Earl Howe (Con)
My Lords, this has been a constructive debate and I am grateful, as ever, for your Lordships’ detailed engagement with the measures in the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh on making his first speech in this House in physical form. He set out succinctly the measures that the Bill seeks to introduce. I therefore intend to focus mainly on responding to questions and comments posed in the debate. Those that I do not have time to cover today—and there will be several, for which I apologise in advance—I will answer in writing.
Before I turn to those matters, it might help if I addressed some of the cross-cutting issues that your Lordships have highlighted. The first is the wider context. This is an important Bill, but I am the first to acknowledge that its scope is deliberately focused. It does not pretend to cover the whole waterfront of the UK economy. That is why my right honourable friend the Chancellor will make a summer economic update to the House of Commons on 8 July, outlining the next stage in our plan to secure Britain’s recovery, building on the Prime Minister’s speech. It is clear that the long-term plans and big decisions are for the Autumn Budget and spending review, but there are things we can and should do now to give the country the boost it needs.
The first phase has seen us help families and businesses through the crisis. As the economy opens up, we will move into a new phase. I cannot confirm the details in advance, but we have done the right thing by helping people through the crisis and we will do the same as we come out of it. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, indicated her view that support for the economy has been insufficient. I remind her that the Government have provided unprecedented support to help businesses through the lockdown. Over £350 billion of government-backed and guaranteed loans have been made available to businesses and individuals, as well as a range of support schemes, including business rate holidays, tax deferrals and the job retention scheme. Of course, we will continue to keep under review what further support should be provided to businesses.
I can say, particularly in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that our recovery from Covid-19 should be clean and resilient, making our economy match fit for tomorrow’s challenges and not yesterday’s. This means reducing risk and increasing our resilience to the threat that climate change poses to the UK’s prosperity and security, as well as the linked challenges of biodiversity and public health. Action to support net zero can deliver jobs and opportunities across the country, as demonstrated by our success to date—with growth up by 75% and emissions down by 43% over the last three decades and more than 460,000 people employed in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains. This is a win-win area.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Andrews, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and my noble friend Lord Sheikh, raised concerns about the impact of these measures on local authorities, taken in the round. First, I note that the Local Government Association has been consulted and has welcomed the proposals on pavement licensing and planning extensions. Licensing proposals have also been discussed with local government and the police. Secondly, I remind the House that the Government have provided £3.7 billion to local authorities through un-ring-fenced grants to address pressures they face in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes the extra £500 million announced on 2 July. This further funding provision demonstrates the Government’s continued commitment to making sure that councils have the resources they need to continue to support their communities through this challenging time.
On pavement licences in particular, our measures will create a more streamlined process and may take away some of the current administrative costs associated with processing applications. For example—and in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson—we have taken steps to ensure that local authorities can impose their own conditions up front across all licences, which should help mitigate concerns about automatic deeming of licences. However, we recognise that elements of the new fast-track process may have resourcing implications. We are undertaking a new burdens assessment to assess what support local authorities need to implement this new temporary process and whether any additional funding will be necessary.
As regards planning consents, let us bear in mind that the measures in the Bill are temporary and together do not amount to a significant new financial burden on local authorities this financial year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, expressed concern about the unclear situation, as she sees it, of councils returning to open public meetings. During the pandemic the Government have temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person. While social distancing restrictions remain in place, we have provided councils with flexibility to hold meetings in a manner that ensures the decision-making process remains accessible to their residents. The local authority remote meetings regulations enable all meetings to be held remotely. They do not preclude either physical meetings or a hybrid form of meeting, where these can be held in accordance with public health regulations and guidance. The Government have amended the health protection regulations to allow indoor gatherings of more than 30 persons; these apply to meetings taking place in council buildings from 4 July.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, expressed concerns about the shortness of consultation, there being no legal requirement to post applications online and having only lamp-post notifications. She felt that was discriminatory against those with visual impairments. Local authorities are required to publish, in such a manner as they consider appropriate, applications, material accompanying them and the fact that representations may be made. The draft guidance makes it clear that authorities might consider using digital means of publicity, such as on their website or via an online portal, and that in deciding what action to take to publish, they should consider the needs of those who might find it more difficult to access online publications.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, called for a quarterly review, rather as is built into the Coronavirus Act. We recognise the importance of keeping the measures under review and will closely monitor their effects. However, we think that a rolling parliamentary review would compromise the stability we seek to provide to businesses and local authorities in the recovery stage of the pandemic. Almost all the measures in the Bill are temporary; they have temporary effect or apply to temporary schemes. The end dates we have set out in the Bill are designed to be restricted to what is proportionate and necessary, while giving businesses, local authorities and government agencies the certainty they need to plan their activities over the coming months. We think that subjecting the measures to an unpredictable cliff edge through parliamentary review will undermine this certainty.
