Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 (Amendment to Schedule 3) (England) Order 2021, which was laid before the House on 1 November 2021, be approved.
This instrument will add Part 2A of the of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, as it applies to England, to Schedule 3 to the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008. The reason for adding Part 2A to Schedule 3 to RESA is that it brings Part 2A and regulations made under it within the scope of the primary authority scheme as it applies in England. From now on, I will refer to Part 2A of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 simply as “Part 2A”. I will also refer to the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 as “RESA”, and to the primary authority scheme as “the scheme”.
As I am sure noble Lords will recognise, businesses operating in the UK need to comply with a wide range of legislation, much of which is enforced by local authorities. The scheme has been developed to assist businesses and allow them to receive tailored support in relation to one or more specific areas of law. With a dedicated team, a primary authority partnership makes it easier for businesses to comply with the law, reducing the costs of compliance without reducing regulatory protections. Businesses can invest in products, practices and procedures, knowing that the resources they devote to compliance are recognisable throughout the country across local authority boundaries, resulting in a consistent approach.
Advice provided by the primary authority carries legal weight and provides assurance for the business when dealing with other local authorities that regulate it. The area of law that we are concerned with today is public health regulation. Bringing Part 2A within the scheme will ensure that businesses in England can received assured advice, referred to as “primary authority advice”, on complying with public health regulations made under Part 2A, including in the context of a future pandemic.
Let me now address each of these areas in more detail. I will start with an explanation of Part 2A and its addition to Schedule 3 of RESA, before providing more detail about the scheme. I will also briefly outline the support that the order has already received.
First, Part 2A enables action to be taken to deal with cases of infection or contamination presenting significant harm to human health, if and when they arise. Under Part 2A, a local authority can, where necessary, apply to a magistrate for a range of orders to reduce or remove risks arising from persons, things or premises that are or may be infectious or contaminated and which could present significant harm to health and a risk that others might be infected or contaminated. This is known as a Part 2A order. It is intended to be used as a last resort when other interventions by the local authority have either failed or are not suitable. A magistrate may grant a Part 2A order to a local authority if they are satisfied that the criteria set out in the Health Protection Regulations 2010 are met. Part 2A also provides powers for regulations to be made in an emergency to address a serious and imminent threat to public health.
Secondly, I will explain why Part 2A, as it applies in England, needs to be added to Schedule 3 to RESA. As noble Lords have heard, the order effects the inclusion of Part 2A in the primary authority scheme. To be within scope of the scheme, legislation must be listed in Schedule 3 to RESA, or be made under legislation listed in Schedule 3, or under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. It must relate to certain specified matters and be enforced by local authorities. RESA requires any amendments to Schedule 3 to be made using the draft affirmative procedure for statutory instruments.
If Part 2A is not added to Schedule 3 of RESA, it would be necessary to amend Schedule 3 on an individual basis to bring each regulation made under Part 2A within scope of the scheme. This would delay the provision of primary authority advice at the time of a public health emergency. In contrast, by bringing Part 2A and regulations made under it within the scope of the scheme, businesses in England will be able to obtain primary authority advice on compliance with public health regulations from the outset of a public health emergency.
Thirdly, I will briefly describe the primary authority scheme. This was established under RESA and has been in operation since 2009. It was created in response to the Hampton report of 2005, which noted widespread inconsistencies of regulatory interpretation between different local authorities. RESA establishes a statutory framework for a business to form a partnership with a local authority—which becomes the primary authority—for it to receive support from that primary authority in respect of complying with regulations introduced under a relevant enactment. Once a partnership has been nominated by the Secretary of State, the primary authority can issue tailored advice to the business on compliance with legislation in scope of the scheme. The receipt of primary authority advice enables businesses to avoid the cost and regulatory burden associated with inconsistent interpretation and application of the law by different local authorities in respect of the same regulatory requirements.
Where a local authority is proposing to take enforcement action against a business, the primary authority will review the proposed action and consider whether it is consistent with previous primary authority advice. In the event of any disagreement between the primary authority and a local authority over whether the proposed enforcement action is consistent with the original primary authority advice, the Secretary of State is empowered to make a determination.
There are many benefits to the scheme. Primary authority partnerships facilitate a more productive and proactive regulatory relationship between businesses and local authorities. The public also benefit when businesses properly comply with regulations. There are benefits for local authorities as well. If one local authority—the primary authority—provides a business with robust, reliable and consistent advice, it will allow other local authorities to target their resources more effectively, thereby avoiding duplication. Transparency is maintained via a central register through which local authorities can search for primary authority advice. Finally, the scheme gives regulators greater clarity as to where responsibility lies. It improves the consistency of local regulation and supports local economic growth through stronger business relationships.
Finally, let me highlight that there has been strong support among business stakeholders, local authorities and trade associations for the addition of Part 2A to Schedule 3 to RESA. The challenges that local authorities recently experienced in interpreting, at pace, regulations made under Part 2A to reduce the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the associated burdens experienced by businesses in trying to comply with these differing interpretations, led to calls for Part 2A to be brought within scope of the scheme. For example, in November 2020 the British Retail Consortium, which represents over 170 major retailers, wrote to the then Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, requesting that Part 2A be brought within scope. This was in the context that in 2020 approximately 46,000 businesses with an existing primary authority partnership received informal advice on coronavirus regulations made under Part 2A.
