Debates between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby during the 2019 Parliament

Sue Gray Report

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 25th May 2022

(3 days, 18 hours ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, finally we have the Gray report. The country owes Sue Gray a tremendous debt of gratitude for undertaking her task fearlessly and thoroughly. It was typically dishonourable of the Prime Minister to try and persuade her at the 11th hour not to publish it at all, and typically courageous of her to do so. Will the Government at least release the minutes of her meeting with the Prime Minister, so that we can be clear exactly what took place?

On one level, today’s report does not tell us anything new. We already knew that there have been multiple parties in Downing Street, and that the culture was the opposite of that which the Government were enjoining on the rest of the population. We already knew that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, far from instilling a culture in tune with both their messaging and the legislation, were encouraging what was going on. And we already knew that, by denying what had happened, the Prime Minister was misleading both Parliament and the country. What the report does is provide the gory details—and gory they are.

The Prime Minister’s defence today is that Downing Street is a large, busy building; that it was appropriate to have farewell parties, that he did not stay long at the parties, and that he had no idea what happened after he had left. If this were any other large organisation, in either the public or private sector, these risibly feeble excuses would have meant that heads at the top would roll. That they have not is a major indictment of the Prime Minister, his Government and the Conservative Party.

By refusing to resign, the Prime Minister has weakened his own standing, that of his party, that of the country, and that of politics and politicians more generally. It is clearly of huge importance that this loss of reputation and standing be reversed. In the first instance, this can only happen if the Prime Minister is replaced, and this can only happen if he is ejected by his Commons colleagues or the electorate. As far as his Commons colleagues are concerned, it seems that there is in reality virtually nothing which the Prime Minister could do which would impel them to act. This is most strange, as the only reason the Prime Minister became leader of his party was that many people who knew him to be a charlatan and a liar held their noses, because they thought he was an election winner.

If they have been out on the doorstep recently, they will have found that this situation no longer obtains. Yet, with one or two notable exceptions, they sit on their hands. They are therefore all complicit in the duplicities of this Government. If his MPs do not act, the Prime Minister will be removed only by the electorate. Recent elections have shown what voters already think of him, and with every electoral contest, whether by-election, local elections or the next election itself, there will now be a reckoning for the Conservative Party. The sadness is that, until the general election comes, we will be stuck with this morally bankrupt and rudderless Government.

But if the Prime Minister comes badly out of this saga, so too, I fear, do the Metropolitan Police. They turned a blind eye to the parties when they first happened. Under intense public pressure, they initiated an investigation, but the fines which they imposed, concentrated as they were on junior and female staff who co-operated fully with them, compared to other more senior people who clearly did not, look arbitrary and incomplete.

They failed to explain themselves, so they cannot rebut the inevitable suspicion, widely felt across the country, that the policy on fines was driven not by a strict interpretation of the law but by a political impulse to let the Prime Minister off lightly. They are now facing legal challenges into the way they behaved. They should pre-empt these now by coming clean on the rationale for their partygate policies.

The Prime Minister, understandably, wishes to draw a line under this sorry saga and in his mind he has probably already done so. But the public have not, and there will be a reckoning.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I will attempt to address some of the points raised by the noble Lords. It is absolutely right, of course, that the Prime Minister has made a full and unreserved apology for what happened in No. 10. As noble Lords will have heard in his Statement, he repeatedly said that he takes full responsibility for everything that took place. He has acknowledged people’s hurt and anger, which I think we have heard from the comments, totally fairly, from the two noble Lords, and which I think a lot of us feel having also seen the report. He has offered a full and unreserved apology, and he has accepted that more time should have been taken to establish the full facts at the very beginning.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the meeting with Sue Gray that has been reported. The Prime Minister had a procedural update on timings and publication arrangements, prompted by No. 10 following a discussion at an official-level meeting, but the findings and content of the report were not discussed and the report has been published in full in exactly the form it was received.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly mentioned the references to the security staff and the cleaning staff, and the Prime Minister has strongly condemned that behaviour. He said during Questions in the other place that he was going to apologise personally to those affected—I think at that point he had not had the names; I am sure he will. I believe that some of those conversations have already happened. Everyone is unhappy at and horrified by what they read. He said quite strongly that he was going to take action himself, but that he also expected those who were involved in these situations to do so as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what has happened since. The Prime Minister has taken steps since the publication of the report to address some of the specific shortcomings identified, and a number of them were mentioned in the report. For instance, there is a new Permanent Secretary charged with applying the high standards of government, and there are now easier ways for staff to raise concerns. Things are being done, and that was one of the things that Sue Gray has acknowledged and welcomed. She has said that change needs to be embedded now, so that these things can really take hold.

Easter Recess: Government Update

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Monday 25th April 2022

(1 month ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, this almost entirely vacuous Statement is in three unconnected parts. The first deals with “Partygate” and is really desperate stuff.

“I paid the fine immediately”

said the Prime Minister, as though this was somehow praiseworthy rather than a legal requirement.

“As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger”

said the Prime Minister, as if, until he received the fine, he was not aware of what the country has been feeling for many months.

“It didn’t occur to me, then or subsequently”,

said the Prime Minister,

“that a gathering in the Cabinet Room could amount to a breach of the rules”,

as though this inadvertent thoughtlessness or straightforward ignorance was an excuse for breaking the law. We are told that there may be more prime-ministerial fines; we read that the Gray report will be excoriating about his behaviour; and we now have the prospect of a long wait until the Commons Privileges Committee decides whether he has misled the Commons. For the Prime Minister, this is death by a thousand cuts; but for the country, it is a continuing shame and embarrassment.

Over recent days, a number of Cabinet Ministers have explained that they support the Prime Minister and have set out their reasons for doing so. I was out of the country for a week, until yesterday evening, and so may have missed any such Statement from the Leader of the House, so I wonder whether she will take this opportunity to inform the House whether she believes that the Prime Minister’s law breaking is as irrelevant as many of her colleagues do, and whether the Prime Minister still has her full support.

The second part of the Statement is about Ukraine. While the Prime Minister’s travelogue, complete with random comments about people bumped into on the streets of Kyiv, is interesting, he has literally nothing new to say. We obviously support the assistance which the UK is now giving Ukraine and share the Prime Minister’s admiration for the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that sanctions could be tightened in some respects.

We also agree with the noble Baroness that the asylum process is as dysfunctional as her examples proved. It beggars belief that the rules are so bureaucratic and inhumane—and that they still have not been made less bureaucratic and humane. I also look forward to hearing the noble Baroness the Leader’s figures for the number of people who have applied, have been accepted and have arrived through the asylum process.

But a lesson from this crisis that the Prime Minister has yet to draw publicly, I think, is that it is a mistake to appease tyrants like Putin, as successive British Governments did over the last decade. It is right that the UK is now prepared to offer long-term support to Ukraine to protect it from any future invasion, but the lesson here surely is that, if we had given the country more support at an earlier stage, there would not have been such an invasion in the first place.

Thirdly, the Statement makes passing reference to the most serious domestic issue facing the country: the cost of living crisis. It says that the Government are “tackling” the long-term impact on energy prices and cites as one of their main achievements that

“we are helping families to insulate their homes”.

The Government should indeed be helping people to insulate their homes, but they scrapped the green homes grant last year and, in the Chancellor’s recent Spring Statement, there was literally nothing new to insulate so much as one single additional home. This is a typical case of prime ministerial hyperbole. It would be great if what he claimed were actually true, but it is not.