On the Bill’s specific provisions, we are all aware of the serious effect coronavirus has had on the hospitality sector. Even as restaurants, bars, pubs and cafés open up again, social distancing requirements will significantly reduce their capacity, and we want to help these businesses recover quickly. Measures in the Bill will help by allowing easier use of outdoor space to accommodate more customers safely while summer weather allows. I am grateful for the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, the noble Lords, Lord Bhatia and Lord Campbell-Savours, and my noble friends Lord Inglewood, Lord Bourne and Lady Noakes in this context.
The Local Government Association and several individual councils have been consulted on pavement licence proposals, as have the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and the Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Group, which—my noble friend Lord Sheikh in particular will be pleased to hear—recognised the importance of allowing businesses to open safely while ensuring highway accessibility. The proposals have been welcomed by the LGA, UKHospitality and the British Beer and Pub Association. In addition, measures on alcohol licensing have been discussed with local government, trade, police and licensing experts.
Noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Holmes, Lord Blencathra and Lord Balfe, the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett, Lord Low and Lord Addington, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Pinnock, were understandably keen to know how our pavement licensing provisions might affect pedestrians and those with mobility impairments and visual impairments. I agree that this is an important point and that we should never lose sight of the inclusion agenda.
We are publishing a national condition which requires licence holders to maintain clear routes of access. This includes taking account of the needs of disabled people and, in particular, section 3.1 of the Department for Transport’s Inclusive Mobility guidance. This sets out the recommended minimum footway widths and distances required for access by mobility-impaired and visually impaired people. I say to my noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that any licences granted will be subject to local and national conditions, and the legislation contains robust enforcement procedures. Local authorities can revoke licences where they give rise to matters of public safety, highways obstruction, anti-social behaviour and public nuisance, as well as on a number of other grounds.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson, Lord Blunkett, Lord Carlile, Lord St John, Lord Paddick and Lord Kennedy, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and my noble friend Lord Balfe, understandably raised concerns about possible unwanted effects of the alcohol licensing provisions in terms of anti-social behaviour and disorder. We have established two main safeguards in designing these provisions, to ensure that any issues that arise can be dealt with swiftly and robustly. First, it is worth reiterating that the measures in the legislation will not apply to premises whose off-sales permissions have been removed, either voluntarily on a variation or on review, within the last three years.
Secondly, the Bill will introduce an expedited review process for automatically granted permissions. This can be used where there are problems of crime and disorder, public nuisance or public safety arising from how premises use the new permission. In this case, any responsible authority, including the police or environmental health, can apply for an off-sales expedited review. On receipt of this application, the relevant licensing authority must consider whether it is necessary to take interim steps within 48 hours, and must determine the review within 28 days. Interim steps can include: changing the hours in which off-sales are permitted; adding new conditions in relation to public nuisance, such as to prevent noise nuisance; and suspending the off-sales permission. As I have said, a review can result in the automatically granted off-sales permission being removed.
