we believe that it is no longer necessary. So we welcome government Amendment 1 and look forward to rest of this debate, in which we will continue to make a few comments on outstanding issues.
My Lords, I first thank the Minister for his kind wishes on my birthday. Where else would I want to be but at the Dispatch Box responding to the debate? This will be my only appearance on the Bill today. I did think when I became Opposition Chief Whip on 1 June that the House had earned a rest from listening to me speak at the Dispatch Box. People will have had views as to whether that was a good or bad thing, but it does not seem to have worked out that way; I am still here.
I feel at a bit of a disadvantage, having looked back at the debates and seen the quality of the contributions of Members who have spoken with vastly more experience than I have on these matters. At this point, I particularly want to pay tribute to my noble—but also dear and good—friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town for all her work for the Opposition on this Bill and as Deputy Leader of the Labour Lords. We have been involved in several battles over the years—always on the same side, I am pleased to say—and I look forward to her work in her new role as chair of the International Agreements Committee.
Government Amendment 1 seeks, as we have heard, to address the concerns that we raised in earlier debates and which, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, he put into his amendment. In that sense, we as the Opposition are very happy with what has been proposed by the Government and we look forward to the next steps. In particular, I saw the point he made about the need to address those important clarifications—to ensure that we give legislative assurance to regulators that they will have the tools they need to ensure that overseas qualifications are effective, recognised and appropriate for the work that people do in our jurisdiction. I will leave it there, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, it is even more of a pleasure to do this Report with the debate having started in such a positive way. I thank noble Lords for that and say unreservedly that the scrutiny and discussions that I have had with noble Lords over the last few months have improved the Bill to the point that it has reached today.
It is a great pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, back to the Front Bench, perhaps for the last time, and, of course, I have not seen the last of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town; I look forward to dealing with her in her role as chair of the IAC. If I may say so, I have never seen the noble Baroness lacking oomph in any way whatever, and I am sure that will be the case in her new role. I thank, in particular, my noble friend Lord Lansley for his input into this amendment. The eagle-eyed scrutiny that my noble friend gives to the legislation in front of this House always ends with improvements being brought forward.
I can completely reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, that fitness to practise sits absolutely with the regulators—we will be reaffirming this perhaps even more strongly when we discuss regulatory autonomy later on—and that all four nations will of course be considered on their merits. There is no desire whatever to impose any form of uniformity where it does not exist. With that, I thank noble Lords for the comments that have been made and beg to move my amendment.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendment 2 not moved.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 27, at end insert—
“(5A) Regulations under this section relating to a regulated profession may not be made unless—(a) they have been published in draft form, and(b) the relevant regulators have been consulted on them for a period of three months beginning with the day on which they are published.”
My Lords, we have moved faster than I anticipated. I rise to move Amendment 3 but give notice that I will in due course want to withdraw it in favour of government Amendment 13 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone. It is in one way so obvious that regulators must be consulted that we would have hoped not to have to write it into the Bill. However, the Bill was published without even a complete and correct list of the affected regulators, and some were, as we have already heard, very worried at the start about their position. We also know that the Government have been a little tardy in consulting with the devolved authorities. This is about consulting regulators, so it is in a sense due to the experience of a slight lack of consultation—not in the Minister’s work over the summer, it is true, but prior to that—that we felt the need to write this on to the face of the Bill.
So it is partly because of that history, but it is also good for Parliament that this consultation must take place. It means that the regulators will be doing some of our job. They will be consulted, and they can alert your Lordships’ House and, indeed, the Commons, should they see any problems arising in this regard. Since they will have to be consulted, they will in a way be our eyes and ears over the implementation of the Bill and will alert us should anything be done contrary to the great reassurances that we have had. I am sure that that will not be the case, but it gives comfort to know that this consultation will have to happen. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her amendment and on her appointment as chair of the IAC. I too welcome and congratulate my noble friend the Minister on bringing forward his government Amendment 13. I also thank him and his officials in the Bill team for the meetings that I have had since we originally discussed this and other parts of the Bill.
I would like to put one question before we come to discuss later amendments of mine in relation to a later clause. Why have the Government limited their Amendment 13 to apply only to Clauses 1, 3 and 4 when there are other, even more—or just as—important parts of the Bill that I think would benefit from the amendment? We can come on to discuss this, but only Clauses 1, 3 and 4 will benefit from the amendment. I would be very interested to know why it has been limited to those clauses, for reasons that we will come on to discuss later.
I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Bruce, for co-signing Amendment 4 and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for his support. We are hoping to require the national authorities to consult on draft regulations under the Bill. I am sure my noble friend would agree that the measure contained in this clause is important and wide-ranging and affects a considerable number of professions—I think it is 160, as stated in the Explanatory Notes. Governments across the UK cannot be expected to have the in-depth knowledge of all these professions to enable them to legislate without pre-legislative consultation.
Let me repeat the remarks made by my noble friend the Minister in responding to a similar amendment I moved in Committee:
“I fully agree that it is important for the relevant national authority to engage with a range of stakeholders before making regulations. Because of the complexity of these matters, it would be the height of foolishness not to do that.”
I agree entirely. Does he therefore agree that in making the regulations, the range of interested parties should include the professions and others? I know that he had hoped—I think this is in connection with these amendments—that there would be agreement from the devolved Assemblies, and it would be interesting to hear why they were unable to agree legislation to put in place in this regard.