Finally, the Prime Minister says that his job is

“to make the British people safer, more secure and more prosperous”.

That should indeed be his job. However, as we now see on a daily basis, Brexit is making the country less prosperous and less secure—and it remains his proudest boast.

So the Prime Minister’s record is to diminish the office that he holds, diminish the standing of Great Britain across the world and fail the British people on the core requirements of government. As I believe he will discover in next week’s elections, the British people have had enough of it. For all our sakes, the sooner he goes, the better.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. I wholeheartedly endorse the noble Baroness’s praise of the Ukrainian people and President Zelensky for the incredible courage that they are showing in their courageous fight. I obviously cite our continued support for them—I will cover a couple of points shortly.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the fines and the Prime Minister’s approach. As he made very clear last week, the Prime Minister offered a full and unreserved apology, quite rightly, and he made clear that he fully respects the outcome of the police investigation, which is still under way. He has paid his fine, and anyone who either watched last week’s Statement or read Hansard saw that he was contrite in his apology, quite rightly.

On Ukraine, the noble Lord said that we did not do enough. To be fair, there has been an acknowledgement that there were other things that we could have done. But I point to one of the key things that we did, which is important and has been much appreciated: Operation Orbital, which we started back in 2015 and which meant that we trained 22,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces. The commitment and solidarity that we have shown with the Ukrainian people, and the leading role that we have played in terms of providing support to the Ukrainians now, are important and have been recognised. We will continue to do this. As the noble Baroness alluded to, the Defence Secretary made a Statement today to highlight further support that we are giving, and I am sure that we will discuss that further in the House later this week.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about sanctions. So far, we have sanctioned more than £900 billion of global assets from banks and sanctioned oligarchs and their families with a net worth of approximately £200 billion. Last week, we announced a new wave of 26 sanctions on key leaders in the Russian army. We are fast-tracking a further 19 individuals and entities in alignment with global partners from the G7 and the EU. We have also announced further trade sanctions, expanding the list of products facing import bans and increasing tariffs. These include bans on silver, wood products and high-end products from Russia. We will also increase tariffs by 35 percentage points on around £130 million-worth of products from Russia and Belarus, including diamonds and rubber. I believe we are doing two SIs this week in Grand Committee on further measures around sanctions that have been agreed, so there will be further action in this area, as the noble Baroness said, before we prorogue.

In relation to refugees, I will give a few figures that I have to hand. As of 4 pm on 20 April, 107,200 visa applications had been received under both schemes and 71,800 visas issued. For the Ukrainian family scheme, 41,200 applications had been received and 32,500 visas issued. Under the Ukraine sponsorship scheme, 65,900 applications had been received and 39,300 visas issued. As of 18 April, 21,600 Ukrainians had arrived in the UK through the schemes. We are taking steps to simplify and speed up the process, including removing the need for Ukrainian passport holders to attend an in-person appointment. We have 500 staff working seven days a week to process applications and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Harrington will have taken note of the cases that the noble Baroness raised. I shall certainly draw his attention to them and I hope that noble Lords have found him very willing to engage with them, as the Minister involved. I will speak to him once again about whether there is further engagement that can be done, on top of what I have mentioned just now.

In relation to the cost of living, we are taking action worth over £22 billion in 2022-23 to deal with the cost of energy. Of course, we are constantly reviewing the measures to tackle cost of living issues facing families across the country. One thing I will point to is fuel duty, which the noble Baroness mentioned. Of course, we have cut that by 5p for 12 months, saving the average motorist £100 a year, but we are well aware and cognisant of the issues that families are facing across the country. We are continuing to work on that and will continue to take measures as and when they are appropriate.

The noble Baroness asked about onshore wind and the energy strategy. Within the energy strategy, what we have said on onshore wind is that we will consult on developing partnerships with supportive communities that wish to host onshore wind infrastructure in return for guaranteed lower energy bills—so there was an element of onshore wind included in the Statement. In relation to the economic crime Bill, as she rightly says I cannot go too far, but I can reassure her that it is a priority in terms of action that we will take going forward.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 24th February 2022

(3 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, when we debated this issue on Tuesday and President Putin’s intentions were already pretty clear, I doubt that we fully comprehended the scale and ruthlessness of what he had in mind. Now we have no such doubts. By his own words, we know that he wants the demilitarisation of Ukraine, which he can achieve only by the successful subjugation of the whole country. We are united in offering our full support to the Ukrainian people in resisting this illegal aggression and, metaphorically at least, we stand alongside them in their defence of shared values, peace, democracy and liberal views.

There is therefore much in the Statement which we welcome. It is encouraging, for a start, that the G7 leaders have been working so closely together today, and we hope that this process continues. Some of the specific measures are particularly welcome. We welcome the exclusion of Russian banks from the UK financial system, the banning of Russian banks and companies from raising funds in the UK, the extension of these sanctions to Belarus, the freezing of assets on individuals and companies, and the banning of high-tech dual-use items as exports to Russia. There are, from the Statement, clearly still many details of how these measures will be worked through, and we will obviously co-operate with the Government on any emergency legislation required to do this.

There seem to be two glaring omissions from the list of sanctions announced this afternoon: the words “Rosneft” and “Gazprom” do not appear. Quite apart from their size, these two companies stand to gain more than any others by the rise in oil and gas prices that Russian action is causing. It would surely be sensible to freeze them from the City of London, and any activity in the UK more generally. Could the Minister explain whether that is really an omission, or if they might in fact be covered under the headline of the 100 banks and companies affected by these sanctions?

The Prime Minister said that the package means that oligarchs in London have nowhere to hide. Given that they are not actually hiding in London but do have assets here, what does this mean? Which oligarchs might be involved? It would, for example, send a strong signal if one of them were Roman Abramovich, one of Putin’s close allies. I say this not just as a Leeds United fan: will he be affected?

The Prime Minister says that the Government will introduce legislation covering unexplained wealth orders before Easter. That is fine, but why are the other measures in the economic crime Bill, particularly the reforms to Companies House, and the register of overseas property ownership, being delayed until the next Session?

The whole Bill is apparently ready. To have potentially to wait for more than a year before it is on the statute book seems plainly inadequate to us.

The Government say that nothing is off the table and specifically cites the SWIFT system as being in that category. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked: what is happening with SWIFT? Are the Government actively pursuing it with their allies, and is there any sense of when the exclusion of Russia from SWIFT might actually take place? Can the Leader of the House confirm whether any other measures are also under consideration, such as a blanket travel ban for all Russian nationals or a more complete trade ban?

In terms of the military situation, it is a positive step that NATO leaders are meeting tomorrow. However, the Prime Minister gives no clue about what he will be proposing to them. For example, will NATO—and, in any event, will the UK—be making more military equipment available to Ukraine? Does the UK stand ready, as we believe it should, to offer more troops and aircraft to NATO if they are requested?

The fog of war has descended on Ukraine. We cannot yet see clearly how events on the ground are progressing. However, we can see enough to know that Ukraine faces the gravest possible threat to its independence as a sovereign state and that the longer-term peace and prosperity of Europe is in the balance. We must now unite, both as a country and with our democratic friends, to defeat these threats.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I very much thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and support. The incredibly constructive and sombre tone which all noble Lords have taken in their contributions is gratefully received. I look forward to working with noble Lords across the House as we face this difficult situation.

