Debates between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

There have been 11 exchanges between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

1 Thu 28th January 2021 Small Business: EU Exports 2 interactions (182 words)
2 Thu 3rd December 2020 Arcadia and Debenhams: Business Support and Job Retention 2 interactions (240 words)
3 Mon 23rd November 2020 United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,149 words)
4 Wed 28th October 2020 United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (906 words)
5 Mon 26th October 2020 United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,193 words)
6 Mon 14th September 2020 Professional Qualifications and Services (Amendments and Miscellaneous Provisions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 2 interactions (1,772 words)
7 Wed 15th July 2020 Enterprise Act 2002 (Specification of Additional Section 58 Consideration) Order 2020
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
3 interactions (1,086 words)
8 Mon 22nd June 2020 Covid-19: Supply Chains 3 interactions (331 words)
9 Tue 16th June 2020 Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
5 interactions (2,219 words)
10 Tue 5th November 2019 Digital Competition 3 interactions (265 words)
11 Tue 19th June 2018 Bee Population
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
2 interactions (3,010 words)

Small Business: EU Exports

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Thursday 28th January 2021

(1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend for asking a positive question looking at export markets outside the EU. We are committed to enabling SMEs to benefit from these new markets. They have access to a full range of tailored support from the Department of International Trade, through the Exporting is GREAT digital hub, the “business as usual” scheme for exporters’ working capital and the provision of export credit insurance policies where many commercial providers have scaled back. Further, the general export facility announced in the other place on 7 December provides a government guarantee to the five main banks to provide working capital support for SMEs.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, as the Minister said, these are early days. However, there are reports—some in the papers today—about small businesses that export to the EU having difficulties and incurring extra costs. This can impact on consumers, particularly if companies are using the uncertainty created by the end of the transition period to load these costs on to consumers. Does the Minister believe that the Government have the powers they need to stamp out such abuses?

Arcadia and Debenhams: Business Support and Job Retention

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Thursday 3rd December 2020

(2 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I am sure the whole House joins with me in expressing deep sympathy with those who are at risk of losing their jobs just before Christmas, at a difficult time in the high street and, more generally, because of the pandemic. During the passage of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill earlier this year, we put forward amendments to make pension fund holders priority creditors when businesses go bust. Would this not be a very good opportunity for the Government to review their decision not to proceed on this issue? SMEs, such as those that supply Debenhams and Arcadia, do badly when big firms get into trouble. Their debts are rarely given priority in a liquidation and are lost if there is a pre-pack. The Government are consulting on the powers of the Small Business Commissioner. Will they ensure that much-needed new powers for the commissioner in this area are given proper consideration?

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, I remember the noble Lord’s amendments to the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill very well, but it was always a question of getting the balance right. Elevating the rights of pensioners would have negatively impacted suppliers and the unpaid wages of existing employees. The trade credit reinsurance scheme is designed to support small businesses coping with the economic impact of Covid-19, and I assure the noble Lord that we will take his views on new powers for the Small Business Commissioner into account.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

(Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Monday 23rd November 2020

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, the key word of this debate has been “clarity” and the fact that clarity is required. I think that the Minister needs to get to the Dispatch Box and answer as many of the questions as she can, but I assume that government Amendment 51A is intended to answer the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. But questions have been raised that do not seem to point in the same direction, so I look forward to hearing from the Dispatch Box that the amendment does what it is required to do. If not, perhaps the Minister will confirm that she will come back at Third Reading with a better version of it, to make sure that the doubt is removed.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, I will start with some of those questions, particularly because there was a common theme from the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, about the definition of teachers and why we have excluded them. By referring to “school teaching”, it is intended that primary and secondary school teachers, as well as teachers in maintained nurseries in England, will be within the scope of the amendment. Where further education teachers are employed to teach in a school, we suggest that they too are likely to be covered by this exclusion. However, it is not intended to cover further or higher education teachers in institutions that are not schools.

The exclusion is worded to refer specifically to school teachers rather than teachers more generally. In answer to my noble friend Lord Naseby, we do not intend to include pilates teachers or flying teachers in the scope of this. The latter is a much wider term that could be interpreted so broadly that it could be difficult to establish what would be within the scope of this exclusion.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord German, on care workers, social care workers are in scope of Part 3 as they are not included in the list of excluded professions. If the competent authority believes that the automatic principle is not appropriate, it can adopt an alternative recognition system.

I shall go back to my speaking notes. I begin by reassuring noble Lords that this Government are committed to maintaining excellent teaching standards across the UK. Given the attention dedicated to the issue in this House and representations from interested parties, we have given further consideration to the status of school teachers in Part 3 of the Bill. As part of this, it is important to note that, under the alternative recognition process in Clause 24, relevant authorities are able to assess individuals’ qualifications and experience on a case-by-case basis and can refuse access to the profession if they do not meet the required standards. This means that relevant authorities in each part of the UK will still be able to set and maintain professional standards, and are able effectively to hold professionals to those standards.

However, having taken into account the representations that have been made and the long history of differences in the regulation of teaching in schools across the UK, the Government have now decided to exclude school teachers from the scope of Clause 22. To this purpose, Amendment 51A seeks to add school teachers to the list of professions excluded from the recognition provisions in Part 3 of the Bill in the same way as legal professions are excluded. As government Amendment 51A meets the intended purposes of Amendment 50, I reassure noble Lords that Amendment 50 is now duplicative and unnecessary.

I shall explain why Amendment 37 is also unnecessary. The amendment would add “teaching services” to the list of services in Schedule 2 that are excluded from the mutual recognition principle in Part 2 of the Bill. However, the amendment does not address the noble Baroness’s concerns. I understand from Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is concerned that the Bill will allow individuals to teach in a part of the UK even if they do not meet the required standards in that part. However, the recognition of qualifications and the ability to practise a regulated profession such as teaching are wholly governed by Part 3 of the Bill.

Clause 16(5)(b) excludes from the scope of Part 2 provision that limits the ability to practise a profession by reference to qualifications or experience. Additionally, services provided in the exercise of a public function, including education services, are already excluded from the scope of Part 2 by virtue of the entries in Schedule 2 in respect of

“services provided by a person exercising functions of a public nature.”

Most aspects of teaching services are therefore already covered under this public function exclusion from the mutual recognition and non-discrimination principles in Part 2. For example, the exclusion covers most activity carried out within state-funded schools and further education colleges, so they would not be affected by the amendment either. The amendment would therefore have an effect on only a very limited number of service providers.