Amendment 7 is voiced in similar terms. Clause 3 grants a power to Ministers to amend legislation to put into effect provisions negotiated in free trade agreements, or other types, relating to the regulation of professions, such as the recognition of professional qualifications. We are seeking to introduce a similar requirement to consult before regulations are laid to implement international agreements under Clause 3. To quote again from my noble friend’s comments in Committee:
“In all international negotiations relating to professional qualifications, a key concern for the Government has been ensuring the autonomy of regulators and protecting UK standards, as I said earlier. In light of the Government’s concern, and the importance that we attach to this point, there are already extensive engagement mechanisms for consulting before and during these negotiations … I hope my noble friend is reassured that the Government, of necessity, would have concluded extensive engagement ahead of this point in order to actually create the free trade agreement in the first place.”
We would like an assurance from my noble friend the Minister this evening that there will be an obligation to consult, not just an intention to consult. There can be lots of good intentions, but they are never actually brought to fruition. It would also act as an aide-memoire for the Government to engage with those bodies and individuals who might be affected by the implementation of the international agreement.
Noble Lords will see that there is a theme here. Clause 5 looks at the revocation of the general EU system of recognition of overseas qualifications, and Amendment 8 seeks to pin down what will be a very wide regulation-making power. Accordingly, I ask my noble friend to agree that there will be a proper consultation. Amendment 8 introduces a requirement to consult before laying regulations that make consequential amendments following the revocation of the existing EU-derived recognition system.
In Committee, my noble friend the Minister said:
“I envisage that these enactments would be very limited in scope. They are necessary purely to tidy up the statute book after revoking the existing EU-derived system, for example by removing cross-references to the current system in other regulations. Given that these are primarily small fixes, it would be disproportionate to consult on them. The Government will, of course, work closely with interested parties to ensure that there are no unintended impacts of bringing forward these consequential amendments.”—[Official Report, 9/6/21; col. 1500.]
These amendments have come from the Law Society of Scotland, for whom I hold no brief. However, as a non-practising Scottish advocate—a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates—we always look to solicitors to give us instructions at the best of times.
Amendment 8 looks at the revocation of the bulk of retained EU law. Is my noble friend the Minister really saying that, when the noble Lord, Lord Frost, has undertaken to commit a full revocation of retained EU law, there are no circumstances whatever in which he would envisage that there would be a consultation, not just of the professions but of the devolved Administrations? Amendment 9 is in the same vein, looking at Clause 6 on the revocation of other retained EU recognition law.
I accept that my noble friend has come forward with a form of words in Amendment 13 that goes so far; it is great so far as it goes, but I would like to understand the background of why we have fallen short of a full consultation with the devolved Assemblies. This is really just following up the conversation that we had, and I pay tribute to my noble friend for all the contacts he has had. But perhaps he could put a little bit of flesh on the bones this evening as to why the devolved Administrations felt they were unable to come forward with a legislative consent Motion in this regard.
I would like to raise a couple of concerns from the Law Society of England in connection with this group of amendments. I think that it very much approves of what the Government have achieved through the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and hopes that this will form the benchmark for future FTAs. However, I would like to quote from one part of its brief:
“We are concerned that legal services asks can too easily be dropped from current and future negotiations, especially if the going gets tough. Legal services are central to the export and investment agenda, as an enabling sector supporting their clients in their international strategy. If we cannot be there to support our clients, they will find it more difficult to realise the opportunities of the government’s work on international trade.”
There is a very real concern among the professions that, like we have lost free movement, we are not going to enjoy the mutual recognition and the right to practise that we had in the past. I state for the record that I have been very privileged to have worked in two law firms in Brussels some years ago, so I benefited from free movement and the right to establish myself and practise law in another jurisdiction.
I think my noble friend has to have regard to the well-documented importance of legal services to the whole of the United Kingdom, and I hope he will give me an assurance this evening that we can also look forward to making sure that this is the case in future trade agreements and co-operation agreements. Perhaps he can give us a concrete indication of how the legal service provisions will play out in those agreements that have been agreed, for example with Australia and New Zealand.
With those remarks, I ask my noble friend to look favourably on these amendments. Even if, at the end of the day, we prefer the contents of government Amendment 13 this evening, I have severe reservations as to why we are not in a position to consult with the devolved Administrations in the clauses to which the amendments I have just spoken to refer.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, having co-signed three—and I probably should have co-signed four—of the amendments she has tabled. I will not repeat what she has said but I hope the Minister will answer her questions about why his amendment does not cover all the sections and exactly why the devolved Administrations are hesitant at this stage. However, I see from the report in the Scottish Parliament that it has acknowledged that amendments not yet passed might alter the position. Does the Minister have any intelligence as to whether the Scottish and, indeed, the Welsh authorities might be a little more inclined to recognise it? He acknowledged in Committee that consultation was effectively necessary, so it needs to be in the Bill.
There are one or two Scottish aspects where the professional standards are distinctively different, particularly in relation to teaching and, obviously, to law. It is probably worth commenting on the very disappointing decline in standards of education, particularly Scottish secondary education, in recent years. That is in no way attributable to the quality of training or the performance of the teachers, but because of the dysfunctionality of the curriculum and its failure to interact effectively with the exam authority, which of course is in the process of being abolished because of its proven long-term incompetence that has done so much damage to Scottish education.
This is not a question of pretentiousness or exceptionalism and saying that somehow Scotland has got it right. It is about recognising that Scotland is proud of the fact that it has pioneered an all-graduate teaching profession and certainly would not wish it to be eroded. It is also true that Scotland has had rather variable performance in recruitment and retention of teachers. Some years it has trained too many and not been able to absorb them, and in other years not as many have come out as are needed and it has had to recruit from Ireland and Canada. There is no suggestion that there is not scope for importing a professional qualification but there is a perfectly legitimate reason to say that, if the UK Government were minded to allow for them, they should take full account of Scottish circumstances and allow the Scottish authority to be consulted and indeed to comment on and shape things.