The noble Baroness asked about the Baltics. We are working extremely closely with them. We are doubling the number of UK troops in Estonia in support of NATO’s enhanced forward presence. My noble friend Lord Ahmad visited there 10 days ago, so a lot of contact is going on. Of course, we will work with our allies and, as was mentioned in the Statement, we will have meetings with NATO leaders tomorrow to discuss this further. We are also deploying four more RAF jets to create a squadron in southern Europe. As I mentioned in the previous Statement earlier in the week, a small number of marines have been deployed to Poland from the UK and more will travel during the next week. These personnel were originally due to deploy on Exercise Cold Response in Norway but have been reassigned to this task. We will be working with our allies to look at what further support we can provide in the region and to Ukraine itself.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about SWIFT. As the Statement made clear, we have not ruled anything out in terms of sanctions. None the less, this is an area where we need to work with our global partners, and we will continue to have discussions with them to see as and when further action can be taken. I can assure the noble Lord that there will be a rolling programme of sanctions and actions. As we have already seen from Tuesday to today, significant developments have happened. Today, I cannot go any further than what has been said in the Statement in terms of shedding light on things to your Lordships’ House. I am sure noble Lords understand. As I hope noble Lords have already seen, I can assure the House that we are working globally with our partners to ensure that we are moving and responding to the situation as things develop on the ground.

In relation to legislation, as the Statement made clear, we will bring forward measures on unexplained wealth orders before the House rises for Easter. Next week, we will be laying SIs which will be able to implement some of the other measures. As I said in the Statement, we will set out further details before Easter on the range of policies to be included in the economic crime Bill, including on reforms to Companies House and a register of overseas property ownership. We are already taking action on multiple fronts to crack down on economic crime. Noble Lords will know that, in July 2019, we published Economic Crime Plan bringing together Government, law enforcement and the private sector to tackle fraud and money laundering. We have already delivered 37 actions within this. We have created a new National Economic Crime Centre to co-ordinate law enforcement response to economic crime and have introduced further new powers. Obviously, more work needs to be done, and we are focused on that.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about the humanitarian situation. We are providing financial and technical assistance to partners on the ground to ensure the system is prepared to support those in Ukraine who need it most. For instance, we are working with partners, supporting the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund through the UN humanitarian agency. We have already committed £100 million to new funding to aid efforts to build Ukraine’s resilience and reduce reliance on Russian energy supplies, and 1,000 more British troops will be put on readiness in the UK to support a humanitarian response in the region as and when we know where we need to deploy it.

The noble Baroness was absolutely right: the international community must speak as one in demanding full humanitarian access, respect for human rights and adherence to international humanitarian law. Once again, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments.

Living with Covid-19

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Tuesday 22nd February 2022

(3 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I begin where the Prime Minister concludes his Statement:

“We do not need laws”,

he says,

“to compel people to be considerate of others. We can rely on that sense of responsibility towards one another”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/22; col. 45.]

If this were the case, many laws would not be on the statute book and, indeed, many aspects of the regulations that we have had in place over the last two years would not have been necessary. For this Prime Minister to claim that we can rely on the sense of responsibility towards one another shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness. He did not behave responsibly even when there were laws in place, so to remove all legal restraints at one fell swoop seems to me, at best, an extremely risky option. Doing so makes sense only if we are confident that the costs involved are manageable.

It is obviously a great relief that numbers are falling and that serious illness is on the wane, but the death only last week of one of my colleagues, having been in ICU with Covid, is a timely warning to us all that this disease is far from done. While everybody agrees that we have to learn to live with Covid, that is not the same as getting rid of every precautionary measure. We need to ensure that cases continue to diminish, the vulnerable are protected and pressure on the NHS is bearable.

The Prime Minister repeatedly said yesterday that taking personal responsibility requires people to test themselves and to self-isolate if they think they have the disease, but, for those on limited income, including the millions who are not eligible for sick pay, the cancellation of self-isolation support payments will make that an impossible choice. If faced with heating or eating, or paying for a coronavirus test, it is pretty obvious which will be the lowest priority. So, we have real concerns about getting rid of free testing, especially for those who are either vulnerable or have family members who are vulnerable.

The latest testing figures show that, every week, nearly 4 million people are taking regular Covid tests—on average, two a week. This includes people who take tests to protect their elderly relatives and friends, as well as vulnerable workers in people-facing industries such as hospitality who are concerned about their health. If people have to pay for this, we estimate that it could amount to an annual testing cost to an individual of up to £500. Does the Minister agree that this is simply unfeasible for many people and is also, in effect, a tax on caring? While the Prime Minister said that half a million people who are the most severely immunocompromised will get free tests, their carers and families will not.

There is also a more important principle at stake here. The Government have consistently said that the NHS is safe in our hands because it is free at the point of need. However, Covid-19 is a notifiable, highly infectious disease under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010, which say that medical practitioners must test potential cases under the NHS so that infections can be managed and monitored. Currently, all notifiable disease tests are free of charge but, from 1 April, that will no longer be the case. So, how can the Government claim that the NHS will continue to be free at the point of need? In this case, it clearly will not.

The Statement refers to SAGE’s concern about the future path of the pandemic, which underlines the importance of the survey work carried out by the ONS and Imperial College. Can the Leader confirm that these surveillance operations at ONS and Imperial will continue on a substantial scale, and can she say how quickly full, free testing and tracing can be restarted in the not unlikely event of another variant emerging?

While vaccination remains a vital tool in learning to live with Covid, some people’s immune systems wane quickly after their booster jabs. The Statement says that these people will have access to antivirals and other treatments, but the antivirals must be administered within 48 hours of symptoms starting. Can the Government confirm that such people will get access to rapid testing, to be able to start these vital treatments within the first 48 hours?

Finally, the Statement mentions the UK’s G7 plan for future pandemics. How do the Government respond to comments from the WHO that countries such as the UK are dismantling the precautions needed to ensure a safe reduction in Covid? We will learn to live with Covid, but the Government have a lot more work to do to ensure that we do it with minimal risk.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. On behalf of the whole House, I send condolences to colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches on the loss of one of their dear colleagues, and to Lord Chidgey’s family. He is in our thoughts.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about SAGE advice. We have continued to take and publish the best advice and analysis from scientific groups such as SAGE and its subgroups, which has been used in decisions taken by Ministers, alongside economic and social considerations. The latest SAGE advice was referenced within the strategy that was published on 10 February. We will continue to publish SAGE advice as and when we have it.

The noble Lord rightly pointed out that the proportion of infections from the current omicron variant resulting in hospitalisations is significantly lower than in previous waves, with less than one per 100 infections, compared with over four per 100 infections during the alpha peak. Although there is a delay, we are also seeing a welcome fall in deaths, which we expect to continue.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both referred to the changes in the self-isolation regime and the legal requirement finishing on 24 February. We will be replacing that with guidance in the short term, still advising people with Covid to stay at home and avoid contact with others. From 1 April, we will be issuing new guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with Covid should take to minimise contact with other people. There will be specific guidance for staff in particularly vulnerable services, such as adult social care, healthcare, and prisons and places of detention. Health and social care workers will continue to be asked to stay at home following the lifting of the legal requirements to self-isolate. We will review over the coming weeks the long-term approach to managing Covid in health and social care settings and will publish adult social care guidance, again by 1 April.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about testing. Free symptomatic testing will remain available to those at highest risk of Covid and to social care staff. Again, details will follow ahead of 31 March. We will also set out in due course further details on which high-risk groups and settings will be eligible for continued free testing. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness also asked about the costs of tests. We will be working with retailers to establish and develop a private market for lateral flow tests. There have been private markets operating in the US and many European countries for some time now. Retailers will be setting the price, but we will be ensuring that the private testing market is properly regulated, including monitoring prices charged, and we will continue to work with UK companies in developing lateral flow tests, which the noble Baroness referred to.