Beyond the provisions in the Bill, my noble friend Lord Balfe in particular may wish to note that the police also have the power, under Section 76 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, to issue a closure notice if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the use of a premises has resulted, or is likely to result, in nuisance to members of the public or that there has been, or is likely to be, disorder near the premises that is associated with the use of the premises. Having mentioned that, I am sure we can all identify with the very good points made by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston regarding the relationship between the police and the public.
I shall sum up these protections with an example. If local residents complain to the police about disorder relating to a particular bar or restaurant, the police might first consider taking immediate steps to close the premises using their anti-social behaviour powers, but they could also request an expedited review, which could result in steps to prevent ongoing issues at the premises by toughening the terms of the premises licence.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh, the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, all referred to the importance of keeping hospitality workers safe. The Government are clear that workers should not be forced into an unsafe workplace and that the health and safety of workers should not be put at risk. To this end, we have published Covid-19 secure guidance for keeping workers and customers safe in restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services. The guidance sets out how to open workplaces safely while minimising the risk of spreading Covid-19 and gives practical considerations for how that can be applied to hospitality businesses. The guidance is non-statutory and does not change legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities, but it will help businesses to manage the risks for their employees through social distancing, hygiene and fixed teams or partnering.
Businesses must also carry out an appropriate Covid-19 risk assessment in consultation with unions or employees. Employers should share the results of their risk assessment with their workforce and are encouraged to display a notification that they have complied with the Government’s guidance on managing the risks of Covid-19. Employees can raise any concerns by contacting their employer representative or trade union or by contacting the Health and Safety Executive by phone or online form.
I appreciate that noble Lords may be interested to know the specifics of the guidance and therefore encourage them to read the guidance in full on the GOV.UK website. Due to the comprehensive nature of the publication, I cannot relay all its recommendations to the House. However, I reassure noble Lords that a considerable range of practical steps are provided to help to keep workers safe. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will be pleased to hear that that includes setting clear use and cleaning guidance for toilets to ensure that they are kept clean and social distancing is achieved as much as possible. I should add that the Health and Safety Executive has been given an extra budget of £14 million for extra call centre employees, inspectors and equipment to help businesses to manage the necessary changes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised some very interesting points about second-hand smoke on pavements. With regard to pavement licensing, the local authority can impose locally-set conditions on licences. The draft guidance provides that, when authorities are determining applications and setting conditions, issues that they will want to consider include public health and safety, while the conditions can include restricting smoking in areas not designated for smokers.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, called for new ways of working following Covid-19 that are arrived at through robust dialogue with unions and employees. The Government have worked constructively with the unions throughout the pandemic. We recognise that responsible trade unions can play a constructive role in maintaining positive industrial relations and that collective bargaining remains an important form of negotiation in the workplace. However, we believe that where possible industrial relations should be undertaken on a voluntary basis, not mandated by the state. Collective bargaining is largely a matter for individual employers, their employees and their trade unions. If workers want a union to represent them, they have the means to secure that through the CAC statutory recognition procedure.
The noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, called for a revival of holidaymaking and tourism. I am sure she will agree that supporting hospitality is a key part of supporting tourism. The pavement and alcohol licensing measures in the Bill will help restaurants, bars and pubs to get ready for the summer. The more places where people can eat and drink, the better the local tourism offer and the more likely people are to take the brilliant staycations our tourism industry offers. She and other noble Lords, especially my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, will have seen yesterday’s announcement of more than £1.5 billion to support cultural assets of international, national and regional importance, and that money will directly help the tourism industry. The announcement has been widely welcomed, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, by the arts sector.