Similarly, Scots law—criminal law, land law and other aspects—is distinctively different. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, will know much more than I do about that. There are areas of law that are similar and areas that are clearly different. I would find it bizarre if a Secretary of State who is effectively in an English department felt able to pass legislation that affected practising law in Scotland without consulting the relevant body. The question quite simply is: would it not be better to make it clear on the face of the Bill that consultation would be a statutory practice, rather than something that is there for a matter of good will?
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, also mentioned European qualifications. There was an aspect of the trade agreement—the Brexit agreement—where it appeared that the potential for professional qualifications to be better recognised in future than they have been in the past was in the offing. It may still be in the offing. However, for that to be secured, it clearly requires a highly delicate determination of professional qualifications in the context of the single market and other aspects of trade negotiations that the Government will be pursuing.
I finally say to the Minister that it would be good to have reassurance that, in pursuit of these amendments, the Government will recognise that they have to take account of all aspects of professional qualification recognition both with the EU that we have left and with the other countries with which we are trying to engage, and not trade the one off against the other. Professional bodies that represent these qualifications in the UK need to be consulted in advance of that, rather than being presented with a fait accompli that may damage both the ability to recruit people to meet the UK’s needs and UK-qualified people having the opportunity to practise abroad. If we lose one because it is traded off against the other, that is not a win-win; it is a lose-lose.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie—if I have got the pronunciation right. Bennachie is a wonderful part of Scotland but he reminds me that maybe I should declare an interest. I am a proud father in that my daughter is a teacher and therefore registered with the General Teaching Council. I am just as proud that my granddaughter is training to be a nurse so she will come into one of these categories as well. I am not sure that I really have to declare that interest, but it is nice to say that anyway, is it not?
I am also pleased to be one of the three signatories to some of the amendments; in other cases, I am one of four signatories, with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. That makes for all-party support for the amendments, most of which are the brainchild of our mutual friend Michael Clancy of the Law Society of Scotland, for whom we have to give many thanks and wish him well, at the moment particularly. I was thinking that not only is it an all-party amendment, but that the route from Pickering to Bennachie via Cumnock would be a wonderful trip for Susan Calman. I hope you all watch that wonderful programme where she drives a little campervan called Helen, named after Helen Mirren. I am not sure if that is a compliment or not, but it is certainly a very good programme. I am probably running off the topic a little. Fortunately, the Chair does not have the same powers here as I used to suffer from in the other place when I was drawn to—
Oh! I will see the noble Baroness later; I thank her for drawing my attention to that.
I wholly support what the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has put forward. This is the only speech I am going to make today although I support a number of other amendments. I want to make two points. I take every appropriate opportunity to criticise the UK Government. I did so earlier today at Question Time, so no one can accuse me of not being critical when it is appropriate. However, today I join in with what others have said to the Minister. From all that I have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh and Lady Hayter, and from a number of others, the Minister has been really helpful in taking account during the summer of all the representations, and all credit to him for that.
My second point is that sometimes I feel in some areas—not in all—the UK Government are a bit better than the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government are not good at consulting. They do not consult local authorities. They do not devolve powers in the way that they should in Scotland. Scotland is a third of the land area of the United Kingdom. It is a big country. Scotland is not a unified, homogenous country. It is a very diverse country. The highlands are very different from Glasgow, which is different again from the borders, which are different again from Edinburgh and different again from Dundee. They are very different and I am afraid that the current Scottish Government do not seem to fully recognise those differences and take account of them from time to time. I am very pleased that we are suggesting two things today. One is that they should consult all the appropriate regulatory bodies; I agree with that. That is what we are talking about today in these amendments; I am in order now. Also, later we should consult with the devolved authorities in areas where they have competence and an interest. It is right to do that.
Sometimes we talk about treating them as equals; I have heard the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and others do so. I do not want to disagree with those noble Lords, but they are not equal. We should treat them with total respect, but they are not equal to the UK Government. The UK Government are the sovereign Government of the UK, and devolved authorities are devolved. There is a big difference between devolution and separation. The SNP tries to forget about that and elide the two, pretending that one just moves into the other, but it does not. Devolution is power devolved from the UK Government. There ought to be more power devolved in England; that is where the democratic deficit is.
So we should make sure that the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive are consulted appropriately, but we should not say that they are exactly the same. The word “equal” can be misconstrued. We should treat them with total respect; we should respect them in relation to all the devolved powers, give them control and indeed encourage them to take control over those. In fact, I wish they would do that more often; sometimes in Scotland they want to pass powers back to the UK because they are not able to exercise them properly.
As I say, this is the only time that I am going to speak, and I am grateful to the Whips for allowing me to wander over the topic a bit. I support the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the work that she has done on these amendments and on the others, which I fully support.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has drawn attention to the fact that I have not put my name to these amendments, although I have done so to Amendment 10. It was an accident; it was just that at the last moment we were trying to gather together who was to sign up to what. I fully support these amendments, just as I do Amendment 10. In some respects, the case for consultation is stronger in the case of these amendments because they are talking about regulations, not just advice, which is what Amendment 10 is talking about. It is particularly important when one is drafting regulations that complete information is obtained before regulations are finalised.
To pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, I want to mention that Craighead lies north-east of Cumnock and is a convenient way to get to Bennachie, so we are all part of the same bit of geography.
The noble Lord made the point about Scots law being different from English law, which of course it is. There are two important aspects of Scots law that are very different from English law, apart from land law, and are much more frequently encountered: family law, which is entirely different, and criminal law, the procedures and much of the substance of which are very different too. That is just a reinforcement of the point that the noble Lord was making about appreciating and understanding the differences before the regulations are finalised.