The noble Baroness asked about the value of test and trace and its cost. Of course, we are all aware that we began the pandemic with no diagnostics industry and yet have conducted the most tests in Europe. We have conducted more than 460 million tests, and over 36.3 million positive cases and their contacts have been reached who could have spread the virus. We have built a testing network from scratch that can process millions of tests per day—more than any other European country—and over two billion lateral flow tests have been distributed across the UK since the start of the pandemic. That is a pretty impressive record.

The noble Baroness mentioned, rightly, that we have accepted JCVI advice for a new spring booster, to be offered to those over 75, older care home residents and those over 12 who are immunosuppressed. Those doses will be given six months after their most recent booster dose. We have also procured five million patient courses of antivirals, more than anywhere else in Europe, which is a significant supply and will provide a crucial layer of protection going forward. We are rolling out neutralising monoclonal antibodies and antiviral treatments for patients at highest risk. Up to 1.3 million patients could benefit if they are clinically eligible, and we have a plan to personally communicate with these relevant patients so that they can take advantage of the treatments that we have invested in.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked, quite rightly, about future surveillance and what we would be doing about it. UKHSA will continue to sequence infections and monitor a range of data, including infections, hospital admissions, patients in hospital and deaths with Covid. It will maintain critical surveillance capacity, including the Covid infection survey, genomic sequencing and additional data, and this will be augmented by continuing the SIREN and Vivaldi studies.

As the noble Lord and noble Baroness pointed out, we will have to keep a very close eye on the emergence of new variants, so we will retain the core capabilities and infrastructure required to scale up a proportionate response in the event of a resurgence or a new variant. Obviously, this will involve the continued use of pharmaceuticals as the first line of defence, along with continuing to develop capacity to respond in the health system. We will retain laboratory networks and diagnostic capabilities so that PCR testing can be stood back up in the event of a resurgence, and we will retain the ability to stand up the national trace response if it is needed. Local health teams will continue to use contact tracing and provide context-specific advice, where they assess that to be necessary, as part of their role in managing local outbreaks, as they do with other infectious diseases. We will also maintain the ability to increase asymptomatic testing in the NHS and care homes.

UKHSA continues to have good stocks of lateral flow tests and will manage them to enable the Government to establish an adequate stockpile that could be rapidly deployed in future outbreaks. We will also continue to run public health campaigns such as we have seen in the past to encourage people to think about their behaviour and to ensure the continuation of the good work that we have done to understand how to deal with Covid.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about the global scene. He is probably aware that in March we are hosting the Global Pandemic Preparedness Summit for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and we are working with international partners on future pandemic preparedness, including through a new pandemic treaty, an effective early warning system—or global pandemic radar—and a mission to make safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being identified; this is, of course, a global problem.

Ukraine Update

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Tuesday 22nd February 2022

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, this has been a very sombre 24 hours. President Putin yesterday set out his view that Ukraine had no legitimacy as a state, and said he was sending so-called peacekeepers—in reality an invading army—into Donetsk and Luhansk. Today, and even since the Prime Minister made his Statement, he has announced that he is recognising the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and not just those parts of them already under de facto Russian control. Against this flagrant aggression and breach of international law, how well does the Government’s response match up?

We support the broad stance that the Government are taking in opposing the Russian aggression and the measures they have so far taken to provide Ukraine with training, anti-tank weapons and other support. We agree with the Statement that the UK Government—and, indeed, all western Governments—have given Putin every opportunity to pursue his aims by negotiations and diplomacy. However, I am a bit bemused by the assertion in the Statement that

“we will continue to seek a diplomatic solution until the last possible second.”

It seems to me that the last possible second expired last night. Can the Minister explain what more Putin would have to do to make the Government believe that there really was no diplomatic solution on offer any more? Surely, that boat has most definitely sailed.

Earlier in the month, the Prime Minister made it clear that, as soon as the first Russian toecap entered Ukrainian territory, the West would impose sanctions that would really hurt Russia. I know that the situation is far from clear, but Putin has already committed to sending in troops, and there are reports that the first have already been deployed. Germany, by announcing today the suspension of the Nord Stream pipeline, has already acted in line with the Prime Minister’s injunction.

What, then, are the Government proposing? They sanctioned four banks, most of which are minnows. They sanctioned a mere three individuals who, as the noble Baroness has already said, have already been the subject of American sanctions for a number of years. We are told:

“This is the first tranche of what we are prepared to do: we will hold further sanctions at readiness.”

Why are we holding further sanctions at readiness? What are we waiting to happen? What more does Putin now need to do? The truth is that the sanctions announced in this Statement are pitifully insignificant. Putin, if he hears of them at all, will simply be smirking at them.

The noble Baroness has set out a number of things that the Government could do, which I agree with. I would like to set out a number of things that I think the Government should do, and I invite the Leader of the House to explain whether the Government have these measures in contemplation—and if not, why not. They should revoke the golden visas of those Russian nationals who have known links to the Russian regime. They should impose a windfall tax on energy company profits, which is desirable in itself, but would hit Gazprom, which channels its trading revenues through London. They should freeze the assets of Russian companies in London and introduce the register of beneficial ownership Bill, which would shine a light on dirty Russian money in London. The Government could surely get this oven-ready Bill through the Commons in a day: tomorrow springs to mind. I am sure that your Lordships’ House would pass it with alacrity. Certainly, from these Benches, we would facilitate its passage as a matter of urgency.

We know that, in addition to London, there are very large amounts of Russian dirty money in Switzerland and Monaco. We could call on the Swiss Government and the Monegasque authorities to do the same as we might do in shining a light on this money. Perhaps we could ask President Macron to have a word with his colleagues in Monaco. So far, there is no evidence that the Government plan to do any of this—or, indeed, anything of any substance.

When Putin invaded Crimea, he got away with it at no discernible cost. When he undertook the Salisbury poisonings, there was no significant response. He has now committed his latest outrage. If we are to have any influence at all in persuading him and the Russian elite that these illegal, aggressive policies are not simply to be met by little more than a shrug of the shoulders, we need to see much more action contained in this Statement, and soon.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and noble Baroness for their comments and their support for our standing together with Ukraine and the approach that we are taking.

As both noble Lords rightly said, with his actions in the Donbass region overnight, and the further developments today, President Putin has flagrantly violated Ukrainian sovereignty: he has sent troops in, broken international law, repudiated the Minsk agreement and torn up the understanding from Budapest that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was to be respected. We are working tirelessly to co-ordinate our response with our allies, and will not allow Russia’s violation of its international commitments to go unpunished.

NATO allies remain committed to a dual-track approach to Russia: strong deterrence and defence combined with meaningful dialogue. The noble Baroness asked what other actions we had taken. A small number of marines have already deployed to Poland from the UK, and more will travel next week. These personnel were originally due to deploy on Exercise Cold Response in Norway but have been reassigned to Poland. We are also preparing to reinforce the British-led NATO group in Estonia; that will include deploying RAF Typhoon fighters and Royal Navy warships to protect south-eastern Europe. Further details will be provided as things develop.

We are also working with international partners on options for further economic and defence support for Ukraine, but, as noble Lords will know, we have supported the development of the Ukrainian army. Last month, as I mentioned in the Statement, we sent 2,000 anti-tank missiles to Ukraine alongside a package of training by our troops, and last week we provided more equipment. Over the last eight years, under Operation Orbital, we have trained more than 22,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about sanctions. The ones announced today are only the first tranche, and are targeted at people and financial institutions who have supported Putin’s violation. We will step up sanctions if Russian aggression continues, and we have been clear that in that regard nothing is off the table.