In conclusion, we are introducing this order to bring Part 2A, as it applies in England, within scope of the scheme. As I have said, the aim is to ensure that businesses in England will be able to obtain primary authority advice on compliance with regulations made under Part 2A from the outset of any future public health emergency. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is unfortunately unlikely to be the last public health emergency this country will face, there is strong recognition among business stakeholders, local authorities and trade associations of the benefit of bringing Part 2A within scope of the scheme. I therefore commend this order to the Committee.
My Lords, as we have heard, these regulations extend the scope of the primary authority scheme, as provided under the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008, to include regulations made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 that deal with public health protection. The Government have said that this will have the effect of enabling businesses to form primary authority partnerships with local authorities in England in relation to public health protection, including in the context of a future pandemic.
The Explanatory Memorandum reveals quite a startling statistic: there is a 5% likelihood, in any given year, of a pandemic. It also states that it is estimated that a severe pandemic, of high mortality, will occur at a 2% rate per year and a less severe pandemic, of low mortality, will occur at a 3% rate per year. Can the Minister explain whether this likelihood has increased due to the Covid pandemic we are experiencing? With the knowledge of the 5% figure, can he also explain why the Government are dragging their feet over launching the public inquiry into Covid-19?
We must surely learn the lessons of this pandemic as soon as possible, given the scenario predicting a 5% likelihood of pandemics in any future year. This change is clearly taking place in response to the role that business and the private sector have played during the Covid pandemic. What the Government have asked from business and the wider private sector during it is unprecedented in peacetime. We must thank businesses for stepping up when we needed them to do so most.
The Explanatory Memorandum reveals that in 2020, approximately 46,000 businesses with an existing partnership under the primary authority scheme were receiving informal advice on regulations made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. The Government have stated that this change will enable these businesses to access consistent and reliable advice on compliance and that business stakeholders, local authorities and trade associations in England have requested this change. Can the Minister repeat how many there were—I am not sure that he told us—and did they include organisations representing small and medium-sized enterprises? Can he also confirm that businesses have struggled to get any reliable advice during the pandemic, and whether there have been any serious consequences from not being able to do so?
The Welsh Government have apparently decided not to apply this statutory instrument to Wales. The First Minister of Wales declined to consent to the amendment in July 2021. Can the Minister explain why, and what type of engagement took place with the Welsh Minister?
The Explanatory Memorandum revealed this:
“The impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies is an expected net benefit to business in England of approximately £20.9 m over 2021 to 2030.”
Can the Minister provide some clarity on how that benefit is expected to be shared between large businesses, SMEs and charities? I look forward to his reply.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, for his contribution. As I said initially, the order will ensure that businesses can receive consistent and reliable advice in respect of regulations brought in to deal with the public health emergency, thereby reducing the burdens on businesses and providing benefits more widely to local authorities and the public. It does that by adding Part 2A to Schedule 3 to RESA, thereby bringing Part 2A and any regulations made under it within the scope of the scheme as it applies in England.
Our experience of the coronavirus pandemic has shown how important it is for businesses to receive clear regulatory guidance. With another pandemic likely to happen—possibly—in our lifetime, it is important to be well prepared. So, in response to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, the 5% that he mentioned includes the current pandemic and is based on the outbreak of pandemics over the past 100 years. However, as I am sure he appreciates, the provision of the new Covid regulations and any inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic are outside the scope of this statutory instrument debate. As soon as I have more information on those points, I will be sure to share it with the noble Lord.
The noble Lord also asked how many businesses are in the scheme. The de minimis self-certification assessment noted that, in December 2020, there were around 106,000 businesses in the primary authority scheme. Based on an estimated annual flat and natural growth rate of 2,500, this means that, between 2021 and 2030, approximately 109,000 to 131,000 businesses will be in the primary authority scheme.
The noble Lord made an important point about why Welsh Ministers did not consent to the order applying in Wales. The UK Government believe that there are benefits to businesses in England from receiving consistent public authority advice on legislation brought in during a public health emergency, and that the order should be brought in so that those benefits are realised. My understanding is that the position of the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, is that the context is different in Wales. His view is that local authorities already can and do capitalise on close working relationships to reach a common approach to guidance and enforcement of health protection regulations, and therefore do not need to provide for this formally. It is of course within his lawful discretion to decline consent to this order as this is a devolved matter; as always, we will continue to engage with Welsh Ministers on devolved matters within the scope of the primary authority regime.
The noble Lord asked for clarity on the benefit between large and small businesses. All businesses receive consistent, assured advice, and SMEs do not have to pay for costly legal interpretations. Small businesses may also join a co-ordinated partnership and receive the benefits of primary authority advice in that way. The primary authority scheme is voluntary; obviously, businesses will participate only if they consider that doing so will benefit them.
In supporting this order, we support businesses being in a better position to understand and comply with regulations enacted during a public health emergency. With thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, for the sole contribution, I commend this order to the Committee.