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Grand Committee

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Grand Committee

Monday 23 January 2023

Arrangement of Business


My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, which seems unlikely, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells ring and come back after 10 minutes.

Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Amendment of List of Responders) Order 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Amendment of List of Responders) Order 2023.

Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this order was laid before the House on 6 December. I think we are all agreed on the importance of improving UK resilience, and the recently published resilience framework illustrates the need for clear responsibilities in order to drive planning activity across the risk life cycle.

This instrument will do exactly that by creating the legal basis for improved co-operation, information sharing and integration between the Meteorological Office and the Coal Authority and the wider list of categorised organisations operating at the local level across the UK. It will deliver these important changes by making both organisations category 2 responders as defined under the Civil Contingencies Act, in turn bolstering the planning activities conducted by local resilience forums in England—a further commitment of the new resilience framework.

This will ensure that these bodies are well integrated within wider emergency planning frameworks and able to collaborate in the development of localised risk assessments and to contribute information and expertise to support local resilience forums in planning for and responding to emergencies. Both organisations hold information and experience that is integral to the process of civil protection. The Meteorological Office is able to support effective management of severe weather risks, and the Coal Authority is positioned to ensure that due consideration is given to the unique risks presented by our industrial heritage.

I was amazed by this: approximately 25% of property across the UK is located on the coalfield, and the Coal Authority responds to a wide range of incidents, including, but not limited to, subsidence, sudden ground collapses, emissions of water or gas and coal tip slips, as well as metal mine pollution incidents, for which it also has responsibility. As we all know, extreme weather and flooding, which we have increasingly experienced, often heighten the likelihood of risks materialising in these areas.

The Civil Contingencies Act, also known as the CCA, was introduced in 2004 following a review of emergency planning arrangements as a result of the fuel crisis and severe flooding in 2000, as well as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Act establishes a framework for civil protection in the UK. It imposes a clear set of roles and responsibilities on organisations with a role to play in preparing for and responding to emergencies.

Category 1 responders are organisations that collectively form the core of local emergency preparedness and response. These include emergency services, local authorities, health bodies, HM Coastguard and government agencies. Category 1 responders are subject to the full set of statutory civil protection duties, including assessing risks to inform contingency planning, warning and informing the public, and putting in place business continuity arrangements.

Category 2 organisations, which include the Health and Safety Executive and utilities and transport operators, are co-operating bodies and, although less likely to be involved in the heart of planning work, are heavily involved in incidents that affect their own sector. Category 2 responders have a statutory duty to co-operate and share relevant information with other category 1 and 2 responders. The Act and regulations made under the CCA create the basis for these organisations to collaborate through local resilience forums where all responders can come together to ensure effective multiagency emergency preparation and response.

Regulations made under the CCA also place a duty on responders to help co-ordinate risk assessment at their local level through the production of the community risk register, which ensures that local resilience forum members hold a consistent understanding of the hazards and threats across their area.

The CCA is reviewed every five years. The most recent post-implementation review was laid before the House in March 2022 and proposed the categorisation of the Met Office and the Coal Authority as one of its key recommendations. The Met Office and Coal Authority perform important functions in preparing for, and responding to, risks associated with extreme weather events and the coal-mining legacy. Recent examples include several heatwaves in 2022, a number of floods in recent weeks and, in the past few days, a sinkhole that has, sadly, opened up in Caerphilly. The two organisations have significant expertise and technical knowledge in their respective fields and provide critical support, such as severe weather warnings, hazard assessments, training and response planning.

While these organisations already work closely with local partners, our consultation and engagement indicated that, without their integration within the legal framework, this was taking place in an inconsistent or ad hoc way. Categorising these organisations will ensure that they are able to share information and co-operate with local resilience forums across the UK in a more regulated and structured way. This will ultimately improve the preparedness of local partnerships to respond to incidents related to coal mines or severe weather and strengthen their ability to protect the public and save lives.

This instrument is being made using powers set out in Section 13(1) of the Civil Contingencies Act, which allows a Minister of the Crown to amend the list of categorised responders. It will add the Meteorological Office and the Coal Authority to the list of responders under the Act. Importantly, these amendments do not add significant financial burdens to the Meteorological Office or the Coal Authority as these organisations are already equipped to perform these additional duties under their current budgets, with a de minimis impact assessment having been completed in December 2022.

These provisions will be implemented across the UK, and we have consulted officials from the devolved Administrations throughout the process. We also formally notified each Administration via ministerial letters of our intention to lay this instrument. Noble Lords will be glad to hear that all devolved Administrations were supportive of the inclusion of these agencies as categorised responders for the whole United Kingdom. I therefore thank each Administration for their engagement and collaboration. I hope that colleagues today will join me in supporting the draft regulations. I commend them to the Committee and beg to move.

I thank the Minister for her helpful introduction to this statutory instrument. It is an excellent proposal to include the coal providers and the meteorological service as category 2 responders. The actual legislation is barely half a page. The rest of the documentation, both the Explanatory Memorandum and the evidence base, are extremely helpful in explaining how the emergency provision is supposed to operate in practice and the difference between the responsibilities of a category 1 and category 2 responder.

I want to raise an issue about how well that is working in practice—and I declare an interest that my grand-daughters were born very prematurely and very small and, this time five years ago, the smallest of them had been allowed home from hospital only after the first eight months of her life, with a ventilator to operate when she was asleep at night and during the day. Nobody was allowed to look after her who had not been trained by the hospital because, if the ventilator failed, there would obviously be very serious consequences. They also provided a heart monitor. At the time, my son and daughter-in-law were told to let their utility supplier know that they required emergency support in the event of a power cut. There was one such power cut—and, when you have a sick baby home from hospital for the first time, you are watching the minutes ticking by and knowing that the battery on your child’s ventilator and heart alarm is going to run down fairly swiftly.

My son rang the utility emergency number, which confirmed that they were on the register, that it was only their estate in south London that had gone out and that, in due course, a generator would be brought to them. An hour and a half later, the story was still the same. My son had to take the decision to remove my granddaughter and all her kit—which filled the car—and bring her to us, where we did have power and were able to ensure that she was safe. I therefore have a particular interest in the emergency supply of electricity, not just for vulnerable people but for those whose lives depend on it.

When there was concern in the autumn about possible blackouts this year, no matter how unlikely, to make sure that the arrangements under the CCA would work for this small group of people, children and adults who have to rely on literally life-saving equipment to keep them alive I asked Energy Ministers and Health Ministers about the registers, which are still held by the utility providers, which are category 2 providers. Disabled groups have also been asking about them. Grant Shapps gave evidence at a BEIS Select Committee meeting that arrangements are there but these individuals need to make emergency arrangements for themselves, which has not been the case in the past and which I found quite extraordinary. For clarity, the register is called the priority services register. That is the one for all vulnerable customers, but it does not distinguish the level of emergency need—and therein lies the problem. In the event of mass power cuts, it is clearly impractical for any energy supplier to provide electricity generators to lots of people at short notice, but asking residents who fall into that category to make that provision for themselves is a further problem.

What has become more worrying, and the reason why I raise this now, is that utility suppliers are telling these individuals that they need to talk to their doctors, who have absolutely no role in this at all. It is clear to many people that the utility suppliers do not understand their role in managing the register. I have also talked to two directors of public health, who are key players on any health issues in local resilience forums and have a particular role in a civil contingency situation, such as a major power cut. They say that they cannot get the right information from the energy suppliers about who it is who needs that extra care. All the focus is on the vulnerable elderly who might get cold. The particular group of people that I refer to seems to fall through the net.