Our toughened sanctions regime will enable us to sanction oligarchs and companies of strategic importance to the Kremlin: this is the toughest sanctions regime against Russia that the UK has seen. The five Russian banks that the noble Baroness referred to are all active in bankrolling the Russian occupation, and Bank Rossiya in particular is close to the Kremlin. We will also look at sanctioning those Russian parliamentarians who supported the recognition decision taken last night.

The noble Lord rightly mentioned today’s announcement by Chancellor Scholz of Germany, which we very much welcome, that he has instructed his economic ministry to withdraw its earlier security of supply report on Nord Stream 2, with the consequence that it will not be certified for operation. Again, that is something that we have been talking to the German Government about, and we are grateful for and pleased by this morning’s news.

The noble Baroness asked about disinformation, which we take extremely seriously. We are working collaboratively with our allies to build a better understanding of the different techniques that can be used as part of malicious information operations, and our counter-disinformation unit in DCMS brings together monitoring, expert analysis and capabilities across government. We will continue to see what further action we can take in this area.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the ISC’s Russia report. As noble Lords will know, we published our response immediately on its publication. Many of the recommendations are already in train and we will continue to work on further implementation.

The noble Lord asked about the register of beneficial owners. We have set out plans to establish a register of beneficial owners of overseas entities that own UK property, in order to combat money laundering, and we have been clear about our intentions to significantly reform Companies House to strengthen our ability to combat economic crime. We will be taking that forward.

Last week the Home Secretary announced that she was closing down the tier 1 investor visa route to all applicants with immediate effect. That route has been under constant review and has given rise to security concerns, and we will be making reforms to the innovator route as part of the new points-based immigration system. Closing this route is just the start of a renewed crackdown on fraud and illicit finance. We are soon to publish a fraud action plan, while the forthcoming economic crime Bill will crack down on people abusing our institutions.

Finally, the noble Baroness talked about the Elections Bill, which is having its Second Reading tomorrow. I am sure my noble friend Lord True will listen very carefully to the concerns raised during that debate and we will have discussions as we go forward.

Sue Gray Report

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Monday 31st January 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I suspect that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can never have been so uncomfortable in repeating a Statement by the Prime Minister as when she read out the Statement today—because it is truly abject. It relates to 16 gatherings in Downing Street at a time when such events were not allowed for the rest of us, 12 of which are the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the police.

Although the Gray report contains no factual evidence and is, in substance, only six pages long, its conclusions are damning. They are that some of the gatherings, at least, represent

“a serous failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”

It talks of

“failures of leadership and judgment”.

It states:

“Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”

It says:

“The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time.”

It says that the use of the Downing Street garden was “not appropriate”.

If this were any other institution—a school, a hospital, or a professional services firm—these conclusions, coupled as they are with an ongoing police investigation, would have led to the suspension or dismissal of the head of the institution. That action would be taken because the leader of any other institution has to take responsibility for the ethos of that institution, even if they themselves did not break the rules. In this case, however, not only was the ethos wrong, but the Prime Minister appears to have broken the rules himself.

Far from resigning, however, the Prime Minister thinks that saying sorry, tinkering with the Downing Street structure and amending the Civil Service Code is enough. He says that the only issue facing him, and the country, is whether the Government can be trusted to deliver on their policy programme. But it is not. The question is whether the Prime Minister can be trusted to behave ethically and in accordance with the rules. Because if he cannot, he is not fit for office. It is as simple as that.

The report shows that, in advance of any judgment by the police, the Prime Minister has presided over multiple breaches of the rules. By breaking his own rules, he loses any capacity to persuade others—whether that be individual citizens or the President of Russia—to take his injunctions to follow the law seriously. To put it another way, he loses the capacity to govern.

The Leader of the House is an extremely invidious position, because she is having to answer questions on what is, in reality, a personal statement by the Prime Minister about his own probity—for which she can hardly be held responsible. So I shall ask her only three questions. First, as the lack of leadership shown over this affair starts at the top, in addition to the Civil Service Code will she enjoin the Prime Minister to amend the Ministerial Code, to tighten up the rules for Ministers, and not just for the officials whom they are supposed to lead?

More importantly, the noble Baroness is a member of the Cabinet. Her job is to proffer her views to the Prime Minister and then, under the rules of collective responsibility, to follow Cabinet decisions. But I think she also has an obligation to your Lordships’ House to let us know where she stands. Does she believe that the failures of leadership shown by the Prime Minister justify her resignation? I am sorry, I meant “his resignation”; I do not hold the noble Baroness responsible for the sins of the Prime Minister. Does she think those failures justify his resignation? And if not, on what basis does she believe the British people can ever trust him again?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their comments. May I first wish the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, well, and hope she gets better soon? I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for stepping in at such short notice.

In response to both noble Lords, I say that the Prime Minister has apologised. He has made it clear that he understands people’s anger, as he should, and that he wants to get on with the job of starting to implement the immediate findings of Sue Gray’s report. He has said he takes full responsibility; he has apologised; he is committed to making changes to address these issues; and he will work tirelessly to regain people’s trust.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the publication of further material once the Met investigation has finished. Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further while the investigation is ongoing, and the Prime Minister has said that at the end of the process he will ask Sue Gray to update her work in the light of what is found. He will publish that update, but he has been clear that we cannot judge an ongoing investigation, and his focus now is on addressing the general findings.

Both noble Lords referred to some of the findings in the Gray report, which are extremely uncomfortable and disappointing. We have accepted all the findings in full, including, as the noble Lord said:

“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times.”

That is why the Prime Minister has already announced the beginnings of some work to try to address that.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the Ministerial Code. We are carefully considering the reports by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the report by Nigel Boardman and other reports from Parliament and, as laid out in correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, from December 2021, the Prime Minister will be discussing further how the independent adviser’s office can be better supported and ensuring that it has access to appropriate information when conducting its work. The Prime Minister has asked the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, to work with officials to provide advice on this issue and we have pledged to conclude this by March.

As I have said, I cannot comment on an ongoing police investigation and I will not prejudge its findings, but I certainly assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that the Prime Minister is leading international action on Ukraine. I set out in a Statement that I repeated last week all the engagement and conversations that he has had and how we are leading in various international forums. It continued to be his primary focus and I am sure that in the next couple of days your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to discuss the Statement that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made this afternoon in the House of Commons on this very subject.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 26th January 2022

(4 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, as the Statement makes clear, the situation in Ukraine is now extremely perilous. The precise intentions of Russia are unclear, but if it were to launch a major invasion, as the Statement makes clear, the consequences would be horrendous. The Prime Minister set out the three strands of action which any attack would provoke from the UK and our allies: first, tougher sanctions on Russia; secondly, further steps to help Ukraine defend itself; and, thirdly, an increased NATO presence to protect our allies on the eastern front. These are all sensible and necessary, but I would like to concentrate on the issue of sanctions.

The Statement talks about imposing co-ordinated and severe sanctions against Russia should an attack take place. Clearly, economic sanctions are one area where we can really impact on the ability of the Russian regime to continue business as usual. It is, of course, unfortunate that sanctions are being discussed by the EU and the US with the UK often not being in the room. This means in reality that we will have no option but simply to follow what they decide. In practice, this may be of relatively little consequence, but it demonstrates how being outside the EU reduces Britain’s influence. More generally, it has been notable how small a diplomatic role the UK has played compared to France, Germany and the US. Having a Prime Minister who is spending several hours a day attempting to persuade his own Back-Benchers not to end his own political career does not help, nor does the Foreign Secretary’s peculiar sense of priorities, which puts a visit to Australia ahead of being involved in European and broader international discussions on Ukraine.