My noble friend Lord Flight asked, as did the noble Lord, Lord German, why other professions were not excluded. Legal professions, as we know, have been excluded from the Bill’s provisions because they carry out roles that rely on their expertise in the underpinning legal systems, which are different across the UK. School teachers have been excluded after considering the representations on the matter carefully and taking into account the long history of differences in their regulation across the UK, and to put beyond all doubt that teaching regulators will retain control over who can teach in a part of the UK.

So, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord German, the devolved Administrations will still have control over who can have access the profession in their jurisdiction. A relevant authority may consider that automatic recognition is not appropriate for that profession because of a difference in policy environment or specific regulatory needs in that part of the UK. If so, it is possible for it to disapply automatic recognition by putting in place an alternative process to recognition that complies with the principles set out in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord German, also asked about common frameworks. We continue to work constructively with the devolved Administrations on developing a common framework. We are working to make sure that any arrangements sit alongside the work to review the regulatory landscape for regulated professions, as set out in the call for evidence on the recognition of professional qualifications and the regulation of professions.

I do hope that I have managed to answer most of the questions, but I will look at Hansard and if there is anything else that I need to reply to I will of course do so in writing. I hope that the Government’s Amendment 51A will have allayed the noble Baroness’s concerns on this matter and that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

(Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, we are obviously in competition to make the shortest speech of the evening; I cannot imagine why, because this is quite an interesting question, although we had a partial answer to it in an earlier debate. My take on it was not so much about the points raised clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh; I am worried about how acceptably these phrases, put into this Bill at this time, work in a digital world. It is clearly stated in the clause that we are talking about businesses that are local and not local, businesses which are located or not located in an area. We are talking about propinquity and the ability of those who have to interpret these clauses to understand where there are real businesses and how they are operating if they are to be seen to be local.

That does not work for Amazon or quite a lot of the shopping we will be doing between now and Christmas, which will be largely digital in form. Is “hypothetical” to mean virtual? I leave that rather complicated philosophical question for the Minister to respond to.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, I understand that the purpose of this amendment from my noble friend Lady McIntosh is to probe the meaning of “actual or hypothetical goods” in the Bill, which has foxed a number of other noble Lords. I am very happy to provide further information on that. The inclusion of actual and hypothetical goods in this clause is critical, as it means the provisions work effectively in scenarios that could arise where there are no actual local goods against which impacts on incoming goods can be compared.

If a company has a product which is subject to a patent, it can therefore be made by only one company in the UK. If an authority were to regulate against that product because of where it is produced, there could not possibly be a local good to compare it against to determine relative disadvantage. Being able to compare it to a hypothetical good addresses this and allows the rules against direct discrimination to operate properly and protect all businesses across the UK.

Let us take as an example a new technology which takes an innovative approach to food processing, cutting production times by half. The technology may be completely unique, novel and unlike other technologies for food processing on the market. Without being able to compare this against a hypothetical good, it would be very challenging to deem whether any new measures taken by Administrations were discriminatory or not. Equally, as a further example, if a Scottish company patented a technological breakthrough in quantum computing, this same technology would not be present on the English market and we would therefore need a hypothetical good to be able to compare this innovation to in order to determine whether new English regulations discriminated against this Scottish technology and otherwise created an unfair disadvantage.

The existing wording is also important to deal with situations where arguments could be posited that a local good is similar to, but not the same as, an incoming good, and therefore would not be a good comparator in determining whether discrimination exists. Being able to compare a hypothetical good that is the same as the incoming good, save for location, enables that determination to take place.

I was also asked who determines what a hypothetical good actually is. Ultimately, it would be the courts, but a business would bring forward the challenge and claim discrimination.

I turn to the stand part debate on Clause 7, which sets out the test for direct discrimination. Direct discrimination is where a requirement applies explicitly differently to local goods and goods from elsewhere in the UK and that difference results in disadvantage for the goods from elsewhere. This means, for example, that a Scottish regulator cannot impose additional licensing requirements for Welsh goods unless it does the same for Scottish goods. As another example, take a scenario where Scotland regulated that only Scottish whisky could be sold in pubs; this would be directly discriminatory against the very fine Penderyn whisky produced in Wales, as they would have a clear disadvantage against similar goods on the Scottish market—I see that meets with approval.

“Disadvantage” simply means that it is more difficult or less attractive for those incoming goods to be bought or sold. In this example, any additional licensing requirements on Welsh goods may impose additional costs and potentially increase the price of the Welsh good, meaning it would be less attractive to buy. To be clear, the goods that we are comparing here are the local equivalents of the incoming goods that are materially the same, or materially share the same characteristics, but do not have the same connection to the originating part of the UK. For example, a potato produced in Wales is compared with a potato produced in Scotland. This clause will ensure that directly discriminatory barriers cannot be created by rules that aim at the way in which a good is sold to circumvent the effect of mutual recognition. For example, if English butchers were banned from selling Welsh lamb, this would be directly discriminatory.

It is worth noting that Schedule 1 to the Bill allows for direct discrimination where a requirement discriminates in a reasonable way, as a response to a public health emergency, ensuring that the rules leave scope to react to such situations. I ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, at the end of the previous group the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, kindly said that his mind was not closed to further discussion on this issue about common frameworks and how they relate to the Bill. I welcome that. In a sense, the amendments in this group are part of the same debate. I therefore hope that they will also be included in the next-stage discussions, as they are a variation on the theme.

I set out my route map for progress in my response to the previous group and I will not repeat it. However, I endorse the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, my noble friend Lady Andrews, the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, particularly their growing confusion about what exactly is in the Government’s mind on this issue. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, coming fresh to the debate, can persuade us that there is indeed a coherent logic to the Government’s position—because it certainly eludes me.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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I hate to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, but it falls to me to respond to this debate. I will now speak to the two amendments—Amendment 6 and the consequential Amendment 44—concerned with how UK market access principles, as proposed in the Bill, will apply. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has tabled these amendments on behalf of the Welsh Government. Accordingly, I would like to begin by thanking the Welsh Government for their positive engagement on this Bill so far. The UK Government look forward to continuing constructive future engagement with the Welsh Government.

As my noble friend Lord True said earlier, we continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to develop common frameworks, in line with the framework principles agreed by the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) in October 2017. I know the Senedd were happy to see the Joint Ministerial Committee provisionally confirm the first two frameworks of the programme on hazardous substances and nutrition. Work continues in earnest to reach further such agreements in the coming months and beyond.

Before I turn to the detail of the amendments, I want briefly to cover the context of the Bill in order to explain the approach the Government took to applying the market access principles. At the risk of repeating the arguments of my noble friend Lord True, now that we have left the EU and as we recover after our fight against Covid, it is vital that we deliver legislation which allows the continuing smooth function of our UK internal market at the end of the transition period. The Bill aims to ensure frictionless trade, movement and investment between all the nations of the UK. The policies that different parts of the UK choose to pursue in the future is a matter for each Administration. The Bill ensures that these local policies can be pursued while maintaining seamless trade in the UK internal market. There is no question of the UK Government intending to bypass the common frameworks; the Bill is intended to complement them.