Can the Minister investigate for me how this is meant to work and confirm whether the Secretary of State for BEIS was correct in his assertion in the autumn that the responsibility now lies with the individuals concerned—which seems extraordinary? Can she also confirm whether it is clear to local resilience forums what they should be doing and where they should get their information from regarding this particular group of people?

To end on a happier note: my granddaughter no longer uses a ventilator at night—it took three years—and I must say that all the support that she has had from everyone has been brilliant. But we are a family who really understand the consequences of a major power cut and how life-threatening that can be for a small but very vulnerable group of people.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for this. This comes in the midst of strong negative comments across the House about the way in which Ministers are now handling too many SIs and too much delegated legislation. This seems to be a model of how it should work, and I compliment the Minister.

I am most acutely interested in the flood prevention area. As the “Saltaire” in my title suggests, we live on—happily, above—the River Aire. Indeed, the weekend before last, we walked down to see just how high the river had got. We well remember when, four winters ago, it was higher than it had been for over a century. All of us in Yorkshire who live below the Pennines are now conscious of the increasing flood risk which we all face and how much of a problem this becomes in terms of the multiagency response when floods happen. Happily, we are not in the Yorkshire coal-mining area, and lead mining is more of a legacy problem in the Dales, but I am conscious that in the acute wet weather last summer, there were potholes in the limestone region which filled up with water for the first time in nearly a century. Clearly, we are in exceptional circumstances and the potential for danger, loss of life and loss of property is now higher than it has been.

I have a few brief questions. In the consultation, were other agencies considered for addition to the list of category 2 responders? How good are the links between Defra as responsible for the countryside, the Environment Agency as responsible for drainage and the various LRFs and others concerned with flood risk? We are all aware, particularly those of us who live in the shadow of the hills, that how you look after catchment areas relates very clearly to the degree of flood risk that is involved. As the climate changes, that is something that needs broader attention at local, regional and national level. Are the Government happy that local resilience forums work well? The Minister will also have noticed the growing chorus of unease about the overcentralisation of England and the weakening power and finances of local authorities and local agencies. Local resilience forums are very important in areas such as this—these are people who know the ground; they know where the coal mines were and where the other local hazards are—and I hope that they work well.

Finally, my noble friend Lady Brinton raised electricity supply as one of the factors in dealing with disasters. I am conscious that we are moving in a direction in which electricity will increasingly become the only source of power supply for a growing number of homes. As it happens, at present my wife is in dispute with BT, which is trying to remove our landline and give us phone access only by broadband. That means that when and if there is an electricity problem, we are likely to run out of juice with which to make phone calls fairly rapidly. That is an extra hazard that we are moving into because one of the utilities wants to get rid of the costs of maintaining landlines. I hope that the Cabinet Office has also considered this as an important risk factor in case of emergency.

Having said all that, I welcome this order and I repeat: this is a model SI in the way it is being scrutinised—unlike many others.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister’s introduction to the SI. Certainly, it is one of the least controversial ones that I have ever dealt with, so I will not labour the point too much.

I would like the Minister to comment on how well the CCA five-yearly review works. Bearing in mind that, on Radio 4, the Environment Agency’s comments on the risk of river flooding were so closely aligned to the Meteorological Office’s warnings, I wonder what difference this statutory obligation will make. Will it have added value? The two things here that have come out of the review are so logical that one wonders why this was not done before. Will the department add other elements of the review? Are there elements that will still require action?

Certainly, there can be no reason for not adding these two bodies as category 2 responders; I am sure that both are currently working to provide information and support. The Minister said that they will not perform additional duties; they are already performing the duties, so there will be no additional cost, but I would like to know how this statutory responsibility will add to the benefit of their work.

With those few comments, I support the order and wish it well.

I thank noble Lords for this short and very positive debate. It is nice to be able to celebrate delegated legislation that is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, particularly given that, in another world, when I was a poacher rather than a gamekeeper, we used to ask questions about these things together. I thank him very much; it has made my day.

I will respond briefly to some of the helpful points made. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised the very important question of how the legislation works in practice for vulnerable people such as her granddaughter, whom I am delighted to hear is now off the ventilator. A bit of good news is that there are additional recommendations in the CCA review of the legislation—the PIR—which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to, which look to strengthen the requirement on the local resilience forums to consider vulnerable people, and a dedicated BEIS-led programme on power supply.

I will write to the noble Baroness with more information about that, but she is right that we should be improving things for vulnerable people across the board. I will liaise with my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, and between us we will see what we can do about the point that the noble Baroness raised about electricity and, indeed, the more general question about vulnerable people. We have a new resilience framework, and we are very keen for it to think more about the user and to have more of a whole-society approach. The noble Baroness’s point is an excellent example, if we can crack it, of what we should be doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked what other agencies we thought of adding to category 2. Obviously, it is important to ensure that structures are efficient and effective, and balance is critical in making sure that those important to local planning and preparation are included but do not overwhelm the system. Noble Lords will remember that I used to work in the supermarket industry. We always thought that our role was very important but, in fact, we were not category 2 responders, although we were involved in assisting in the event of terror attacks, flooding, and so on. The honest answer is that other organisations and agencies did not make the cut in terms of benefit versus burden, but if I have any more information, I will pass it on.

The point about phone use and the move to the internet is something I have experienced where I live when I am in London. Exactly the same thing has happened with Virgin Media: we have moved from having a home phone to it now being linked to the wi-fi. I think the noble Lord raises a good point; I do not know what is being done about it, but I will make some inquiries.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about outstanding commitments from the review. As he probably remembers from previous debates, I am very keen on post-implementation evaluation. There are two other potential legislative changes. The first places a reporting obligation on categorised responders to set out publicly how they comply with their statutory duties under the Act. However, we think that may require primary legislation, so it will not be done overnight. The second removes the legacy role of regional nominated co-ordinators in Part 2 of the Act; the regional government offices in England were closed in 2010. That also requires primary legislation, although it is probably less urgent, given its nature.

There were also some non-statutory recommendations. We have committed to placing the national resilience standards, which set out expectations of good and leading practice for local resilience forums, on a statutory footing. We have committed to updating the statutory and non-statutory UK guidance that accompanies the Act. The requirement to produce a community risk register is to be strengthened, with a requirement for responders to consider community demographics, particularly for vulnerable groups, in preparing their community risk register. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will be delighted to hear this and it might be relevant to her point. The multiagency preparedness activities conducted by local resilience arrangements require enhanced accountability, which is being given further consideration as part of DLUHC’s reform programme of the local resilience forums. Noble Lords may remember from the debate on extreme risks the other day that I explained that those forums had got more support and are regarded as very important.

In addition, assurance of the preparedness activities conducted as part of local resilience arrangements needs to go further than the current voluntary assessments and peer review. Obligations on central government departments to improve information sharing and planning between national and local, such as through a statutory duty to co-operate and information sharing paralleling what we have with category 1 and 2, should be considered; there are various options that could be looked at. That needs further consideration, but I hope noble Lords can see that that work is in hand.

The recent crisis, including the increasingly eccentric weather—it was -7C in my part of Wiltshire this weekend, which is extraordinary—means that we need to do more in these areas. I hope we have made it clear that that is exactly our plan. It is one of the reasons that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put out a major document within the last month.

Finally, what difference will the SI make? I make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that the intention of this intervention is to improve the civil protection framework and ultimately to increase the level of preparedness of relevant organisations to respond collectively to emergencies. The “collective” is as important as anything. As I said in my opening remarks, the new categorisations will increase responder understanding of severe weather, climate change and mining-related risks, and better inform our work to prevent, prepare, respond and recover, thereby improving resilience and reducing adverse impacts.