Whatever common sanctions are adopted, the UK has an ability to take unilateral action that can have a major impact on the kleptocratic Russian regime. This is by moving against Russians and their money in the UK, particularly in London. A number of measures need to be taken, but three could be instituted immediately. First, the Conservative Party is a major beneficiary of Russian money. This includes 14 members of the current Government, of whom six are in the Cabinet, including the Chancellor. The Conservative Party could decide today to stop taking donations from wealthy Russians, many of whom have links to the Putin regime. Will it do so? Secondly, one of the reasons so much Russian money is laundered in London is that it can done secretly. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has already alluded to this. For six years, the Government have promised to introduce a register of beneficial interests in overseas companies. Indeed, yesterday the Prime Minister stated—incorrectly, incidentally—that the Government were already doing so, but they are not. My colleague Layla Moran MP has just introduced a Bill to this effect in another place. Will the Government now fast-track this Bill, given that it enacts government policy, so that it can be in place before the end of the Session? Thirdly, Russian oligarchs benefit from “golden” visas which enable them to buy the right to live in the UK. Will the Government now stop this practice?

The Government are going to be faced with some extremely difficult judgment calls in the weeks ahead, as events on the Ukrainian border unfold. The measures I have just proposed are simple, easy to effect and would hit the Russian elite where it hurts most—in their pockets. The measures are all long overdue in any event, but the current emergency makes them even more necessary.

President Putin’s understandable desire to keep any vestige of democracy at bay in Russia means that he is willing to threaten, bully and, if he thinks he can get away with it, act illegally to preserve the regime. However, he acts only having weighed the costs. By the range of actions which we now take, or signal that we will take, if he crosses the Ukrainian border, I hope we can persuade him that the game is not worth the candle. Sanctions form a key part of those costs, and the Government should start acting on them without delay.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. They are both absolutely right that Russia’s pattern of military build-ups on the border of Ukraine and in illegally annexed Crimea are unacceptable and an attempt to destabilise Russia’s democratic neighbours and exert control over them.

Russia’s deployment is not routine. It is equipped with tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, rocket artillery and short-range ballistic missiles. As we have made very clear—I am very grateful to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their support on this—a Russian incursion would be a terrible strategic mistake and subject to severe consequences, including, as both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness mentioned, co-ordinated sanctions to impose a severe cost on Russians’ interests and the Russian economy.

I can reassure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that earlier this week, the Prime Minister agreed with the leaders of the US, Italy, Poland, France, Germany, the European Council, the European Commission and NATO that allies would enact a swift retributive response should a further Russian incursion into Ukraine happen, including an unprecedented package of sanctions.

I am afraid I do not recognise the noble Lord’s assertion that we are not central to these discussions; we are. My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary was at NATO today talking to the Secretary-General and, as noble Lords will know, the Prime Minister has been in regular contact with colleagues across Europe and the United States on this. We are working together and we are unified, and we continue to have these ongoing discussions. The Secretary of State for Defence also has an agreement with his Russian counterpart to meet. Details of those conversations and their timing are being discussed; obviously, we will make noble Lords aware once that has been confirmed.

We are looking at a package of broad and high-impact sanctions to raise the cost of further aggressive actions. We are working very closely with our allies, and sanctions have been central to our deterrence posture. The preparation of the package of sanctions, which is going on, by the UK and our allies is a clear signal to Russia of the significant economic cost it could and would bear if it invaded Ukraine.

Just to broaden on sanctions for a second, the noble Lord rightly said that we can take action ourselves, and we have done so. As he will be aware, last April we launched the new global anti-corruption sanctions regime, which enables us to impose asset freezes and travel bans on those involved in serious corruption around the world. We made immediate use of these powers and announced sanctions on 22 individuals who have been involved in serious corruption from six countries, including 14 individuals from Russia, and we have imposed sanctions under our autonomous global human rights sanctions regime on 25 Russian nationals who are responsible for appalling human rights violations in the case of Sergei Magnitsky. Therefore, across the board we have taken action and we will continue to do so.

The noble Baroness asked about energy. As she knows and said, we are not dependent on Russian gas supply; in fact, less than 3% of our gas was sourced from Russia in 2020. We meet around half of our supply from within British territorial waters and the vast majority of imports comes from reliable suppliers such as Norway. She is absolutely right: in our view, Nord Stream 2 is not compatible with Russia’s aggressive actions and we remain opposed to it. We regularly raise our concerns about Nord Stream 2 with our European colleagues and will continue to do so.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both mentioned the ISC Russia report. As they will be aware, we published our response immediately on publication of the report. Many of the recommendations are already in train and we are continuing work on further implementation. For instance, we have already implemented the NSC-endorsed Russia strategy and established a cross-government Russia unit. We have repeatedly exposed the reckless and dangerous activity of the Russian intelligence services, called out Russian malicious cyberactivity, and introduced a new power to stop individuals at the UK border to determine whether they are or have been involved in hostile state activity.

We have set out our plans to establish a register of beneficial owners for overseas entities that own UK property to combat money laundering and achieve greater transparency in the property market, and we have been clear about our intentions to significantly reform Companies House to strengthen our ability to combat economic crime.

The noble Lord asked about visas. The NCA has increased investigations into corrupt elites and we are currently reviewing all tier 1 investor visas granted before 5 April 2015, so action is going on there.

The noble Baroness asked about the registration of overseas entities. We are planning a Bill that will ensure transparency for foreign-owned land in the UK; currently it is easily disguised through offshore companies.

We are taking action on multiple fronts to crack down on economic crime. In recent years we have established a new National Economic Crime Centre to co-ordinate the law enforcement response, we have introduced new powers, including unexplained wealth orders and account freezing orders, and we have published a fraud strategy. I accept that there is more to do, but we have certainly been taking action in this area and will continue to do so.

More importantly, however, on the broader issue we are working closely with our allies and partners to make sure that we support Ukraine at this incredibly difficult time.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 20th January 2022

(4 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, we obviously share the relief being felt across the whole country that the peak of the omicron wave seems now to have passed. However, Covid is not over. Yesterday, the ONS reported that one in 20 people in England caught Covid last week and government-reported cases still number over 100,000. The NHS remains pressured, with around 2,000 admissions per day, and last week there were 1,900 deaths.

We clearly need to learn to live with Covid, but that is not necessarily the same as going back to life exactly as it was before Covid. We need to remember that continuing levels of Covid, even at reduced numbers, will continue to fill some hospital beds. This delays treatment of everybody else, which is particularly significant given the 6 million people on the NHS waiting list.

This is the backdrop against which we have to judge yesterday’s announcement. The exact timing clearly has more to do with Conservative Party management and saving the Prime Minister’s premiership than concerns about public health or boosting the economy. While ending some of the restrictions, such as Covid passports, is to be welcomed, we have some reservations elsewhere, particularly on masks.

As everybody knows, masks are a cost-effective precaution that help reduce transmission of the virus and consequently reduce the pressure on the NHS and its staff. People have been asked to make tough sacrifices throughout the pandemic but, in our view, requiring people to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops a little longer to protect others is a small price worth paying. There are many, especially the clinically extremely vulnerable, who are concerned about travelling on crowded public transport or using the shops. Keeping masks in those crowded places will allow them to get on with their day-to-day lives with confidence in a way that they have not been able to do for virtually two years.