I support entirely the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in introducing this group. She mentioned a point that I want to pursue, which is the question of whether the Welsh and Scottish Administrations were willing to support a consent Motion. I am a member of the Constitution Committee, and one of the advantages that I have had of doing that—I am waiting for the Minister to listen to this because it is rather important—is that we took the opportunity to go to Wales to meet members of the equivalent committee in the Senedd and to Scotland to meet members of the committee in the Scottish Parliament. One point that came across in both meetings was grave disquiet about the way that the legislative consent process is being handled.
The worst example that was quoted frequently is what happened in the case of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. I would be grateful if the Minister would say a bit more about the process with which he was involved in consulting with the Welsh and the Scots with a view to obtaining consent to this measure. Among the points made was that they were consulted too late, they were not given enough information to be able to form a view and, when changes were made to the Bill, they were not fully informed about what those changes were in time for them to rethink and reconsider.
I know I am pressing the Minister to a point that he may not be fully prepared for and, if so, perhaps he would be kind enough to write to me to explain what went on. I am speaking on behalf of the Constitution Committee when I say that we would be very interested to know from the perspective of the UK Government about how the process was handled. Did they give the Government enough reasons for not wanting to give consent? Was there enough of a dialogue to enable the disagreement to be flushed out and see whether it could be resolved? These are very important issues that extend well beyond this Bill, and any help that the Minister can give about how the process was handled would be extremely helpful.
My Lords, I hope noble Lords will forgive me, but I want to intervene briefly in the debate. I am Lord Lansley, of Orwell, which is nowhere on the route that has been mentioned; it is not even between the locations in Scotland and Boscobel. You could not even go via Orwell to get to Boscobel, which is where I hope we are going to end up.
I shall say just a couple of things. First, I was interested in what the noble and learned Lord was saying about the Constitution Committee and the legislative consent Motion process, but I have to say, in relation to this Bill, that we completed Committee stage at the end of June and I tabled my amendments in the early part of July. We are now in November. There has been no lack of opportunity for the devolved Administrations to see precisely what the Bill is intended to do, what the remaining issues of controversy might be and what the intended outcome looks like. Frankly, they have had every opportunity to consider a legislative consent Motion and to have passed one, so if they do not then I do not know why not.
Secondly, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady McIntosh. She was looking at why we are consulting with regulators over the powers to make regulations in Clauses 1, 3 and 4—that is in Amendment 13, which I support—but not other clauses. As it happens, I agree with my noble friend, or at least I hope I do, that Clauses 5 and 6, in so far as they are about tidying up the statute book, are not really appropriate for consultation processes; they are essentially just working out the legal statute-book consequences of the Bill.
However, I suddenly realised that there is a regulation-making power in Clause 10 that the Government are not intending to consult upon. I thought, “Hang on a minute, I thought I agreed with the Government because I tabled an amendment at the beginning of July to press the Government on the question of consultation with regulators”, so I looked back at it. Of course I subsequently withdrew it when the Minister tabled his own amendment, but when I looked at it I realised that what I said originally was, and I quote myself:
“Prior to making regulations under this Act, other than those made under sections 5, 6 and 18”—
that is, Clauses 5 and 6 relating to retained EU law and Clause 18 on commencement—
“the appropriate national authority must consult such regulators of regulated professions as appear to the authority to be likely to be affected by the regulations.”
So my amendment would have included consultation on the regulation-making power in Clause 10, which relates to the duty to make information available to overseas regulators. I freely confess that I had not noticed the difference and that gap. While I very much support what the Minister has tabled in Amendment 13—I very much endorse it because it largely achieves what I was hoping for in the amendment that I tabled way back in July—I ask him to explain the process of thinking by which Clause 10 has been left out.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Bruce in his questions. As other noble Lords have indicated, this is an opportunity for the Minister to give a clear position on the situation regarding legislative consent Motions. If the Government are not able to provide an assurance that there will be LCMs during the passage of the Bill, we will be in the uncomfortable position of now having a number of Acts where there have been no LCMs and the Government will have considerable regulation-making power over devolved regulators if the Westminster Government believe that the devolved Government are not acting. This could create those sensitive areas where there are devolved regulators which will then be instructed under regulations to change their procedures for areas where the UK Government will have considered that there is unmet demand but the devolved Administration may not, and there is no vice versa equivalent. Therefore, if there is no LCM process, and the Government will be acting over the top of the devolved Administrations, this will be a potentially problematic area, not least in those professions that are not likely to be exempted under these areas. So transparency will be helpful, if the Minister could give that indication.
Regarding consultation, this will be a consistent theme that the House will return to time and time again. We did so on the Internal Market Bill, and here, and, until the common frameworks are in a state of readiness—and I understand that they are quite far away from such a state—we will have to press the Government on how operations will cover the whole of the UK. Could the Minister give clarity on that?
My Lords, the Opposition have been clear through the passage of the Bill that regulators need statutory protections to ensure that they are consulted on the regulations made under it. That is why my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town tabled Amendment 3. Other amendments in this group, Amendments 4, 7, 8 and 9, seek to achieve the same thing. I had a very positive meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, a couple of weeks ago, and was happy to see a copy of his Amendment 13, which we support. It is welcome. The Government have listened, as the amendment requires the appropriate national authority to consult the regulator of a regulated profession before making regulations under Clauses 1, 3 and 4. We are happy to accept that, and my noble friend has no intention to divide the House on her Amendment 3.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, made some very important points on consultation with the devolved Administrations. I very much agreed with those, and with the comments of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock that we must always treat the devolved Administrations with respect for their mandate and the work they do. Equally, the United Kingdom Government is on a different level, and we are all proud citizens of the United Kingdom. I support the comments he made, and of course enjoyed his speech very much. I hope on his trip he will pop down to the London Borough of Southwark, a wonderful borough with historical connections to Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, John Ruskin and many others.