I believe that the Civil Contingencies Act delivers a strong framework for civil protection in the UK. These two additional responders will strengthen it. I hope that colleagues will join me in supporting the regulations, which I commend to the Committee.

I thank the Minister very much for her generous response. When she writes to me—perhaps we might even be able to meet on this—could she draw a distinction between the general category of vulnerable people and those who are highly impacted by whatever the emergency is? In the case I gave it was utilities.

Indeed. The noble Baroness made it very clear in her contribution that that was exactly the problem: vulnerability comes in different clothing and different categories. We should look at that as part of our resilience work; otherwise, there will be repeated disappointments of the kind she helpfully brought to the attention of the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 17) Regulations 2022

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 17) Regulations 2022

Relevant document: 25th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the instrument before us was laid on 15 December 2022 under powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. It makes amendments to the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. The instrument has been considered and not reported by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Our unprecedented package of sanctions makes it clear to Mr Putin and the wider international community that Russia’s territorial expansionism is unacceptable and will be met with a serious and escalating response. With these amendments, the UK, with our international partners, continues to put immense pressure on Mr Putin and Russia. The measure forms another part of the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced.

I begin by outlining the main measures introduced through this latest piece of legislation. First, this instrument tightens existing regulations on investments, loans, securities and money market instruments to further close off indirect finance and further constrain the availability of international capital to Russia. It also prohibits new investments in Russia via third countries.

Secondly, this legislation introduces new restrictions on the provision of trust services to persons connected with Russia. This will particularly affect high net worth Russians who use trust services to manage their assets. The SI also suspends the Bank of England’s duty to recognise resolution action in respect of persons designated under the Russia regulations—the process by which the failure of financial institutions is managed—stemming a potential income stream for Mr Putin’s war machine.

Thirdly, the regulations prohibit the export of further specific goods across a range of sectors, including oil production and mining equipment, electronics and chemicals, as well as advanced materials and camouflage gear.

Fourthly and finally, this instrument also introduces further prohibitions on the provision of professional services to persons connected with Russia. This encompasses advertising, architecture, audit, engineering, IT consultancy and design services. These are areas where Russia is highly reliant on the UK and our allies for expertise. These prohibitions will severely debilitate the future growth of key Russian industries. Prohibitions on services imposed by the UK, the United States and the European Union account for between 75% and 83% of Russia’s imports in these sectors. For example, it is estimated that 77% of Russian architecture and engineering imports are from G7 economies. Taken as a whole, the No. 17 regulations cover more than £200 million worth of exports to Russia.

As with all our sanctions, the latest package has been developed in co-ordination with the UK’s international partners—a point that I know all noble Lords are very focused on and agree on. I assure noble Lords that we have worked with the European Union and the United States. Of course, we will continue to work with our allies to identify any further potential gaps or loopholes in our sanctions, and to address them.

To conclude, these new amendments demonstrate our determination to target those who participate in or facilitate Mr Putin’s illegal war of choice in Ukraine, and we continue to send a clear message about the cost of such a flagrant assault on sovereignty, democracy and equality. Since Mr Putin’s abhorrent invasion of Ukraine, the UK has now sanctioned more than 1,200 individuals and more than 120 entities, including 20 banks with global assets worth £940 billion and more than 130 oligarchs with a combined net worth of over £140 billion.

We continue to witness the impact that sanctions are having on Russia. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Russia’s GDP will be 11% smaller in 2026 compared with pre-invasion forecasts and will not return to its pre-invasion level until 2027 at the earliest. Russian imports have plummeted by more than half, highlighting that even non-sanctioning countries are now limiting what they export to Russia.

I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom will keep going with our sanctions until Russia ends its brutal invasion of Ukraine. I continue to welcome the cross-party support for this effort and beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that thorough introduction to this SI. I do not think many of us will have any objection to the direction of this. What the Government are doing here is right. The fact that we can support them on this would make a pleasant change if it were not in such tragic circumstances.

The only real questions I can think of to add to that thorough introduction is: how are we reviewing the effect of sanctions? What is the input of our allies, which may have other intelligence resources, et cetera, to go on with this?

Nobody enjoys doing this. We are doing it because we have to, because Russia has decided to behave in a manner that may have been acceptable in the 1700s but is not acceptable any more. When a nation has determined that it does not want to be a part of another, it should not be forced to at gunpoint. Can the Minister give us some indication of how we are monitoring the effect and making sure that Russia totally understands what it can do to get rid of this, which is to leave Ukraine?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. I repeat that the Opposition are totally at one with the Government and their actions to ensure that the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine is halted and that we take all possible steps against Russia for its breach of international law.

I have just a few questions about this additional SI on sanctions. The Minister mentioned that we are working with our allies, in particular the EU and other G7 partners. Can he tell us exactly how much these measures are aligned with the actions of the EU? Is there complete alignment now? On credit and securities, reference was made to closing loopholes. Are these loopholes that we have collectively discovered and want to stop or is this something that we focus on particularly because of the situation with London?

On that subject, according to the impact assessment, London still seems to trade significantly with Russia and imports more than other regions. Can the Minister say a little more about what more we need to do in terms of cleaning up London and the role of money laundering in particular?

We repeatedly pass legislation on sanctions. We have good law, if you like. But, of course, none of these laws is necessarily effective unless we also focus on enforcement. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the capacity in the department and across Whitehall to ensure that all these sanctions that we are approving are effectively enforced? I suppose that it relates to the question the noble Lord asked about what assessment we make of effectiveness. Enforcement is really important.

Finally, on the penalties that arise—and we have covered this point before with regard to the Act and the statutory instruments that have come out of it—these new measures carry a maximum sentence of 10 years or a fine. Are there circumstances in which the Minister believes that the violations are so serious that they may lead to custodial sentences rather than fines? This relates to how much we focus on enforcement and what we can do to provide a deterrent to others breaching these regulations.

With those few questions and comments, I support the SI.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Collins, for their strong support. That sends out a very strong message, not just to Russia and Mr Putin but to those who are trying to circumvent the impact of sanctions.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that, partly as the sanctions come into play and we identify where the gaps are, we are monitoring the impact of these with our key partners to ensure that when it comes to the circumvention of the new rules—those who are trying to get round sanctions—we can close those loopholes, as I said in my introduction.

We co-ordinate with our key allies. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about differences that arise. Because of the different governance regimes that exist, there are occasions when we may be slightly ahead of others. Sometimes the American system does not require the same level of governance in terms of imposing the sanctions. What we are seeking to do is to work very closely with our allies.

On the issue of enforcement, which both noble Lords raised, first and foremost we are working with our G7 partners to ensure effective implementation of sanctions on Kremlin-related entities and elites, including through the Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force. Following further commitments by the former Prime Minister in February, the Government have also continued to work on this issue and have delivered the economic crime Act to crack down further. One issue, which will be subject to further debates as we seek further to strengthen these provisions, is whether it is done through the register of overseas entities, reforming our unexplained wealth orders or our ability to take action. I fully accept that we need to keep this under very close scrutiny to ensure that any gaps can be addressed.

On 22 September 2022, the Government introduced the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which includes the fundamental reform of Companies House, reforms to prevent abuse in limited partnerships, and additional powers, which I know that noble Lords are aware of. Just to complete that element and to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we will keep this under review. If there are further areas that we need to act on, we will certainly take those measures as appropriate.