The approach we have taken in the Bill will give businesses the regulatory clarity and certainty they want. It will ensure that the cost of doing business in the UK stays as low as possible, and without damaging and costly regulatory barriers emerging between the nations of the UK. With this context in mind, I turn to the amendments. They would, in combination, prevent the market access principles from applying at the end of the transition period. The lengthy process they put in place before the principles can apply, including the need to exhaust frameworks discussions, would mean a considerable delay in securing business certainty that trade can continue unhindered within the UK’s internal market. The resulting threat of unmanaged regulatory divergence would not provide the certainty businesses need and could deter businesses that wish to expand and supply customers across the UK. This is not desirable, especially as we continue our recovery from Covid-19.

The amendments would also limit the areas to which the market access principles can apply. Again, this would unduly constrain the scope of the principles and fail to protect the internal market fully. In contrast, the Government’s approach is more comprehensive and ensures that businesses in all sectors can continue to trade across the UK without facing new barriers or discrimination.

The amendments also present a challenge in defining the exhaustion of the frameworks process. In all cases, common frameworks are designed as living arrangements, capable of change by agreement as required. Thus, the process is never wholly exhausted. The new clause also specifies a consultation process with the devolved Administrations and the CMA, or, failing that, a 12-month delay before any regulations can be made specifying areas to which the market access requirement would apply. The Government are already committed to appropriate consultation with the devolved Administrations; however, under the terms of the amendments, the time limits proposed would create unnecessary delay.

The noble Lord, Lord German, asked about the timing of the Bill. Reduced certainty would indeed be a disaster to our recovery from Covid-19. We do not believe that it is acceptable for businesses to have less certainty on trade with their UK supply chain after 1 January 2021 than they have today and have had for centuries. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that the status quo of seamless internal trade is maintained for the shared prosperity and the welfare of people and businesses across all four nations of the UK. Without the internal market, livelihoods would be at risk. There is also the issue of future-proofing the Bill to allow that, for the jobs of the future, mutual recognition will apply across areas that we may know nothing about today, including things such as the artificial intelligence industry.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked whether reference should be made to the common frameworks should be made in the Bill. We already have a statutory obligation to report quarterly on progress on the common frameworks, so there is no need to put this in the Bill as well. Far from being silenced, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, suggested, as she knows, two common frameworks have already been agreed. However, some 38 more have yet to be considered, with only nine or 10 weeks until the end of the transition period. They do indeed provide a very sensible framework, but they remain voluntary. Ultimately, the common frameworks depend on continued co-operation. In spring 2019, the Scottish Government walked away from the internal market project. This legislation is required to provide certainty for business and consumers.

The noble Baroness asked about labelling in Welsh. There is nothing to prevent labelling in Welsh for goods produced in Wales. I was also asked about the use of plastic teaspoons. The Welsh Government can still ban their use, but perhaps not their sale.

For these reasons, and for the uncertainty and confusion that it would generate for businesses and consumers, unfortunately the Government cannot support the amendments in this group and I would ask noble Lords to withdraw or not move them.

Professional Qualifications and Services (Amendments and Miscellaneous Provisions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Monday 14th September 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her introduction of the instrument. I understand a little more about it now than I did the first time I read through it, but I am rather like my noble friend Lord Blunkett, who explained in his rather self-deprecating way that he was confused until the end. The SI itself is clear, but the Explanatory Memorandum has left us all a bit flabbergasted and confused, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, just said. However, we must make progress on it because, as the Minister has said, it is an important document and vital to preparations for the post-transition period. However, I put it to her that it raises issues which are much more important for the longer term, which is what much of the debate has been about.

Before going on to that, I think we owe a vote of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for his obviously hard research into the situation affecting ski instructors, which we all noted and all felt a little tentative about raising. I think he has made the argument extremely well so I am going to make a slightly separate point that here is a group for whom special arrangements had to be made and they appear to have been carved out randomly on the basis that it did not seem to matter when in fact it does. In particular, in Scotland, where I come from, there is a well-established tradition and good training is provided for people who work in difficult and often dangerous circumstances in the high mountains. How extraordinary that they are going to be cut out without much thought in terms of mutual recognition. Will the Minister explain how and on what basis this was discussed with the Scottish Government, who presumably have very strong views on this? I will be interested to know how their response was registered.

As other noble Lords have picked up, the key question was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, about what happens to mutual recognition immediately afterwards—it was also raised by my noble friend Lord Blunkett. It was certainly part of the earlier discussions and debates. Those of us who follow this closely will have read the exchange of correspondence between the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the department on this in which the committee raised a question about how all this sits in the wider picture, which is what is behind a number of our comments. The response is rather confusing because it first tries to narrow it down to being a technical SI, which indeed it is at heart, tidying up a few things that need to be resolved, but it also says in response to a question about whether this issue is going to be a continuing discussion and debate that arrangements on the future recognition of professional qualifications after the transition period are being discussed as part of the EU-UK comprehensive free trade agreement and that the Government intend to include appropriate non-discrimination and equal treatment provisions in the FTA.

When one looks at it, the draft paragraphs contain a vague aspiration that in the free trade agreement there will be an appropriate way of expressing mutual concern and respect for other people’s qualifications much as we do at the moment, but they do not give any detail about where that is going or how effective it is going to be in practice. When the Minister responds, will she give us a bit more meat on the bone there? This is at the heart of many people’s concern about this SI. It is not the specific issues it raises, because when you drill down, and perhaps ignore the Explanatory Memorandum, you find that it is actually technical and relatively straightforward and affects a reasonably small area but, as was picked up, ski instructors are being given no future so far as we can see. More widely, as a pillar of the future prosperity of this country, we need that ability for our services, which are the majority of our economic activity these days, and our assets in intellectual property, which exceed our physical assets. How on earth are we going to make a go of that if we have no mutual recognition and have to start from scratch getting all the documentation required for everybody who wants to operate in order to earn for our country abroad? These matters really are important, yet they are not dealt with here. It is not the SI that does not do that, but nevertheless the questions are there and need answers. I look forward to hearing the Minster’s response.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this short debate and for their broadly supportive comments on this SI. I should like to conclude by emphasising that the changes contained in these regulations are essential. The UK is committed to protecting citizens who benefit from rights under the agreements, many of whom make valuable contributions to the UK workforce. Although these regulations focus mainly on protecting existing rights and not future arrangements, it is important that they make changes to ensure that the UK’s existing EU exit regulatory frameworks for RPQ and services will function effectively at the end of the transition period.