The Prime Minister said that

“we will trust the judgment of the British people”

on whether to wear masks. Given his own complete lack of judgment and moral authority, I suspect the consequence will be that mask wearing on the Tube and on trains will collapse. Before the latest restrictions, mask wearing on the Tube was under 50%. Today it is about 90%. Next week, I bet it will be back to 50% or less. In our view, to have permitted this at this point is a mistake.

As for masks in schools, we all want to keep schools open but with huge numbers of pupils still out of school, it remains hard to do so in some cases. As long as the evidence shows that masks are helping reduce these absences, we support heads who want to retain masks in their schools. If individual heads decide to do this beyond the end of this week, will the Government support them?

The real issue in schools is, of course, the Government’s failure to provide air purifiers in classrooms. I echo the noble Baroness’s question: how far have the Government got in their admittedly inadequate plans to improve the number of classrooms that have such air purifiers?

On ending the requirement to work from home, while going back to the office will be good and right for many, we would encourage employers to consider the wishes of their employees—as many of them are already doing. Can the noble Baroness say what policy the Government are adopting towards their own employees? Will they require all civil servants to return to their former work patterns or will they, like many private sector employers, show more flexibility?

More generally, this Statement—which unfortunately we did not have the benefit of hearing—is suffused with the kind of hyperbole and exceptionalism that we have come to expect from this Prime Minister. Given his abject failure to stick to the rules himself or to ensure that his own staff behave responsibly, to many ears this tone sounds more than usually ill-judged. It is too much to expect sincere humility from this Prime Minister. He should go.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments on the positive news in this Statement that we have been able to move forward. I will attempt to address some of their questions.

I will ensure that the scientific evidence is placed in the Library. I am afraid I am not sure whether it has been published yet; it was said that this would happen this week, but I will check and make sure that it is available for noble Lords. I can say that we considered a range of data in making this decision, including data on infections, the effectiveness of vaccination, Covid pressures on the NHS, workforce absences, public behaviours and international comparisons, alongside the views from the scientific community. As the noble Baroness rightly said, the data is showing that Covid cases are falling and that the high levels of vaccination and booster uptake have helped reduce the risk of severe disease and hospitalisation, which, in turn, has helped reduce the pressure.

However, I completely accept what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said and we continue to urge caution, because there are still around 1,600 Covid patients in England. They are both absolutely right: while we are very pleased to have been able to take this step forward, we all have to be cautious. I think we can all accept that the British people have shown that they can make judgments about what they are doing and how they can feel safe, and will continue to do so. It is thanks to their willingness to get vaccinated and the way they have thought of others as much as themselves that we have been able to get to this position. I would also say that hospital admissions have stabilised and the number of patients in ICU is falling, so the data is showing that we are moving in the right direction.

The noble Baroness asked about advice for people who have previously been shielding. There is now no specific advice and, as the noble Lord said, people will need to make their own judgments about how they feel and what they want to do.

The noble Lord asked about public transport. Operators of public transport can still require passengers to wear face coverings as a condition of carriage. I might be wrong, but I thought the Mayor of London, for instance, said that about the Tube yesterday, notwithstanding some of his comments. That option is still available; I believe the mayor has introduced it and obviously he did previously.

Masks will no longer be required, but the guidance suggests that individuals continue to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where they may come into contact with people they do not usually meet. Again, it will be up to individual businesses and organisations whether they wish to ask their customers to wear face coverings. We think that, as we move towards an endemic scenario—we hope that this is becoming endemic, rather than a pandemic—we need to move towards guidance rather than mandated rules.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about our international efforts. She will know that we have been a world leader in ensuring that developing countries can access vaccines. Last month, we pledged £105 million of emergency aid to help support vulnerable countries and we met our goal of sharing 30 million doses by the end of last year. That benefited over 30 countries as part of our G7 pledge to donate 100 million doses by June.

In relation to support for individuals, we have committed over £344 million to ensure there are no financial barriers to isolating in England. The noble Baroness asked about statutory sick pay. We have made Covid-related statutory sick pay payable from day 1, meaning that it can be up to 75% more generous for full-time employees who need to self-isolate. We have also reintroduced the statutory sick pay rebate scheme which reimburses eligible businesses for the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences. Sick pay is one part of the support available, but people may also be eligible for the £500 support payment as well.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about schools. We have removed the requirement for face masks in the classroom, but directors of public health will be able to propose temporary recommendations for face coverings in communal areas across their area, or parts of it, in the event of a Covid outbreak and if the public health situation justifies it. On ventilation in schools, I can say that over 350,000 CO2 monitors have been rolled out across the school estate and the country to help in identifying poorly ventilated areas, backed by a £25 million investment. I am happy to say—I hope this provides some reassurance—that feedback following this shows that, in most settings, existing ventilation measures were sufficient. For the cases where maintaining good ventilation is not possible, 8,000 air-cleaning units are being rolled out across schools. That figure has gone up quite significantly and I am sure it will continue to do so if needed.

The noble Lord also asked about working from home. It will be up to departments to decide their own arrangements with their staff, but we are encouraging people to return to the office as a cross-government message, not least because I think quite a lot of people would like to come back and see friends and colleagues who they perhaps have not seen for a very long time.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 6th January 2022

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I begin by expressing my support for the extraordinary work being done by NHS staff and all those—including pharmacies and volunteers—who are helping to make the booster programme such a success.

The decision to scrap the requirement for a PCR test following a positive lateral flow test clearly makes sense, given the delays which are regularly occurring both in sending out the PCR test and then in receiving the results of it. I know of cases where these waits have been of a week or longer, which has meant that they have not arrived until far too late to be of any use to the individuals concerned.

The new relaxed rules for travellers entering or re-entering the UK apply to those who are fully vaccinated, but this definition does not require people to have had the booster jab. Have the Government any plans to require a booster jab, not least to incentivise travellers to get the booster before they travel?

Despite the scale of the testing programme, there have been and remain serious delays in getting test kits to local pharmacies, schools and individuals. I repeat the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the Government’s current assessment of the ability of the supply chain to deliver the number of tests to fulfil the Government’s own targets.

Despite the Government’s support for Operation Moonshot—do people remember that?—to create a domestic production capacity, only one British manufacturer is making kits which meet UK standards. Others, as the noble Baroness said, are making kits which pass EU standards but not our own, and as a result they are exporting all their kits. What plans do the Government have to expedite approval of further UK manufacturers and reduce our dependency on kits made almost exclusively in China?

Can the Leader assure us that the Prime Minister, in his efforts to remove as many restrictions as possible, is not considering following the strategy of the United States by reducing isolation to five days without two negative lateral flow tests? There is considerable evidence that many people shed significant amounts of virus on days six and seven and later, making them still contagious and a threat to public health, so making any reduction would be dangerous.

It is clear that hospitals and ambulance services are struggling at the moment, with 24 critical incidents already declared and people with a possible heart attack being advised to get a taxi or a lift to hospital. The NHS was clearly underresourced to cope with a pandemic such as this, not least due to its having lost thousands of beds over the past decade. Can the Leader say what assessment is being made of the resilience and ability of our health services to deal with future pandemics?

It is clear that there will be further disruption for many school pupils who have yet to catch up on their studies following the closures over the last 18 months. Will the Government therefore expedite the catch-up programme and start by providing every parent with a £30 catch-up voucher for every day their child misses school?