On sanctions circumvention, the actual package itself, as I said in the introduction, amends existing financial measures and restrictions on various financial instruments to close loopholes and prohibit this with regard to Russia via third countries. That is an issue that we have debated in your Lordships’ House. More broadly, in 2023, we will continue to bear down on Russia, ratcheting up economic pressure by implementing further sanctions and by leaning in to tackle Russia’s attempts to circumvent measures that are in place.

Just anecdotally, when I was working in the City and there were restrictions on particular countries, the private sector itself was involved, because of the added burden, challenges and requirements for compliance. We are beginning to see that very much: companies are themselves taking action to not deal with those that have associations. This package amends existing financial measures, restrictions on investments, loans, securities and money market instruments, to address those very issues, particularly the issue that we raised before about third-party actions.

To pick up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised about the EU announcing that designated people are circumventing sanctions, we welcome the EU’s focus on this. On the issue of offences, it is a criminal offence under UK sanctions legislation intentionally to participate in circumvention of any sanctions prohibitions, including financial or trade sanctions, or to enable or facilitate the breach of sanctions prohibitions—and, yes, we have the powers to fine, prosecute and impose civil monetary penalties.

On the issue of whether there would be further sanctions in this regard, I do not want to speculate at this point, but I note what the noble Lord said. On the severity of certain sanctions and broader issues of the criminality of Russia’s actions, as the noble Lord will be aware, we are looking at that specifically. Tomorrow I hope, together with the Attorney-General, to brief the APPG on Ukraine specifically to look at what further actions we can take in holding to account those who perpetrate these crimes.

I am a new Member of this House, and this is my first time on an SI in Grand Committee. I apologise to the Minister if I am intervening on him inadvertently, but I am looking for one point of clarification. As I understand it, these regulations widen the scope to include advertising services within the remit of sanctions. Could the Minister confirm that that would also apply to data-targeted social media marketing services?

My Lords, for clarity and for the record, it covers all elements of that advertising, but on the specific points I will go back to the department to ensure I give a full answer. In welcoming the noble Lord and his scrutiny of legislation, I very much welcome his intervention. One thing I can say to him is that, over time, bearing in mind this package of sanctions, areas will arise that have not been looked at or, in practical terms, have not been covered by existing legislation. It is important, first, to identify and, secondly, to co-ordinate with key partners; we are doing both things. We are also monitoring the impact on private sector behaviour. All those things were reflected in my opening remarks that Russia is being impacted. The IMF’s forecast should not be taken lightly, and the reduction it shows is reflective of Russia’s actions. If there are further details, I will of course write to the noble Lord.

On the issue of FCDO staffing and the specifics of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, at the end of 2021 and continuing through 2022, there were 48 substantive roles in the sanctions unit, which has now become the sanctions directorate. One would have hoped that we would not need to expand, but going from a unit to a directorate recognises the importance of this. We have doubled the number of officials focused on our response and we now have more than 100 permanent staff delivering that response. This number does not include those working across the FCDO and its overseas network who also cover sanctions as part of their designated roles.

On the financing of the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, the office has also doubled in size this financial year and continues to grow. As set out in its annual report released on 10 November 2022, OFSI scaled up to more than 100 full-time employees by the end of 2022, accelerating and enhancing the transformation programme. I also have a personal anecdote: one of the current senior officers who sits behind me and is now a full member of the sanctions team used to be a member of my private office, so Ministers are adding to the weight of our sanctions directorate.

With that, I look forward to further discussions and debates. Regrettably, I do not think that this will be the last of the sanctions we will impose on Russia. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have participated from their Front Benches; I again welcome the new noble Lord to the House and welcome his contributions and analysis. We stand firm and resolute with the people of Ukraine. We continue to support them and the Ukrainian Government until such time as Mr Putin does the right thing and withdraws from Ukraine.

Motion agreed.

Civil Legal Aid (Housing and Asylum Accommodation) Order 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Civil Legal Aid (Housing and Asylum Accommodation) Order 2023.

My Lords, this statutory instrument will expand the scope of civil legal aid to allow early legal advice before court on housing, welfare benefits and debt issues for those at risk of losing their home. It will also ensure that failed asylum seekers who face a genuine obstacle to leaving the UK remain eligible for legal aid to support them in obtaining accommodation support from the Home Office. These provisions are made under the overarching legislation known as LASPO, which covers the grant of legal aid.

Going into slightly more detail on the changes to housing legal aid, the purpose of the instrument is to provide a better wraparound and earlier legal support for those facing the loss of their home. The current arrangements provide for legal aid only for help at court, whereas the new scheme allows for much earlier advice to be sought as soon as the tenant receives notice that the landlord seeks possession. At the same time, the scope of the advice now available will cover wider matters, including advice on debt, housing, and welfare benefits and related matters. In general, this is a wider and, we trust, more effective use of legal aid in this sector.

The order results from the post-implementation review of LASPO, where the absence of legal aid in this specific area was identified as a gap in the system that led to an increase in court proceedings, greater reliance on welfare and extra pressure on local authorities. The order seeks to help individuals to resolve problems before they lead to housing loss.

The advice will not be means tested, meaning that individuals will not need to pass any financial eligibility tests to receive it. The present in-court duty service, whereby defendants can be represented in possession cases at court, will continue. Under the remuneration regulations, we will ensure that fees for legal aid providers for those services are increased at the same time.

The other amendment the instrument makes is essentially purely technical: to ensure that legal aid for failed asylum seekers continues to be available so a failed asylum seeker can obtain accommodation support where they are destitute and there is an obstacle preventing them leaving the United Kingdom. The amendment is necessary because of a technical change tied to Sections 4 and 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to take account of a new Section 95A, to be introduced when the provisions of the Immigration Act 2016 come into force. That is a purely technical arrangement, the main thrust of the arrangements being the improvement of legal aid in housing. That is a short explanation of the statutory instrument.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order. No one could have done it with more clarity than he has. I hope he will forgive me: while I of course welcome the small but important improvements the order represents, they are in reality just a tiny step and a little progress in dealing with the depressingly large picture of the decimation of an important part of our legal system, namely social welfare law.

That decimation occurred when the coalition Government put together, against all-party opposition and many defeats in your Lordships’ House, the Act of Parliament known as LASPO. That Act, which, ironically, came into force almost exactly 10 years ago today, has arguably done more harm than any other piece of legislation over the last number of years. No wonder the Liberal Democrats, who supported it as part of the coalition, have rightly distanced themselves from it. I detect that the governing party is perhaps just beginning to show, in instruments such as this, that it realises how much harm that Act has done in some areas.

The noble and learned Lord the Minister cannot be blamed in any way at all. He was certainly nowhere near the scene of the crime. Indeed, I suspect—he will know better, of course—that most distinguished lawyers like him have, over the years, wondered why Part 1 of this Act was ever brought forward.

By taking social welfare law out of the scope of legal aid, the Government saved a large amount of Ministry of Justice money but a very small amount of public money—£350 million out of a Ministry of Justice budget of £2.1 billion. However, the price was, and still is, that many hundreds of thousands of people who under the previous system, which was far from perfect, could obtain early advice and, if need be, representation on legal issues such as welfare benefits, debt, housing and immigration, now just cannot do that, unless they can afford it. The figures are staggering. By 2016-17, the number of civil legal aid matters initiated was down by 84% from 934,000 to 147,000. Certificates for representation were themselves down by 36%. This meant that citizens could not get the advice at the time when they needed it. It meant they had—this needs to be said—no access to justice.

I looked at a passage that the Minister himself referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum to this order, in Paragraph 7.2, which states:

“The Government carried out a Post-Implementation Review … of LASPO in 2019, which assessed the impact of the policies against the original objectives. Broadly, the PIR found that whilst the objective in relation to reducing legal aid spend had been met, the reforms that removed areas of early civil legal advice from scope of legal aid resulted in a lack of early intervention in social welfare. It also suggested that whilst this saved money on legal aid, ultimately these costs have been shifted elsewhere, as relatively minor legal problems can escalate and cluster into more serious problems.”