However, it is worth noting that the continuation of a recognition system after the end of the transition period is a temporary measure. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who asked what will happen when the transition period is over at the end of this year and how this will operate for people who gain their qualifications after that period, all those with recognition decisions achieved before the end of the transition period are protected for life.

Certain EEA and Swiss nationals who apply for recognition after the transition period will be able to seek recognition under the previous RPQ EU exit regulations laid in 2019. Those EU exit regulations amend the system for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications to retain aspects of the recognition system after the transition period so that individuals with EEA and Swiss qualifications that are equivalent to UK standards can have their qualifications recognised in the UK.

In response to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and others who asked why we have been unable to secure mutual recognition with the EU, I remind her that the regulations are concerned with implementing reciprocal arrangements in the withdrawal agreement, not policy for a future recognition system. With regard to negotiations on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, we concluded the eighth round of negotiations with the EU on 11 September. Although there was little progress made, we had useful discussions, and we are still working hard to ensure that qualification recognition does not become an unnecessary barrier to trade in regulated services across the modes of supply between the UK and the EU. As negotiations are still ongoing, I cannot comment in more detail on the status of those discussions at this stage.

My noble friend also asked what will happen in the event of no deal on 1 January 2021 to those with professional qualifications across the EEA and Switzerland and what will be the position for those in the UK who want to practise in the EU, EEA and Switzerland. In terms of these future arrangements for UK nationals, it is not clear which no deal arrangements the EU will put in place. However, some member states have previously suggested that they will continue to provide recognition routes for UK nationals if an agreement is not reached. There is also the temporary system that will continue to provide a route to recognition after the end of the transition period for EEA and Swiss qualifications. I also note generally that, as I said in my opening speech, doctors and dentists are covered by separate statutory instruments laid by the DHSC and are not covered by this SI.

In response to my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who asked why we are disapplying the delegated regulation for ski instructors, the regulation establishes a common training test for ski instructors, but ski instructors are not regulated in the UK. The delegated regulation will have no practical effect in the UK after the transition period, as the UK will not be a member state, and therefore it will not apply to the UK or UK ski instructors after the end of the transition period. Disapplying it will not have an impact on the ability of UK ski instructors to work in the EU in future. This is subject to ongoing negotiations with the EU. UK ski instructors within the scope of the agreement who have already been recognised will be protected accordingly. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee what the EU member states will put in place for ski instructors who apply for recognition in a member state after the transition period. However, the UK is seeking to negotiate an ambitious deal with the EU. The UK’s negotiating position would enable UK ski instructors to continue to seek recognition in the UK after the transition period. Even without revoking the delegated regulation, it could not be relied upon by UK ski instructors in the EU once we are no longer part of it.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, this was discussed with the Scottish Government. The devolved Governments were involved regularly throughout the process of making the regulations. They have been supportive of our approach and did not have any significant comments. The regulations have not been controversial with the devolved Administrations. The Scottish Government have consented to this SI by way of ministerial letter.

The noble Lord also asked for some more meat on the bone as to how the regulations will operate. I remind him that the regulations are concerned with implementing reciprocal arrangements in the withdrawal agreement and not policy for a future recognition system. I have answered on the recognition arrangements in the existing EU exit regulations and on the status of the negotiations. Further RPQ policy will depend on the outcome of the negotiations with the EU and the recommendations of a call for evidence being conducted by the business department. This call for evidence is looking at what our approach should be to the future recognition of professional qualifications from other countries and considering the UK’s approach to the regulation of professions more broadly.

To close, I underline once more that these regulations are a vital part of the UK Government’s preparations for the end of the transition period. I recommend the draft regulations to the Committee.

Enterprise Act 2002 (Specification of Additional Section 58 Consideration) Order 2020

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Wednesday 15th July 2020

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these statutory instruments today in his usual clear way. As he said, these SIs amend the Enterprise Act 2002 to enable the Secretary of State to intervene in mergers on two new grounds: by lowering the jurisdictional thresholds for reviewing transactions affecting UK-targeted companies involved in AI, cryptographic authentication and advanced materials; and by introducing a new criterion for intervention to preserve UK critical health and crisis mitigation, including but not limited to those needed for Covid-19. He stressed that these were short-term measures until more fundamental reform was taken forward in the now long-promised national security and investment Bill.

I tabled a regret Motion which stems from the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and relates to four main points. There is a discrepancy between the apparently permanent changes set out in these SIs and the accompanying comment from BEIS that more fundamental change is in train. There is a lack of any information about the timing or content of the national security and investment Bill other than its antecedent, the White Paper 2018, which now seems a very long time ago. The committee suggests that the draft Bill be published forthwith and be subject to comprehensive debate and pre-legislative scrutiny. Further, the committee suggests that a better lens for consideration of the impact of mergers and takeovers would be to include their impact on consumers and consumer detriment. I will briefly expand on those points and look forward to the debates from other noble Lords who signed up to speak.

We broadly welcome the intention behind these reforms, which mirror changes to FDI in other countries, including France, Germany, Australia and Canada. The Minister is right to stress that these do not alter our commitment to having an open economy, which we support, and they are not against FDI, which has done so much to improve the quality of work in this country and the jobs available, and they are certainly not about putting up barriers. The country must remain open for business.

However, experience shows that many new tools must be available if we are to combat action and reaction to pandemics. These reforms presumably reach out, as the Minister said, to pharmaceutical and medical equipment suppliers, but they also seem to extend further. As he mentioned, they look at the effects of the pandemic including on food supply and service providers such as the internet. That is a very wide reach. Will the Minister confirm that this new power could also be used to prevent hostile takeovers of otherwise profitable and stable companies suffering short-term reductions in profitability or depressed share prices as a result of the pandemic or similar emergency? Will he also confirm that notifications to the CMA will remain voluntary, even though the intention remains to mitigate risks in the short term, which suggests that a more direct route of action might be required? Will there be further guidance on what might trigger this power, which has been criticised as being potentially very broad, and, if so, when that will be published?

The Government last lowered the jurisdictional turnover thresholds of the UK merger control regime in June 2018, when we passed an SI concerned with the development and production of military and dual-use technology, computing hardware and quantum technology. At that time, the threshold in relation to UK target company turnovers was lowered from £70 million to £1 million, which is a big change, and the 25% share of supply, which the Minister mentioned, was amended. We supported the moves at that time, but we questioned whether other sectors should be included. But these were described at that time as temporary, short-term reforms, again pending primary legislation. Is that still the situation? Can we expect more changes when the Bill finally arrives? When does temporary and short-term actually morph into permanent?