More widely, we announced the cultural renewal task force on 20 May. We have since published guidance on reopening holiday accommodation and the visitor economy to give businesses the ability to plan with confidence to reopen. On 3 June, we announced a £10 million kick-starting tourism package. This will give small businesses in tourist destinations grants of up to £5,000 to help them adapt their businesses following the pandemic. That is only one of a number of measures that we have taken.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan asked about the status of sports clubs and whether they can benefit from the alcohol licensing measure. The Licensing Act 2003 provides for club premises to sell alcohol by retail to club guests, but only for consumption on the premises. I am afraid that this is not changed by the Bill. The Bill is focused on the wider hospitality sector. However, all clubs can apply for a variation of their licence to serve alcohol off the premises if they wish. Sports and physical activity facilities play a crucial role in supporting adults and children to be active. The Government are in discussions with representatives from the sport and physical activities sector about the steps required to reopen sports venues and facilities, including swimming pools, as soon as it is safe to do so, and we will update the public when possible. As with all aspects of the Government’s response to Covid-19, we will be guided by the science to ensure that, as restrictions are eased, people can return to activity safely.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked whether temporary licences could be issued for small breweries to sell to the public. The provisions in the Bill do not grant any new licences. The proposal that a brewery should be given a premises licence without any scrutiny by the local licensing authority, the police or the public goes too far, I am afraid. It is vital that the conditions on which a permanent premises licence is granted receive careful consideration from agencies with a knowledge of local issues and the licensee. The suggestion that a premises licence could be granted through a purely administrative procedure or a minor variation would deprive the responsible authorities and the public of a voice.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe asked about age verification. I will write to her on that topic.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made some very powerful points, one of which was to question why schools should not be more fully open than they are when we are taking these measures in relation to pubs. While pubs reopened this weekend, he will know that schools are already open and more than 1.5 million pupils have been welcomed back. Since 1 June, primary schools have been welcoming back children in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside priority groups. Since 15 June, secondary schools and colleges have been offering some face-to-face support for pupils in year 10 and year 12, who will sit key exams next year.
I will write to noble Lords who raised the issue of hospitality businesses that do not have premises and on any other topics in relation to that part of the Bill that I have not covered.
The Bounce Back Loan Scheme has, by common consent, been a lifeline to small businesses during the crisis. Over 900,000 have benefited to date, and I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others on this measure. The provisions in this Bill allow for the majority of bounce-back loans to be issued within just 24 hours, rather than the usual five to 10 days. They also help lenders to process applications at a much greater scale, and the measures have been welcomed by UK Finance.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked why the Government do not publish data on the number of applications to and rejections from the Bounce Back Loan Scheme. We have in fact been publishing relevant data on the Covid business lending schemes on a weekly basis since 12 May. This includes data on the number of applications received and the number and value of facilities approved to date for the Bounce Back Loan Scheme, CBILS and CLBILS. In publishing this data, we aim to support the information needs of society in general and of course the stakeholders. The Government are considering what further data may be available in the future while balancing the sensitive commercial nature of this information for lenders.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, raised her concerns about protections for business. We need to remember that these are unprecedented times, which is reflected in the 100% guarantee that we are providing to lenders. Under the scheme, businesses cannot borrow more than 25% of their turnover, which should help to ensure that the loan is sustainable. In addition, to enable firms to get back on their feet, borrowers are not required to make any repayments for the first 12 months, and the Government will cover the first 12 months of interest payable. The scheme also has an affordable flat rate of interest and borrowers have six years to repay the loan.
However, businesses do need to take responsibility for what is in their interests. The terms of the loan are very clear in the application that businesses will fill in as part of securing a loan. Any business taking on a loan such as this should think carefully about whether debt is the right answer for them and about their ability over the long term to pay it back.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner of Margravine and Lady Bowles, spoke about the prospect of defaults. The scheme supports the smallest businesses, which are the backbone of our economy, as rightly emphasised by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. The Government said from the start that they would do “whatever it takes” to support business; this scheme delivers on that promise and is in addition to the support the Government offers through business grants, the corona- virus job retention scheme and tax deferrals.
However, we have also made clear that bounce-back loans are loans and not grants. Borrowers must make every reasonable effort to repay these on time. The scheme being 100% government-guaranteed means that, should some borrowers default, lenders will not be burdened with debts. However, the Government expect lenders to seek to recover the loans where feasible and we are convening workshops in the coming weeks to discuss this in more detail with the accredited lenders.