If I may say so, that puts it extremely well. A government document says those words—and it is so different in context and tone from the words used when the original White Paper came out and when the Government put forward the Bill that became LASPO.

It seems that, at long last—much too late—the Government have understood what is wrong with the legislation. That is why I have so much support for the small step that is being taken in this order. The introduction of the housing loss prevention advice service is welcome, particularly because it will provide some crucial early legal advice on social welfare issues, welfare benefits and, in this case, debt. It will also retain the invaluable duty service, on the day and in court, which I saw many years ago as the Legal Aid Minister.

In my view, the Government are definitely moving on this issue. I am also conscious of the pilots that are taking place as we speak. This is largely being done because of the influence of the Minister and his predecessor in this House. But—and it is a big “but”—the speed of movement is very slow.

In supporting these regulations, I ask the Minister to invite his staff to take from the shelf The Right to Justice, which is one of many reports over the last number of years—it may be getting a little dusty now, because it is a number of years old. Although I was certainly not a major part of it, I was privileged to be the chair of the commission that produced that document. I invite the Minister, and perhaps ask him to invite his Secretary of State, to read its very sensible and common-sense suggestions, particularly on these matters. That is all I want to say. I know I have gone on for quite a long time, but this is an important matter and, in its small way, this is an important order.

My Lords, the Explanatory Memorandum explains that the order will expand the

“scope of civil legal aid to allow early legal advice before court, on a wider range of issues, for those at risk of losing their home. It also introduces a new fee to be paid to legal aid providers delivering this early legal advice … The second purpose is to maintain the Government’s policy that those at risk of homelessness can access legal aid. This applies to failed asylum-seekers, who otherwise would be destitute, to receive legal aid to obtain accommodation support.”

We in the Labour Party do not oppose this SI. We support in principle the introduction of initial advice for housing, welfare benefits and debt that is not means tested or merit tested, but we are concerned about the sustainability of providers and whether they have the resources to deliver advice, particularly on welfare benefits and debts. These areas were previously largely removed from scope by LASPO in 2012. This statutory instrument will do little to improve the wider state of disrepair that the civil legal aid system is currently in, and we welcome it for what it is.

My honourable friend Afzal Khan MP spoke about this in the equivalent debate in the other place. He went into some detail on the state of the current civil provision and support for people across the country. I will not repeat everything he said, but he was basically talking about “legal aid deserts”. He quoted the following statistic, that

“65% of the population do not have access to an immigration and asylum legal aid provider.”

He asked the Minister:

“What steps are the Government taking to tackle legal aid deserts, so that victims can have access to justice?”—[Official Report, Commons, Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee, 18/1/23; col. 6.]

My honourable friend also made an equivalent point for a housing legal aid desert, saying that about 12.5 million people do not have access to housing legal aid advice. What can the Minister say about the lack of uniformity of provision across the country, which was drawn to the attention of his colleague, Mr Freer, in the House of Commons?

My noble friend Lord Bach gave a significant speech. He is absolutely steeped in this issue and, of course, he has his own distinguished record from before he came into the House and in various roles that he has held in this House. He said that this SI was a small but important improvement, and he spoke about the previous decimation of social welfare law. He quoted from the Explanatory Memorandum the various elements of paragraph 7. My noble friend concluded by modestly drawing the Minister’s attention to his report, The Right to Justice, which he prepared for a previous Labour opposition group, if I can put it like that. I have read it, but I will do so again. It is interesting, with recommendations across the whole piece of civil legal aid, and I recommend it to the Minister.

So, as I say, we welcome this SI as far as it goes, but the Minister is perhaps better positioned than many previous Ministers to know just how little that is.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his earlier role in this area as a Minister. I will certainly reread The Right to Justice and ensure that members of my staff do, too.

If I may say briefly, regarding LASPO, it is probably not useful at this stage to go into the historical circumstances that led to that legislation. At the time, there were very large expenditures and there were thought to be some abuses in the legal aid area. It has remained a controversial statute, and the ministry’s post-implementation review, correctly carried out as post-legislative scrutiny, has revealed certain problems which we are determined to address.

On the wider issue, I hope that the Government will shortly be in a position to announce the result of the means-test review, which I hope will increase the scope of legal aid for many people. We have already announced a full review of the whole of civil legal aid, and I very much hope that that will be progressed during 2023.

If I may make a personal comment, it seems to me that an important issue is the role of early legal advice and how far intervening early saves the overall cost of the proceedings, quite apart from reducing the stress and strain of those concerned, and generally results in earlier resolution. That point was recently made so powerfully by the House of Lords Children and Families Act 2014 Committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and others present are not entirely unaware, if I may put it like that.

It is important to say that the points that have been raised today will be borne in mind in the civil legal aid review that we are undergoing.

As to the problem of the sustainability of the providers and the problem of deserts, we are establishing, specifically in the housing area, a panel of experts to support providers. There may be some areas where the skills are less up to date than they could be. I am sure that the issues of deserts will feature in the civil legal aid review. It is to some extent mitigated by the arrival of remote technology in the meantime, because it no longer matters where your adviser actually is, although of course it is preferable to have someone who is geographically close.

I hope that these and other very important issues will be addressed in the future. I think the order results in a further £10 million towards the legal aid fund. It may be a small step, but I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that it is a significant step. I commend this Motion to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023.

My Lords, this statutory instrument will, again, expand the civil legal aid scheme, this time making civil legal aid available in two new areas of family law and in certain domestic abuse proceedings. The instrument also makes a change of a technical nature to the means and merits test in certain family cases, and as regards the evidence requirements for victims of domestic abuse as a result of new areas being brought into scope of the civil legal aid scheme.

In outline, there are four topics covered by the order. The first is special guardianship orders, under new paragraph 1A inserted by Article 4(2). A special guardianship order is a court order that allows parental control over a child by individuals other than the parent—for example, a long-term foster carer or grandparent. Currently, SGOs, as they are known, in private family proceedings are not within the scope of civil legal aid. The primary purpose of this instrument is to bring SGOs in private family law proceedings within the scope of the legal aid scheme. That is its first change.

Secondly, Article 4(3) of the statutory instrument will expand the availability of civil and criminal legal aid to reflect new protective orders and notices introduced by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. A domestic abuse protection notice or a domestic abuse protection order will effectively replace, and is wider than, the existing non-molestation orders—which are known as “non-mols”. Those orders will, for example, include the ability to order a tagging order or to attend a change of behaviour programme. They have various other more flexible provisions that supersede the current regime of non-molestation orders. Those new orders will be piloted nationally in the near future. There is currently no existing provision for legal aid for such orders, so this instrument introduces legal aid for them.

Thirdly, the instrument amends the means and merits tests for parents contesting a placement and/or adoption order. Currently, the means and merits tests differ depending on whether a placement or adoption order is sought within care proceedings or not. It is a simple inconsistency in the regulations and this small amendment brings the situation under one umbrella to allow those who are at risk of having their child permanently removed to be legally represented, regardless of whether the order is sought within care proceedings. This is a technical change in the instrument to rectify that unintentional difference.

Fourthly and finally, with Article 7(3)(b) we are updating the evidence requirements for victims of domestic abuse. One of the types of evidence that a victim of domestic abuse can provide is a letter from their medical practitioner after they have had a face-to-face appointment. This instrument will also allow medical practitioners to provide a letter as evidence of domestic abuse after a telephone or videoconferencing appointment. That provision will be reviewed after a year to make sure that it is working in practice and has not had any unintended effects. That is the outline scope of this statutory instrument.