Yes, absolutely. But if he cannot, I know that he knows it is a wonderful place and I enjoyed his speech very much. I also agree with the key points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that it is different in Scotland. We recognise that. So I am very pleased with the amendment from the Government Front Bench and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will speak first to the amendment in my name on consulting with regulators, and then respond to the other amendments in this group. A later group deals specifically with consulting the devolved Administrations, and I will leave the points raised by noble Lords in relation to that and to LCMs until then, which is the appropriate place. That would include the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, who spoke from the perspective of the Constitution Committee. I will write to him as he requested, but I do not recognise at all the description he gave of the process I have undertaken with the devolved Administrations. I will come back to this, but nobody could have reached out more than I did, or held more meetings with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations. The schedule of the meetings that my officials have held with the devolved Administrations runs to several pages, and I will make sure that I give that information to the noble and learned Lord when I write to him.
I am proposing an amendment to place a duty on appropriate national authorities to ensure that regulators are consulted before certain delegated powers in the Bill are used. This was a matter we dealt with extensively in Committee. I listened carefully and I am pleased that the amendment I put forward today seems to cut the mustard. I thank your Lordships, who over the course of these debates have highlighted the need for transparency and scrutiny, and the importance of regulators being involved in shaping any regulations made under this Bill.
Noble Lords have also challenged the Government on the use of delegated powers in this Bill, particularly in Clauses 1, 3 and 4. In reply to my noble friend Lady McIntosh as to why these three clauses were chosen, it is very much that they are the guts of the Bill which either will most affect regulators by placing substantive obligations on them regarding recognition, or for which there has been clear challenge in this House about the use of delegated powers.
Others in this Bill, such as regulations under Clauses 8 or 10, are highly unlikely to do so, as they would result in minor updates only. Regulations under these clauses would place only a very limited burden on regulators, as set out in the impact assessment. Indeed, consulting could place more burden on regulators to respond to the consultation on those clauses than the regulations themselves. It would be disproportionate to attach a duty to consult on them—but that is not to say for one moment that we will not keep closely in touch with regulators as the Bill is implemented, as I hope it will be in due course, and of course we will listen to regulators when we have those consultations with them. But I draw a distinction between the statutory duty to consult and the consultation that we always do in the normal course of business with regulators.
I appreciated during our debates in Committee that noble Lords were raising valid concerns. While I have repeated at the Dispatch Box my commitment to ensuring that appropriate consultation takes place, I understand that this House requires greater certainty. That is why I am introducing this new clause, which places a duty on the appropriate national authority to consult with regulators prior to making regulations under Clauses 1, 3 and 4. I have described why those clauses have been chosen. Regulations made under these clauses will interact very directly with regulators and their powers, for example through empowering regulators to assess overseas qualifications under Clause 1, placing obligations on them under Clause 3, or enabling them to put in place recognition agreements under Clause 4. These clauses also attracted particular interest from the DPRRC. We have therefore listened and responded with this amendment, and I will be talking later to my amendment about regulators’ autonomy, which will further reinforce this point.
As noble Lords have heard, my officials and I have engaged extensively with regulators over the summer, and I am pleased to say that they have consistently welcomed the inclusion of a provision of the sort I have tabled. Of course, as I said earlier, the inclusion of a statutory provision does not mean that the department’s regular and existing engagement with regulators will stop.
My amendment includes provision for consultation on regulations made under Clause 3, used to implement international agreements. I emphasise that I understand the importance of engaging with regulators on the negotiation of those agreements before such regulations are made. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, and I share exactly the same sentiments on this. That is why I have also established the new regulated professions advisory forum, a dedicated forum for the Government to discuss with regulators the negotiation and implementation of provisions in trade deals and for regulators to advise on their priorities in relation to these agreements. I chaired this forum’s first meeting in September and look forward to continuing to engage with its members and chairing future meetings as and when appropriate.
I hope this amendment will give the House the reassurance it needs about the scrutiny of any material actions following the Bill that would affect regulators. Regulators support the amendment, and I hope your Lordships will too.
I turn now to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. I recognise the strength of feeling in this House in relation to the need for appropriate scrutiny of regulations made under the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for recognising that my amendment will ensure that where a regulator might be affected by regulations, there will be appropriate consultation. I consider that this more than meets the breadth of consultation set out in the noble Baroness’s proposed amendment.
I gave careful consideration to the point in the amendment about a three-month period of consultation ahead of regulations being made, but the amendment tabled in my name ensures that consultation periods can be flexible, rather than requiring a specified time period. Consultation will naturally take into account the nature and impact of the proposed regulations and will therefore be proportionate to the regulations being made. I therefore believe there is no need to specify a fixed time for consultation. It risks forcing a consultation exercise that may be inappropriate to the regulations in question. For example, it could drag out consultations where the regulations have been drafted in collaboration with the regulator prior to the formal consultation. Equally, it could inappropriately cap the time needed for consultations on regulations that are complex and may require longer than three months to complete.
I believe that the best way forward is to adopt a broad and appropriately flexible duty to consult, as set out in the amendment tabled in my name. I am grateful for the noble Baroness indicating that she may withdraw her amendment.
I turn now to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and supported today by the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Bennachie and Lord Foulkes of Cumnock—I am very much joining him on his journey and would welcome his daughter coming with us, if he felt it appropriate. These amendments seek to introduce a duty on the appropriate national authority to consult such persons as it deems appropriate before introducing regulations under Clauses 1, 3, 5 and 6.