We now have a proposal to extend these already amended jurisdictional thresholds to three further sectors under quite broad headings—artificial intelligence, cryptographic authentication and advanced materials. The Explanatory Memorandum makes it clear that the intention is to cover producers but also researchers, and it covers suppliers to these companies, so the scope is again potentially very wide. There is a promise of further guidance on this. Will the Minister give us some more information on when that will be available? Again, the notification system will be voluntary, and companies will have to take the risk of the CMA or the Secretary of State initiating an investigation. Is that really the most sensible way of proceeding?

The outstanding questions that my regret Motion raises and that I would like the Minister to respond to are as follows. As the SLSC says, it is very difficult to scrutinise these SIs. Indeed, it will not really be possible to do so until we see the National Security and Investment Bill itself. When will it be published? Will there be pre-legislative scrutiny? If not, why not? Can the Minister settle the question of whether the changes set out in these SIs are intended to be temporary, in the sense that they might be unwound in the NS and I Bill, once it arrives, or are they permanent? Can he confirm that it remains the Government’s intention to unwind the earlier June 2018 amendments once the new regime is in place, or are they now permanent? Can the Minister confirm whether the new Bill will follow the proposals in the 2018 White Paper? The world is a very different place now, and I wonder whether, for example, the voluntary notification system is really sufficient for national security concerns. Also, will there be turnover cut-offs or sectoral cut-offs? What about regional and place considerations?

Finally, why are consumer interests not given a central part in this process? The CMA, under its recent chair, the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, was rightly refocusing work around the prevention of detriment to consumers. Its recent consultation on its 2020-21 plan stressed that competition, particularly in digital markets, was getting weaker in many sectors and that practices that damaged effective competition needed to be eliminated. In a sense, this is the other side of the same coin which is being addressed by these SIs.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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I remind the noble Lord of the speaking limit.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara [V]
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I am just winding up. I accept that some mergers and acquisitions affect national security, however it is defined, but all mergers and acquisitions affect consumers, so can the Minister confirm that consumer detriment will form part of it? I beg to move.

Covid-19: Supply Chains

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Monday 22nd June 2020

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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The Government have been engaging with a wide range of stakeholders about safety in the workplace during this crisis. This includes Amazon, with which we have had many conversations, and I know that the DHSC is grateful to it for its support. In answer to the noble Baroness, I cannot talk in specific terms about what those conversations have held. However, our approach has been split not by specific business types but by the type of working environment. We think that the risk of Covid-19 can be best addressed through personal hygiene and social distancing, and not necessarily through the use of PPE, except of course in clinical settings.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, following up the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, the Minister will be aware that EU directive 2014/24 on public procurement enables a public authority to pay a subcontractor for work completed in cases of insolvency, instead of the main contractor. This would help cash flow considerably in the supply chain, particularly for small construction companies. Will the Government consider it?

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question and for giving me advance sight of it, since I do not think that I would have heard of that measure had he not done so. The Government have announced unprecedented support for businesses and workers. These measures include an uncapped package to help firms keep people in employment, deferred tax payments, business rate holidays, small business grants and commercial property mortgage holidays. In any situation where a main contractor becomes insolvent, the immediate focus will be on continuity of service, including by the incumbent contractor or its supply chain. Contracting authorities would first look to the terms of their contracts; they may have step-in rights, direct agreements or collateral agreements which allow them to engage directly with the supply chain behind the insolvent contractor. There are also provisions in UK procurement law—specifically, Regulation 72 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 —to allow replacement of an insolvent contractor.

Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Tuesday 16th June 2020

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara [V]
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My Lords, I want to make a brief point. The Minister’s response was interesting but very much couched in the existing paradigm. We seem to be in a situation where, as somebody said, the Government have lifted the lid on the debate over how we work out what goes into the insolvency waterfall, as it were, and how to compensate those who lose out as a result of that compression. Pensions should be part of wages and salary; they should not be where they are. Small businesses always seem to suffer. Thirty per cent is just a figure; it is beneficial but it does not go to the heart of the problem of how we deal with creditors and who comprises the neediest in terms of the analysis of what must be paid back and how that should be organised.

As the Minister was trying to argue, I think, there may be a short-term fix to get this thing back on the road, but these reforms will not be sufficient to resolve the inadequacies of the present arrangement. Does she agree that the time has come—but perhaps it is already too late—to review this area critically, with particular reference to issues such as debtor-in-possession financing? Obviously, there is a crisis because of Covid-19; that crisis provides an opportunity to say that we need to look at this issue again. This would be a good time to do so.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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I take the noble Lord’s point. The point of the Bill is to provide emergency relief in the current crisis. The restructuring planned provisions that we have tabled and are taking forward in the Bill are flexible and will permit complex funding arrangements to be used in a company rescue. This will bring our regime more in line with other jurisdictions where debtor in possession rescue finance is well established. These measures will add to the UK’s existing first-class restructuring and insolvency framework and ensure that it keeps pace with developments in other highly regarded international jurisdictions.

Break in Debate

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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Can I correct for the record something that I said on the previous amendments? The money that will take precedence from HMRC includes VAT held on behalf of customers, as well as national insurance contributions. What it does not include is things such as corporation tax.

I thank noble Lords for their amendments on a range of important issues in this group. I will try to cover them all, as well as the Committee’s questions, as best I can in the time available. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for highlighting the important matter of directors’ duties under the Companies Act. These duties continue to apply during the period in which personal liability for wrongful trading is suspended. The purpose of this provision is to remove the deterrent of personal liability at the point at which the directors of the company are deciding whether it should continue to trade at a time of great economic uncertainty. At this time, it is important that directors can be certain that their decision to trade on will not result in personal liability.

I reassure the noble Lord that those directors’ duties he refers to in his amendment will continue to operate, including the duty to protect the interests of creditors. I add that directors have legal responsibilities under wider company law; for example, to exercise independent judgment with reasonable care, skill and diligence. These duties will remain in place, as will measures in insolvency law to penalise directors who abuse their position. Therefore, directors will still face the threat of fraudulent trading, coupled with director disqualification from a compensation regime where their conduct merits it.

On Amendment 67, regarding the general power to amend insolvency law, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for raising the matter of ensuring that temporary amendments made using the general powers in Clauses 18 and 26 remain relevant and necessary while in effect and will be removed when they are not needed. Full consideration must be given to the impact of temporary amendments on anybody likely to be affected by them, not just small or medium-sized companies and unsecured creditors, and this consideration must be given before the powers are used. The amendments must then be proportionate to the purpose of making them, which must be one of the purposes set out in Clauses 19 and 27. This might be reducing the number of entities having to use corporate insolvency proceedings or mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on those processes. Further, the powers in Clauses 18 and 26 may not be used to create a provision to impose or increase a fee.