My Lords, I apologise; I appreciated only this afternoon that this SI was being tabled for discussion today. I want to make reference to extending legal aid to special guardianship order applications for children in private law proceedings. Clearly, this is welcome but, regrettably, it is not matched in public law proceedings, where the majority of special guardianship orders are pursued, when children are often in a crisis situation. In effect, the SI will not cover all kinship carer situations, where legal support is needed and is further limited by the stringent means test.

The compelling evidence—and this has often been rehearsed on the Floor of the Chamber—is that kinship carers are left to navigate the family justice system without the legal aid and representation they need. Many incur significant debt from paying legal costs or find themselves sidelined in important decisions about the child, directly increasing the risk that more children will end up in care.

There are two key areas in public law cases where legal aid for prospective special guardians urgently needs to be considered. First, at the formal pre-proceedings stage, prospective kinship carers have access to only limited advice. Means-tested support is remunerated at such low rates that very few solicitors will now offer advice on taking on the care of a child. Secondly, during the care proceedings, prospective kinship carers are still entitled to only very limited advice. In fact, only when the prospective kinship carer is made party to the court proceedings or when they make a private law application may they be entitled to legal aid. We know from the evidence, which has been rehearsed many times in the Chamber, that many carers do not have the early advice even to know that becoming a party to proceedings is an option or how to make a private law application.

In putting those issues, my main point is that, while welcoming the extension of legal aid in the instance covered by this SI, in preparing their response to the MacAlister review, are the Government considering further extending access to legal aid to kinship carers seeking guardianship orders in public law situations? We know that the evidence is overwhelming that, in terms of the benefits to the child and the cost to the taxpayer, effective kinship carer situations with guardianship orders save the taxpayer money, give better outcomes for the child and will, in effect, end up paying many times over for the extension of legal aid that these people seek.

My Lords, I shall be very quick, not least because the chairman of the committee mentioned by the Minister in his answer on the previous instrument is in her place, and she can talk with much more skill and expertise than I can. As a mere member of that committee, I remember well the Minister’s appearance before it; I do not think that it is flattering him too much to say that he was one of the star witnesses, not just on that day but during the whole of our proceedings. Indeed, the whole issue about early advice, as was clear from the Minister’s first reply, was clearly something that was a matter of concern to him.

Just as I supported the last instrument, I support this one. Again, in their comparatively small way, they are important improvements. One fault of LASPO, to put it mildly, was that too much of private family law was taken out of scope of legal aid. There have been consequences since, and my guess is that the Government have come round to that view and I think that this order, in a small way, shows that. The Minister will know that the issue around domestic violence and the evidence needed was a matter of huge controversy for many years after LASPO came into force. It looks as if that is, finally, I hope, being put to bed.

All that I want to do, if I may—and I certainly do not want to take the thunder away from the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who I hope will speak shortly—is to invite the Minister, if he has not already, to see the recommendations that we made in this area of the Select Committee’s report. We ended by saying, as one of our major recommendations:

“We recommend that the Government urgently evaluate the impact of the removal of legal aid for most private family law cases, considering where reinstating legal aid could help improve the efficiency and quality of the family justice system.”

We heard a huge amount of evidence over the months that showed that the lack of the possibility of legal aid in some private family law situations was very harmful to their early solving.

My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to say a few words in support of this order. As was said about the previous instrument, this is a small but significant step forward in an area that has been beset with many difficulties. On the specific points about the recommendation to extend the order to cover special guardianship orders in private law proceedings, I agree that that is important.

One of the very interesting findings of the Select Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has already referred to, was that there are now more special guardianship orders per year than there are children being adopted. That makes the whole area of special guardianship orders very important. While it is good news that they will be in scope of this instrument on private law proceedings, I very much echo the important remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about how desirable it would be for that to be extended to public law proceedings.

I will just make a couple of other general comments on the work that the Select Committee did to look into family law and the family justice system. First, I very much underline and endorse the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, made about the very helpful evidence that the noble and learned Lord the Minister gave to the committee, which really informed the recommendations that we made throughout the chapter on family justice and particularly on legal aid itself. The point has come up several times this afternoon that one difficulty that the family courts face at the moment—and some of the reasons for the big backlog and delays—is the lack of any focus on early intervention.

Other witnesses before the committee included the current President of the Family Division and his immediate predecessor. His predecessor, Sir James Munby, argued—and we put in our report—that

“Money properly spent at an early stage usually pays dividends later on.”

I very much agree with that. Sir Andrew McFarlane, the current President of the Family Division, also made a number of comments on the importance of reinstating some legal aid within family law proceedings and came up with a number of ideas that are in the report, including the idea of some form of professional who might be able to signpost applicants to mediation, to other forms of information about dispute resolution or to a lawyer, where that would be helpful.

I know that that goes wider than this particular statutory instrument, but we also heard from academic experts who really underlined the problems that the cuts to legal aid had made in the family courts and, frankly, how they had simply shifted costs to other parts of the court system, particularly where litigants in person, quite understandably, did not really understand how to represent themselves. It was taking up so much time from the court service officials and others, and another academic expert said to us that

“there are cases going to court that lawyers would have headed off. With legal aid, a lawyer would have said, ‘No, it’s not worth taking this to court’ or ‘Try mediation’”,

or, “No, you’ll lose”.

They are such important points and that is why we ended up, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has already said, recommending that the Government should urgently evaluate the impact of the removal of legal aid for most private family law cases and consider reinstating legal aid where that can improve the efficiency and quality of the family justice system. I was extremely encouraged when I heard the Minister’s remarks in the previous debate when he said—I think; I would be pleased if he could confirm it—that the Government are looking again at this whole area to see what impact reinstating legal aid in certain instances in the family courts would have. Just to underline that final point, the Select Committee thought that it would really improve efficiency, effectiveness and the quality of outcomes in the family justice system.

As I say, I support this statutory instrument. It is a small but important step forward and I hope that it also leads to consideration of wider improvements in the family justice system.

My Lords, I too welcome this SI. I declare that I sit as a family magistrate in London and I am currently chairman of the Greater London Family Panel, which means that I represent about 300 family magistrates within Greater London.

A very concentrated amount of expertise has been displayed in this short debate. I have to say my noble friend Lord Bach was really quite shameless in his flattery of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, no doubt trying to get him to go further along the lines of these SIs, because we are, of course, all pushing in the same direction.

My noble friend Lady Drake spoke about the importance of kinship care. She gave the example of public law and private law special guardianship orders and explained how they are playing an ever-greater part in the type of disposals we deal with in family courts. It is very interesting for me, with my magistrate’s hat on, to see how different local authorities access SGOs and how they vary across the country as well as across London. It is good that, in that aspect of the SI, there is some more money available for legal aid support for people going for special guardianship orders.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who of course has real expertise in this matter, not least because she was a previous chairman of Cafcass, spoke about the importance of early intervention. I know the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, is also very keen on early intervention. It needs to be funded and co-ordinated. I know that both Sir James Munby and the current president, Sir Andrew McFarlane, are very keen to try to divert as many cases—particularly private law cases—away from family court as is practical.