I stress again that the amendment tabled in my name requires the appropriate national authority to consult affected regulators and any other appropriate regulators before making regulations under Clauses 1, 3 and 4. I believe that this is a stronger commitment in relation to the consultation of regulators than the one suggested by my noble friend in her amendments. Referring explicitly to regulators “affected by” regulations, as well as those the national authority considers appropriate, ensures that consultation is targeted to those impacted or likely to be impacted by proposed regulations, while still providing the ability to consult other regulators.
Regulations laid under Clauses 1, 3 and 4 are those most likely to directly affect regulators, and that is why my amendment applies to them. I understand, though, that the amendments being discussed now are designed to cover a broader range of interested parties and apply to a different set of clauses than the amendment in my name. I assure your Lordships again that while my amendment specifies consultation with regulators, the Government will continue to work closely with all other interested parties.
I turn to the final two clauses that these amendments would introduce a duty to consult on, Clauses 5 and 6. I do not believe that adding a duty to consult to these clauses is appropriate. They revoke the interim measures put in place to retain elements of EU law beyond the end of the transition period, which was always intended to be temporary. I can assure the House that legislation would not be revoked or modified under Clauses 5 or 6 until any necessary new regulations were made under Clause 1, and that those regulations would be subject to consultation under the government amendment tabled in my name. I also note that the DPRRC reported that the delegated powers for Clauses 5 and 6, and the procedure chosen to use them, were satisfactorily set out in the memorandum for the Bill. Indeed, the need for regulations under these clauses is already agreed, and I believe the House has noted the vital purpose of this part of the Bill.
The Bill provides an opportunity for Parliament to revoke and modify retained EU recognition law and to scrutinise the Government’s plans regarding a domestic regime for the assessment of individuals with qualifications and experience obtained overseas. I listened carefully to the arguments put by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, but I believe this is no longer a matter for consultation; I really think it is a matter for action.
I hope that my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Lord Bruce of Bennachie, who supported these amendments, agree that the amendment I am proposing for a duty to consult ensures that regulators’ voices will be heard under relevant clauses in the Bill.
My noble friend asked about the read-over of this to some matters in the Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements. With great respect, I suggest that the time to debate that will be when the full texts of those agreements are available to the House, as they will be in due course.
Having listened carefully to the points made today, I ask my noble friend and the noble Baroness not to press their amendments.
Before my noble friend sits down, will he permit me to pursue the issue raised in a more general regard by the Law Society of England? It is concerned that legal services can be dropped too easily from current and future negotiations. I used Australia and New Zealand as a model, but can he give us an assurance that, in his view, that will not happen?
My Lords, I am absolutely happy to give that assurance to my noble friend. Legal services are a very valuable part of the export of services from the UK. This is something we absolutely seek to protect and extend in free trade agreements, rather than in any way seeking to curb. I am very happy to give my noble friend that complete assurance.
I thank the Minister for his reply, and my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Kennedy, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, the noble Lords, Lord Bruce, Lord Lansley and Lord Purvis, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for their comments. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and my noble friend Lord Foulkes both mentioned the Law Society of Scotland, and I think my noble friend mentioned Michael Clancy. Maybe those of us who know him can do a shout-out for his return to full health.
The Minister is right to say that we will discuss the main part of consultation with the devolveds in a later group, but we should point out two things. First, the government amendment will automatically mean that the relevant devolved regulators would be consulted, but also, in response to my noble friend Lord Foulkes’s comment about the Scottish Government not always being willing to consult, it will require them to consult with their relevant regulators. Maybe that is why they are withholding their consent Motion—I am not sure.
The problem I still have is why the government amendment does not cover the regulations in Clause 2—or actually Clause 10, which I had not noticed before. Clause 2 is quite important. In responding, the Minister used the words—I hope I got them down correctly—that it would be a duty to consult regulators “shaping any regulations made under this Bill.” He did not use the words “shaping regulations under certain parts of this Bill”, but “shaping any regulations made under this Bill”. However, his amendment does not do that. My concern is that, if there is no duty to consult, then there might be no consultation.
The Minister then said, “Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter because they may be very minor”—those were not quite his words; they were far more correct than that. Actually, if you read his amendment, it is a requirement only if
“the regulator is likely to be affected by the regulations”.
So if it was such a minor regulation that did not affect a regulator then it would be excluded from the duty anyway. I am slightly worried about that.
I wonder whether the Minister would agree to some further discussions about Clause 2 and why there is no consultation on it. Perhaps he might even be willing for us to bring this back at Third Reading if it looks as if it is actually an error and there is no good reason to exclude regulations made under Clause 2, which is the big one for some of the regulators—this is the one about whether there is a shortage of professionals. I do not know whether the Minister could indicate assent to some further discussions, so that we could clarify this at Third Reading.
I believe the reason why we are not consulting on Clause 2 is that it has no regulation-making powers in it. The regulations dealing with the whole question of shortages are made under Clause 1, where there is a duty to consult. I stand ready to be corrected if anybody wants to look at the text of the Bill, but the regulations that would relate to Clause 2 are made under Clause 1, and there is a duty to consult on that clause. I hope that completely answers the noble Baroness’s question.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, would be looking at me now and saying, “Any good barrister knows not to ask a question to which you do not know the answer”—I just broke that rule. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Amendment 4 not moved.
Clause 2: Power conferred by section 1 exercisable only if necessary to meet demand
5: Clause 2, page 2, line 39, leave out “without unreasonable delays or charges”
This group has two amendments, which do indeed relate to Clause 2, in my name and, for Amendment 6, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. I am grateful for her support.