A temporary amendment which causes financial harm to small and medium-sized companies and unsecured creditors is unlikely to meet one of the purposes for which the powers in Clauses 18 and 26 may be used. Temporary amendments must remain under review. In the unfortunate circumstances where an amendment caused unforeseen and unintended harm, this would be addressed during the ongoing review process.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the Small Business Commissioner in relation to Amendment 75. The noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Mendelsohn, are right to highlight the office of the commissioner as a force for good in resolving payment issues for the smallest businesses which, as we know, are least able to weather the storm of cash flow issues. The Government are completely focused on their manifesto commitment to clamp down on late payment to small businesses. The SBC’s intervention in late-payment disputes has recovered over £7 million in late or unpaid invoices for small businesses since it was created, and its work has been especially important in light of the cash flow issues all sizes of businesses have been facing in the current Covid situation. I hope this also goes some way to addressing the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer.

We have already pledged to consult on extending the powers of the SBC and we will bring forward that consultation as soon as we are able. The consultation period and engagement with interested parties will bring forward ideas for the extension of scope and powers and will be given consideration. I hope that noble Lords will understand our desire to consult carefully before making important decisions such as this one.

I turn to Amendment 48 on the Financial Reporting Council, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. The Government are committed to strengthening the UK’s corporate governance and audit regime. We are drawing up plans to replace the Financial Reporting Council with a new regulator, as part of a wider programme of audit reform. This programme covers the recommendations of three independent reviews by Sir John Kingman, Sir Donald Brydon and the Competition and Markets Authority. The Government are therefore already considering many, if not all, the specific issues highlighted by this amendment. Our intention is to set out our proposals in the coming months, seeking views on them where the Government have not already done so. The noble Lord will be aware that this Bill takes forward some of the corporate governance reforms related to his amendment, such as a freestanding moratorium and a new restructuring tool.

We were asked why we were not reforming Companies House. The consultation on reform received a significant number of responses. An official government response will be published in due course. We are considering a broad package of reforms to Companies House, to ensure that it is fit for the future and continues to contribute to the UK’s business environment. The proposals amount to the most significant reform of the UK’s company registration framework since the companies register was first introduced in 1844 and it is important to take the time to get it right.

Amendment 80, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, covers the role of the Registrar of Companies. The Government agree that there is a case for introducing further checks to verify the identities of individuals setting up, managing or controlling corporate entities. Last year’s consultation proposed that those with a key role in companies should have their identity verified, and that Companies House should have greater powers to query and seek corroboration on information before it is entered on the register and to remove inaccurate information.

I turn to Amendment 143 in the name of my noble friend Lady Anelay. I will try to allay her concerns, and those of my noble friend Lord Cormack. There have been extensive discussions with DCMS and the Charity Commission, which have been involved in all the measures in the Bill. My noble friend will be aware that a small number of charities is incorporated and regulated by an Act of Parliament or by royal charter. In the limited time available it was not considered proportionate to extend the measures in Schedule 14 to the Bill to this small group of charities. Extending the relevant provisions to these groups of charities in a way that would be effective and avoid unintended consequences would be complex.

In cases where charities are not covered by the Bill’s flexibility on AGMs, the Charity Commission has indicated in its published guidance that it will take a pragmatic and proportionate approach where members’ meetings need to be postponed or held virtually in order to comply with social distancing, even where this may appear to be contrary to the rules of the charity’s governing document.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, for tabling an amendment on shareholder representation that draws attention to the flexibilities offered regarding meetings of companies and other qualifying bodies. Given that, at present, public health measures preclude mass gatherings, it is right that the Government should temporarily suspend certain members’ rights, the most fundamental being the right to attend a meeting in person. The measures on AGMs and other meetings enable them to be held in a way that is consistent with the coronavirus regulations and the Government guidelines on social distancing. The new measures will not prevent shareholders exercising their right to vote. They will still have the ability to vote by proxy where available.

To minimise the impact of not being able to attend, we expect companies to engage with shareholders ahead of and following meetings, including responding to shareholders’ questions that are sent in by electronic and other means. We have issued guidance to industry that bodies which seek to make use of the range of meeting flexibilities that the Bill provides should explore all alternative avenues to ensure that their members are able to participate in AGMs and other meetings to as great an extent as is reasonably practical.

I turn now to the final point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, on the Financial Reporting Council UK audit reform in response to the review by Sir John Kingman of the FRC, Sir Donald Brydon’s review of audit and the Competition and Markets Authority’s study of competition in the statutory audit market. The Government have committed to bringing forward proposals for reform, including legislation to establish a new regulator in place of the FRC.

I would like to thank noble Lords for their insightful contributions. I have sought to offer reassurances regarding each of the issues raised, albeit in brevity given the range of issues in this group. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara [V]
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My Lords, I thank all speakers in this short debate. It has been very wide-ranging and we have ended up with what almost amounts to a raft of future changes that we would all like to see in the legislation relating to corporate governance and related matters. I look forward to hearing about progress on that in the near future.

I have one point to make which does not need a response from the noble Baroness at this stage. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, rightly raised the question of charitable companies. We have been given a response to the effect that it is not felt appropriate to deal with the very small number which fall into the main category. However, I put it to the Minister that these days most charities have trading companies and all of those will be subject to the same rules and regulations that we have been talking about prior to this. Therefore, I assume that any charity which is set up—whether by royal charter or a company set up by Parliament or indeed by any other way in which charities are formed—and has a trading company would be caught by the main tenet of these things. I am afraid that insolvency is quite likely, given the very bad impact of the coronavirus on charities. Tourism numbers are down, and we are likely to see problems and I hope that that will be covered. Perhaps the Minister could drop me a note on this point.

In the same vein, I ask the Minister to confirm that companies which are set up through credit union legislation could have similar issues, so their particular circumstances need to be looked at, as are those companies set up on a social enterprise model for which there is not the same legal framework. However, the same intention lies behind them and they should be able to trade and operate in a way that is effective for their members. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Digital Competition

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Tuesday 5th November 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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Until we decide where we are going to base the digital markets unit, we need to look at its functions in the round. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, as well as the digital markets panel, will feed into the process that we are looking at. The noble Lord is quite right to raise datasets as a concern. The ownership of such things is a formidable barrier to entry, so loosening an incumbent’s grip on data and forcing companies to hand over personal data to competitors, at the request of a consumer, would indeed boost competition and consumer choice.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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I welcome the noble Baroness to her first Question Time and congratulate her on her smooth answers so far. The report to which she refers points out the advantages of a digital markets unit. But it also points out the difficulties in the overlap of responsibilities between it, the CMA and Ofcom, as well as the possibility of links across to the Information Commissioner’s Office. This is a sort of spaghetti of different titles and groups. Has she any answer to how that will pan out?