It has to be said that about 80% of the private law cases we see in family court have domestic abuse allegations. If you make that allegation, it is not suitable for mediation and, depending on how serious the allegation is, it can make for a much more protracted court procedure. It is a difficult thing to do, but trying to move the cases is the right direction, if I can put it like that.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, also spoke about expanding legal aid for domestic abuse protection orders—of course, we are now in the criminal sphere—and how these types of orders may in some ways replace other types of interventionist orders, in both the family and the criminal courts: non-molestation orders in the family court, and restraining orders in the criminal court. When he gave his examples, he talked about tagging and various interventions for people who are potentially going to be put on domestic abuse prevention orders, but I am not clear whether there is any legal aid for advice for people who are potentially subject to those orders.

I say this because of one case that I dealt with remotely. It was an application for a domestic abuse protection notice, and there was no defence lawyer. The prosecuting lawyer, who was actually a part-time judge, advised that we as a court should put in place a domestic abuse prevention order, with no findings made by the court. As I chaired that session, I felt duty-bound to say to the defendant that, if that were put in place and he were to break it, there would be a criminal conviction. He pointed out to me that, by profession, he was a primary school teacher and the very fact of this order being put in place, with no findings of guilt, was enough for him to have to tell his head teacher. Who knows what would have happened to his career in that light. So that young man needed proper advice, and, in the end, I, as a magistrate, gave him it, not the other lawyer in that case. I am not sure that that was appropriate, and I could see how that scenario could easily have gone wrong if the young man had not received appropriate advice.

Nevertheless, as I said, we welcome this SI, which pushes in the right direction. I look forward to similar SIs in the future.

My Lords, I warmly thank noble Lords for their various interventions and points. I will take back the last point from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on domestic protection orders and have a look at it. We understand that legal aid is available for advice on domestic abuse protection orders. Whether the gentleman in question would have qualified for legal aid may be another matter, if he was a teacher. There may be an issue here, and I will explore this a little further to make sure that we are covered on that kind of point.

On the wider issue, I hear with interest and sympathy the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, on legal aid for special guardianship orders in public law proceedings, particularly early advice for kinship carers. That will be a feature, among many others, of the review of civil legal aid generally that we are about to embark on. I am afraid that flattery, which is completely undeserved in this context, is one of the things that does not move the Government, particularly the Treasury, in any direction, so, as your Lordships pointed out, we are taking small steps and coming at various issues perhaps somewhat obliquely and in sequence, with a view to tackling problems as best we can as they arise. We will continue to try to address gaps of the kind that the noble Baroness identified. The Government are very happy to have gaps pointed out to them so that consideration can be given to those matters. Clearly, special guardianship is very important; whatever you may think of the pros and cons of the apparent decline in adoption, there is no doubt that special guardianship has assumed a greater importance. We need to reflect that in our underlying structures.

Family law generally is perhaps slightly outside our discussion today, but this Room is so brimming with expertise on the subject, particularly the experience of the noble Lords who sat on the Select Committee we discussed, and of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who is one of the most experienced magistrates in this area one could hope to meet.

We need to address a whole range of interconnected issues: signposting, so that people know early on where they can get help; early advice; how you manage dispute resolution and the best means of it, bearing in mind the committee of this House’s comment that mediation may not always be the best solution, as there may be other possibilities. We need to think of the difficulties facing local authorities and those facing Cafcass. There is a huge mosaic of matters that we need to think about. I am not in a position today to make any promises on behalf of the Government, but I can assure noble Lords that these matters are on the radar and that we will take them forward as best we can and as soon as we can.

Motion agreed.

Local Government (Structural Changes) (Supplementary Provision and Amendment) Order 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Local Government (Structural Changes) (Supplementary Provision and Amendment) Order 2023.

My Lords, this instrument was laid before this House on 12 December 2022. If approved and made, it will complete the legislative requirements to implement the locally led proposals for unitarisation of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. It will make certain provisions specific to the new unitary councils of Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire, and Somerset, so that in each there is a smooth transition from the predecessor councils to the successor councils and continuing effective local government in these areas.

This order will ensure that the necessary technical arrangements are in place and ready for these councils to go live on 1 April 2023. The SI relates to issues around ceremonial matters, local pension scheme arrangements, housing revenue accounts and a number of miscellaneous provisions to ensure that, where necessary, the new unitary councils are referenced in other legislation and have appropriate representation on important regional bodies or are referred in. If this order is approved, it will be a significant step towards ensuring that people and businesses across Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset can have strong and sustainable local government delivering the high-quality local services they rightly expect and deserve.

In March 2022, following approval from Parliament, we passed the necessary secondary legislation to implement locally led proposals for local government reorganisation in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset and to create single principal councils in these areas. The new councils will go live on 1 April 2023. The draft order we are considering this afternoon is intended to be the final statutory instrument implementing the reorganisation in the areas. It will make all the final technical arrangements for the continuation of effective local government in those areas.

The then Secretary of State was satisfied that, if implemented, the successful proposals from the three areas would be likely to improve local government and service delivery across the area of the proposal, give greater value for money, generate savings, provide stronger strategic and local leadership, and be more sustainable structures that command a good deal of local support, as assessed in the round across the whole area of the proposal. The area of each unitary authority is a credible geography, consisting of one or more existing local government areas, with an aggregate population between 300,000 and 600,000. He took the decision to implement one proposal for each area and made secondary legislation, the structural changes orders, to give effect to his decisions.

I pay tribute to all the local leaders and their officers who have worked so hard to implement this restructuring in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset and work towards the successful launch of the new councils while faced with responding to many challenges.

The order before noble Lords today addresses a number of incidental, consequential, transitional and supplementary issues that could not be addressed in the existing regulations of generic application that enable effective implementation of all unitary authorities. These specific provisions need to be applied directly in respect to those particular authorities.

This order makes the following changes in relation to the new councils. It makes amendments to provisions relating to ceremonial matters specifically for the appointment of charter trustees as appropriate bodies in which historic rights and privileges, including city status for Carlisle, should vest for Barrow and Carlisle. This provision will preserve important historic rights for the area, which are important considerations for local leaders and their communities. It makes provision for the pension fund maintained by Cumbria County Council to vest in Westmorland and Furness Council. This will ensure clarity on who is responsible for funding existing pensions accrued and preventing exit payments arising under the regulations, which would normally be triggered when an employer leaves the scheme. The SI will also provide that no exit payments or exit credits are due in the North Yorkshire and Somerset pension funds following the exit of the district councils from their respective pension funds when they are dissolved. It further makes provision for housing revenue accounts in Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire and Somerset councils, which will inherit council housing stock from the predecessor councils. It will ensure that the new councils are specifically referenced in the relevant HRA regulations and calculates for each assumed debt share and share cap figures which are used in the calculation of the proportion of housing receipts that councils are required to pay to the Secretary of State. This amendment has been previously made for other areas undergoing unitarisation.

It also refers to area-specific references and other miscellaneous amendments, which include making an amendment to the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Order 2010. This is to reflect consequential local government reorganisation arrangements in Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness councils so that they appoint a member to maintain this authority’s size and each split the contribution expense. It makes amendments to the Sub-national Transport Body (Transport for the North) Regulations 2018 to replace Cumbria County Council with the new authorities of Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness and increases the size of the board by one member. It makes consequential amendments to the Workington Harbour Act 1974 to provide for Cumberland to be the harbour authority for the area post reorganisation—in addition to the Workington (Pilotage) Harbour Revision Order 1988 and the Maryport Harbour Revision Order 2007 as a result of the abolition of Cumbria County Council. It makes amendments to the National Park Authorities (England) Order 2015 (SI 2015/770) to update the membership of the Exmoor National Park Authority, the Lake District National Park Authority, the North York Moors National Park Authority and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to reflect the changes in local government arrangements.