I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on the issues he raised on HGV licensing and move to another topic raised by noble Lords, which is construction working hours and planning. I am grateful to those noble Lords, and especially my noble friend Lady Noakes, who expressed support for the measures designed to assist the construction industry. Like the hospitality industry, the construction sector has been hit hard by coronavirus: over 40% of the workforce has been furloughed. The Bill helps them to get back to work safely, and the measures have been extensively discussed with representatives of the development industry.
To the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who expressed concerns, I stress the point that these measures are temporary. The Bill will make it quicker to extend site opening hours, allowing for better social distancing and catching up on lost work time, and there is strong support across industry and local planning authorities for the provisions.
Having said that, I of course take on board the points powerfully made by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, on the wider context, especially the future of the high street. I agree that there is a balance to be struck between using up spare capacity for housing on the high street and motivating the retail sector, but I say to her and to my noble friend Lord Wei that we strongly support the revival of the high street so that it becomes a place where people want to go. We need to look constructively at flexibilities to further that aim.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, said that, in his view, the 14-day timescale was too short for consultation. He will recognise that, as so often, this measure has to strike a balance. We consider the timescale to strike a fair balance between allowing time for necessary engagement, for example with local councillors, and enabling developers to obtain a fast-tracked decision, particularly so that they can make use of the additional daylight hours available in the summer months. Local authorities know their areas well. We are confident that they will be able to judge the impact on local businesses and residents in the majority of cases, particularly since we have prepared guidance to support this decision. They retain the discretion to refuse where there would be an unacceptable impact.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Randall, expressed concerns about noise and nuisance during extended construction hours. I understand that concern. First, authorities will have discretion to refuse extensions to working hours where they consider that longer hours would have an unacceptable impact. They also have a range of enforcement powers available to them. Secondly, many sites will already have construction management plans, which will include mitigation measures against dust, vibration, noise and so forth. Thirdly, my noble friend Lady McIntosh will note that developers are, as ever, encouraged to work closely with the local community and their local authority and to undertake works which may be noisy and affect residents during normal working hours.
I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Best, on his proposal that the presumption in favour of sanctions in relation to the five-year housing land supply and the housing delivery test be suspended. I have an extensive note, but, unfortunately, there is not time for me to put it into Hansard. Equally, I will write to my noble friend Lord Blencathra on the potential for 24-hour construction and the need, as he saw it, to limit that facility.
I will cover a point raised by my noble friend Lord Randall, who was concerned about the environmental impact of extended construction hours. Local authorities will need to carefully consider applications where, for example, the development is subject to an environmental impact assessment or there are habitats issues. They will have discretion to refuse applications for extended construction hours where they believe that a development would have a significant environmental impact that has not previously been assessed.
I will write to my noble friend Lord Naseby on new towns and garden towns. I will also write to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who raised two very important points about local plans and hybrid appeals. I apologise that there is no time to cover the note I have now.
Equally, I shall write to my noble friend Lord Lansley on the point he made about a three-month extension to planning consents not being enough, and to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on cycle lanes and parking bays. I shall also write to the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, about caravan and self-catering accommodation being open for the winter, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, about the bodies with planning powers which are not covered in the Bill, such as mayoral development corporations, Transport for London and the London legacy corporations.
Once again, I am grateful for the excellent and constructive contributions from noble Lords who have spoken. In summary, the Government believe that this Bill is urgent and necessary. It will help businesses in hard-hit sectors get back to work safely and without delay. Almost all its provisions are temporary. They have been developed in consultation with businesses, local government and other interested parties. It is very important that these provisions come into force as soon as possible. If we are not able to make the changes before the summer, benefits for the hospitality sector will be greatly reduced and approval backlogs may again become an issue in construction and in vehicle licensing and testing.
We are entering a new phase in the response to coronavirus. The immediate crisis is abating; now we need to help businesses and the economy to rebound. This Bill will play an important role in achieving that aim. I beg to move.