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist
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I cannot answer on the results of our discussion at this stage because they are ongoing. There are a number of options for how the digital markets unit could be taken forward, including whether it should be in an existing institution, such as Ofcom or the CMA, or located separately. We believe, however, that form and location should follow function. The follow-up work by Professor Furman, the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, and the Government will address these issues.

Bee Population

Debate between Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist and Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
Tuesday 19th June 2018

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by thanking noble Lords who are supporting this debate and I look forward very much to hearing their contributions. In many ways, the debate is a perfect antidote to the divisive EU withdrawal Bill, being on a subject that will affect us and future generations long after the world has forgotten what the initials “EU” even stood for.

I confess that I was generally pretty ignorant about bees and pollinators until around a year ago when a remarkable young woman, Polly Birch, who had such a passionate commitment to spreading the word about their importance, reminded me and many others about just how much we rely on them and how their numbers are in decline. This debate is timely as the Private Member’s Bill tabled by Ben Bradley MP to make provision for the protection of pollinators started its passage through the other place on 8 May.

I have only now discovered that bees are the second most written about species after man. There is even a whole body of law relating to honey bees, most of which has its basis in Roman law. A swarm still belongs to you even when it has left its hive, as long as you can still see it, and allegedly one may trespass on a neighbour’s land in order to retrieve it. Somewhere in my consciousness was the threat repeated last week by David Attenborough that should bees disappear from the face of the earth, man would have only,

“four years left to live”.

The quote is wrongly attributed to Einstein, but it is the sort of thing that he might have said. We probably would not starve because wind is a good pollinator, but there is no doubt that our diet would become very dull and getting our five-a-day would be very tricky.

This Government and the coalition before them have already done a great deal to encourage the habitats of the 1,500 or so species of insect pollinators that we have in this country. Although we may think of bees as the primary pollinators—there are 250 different varieties of them, 35 of which are currently in danger of extinction—we also have hoverflies, butterflies, beetles, moths and even bats. Most of these live in the wild, with the exception of the headline-grabbing honey bee. The NFU estimates the economic value of their pollination services at £690 million per annum but they also support a small but thriving industry of some 250 bee farmers, as well as thousands of amateur beekeepers.

The report also highlighted progress in a number of areas including habitat creation, public engagement and the protection of honey bee health, all as a result of many different sections of the community—not just the bee farming industry and the farming community, but schools, universities, charities such as the National Trust, Buglife, BeeConnected and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and central and local government—working collaboratively. Productive beehives at Defra’s offices in London and York now produce Defra honey, as do hives on the roofs of Fortnum’s, Coutts and the Garrick Club.

Funding has also been provided for a range of primary research projects covering everything from genetic sequencing and the taxonomy of insect pollinators to the relationship between pollinators and pollination services in crop production. I know that the Bee Farmers Association hopes that more funds will be directed to the National Bee Unit in the Food and Environment Research Agency once the Green Paper on nature and harmony is published.

Despite all this, bees and a variety of pollinators are in decline. Clearly, much more can be done, not only by government but by us all. Let us stray into the area that is most likely to cause controversy—the use of insecticides—which I am sure will be covered in more depth by my noble friend Lord Ridley. Integrated pest management is central to this Government’s approach. The objective is to reduce the overall use of pesticides by using them in a more targeted way, to reduce resistance, and supplementing them with improved crop husbandry and the use of natural predators.

The EU recently banned the use of neonicotinoids on all field crops, not just those that are attractive to bees, as had been the case since 2013. Neonics are a group of insecticides that have been linked to a sharp reduction in bee numbers. Environmental groups welcomed this move but, interestingly, the Bee Farmers Association was agnostic about the ban. Perhaps we should be cautious. Bees in Australia, a large user of neonics, do not appear to be adversely affected and the research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on which this policy was based concluded that the ban may be counterproductive. It has resulted in an increased use of more damaging pesticides, mainly pyrethroids, which are sprayed rather than seed-treated; that is worse for non-pests. The study found that UK farmers have more than quadrupled the number of insecticide applications on oilseed rape but pest pressure has still increased. The JRC report has not been made public and although I urge the Government to ensure that the regulation of pesticides continues after we leave the EU, it needs to be developed on the basis of independent and verifiable scientific research.

An undeniable cause of the declining number of pollinators has been the destruction of their habitat. Over 97% of all flower-rich grasslands have been lost in England since the 1930s, whether through transport, infrastructure, modern farming methods or housebuilding. The habitats that exist have become particularly fragmented; the southern margins of their distribution are shrinking northward, while the northern margins are static. Buglife, a charity that works closely with the Government on strategy, has developed the award-winning concept of “B-Lines”, a series of insect pathways running through our towns and countryside. Along them stretch a series of wildflower-rich stepping stones, linking existing wildlife areas into a network. Much work is being undertaken to identify areas suitable for grassland habitat restoration and creation. The proposed Bill will encourage local authorities to include such considerations in area plans since the creation of a channelled pattern of habitats is the most effective way of promoting species dispersal.

Since there is a need to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, and to establish wildflower recovery areas, this could perhaps link with the aim to replace the countryside stewardship payments from the CAP with a scheme that will incentivise farmers to look after the environment. Perhaps it could also be tailored in such a way that it favours pollinators and the bee farming industry, as is the case already in Germany.

We, the public, whether city or country dwellers, can all play our part by growing a range of bee-friendly plants that will provide pollen and nectar for all pollinators. I suggest that we avoid rhododendron ponticum, whose nectar is toxic to bees, and the silver lime—Tilia tomentosa—which uses caffeine to trick bees into visiting empty flowers, whereupon many die of starvation. Moreover, although farmers and bees alike love oilseed rape, I am told that it is not ideal for honey production.

There is so much to say about bees, and I shall end by sharing what I have learned from noble Lords who have passed by my desk in the Library over the past week or so. Bees measure distance by the way the hairs on their backs flatten as they fly from the hive; they prefer trumpet-shaped flowers; they are colour-specific and will not go from a blue flower to a red one to a yellow, and they dance on the hive to direct their fellows to nectar-rich areas. And my favourite fact: it was one of St David’s missionaries who introduced bees to Ireland in the sixth century.

Lastly, there is also, perhaps, much to be learned from the way bees organise themselves. The cleric and philosopher Samuel Purchas, in his Theatre of Political Flying Insects, written in 1625, observed:

“Bees are political creatures, and destinate all their actions to one common end; they have one common habitation, one common work; all work for all, and one common care … ”.