Noble Lords who were involved in Committee will recall that this clause, as my noble friend just explained, sets out the conditions under which the power to make regulations in Clause 1 might be used. To quote subsection (2):
“The condition is that it is necessary to make the regulations for the purpose of enabling the demand for the services of the profession … to be met without unreasonable delays or charges.”
Quite understandably, the central question is: what constitutes unmet demand? The discussion in Committee was around what we mean by “unreasonable delays or charges” in this context, and how people are to have sufficient clarity about the circumstances in which the national authorities concerned would deem it necessary to make regulations.
Noble Lords will recall that some of what the Government have outlined in the policy framework that we saw early on, and which has been amplified most recently in the fact sheets issued last week, sets out in some detail the process of thinking about what constitutes unmet demand for a profession. An illustrative scenario set out in the fact sheet enables those who want to explore this to see how it might work in practice. It includes consulting with regulators. The illustrative scenario includes talking to relevant professional bodies. It includes looking at costs and, interestingly, at value for money—the implication being that unreasonable charges are ones that do not constitute value for money. It includes vacancy rates, which are mentioned in Amendment 6, workforce statistics and modelling—again mentioned in Amendment 6—and whether an occupation is on the shortage occupation list.
I take comfort from the fact that the description the Government have given of the process by which a national authority would look at whether there was unmet demand corresponds with a set of factors that we set out in Amendment 6. I am comforted and glad that is the case, because they derive from the Government’s own explanations. It is just that I am afraid that I still do not think, even today, that Clause 2 in the form it is written tells people that that is the case. The guidance, the fact sheet and the policy framework tell people how it is to be done, but it is not all set out in the clause itself. What I set out to do in Amendments 5 and 6 is take out the offending words “unreasonable delays or charges” and incorporate all these factors into Amendment 6—which is, I take it, why the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, signed it, because she felt that it served the purpose.
How do we proceed? Do we do so simply by taking the Government’s approach? It is not for me to make their argument; they might well say that we do not need to put all this in the Bill, because when people look at what constitutes unmet demand they will be able to look at the fact sheets and the guidance, and all these factors will be there. I am looking for the Government either to say that we do need to make a change, or to be sufficiently clear about the factors that will be brought into account, that they correspond directly to what we have set down in Amendment 6, and that we and other people can rely on them in future and look to what is said today as a basis for understanding how this process is to proceed.
In passing, let us just think for a moment about resting on the question of delays and charges alone. Charges in professional services are not necessarily always the product of the availability of professionals. Sometimes it is very much to do with the scarcity of specialisation within professions. So, trying to deduce that higher charges in a profession are necessarily the consequence of a lack of overseas practitioners is a difficult judgment to make. Many of the professions we are talking about are clinical professions, conducted, in the most part, in the National Health Service, where delays are the product, as we all know, of many factors, not just the availability of professionals, and where charges are very often irrelevant—they do not exist. I am afraid the idea that one can arrive at a conclusion about the necessity to bring overseas professionals into some of these clinical professions on the basis of delays and charges in the NHS is somewhat moonshine.
We need the other factors—workforce modelling, shortages in the occupational list, vacancy rates and all these other issues—to be there. We just need to make absolutely certain that they are there, and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to give us the assurance that we are looking for today to enable me to withdraw Amendment 5 in due course. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, I have added my name to the second of the amendments in this group. There are two parts to the Bill, as we know. One arises from the trade talks, where the Government may want regulators to talk to their opposite numbers in relevant third countries. The other, which is what we are looking at now, is about enabling—or maybe requesting—regulators to process overseas qualified people where there is deemed to be a shortage here. Unmet “needs” is the word used. That is where I and some of the regulators have some concerns.
In many sectors, such as nursing, it already happens. Structures are in place and there is no need for the Government to intervene. The powers are there, everything is fine at the moment. However, there are two serious questions that need answering. First, is there any danger that consumer interests are at risk if underqualified people practise here because the Government say, “We have not got enough of that particular profession”? I do not need to go into why that is a risk; it is fairly obvious.
Secondly, which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, covered, is how the shortage is to be defined. He already referred to why high fees are not always an appropriate measure. Sometimes, there are high fees because there is an international shortage; the price is set on an international market and therefore bringing in more of that profession would not solve anything. Or will it be defined by users or consumers who need those services? Amendment 6 sets out some far more objective criteria, which is why I was happy to support it.
Since we are on this bit, I should raise the other concern of the Law Society, which was not raised earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. It does not expect to be covered by Clauses 1 and 2, but were they to be applied to it, and should the SRA get involved in such discussions, the Law Society wonders whether this would jeopardise the perceived independence of the legal profession as seen abroad by foreign Bars. Clearly, the consultation is very important, but—I am not saying that it said this because it was high fees—I think it would have a concern if there appeared to be any interference by the Government that would in any way question the independence of the legal regulators, which I know is so important for our international reputation in the world of law. For the moment, the main issue is the definition of where there is unmet need and whether the assurances will cover what we have set out in Amendment 6.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and to agree very substantially with what she said and of course, the noble Lord, who made a strong case. I, too, commend the Minister because, as we have indicated in previous groups and as my noble friend said, the Bill may have had a pause, but the Minister did not. He and his officials have worked hard in engaging with us and with those who will be affected by it.
Therefore, government Amendment 13, which we will debate soon, which guarantees the autonomy of regulators, has alleviated some of the concern when it comes to regulations being put forward for the regulators when there has a been a determination of unmet demand. However, there is still an area of uncertainty about how the Government will make the determination that there is unmet demand.