I assure noble Lords that we have worked closely on the development and drafting of this order with local leaders and senior officers in the shadow authorities of Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire and Somerset, looking carefully at issues raised and agreeing that the provisions of the order meet local requirements. In conclusion, these provisions are necessary consequential changes in the light of the establishment of the new councils. They ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and continued effective local government in the areas. I commend this order to the House.

My Lords, I start by reminding the Committee of my interests in the register: I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a serving councillor on Kirklees Council. I thank the Minister for her opening remarks explaining this statutory instrument. As she explained, these are consequential changes from the creation of the new unitary local authorities of Somerset, North Yorkshire, Cumberland, and Westmorland and Furness.

The key issues that I want to ask a few questions about relate to pension funds and housing capital finance. Of course, the changes proposed have to be made to ensure an equitable division of liabilities for pension funds and capital finance debt. My questions relate to the way in which these decisions are being made. Will they be transparent? Are the external auditors of the existing local authorities involved and, if not, why not? External auditors can often make independent assessments, particularly of pension liabilities, and are able to advise councils. I think that their advice would be helpful.

I have a further question on the creation of the two local authorities in Cumbria and the manner in which the transfer of their pension funds will be agreed. The Minister explained that it has been agreed that Westmorland and Furness council will administer pension funds on behalf of the two new councils. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, this council will determine the proportions of transferred pension fund assets and liabilities. My understanding is that Westmorland and Furness must take advice from the other new unitary council, Cumberland, but I would like more information about that, because nothing creates more of an argument between councils than questions of who has to take on liabilities.

The two councils may be able to make an amicable agreement, but what if they are not able to do so? The Explanatory Memorandum says,

“In coming to a fair determination on these matters, the Order provides that Westmorland and Furness must take advice from an actuary”—

that is good—

“and consult Cumberland Council.”

If I were a member of Cumberland council, I would want a bit more than being consulted. I would want to be sure that there was proper agreement between the two councils and not just consultation.

Can the Minister say whether there is an opportunity in this process for, in this instance, Cumberland council to appeal to the Government if there is no agreement on the way in which pension fund liabilities are divided between the two authorities? As the Minister is aware, pension fund values can fluctuate significantly across even a few years, and liabilities can suddenly become very large if there is a new actuarial assessment, so budgetary provision for pension funds can make a significant call on a councils’ funding arrangements. This is why I am raising these points, and I hope the Minister can give me reassurance on them.

There is a similar argument in relation to how the debt finance from housing capital funds is to be passed on from, in this case, the existing district councils to the new unitary council and across all four of these new councils. The Explanatory Memorandum is not clear that debt allocations will be in relation to previous activity, rather than there being a simple pro rata division, which would not be fair on some of the council tax payers. For example, there will be councils—I know of one in Somerset—that no longer have any housing capital finance debt. Will they be asked to pick up a share of other district councils’ debt? If so, is that fair? Those are my questions. I am sure that the civil servants will have looked into this and will be able to give me an answer, but I would like it on record.

With those comments and questions, I look forward to the noble Baroness giving me an answer. If she cannot, I am quite happy to have a written response.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving councillor in one of the finest counties in the country, Lancashire, contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, might think. I apologise: I have a cough, so bear with me. I blame all of the departmental SIs that they keep bringing out; they affect my throat pretty badly.

The Minister spoke in depth about this technical legislation, which takes minor steps to help to create new councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. The instrument includes provision in relation to ceremonial matters, the transfer of pensions, exit payments, fisheries and conservation—technical and important areas. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, who has a wealth of experience. She asked many of the questions that I wanted to ask, but I have a few more. Although we will not oppose this, we on these Benches want to see what happens in the Commons—I am trying to work it out, but I think it has not been there yet. When does the Minister foresee this happening?

This has been debated at some length, as the Minister mentioned, so I will not go through the arguments again, but I will add some probing questions of my own to those of the noble Baroness. Will the Government bring forward any further legislation to enable the establishment of these new councils? Have the Government consulted trade unions on the provisions relating to pensions and exit payments? On the noble Baroness’s point about the independent auditors, what is the specific nature of the consultation that the Minister had with them? Did they speak about any concerns or pitfalls?

Have the Government done further research on previous experience of this anywhere in the country, or is this the first of a set of new councils? These councils are very different, geographically and culturally. Councillors in local district councils will tell you that we all have our own identities, ways of working and cultures, so I want to see the feedback that we received from those councils.

Lastly, what will happen in terms of reviews and monitoring to keep an eye on this? In the current economic climate, the markets are all over the show, given the famous Budget a few months ago. What is the plan B, particularly for pension funds, which were mentioned, if things deteriorate?

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their interest in this debate. First, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, who asked about pension funds, provision is made under the order to ensure that the properties, rights, assets and liabilities of the Cumbria Pension Fund transfer to Westmorland and Furness Council, because it is the new administering authority of the pension fund for the new councils of Cumberland and of Westmorland and Furness and the other employers which participate in the Cumbria Pension Fund.

The order will also provide that the pension assets and liabilities relating to the former district and county councils of Cumbria that are to be abolished transfer to the new unitary councils in proportions determined by Westmorland and Furness Council. This is to ensure that, as the noble Baroness quite rightly challenged, there is clarity on who is taking over the responsibility for funding existing pensions accrued and preventing exit payments arising under the regulations which would normally be triggered where an employer leaves the scheme. The key to all this is the advice of the actuary dealing with the transfers. Cumberland engaged its own actuary, and the provisions in the order were agreed by both shadow councils. The shadow councils did not want any further information; they were quite content with what came from the actuaries. That is important. This is about local leadership. There is no provision for an appeal on that.

As far as debt is concerned, the new councils will take on the debt of the predecessors and the order will set out how the technical details will be calculated. That will all be in the order, and we are happy to make sure that the noble Baroness sees that order so that she can see how that has happened. The consultations for this order involved very detailed discussions with the councils over a period of time. That is how we came to those agreements.

These provisions follow very closely the provisions made in previous reorganisations. To come back to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Khan, I was leader of one of the first larger county unitaries, and I know we all learned from each other. Further councils to go through this all came back to us—we who had done it in that early group—to get our advice and for us to help them through. There is certainly a local government family that will support and help, which is important. The Local Government Association also learns from that, as does the department and the team leading it. There is a senior officer here who was a senior officer who held my hand through Wiltshire negotiations in 2009. There is a lot of knowledge, both in local government and in the department, for dealing with this, and that certainly makes this whole process a lot easier than when I went through it.

The noble Lord, Lord Khan, asked when it is going to the Commons. We do not have a date yet, but it will hopefully be very soon. On whether we will bring any further legislation, the answer is no; this should be the end of it. Once this goes through the Commons, it should make sure that these authorities can start. The date for that is 1 April, which is coming up pretty quickly.

As for consultation with trade unions, I think that it is up to those local councils to do that with their shadow administrations.

I think that I have answered everything, but I will look to see if there are any further details that I can give.

In conclusion, the order will make a significant contribution to supporting and empowering local government to deliver public services to the local people of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset in an efficient and effective way. This order completes the legislative requirements necessary to implement a locally led proposal for unitarisation in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. It ensures that necessary technical arrangements are in place around ceremonial matters, local pension scheme arrangements, housing revenue accounts and miscellaneous provisions including fisheries and conservation, Transport for the North, Workington harbour and the national park authorities.

The new local authorities undergoing reorganisation are making excellent progress towards their “go live” date, and I am confident that the new councils of Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire and Somerset will be successfully launched on 1 April 2023, bringing about improved local government and service delivery that the people of these areas need and deserve. As I finish, I wish those four councils all the very best for the future. I commend this order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.51 pm.