That is not a bad dictum for this House.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, for securing this debate. I am in awe of the research that she has carried out for this debate. She confessed to me a few months ago that she did not know quite what was in her mind when she put her name down for this debate: she did not seem to know very much about bees, but she certainly may have more than made up for it in the last little bit. I will have to go around my garden eradicating rhododendron ponticum, which I have just planted in large numbers. I had no idea that it produced poisonous honey for my bees. I am also looking forward to contributions from other noble Lords.

We have been building up to a bee event on a biannual basis since I joined the House eight years ago. In fact, I decided that my maiden speech was going to be on bees—that is the arrogance one has when one first comes into this House—and then, of course, I discovered that that did not actually mean that there was going to be a debate ready for me to speak in. I had to adapt what I wanted to say to a rather esoteric discussion about special education, although I was rescued by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who very kindly saw what I was trying to get at and came to my rescue and said some nice things about my speech. It is best forgotten.

I should declare, of course, that I am a beekeeper myself, although in truth I am a bit nervous about that name “beekeeper” since it implies some sort of role that I certainly do not have in relation to my bees. Bees are independent: they may well be on one purpose and a model for one aspect of this House, but they certainly do not do what I want them to do. I think that they keep me, rather than that I keep them and I am very nervous about them. I have a very good breed at the moment, however—they come from Buckfast Abbey, but I do not think that that means anything about their religious behaviour, although their Irish connection is very strong—and they are a joy to work, or were a joy to work until I moved them two years ago, whereupon they turned vicious. I have been stung so badly in the last couple of years that I was almost at the point of giving it up, but I went back there last weekend in view of this debate and went through them comb by comb, the sort of thing that only a very dedicated beekeeper can do. I did not get stung and had a wonderful time and they are thriving. I am delighted to report that to your Lordships’ House, and I am sure they will want to have some honey when it comes later in the year.

My neighbours in West Cork, though, have not been so lucky. That area was very badly hit by the storms. Storm Ophelia made landfall about a mile from where we have a house and a number of local farmers and others who have bees have lost a huge number of hives and most of their stock over this period. Indeed, I have been trying to find a nucleus to build up my bee collection but I have not been able to find anybody who has anything for sale this year. I just have to hope that a swarm appears in the next few weeks, although it is very late in the season for that.

There are 25,000 to 30,000 beekeepers in this country, a significant number of people. It is interesting, however, that we have a very different model of industry here compared to the rest of Europe. In most of Europe beekeeping is carried out by professional beekeepers and bee farmers. We have a slightly different situation compared with the EU as a whole, but it is broadly the same pattern: we do not produce nearly enough honey to meet our demands. Just think of the savings we could make if we could generate more activity around beekeeping and more of our own honey.

It is a very strange industry. There are a few industrial producers in this country—I think the figures were given by the noble Baroness—and a very large number of amateur keepers like me. Their numbers have grown in the last two years. Indeed, we have seen a surge of interest in urban beekeeping, as I think has been referenced. It is good to hear that the drones of the Garrick Club have a hive on their roof. I hope that they are more liberal with their use of the honey from the women who are doing all the work there than they are with their guests. I will pass on quickly from that.

As has been said, honey bees are a very important part of our agriculture: some £650 million per annum. But the survey that was recently carried out by the BBKA—the British Beekeepers Association—shows that the amount of honey per hive has decreased again this year, down some 10% from last year. We are worried about the number of hives, mainly because of the bad weather, as I said. Taken with the weather, we have to think about pests and diseases, loss of habitat, and possible pesticide effects, all of which have been mentioned. It is a very interesting and complex matrix. I look forward to the Minister’s comments when he responds. I do not expect him to wave a magic wand over the weather—I will forgive him that—but it is worth pointing out that the sort of climate we are experiencing at the moment is very bad for bees. They can cope with cold and are not too bad in snow, but they do not do wind and rain because it gets into the hives and they cannot get rid of it. It is really problematic for them when we have the sort of weather we are having in this period.

On health, there are still real problems with how we deal with our bees and how we provide effective medicine. The Varroa mite, which was the subject of a lot of discussion in the previous bee debate, has not increased very significantly. It seems that we are able to cope with it, but we cannot treat for the foulbroods, which are difficult to eradicate. There is a disease called nosema, which is likely to become more prevalent because the medicines used for it have been withdrawn.

The questions I have for the Minister are first on neonicotinoids, or neonics, which is easier to say. The Government are to be congratulated on their decision. At the time of the previous debate there was some doubt about whether the Government would follow the evidence, but it is very good that they have done so. The evidence was very convincing. I accept that there are problems about switching to other insecticides, but we should do what we can. Although the Government’s decision is welcome there is still a problem because these chemicals are not completely banned. They can be used to treat sugar beet and seed for winter cereals. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether any further work is being done on that and whether there will be action should the evidence prove it to be necessary.

Agricultural production has a significant impact on bees by affecting the quality and diversity of habitat within the landscape. I hope the Minister will say something about what the Government can do to provide more support for those who wish to make fields a little more readily accessible for bees and pollinators. Is there any research they can do about what type of pollination is the most helpful? For example, it is widely thought that tomatoes are fertilised by bees, but in fact it is bumble bees that do that job. It is done by vibration, not transmission through the pollen. It is important that we better understand what goes on when pollination takes place.

Agri-environment schemes have great potential and I hope there will be some news on them. More generally, habitats around the country need to be thought about as not just passive areas of land, but important forage and nesting resources for bees. Could the Government think about ways to strengthen protection for the sites by designating more with priority habitats of bees, perhaps reforming the environmental impact assessment regulations and improving cross-policy co-ordination to deliver stronger benefits for bees over the whole landscape?

There is a link here to planning. Maybe the planning system should also be looked at carefully to see whether it has sufficient protection for bees and their habitats. At the moment we think only in terms of houses and infrastructure, but surely it is important to make sure that we have the right approach in law to how we deal with the insects that we rely on. Some bees are recognised as national conservation priorities but, as a group, bees have received very little formal monitoring and conservation effort. I hope that the biodiversity strategy and the other work being done on long-term thinking in the department will allow bees to feature. I read the documents that are available at the moment, but they do not seem to mention bees in particular. I look forward to the comments of the Minister.

Finally, I talked about the workforce involved in bees. It is largely amateur and elderly, I fear, although there is a growth in the number of younger people who work with candles and other artefacts that come from bees. Are the Government thinking of creating a statutory beekeeper register, which might at least give us some fix on what the issue is? Are there any schemes, such as apprenticeships, that might be available in this area? Perhaps the Minister would think about that.