In October, when I was watching the Prime Minister on the telly, he said that the solution to labour shortages in this country is not to pull a lever to bring people from overseas into this country. We then got fact sheets from the department which said, “Let’s pull the lever to make it easier for foreign workers who we don’t have a mutual recognition agreement with to fill unmet demand.” Somewhere, both must be right, and this Minister has a much more nuanced position and his department has a greater view of reality that where there is demand for services part of the solution for that will be from those who have the same qualifications from overseas.
So, I agree with him, and it will be helpful, because every time that I am told that I am a remoaner who wants to open the floodgates, I will simply refer to the Professional Qualifications Bill and the methods within it. However, there is still an area of dissonance between what the Bill indicates and what the Home Office will be indicating for the shortage occupation list and the visas that will come with that. In the government fact sheet, which I commend the Minister for bringing forward, as he said he would, there is still no reference to the visa regime or the other elements that could be taken into consideration for determining unmet demand.
For example, and these may be two extreme cases, I had a look at the shortage list and there is an unmet demand for Gaelic teachers—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not in his place—we do not necessarily need to take a day trip into the Highlands, but there is unmet demand for Gaelic teachers. I am not necessarily saying that that will be filled by those coming from afar, but, more tellingly, there is also an unmet demand for paramedics across all of the UK, and paramedics are on one of the shortage lists. Certainly, where I live, north of the border, the lack of paramedics is a critical issue at the moment. It is literally a life and death situation in Scotland.
I cannot understand why the Government cannot have a straightforward situation so that professions under a legal regulator can be consistent with the shortage occupation list as far as visas are concerned. Unless the Government and the Minister are willing to say that they are going to bring this together, one part of the Government is saying, “We will put you on a shortage list to allow you to get an emergency or a specific visa to come and work here, but you are not necessarily on the list that says that we will recognise your professional qualification”, and vice versa. In many cases, it would just make absolute common sense if one part of the Government says that there is unmet demand.
Of course, there are other elements, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and the noble Baroness indicated, such as geographical factors and market conditions, as far as demand is concerned, and it would help if the Government were able to indicate what they may be. It is not too late for the Government to do so, and it would be very helpful because this inevitably will be a high-profile and potentially controversial area when it comes to regulations being brought forward to allow those from overseas to work in the domestic market.
When the factsheet on unmet demand says that
“there is insufficient provision of the services of a regulated profession and consumers have to wait longer or pay more for those services”
without there being any clear definition, many consumers will say that pretty much all their services at the moment fit into those categories. If you are a consumer having to wait longer for your energy provider, or any others, and are having to pay more for those services without there being baseline information or a proper market assessment, ultimately the free hand of government to make the decisions about what is unmet in that consideration is very broad. The case for these amendments, which on one hand remove some of the specificity, in that of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, but also add a degree of clarity, in the second amendment, have merit. I hope that, at this late stage in the Bill, the Minister is able to give more clarity from the Dispatch Box.
My Lords, I am conscious of the time, so I will not speak for long. A number of important points were raised in this short debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made a clear and compelling case for his amendment and I hope that the Minister takes up his challenge and sets out very carefully and clearly the reasons why it will not be necessary to test the opinion of the House. Amendment 6, in the names of the noble Lord and my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, sets out, in proposed new paragraphs (a) to (f), points that are absolutely right and need to be taken into account. I will leave my remarks there, and I hope the Minister will respond carefully so that the noble Lord will not need to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for his amendments, which would alter the unmet demand condition in Clause 2(2). First, I give a complete reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, that the amendment I will bring forward later about regulator autonomy absolutely preserves the independence of the legal profession and prevents any dilution of standards. That amendment, if accepted by the House, completely puts the determination of standards in the hands of regulators and is not something the Government can override in any way.
My noble friend’s amendments require the appropriate national authority to consider a specific set of factors to determine whether the unmet demand condition is met. I completely agree that the appropriate national authority should be transparent when determining whether the unmet demand condition is met. I find it hard to disagree with the factors set out in the amendments, because they are likely to form part of a sensible basis for making this determination for many professions. Your Lordships will have seen the recent publication referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, explaining how the unmet demand condition might be determined. That factsheet sets out that this assessment should be tailored to the circumstances and context of each profession.
Appropriate national authorities are best placed to determine which factors to consider, according to the individual circumstances of a profession. For example, a devolved Administration will be best placed to determine the factors relevant to assessing whether there is unmet demand for a profession in an area of devolved competence, and it is important that they are able to decide how best to make such determinations and form their own views on which factors are most relevant to their own situation. Indeed, I absolutely agree that some of the factors proposed by my noble friend are good practice, although they may not be essential in every case to understanding unmet demand. For example, the views of professional bodies and workforce modelling may or may not be relevant, but it should absolutely be for the appropriate national authority to take those matters into account if it so determines. Having to work through, in a statutory sense, every factor on this list could cause delays and unnecessary administrative burden when there is an urgent need for regulations and the condition, as drafted, is clearly met.
However, I hope that it gives my noble friend complete reassurance when I say that the Government plan to publish guidance to support appropriate national authorities in their determination of unmet demand, and I undertake that the factors in his amendment will be included and explained in any such guidance. That answers, at least in part, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed. I note that one of the factors listed by my noble friend includes whether the profession is on the occupation shortage list; that will be covered in the guidance.
Immigration is a different matter from the recognition of professional qualifications. The Government have introduced a new skills-based immigration system which treats people from every part of the world equally. I hope that a skills-based immigration system would properly recognise the quality of professionals seeking to practise their profession, but it is outside my remit to go further into the immigration system, as I hope the noble Lord appreciates.
I think these are both looked at from different perspectives, so I do not think it is a question of which trumps which; the question is “What is the appropriate decision to come to?”, looking at it from the perspective either of immigration or of considering professions or occupations where there are shortages.