The Prime Minister repeated the government injunction yesterday for people to

“carry on working from home whenever they can”.

I fear that the Government are not supporting their own policy when it comes to your Lordships’ House. I accept that we can legislate really effectively only when we are here in person, but we know that we can vote effectively from home. Next week, we are asking people to take journeys on public transport of up to five hours and more to sit in an office, often not even in the Palace itself, simply to vote. This poses a potential threat to them and their families. It has been argued that reverting to virtual voting would pose a reputational risk to the House. I believe the opposite, and anecdotal evidence supports that view. I hope that the commission will look at this again as a matter of urgency and that the noble Baroness the Leader will now support this sensible change.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. First, touching on the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about our international efforts, she may well be aware that last week, we pledged a further £105 million of UK emergency aid to help vulnerable countries tackle the omicron variant by scaling up testing capacity, improving access to oxygen supplies and providing communities with hygiene advice and products. That builds on the £1.3 billion of UK aid already committed to the international health response, supporting vaccines, health systems and economic recovery in developing countries. I am delighted to say that we met our 2020-21 target of delivering more than 30 million vaccines to more than 30 countries as part of our pledge to donate 100 million doses to the world. This year, we will be donating millions more vaccines, including 20 million AstraZeneca doses and 20 million Janssen doses.

The noble Lord and noble Baroness both rightly asked about education, and of course there will be more detail in the further Statement later today, but we have delivered almost 3 million doses to children aged between 12 and 17 in England. We continue to work on increasing uptake, including through repeat offers, ensuring parental consent forms are translated into appropriate languages and collaborating with leading social media platforms to direct people to trusted sources of information. Obviously, we must make sure that where people can get vaccinated is clearly evidenced, and we are working with the education sector on that.

In relation to catch-up, the noble Lord is absolutely right. It is a priority, and always has been, to try to keep schools open, which is why we have been putting so much effort into that, and we are incredibly grateful to all the teachers and other staff in schools who have been helping to make that happen. We already announced £5 billion for education recovery, including £1.5 billion for tutoring, to provide up to 100 million tutoring hours for five to 19 year-olds by 2024, more than £800 million to fund 40 additional hours per student in 16 to 19 education and more than £950 million in flexible funding for schools to use how they see best. We are very cognisant of the need to ensure that young people do not suffer yet more during the pandemic, and we have a lot of work in place to do that.

The noble Baroness asked about antivirals, and I am pleased to say that we are leading in the number of antivirals bought per head of population in Europe. We are currently rolling out neutralising monoclonal antibodies and antiviral treatments for patients at highest risk of severe disease and hospitalisation, and up to 1.3 million patients could benefit if they are clinically eligible. We have a plan to personally communicate with those patients and make sure that they receive prioritised PCR test kits to ensure early access to treatment if they become ill. Antivirals are and will be playing an increasing role for us in coming to live with this virus, so I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that we are in the forefront of making sure we have access to the drugs, which are developing constantly, to help tackle Covid.

The noble Baroness asked about lateral flow tests for the 100,000 critical care workers. These kits will be sent directly to organisations, including those who work in critical national infrastructure, national security, transport and food distribution and processing. These are separate and in addition to the tests already allocated to our public services, and we will be working with those sectors on distribution; but, as I said, tests will be sent directly to those sectors.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about testing capacity. We are now delivering record numbers of lateral flow tests to pharmacies across England, with almost 8 million tests being made available this week alone. I can reassure the noble Lord and noble Baroness that we are tripling our supply of lateral flow tests in January and February from our pre-omicron plan of 100 million to 300 million a month. Of course, we will continue to review and work with the sector on where we can source tests to ensure we can meet the demand, which they rightly say is unprecedented. But this shows how conscientious the public are being in protecting themselves and their loved ones by testing regularly, and we are very grateful to everyone for everything they are doing to keep each other safe.

The noble Baroness asked about statutory sick pay. We have extended it to those who are self-isolating and made Covid-related SSP payable from day one, meaning that it could be up to 75% more generous for full-time employees who need to self-isolate. Statutory sick pay is £96.35 a week, and that remains the statutory minimum, but more than half of employees receive contractual sick pay from their employer. It should not be looked at in isolation. We have taken other measures through universal credit and employment support allowance, so we have been focused on and cognisant of the need to provide support for people. We have also provided the £500 test and trace support payment, which we have extended until the end of March. We have already committed more than £340 million to ensure that there are no financial barriers for those isolating in England, and we have made nearly 400,000 of those payments.

On the NHS’s preparedness, the noble Lord and noble Baroness will be well aware that we have provided record investment to tackle the backlog, with £2 billion this year and £8 billion over the next three years to deliver an extra 9 million checks, scans and operations. We have provided an extra £5.4 billion for the NHS to respond to Covid up to April, including £2.8 billion for costs including infection control measures, £600 million for day-to-day costs, £478 million for enhanced hospital discharge and £1.5 billion for elective recovery, together with capital funding. I hope that they will agree that we are supporting our NHS with further investment to help it get through this incredibly difficult time.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about critical incidents, which, as they will know, are determined and activated locally. Of course it is serious when that happens, but noble Lords will be aware that the NHS also takes this approach during non-Covid winters, because it is a way of ensuring that the local NHS can continue to best serve patients and protect staff, as it is an operational escalation mechanism. Ministers are working very closely with NHS England to get the assurance that proper support is being delivered.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about mental health. Noble Lords will know that at the heart of the NHS long-term plan is an expansion of mental health services. Mental health will receive at least a further £2.3 billion a year of extra investment to support 380,000 more adults and 345,000 more children.

I was grateful to hear the noble Lord mention the changes to the travel rules. The one thing I would say is that there have been no changes for unvaccinated adults: the changes that have been made are for those who have been vaccinated, and we are keeping the definition of fully vaccinated under review. If it changes to include boosters, plenty of time and notice will of course be given to make sure that people understand and are aware of that.

The noble Lord asked about reducing isolation times. Our current assessment is that shortening the period would be counterproductive. In some settings, such as hospitals, it could actually worsen staff shortages if it led to more people being infected.

In relation to your Lordships’ House, as the noble Lord said, legislating, of which I believe voting is a key part, is the central element of what we do. I disagree with him: I believe it should be done in person. We are working to make sure that it is as safe for everyone as possible. I am afraid that I disagree with him on that point.

COP 26

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Tuesday 16th November 2021

(6 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I agree with the Prime Minister that those who thought that COP 26 would be a failure have been proved wrong. There were agreements on forests, methane, cars and finance, and there is undoubtedly some momentum among Governments and the private sector to move more quickly than previously.

Alok Sharma clearly worked extremely hard to achieve even more substantive progress, and he and his team deserve our thanks for all their efforts. By contrast, the Prime Minister seems to have played no concerted role at any point over the last two years. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, his second visit to COP seemed to consist only of a press conference dominated by the question of whether the UK, under his watch, is now a corrupt country.

The Statement itself demonstrates the Prime Minister’s addiction to hyperbole. The world, he says, is “calling time on coal.” Really? When is that time? The declaration on coal is positive but, as it stands, is consistent with India and China continuing to use very large amounts of coal for decades ahead, decades which the world simply does not have. The Prime Minister says, we have

“ticked our boxes on cars, cash and trees.”

I fear that, for him, that is exactly what we have done: enough to enable him to claim that a success has been achieved, with no recognition that the agreements in these areas, although very welcome, are partial and will need continuing global pressure to achieve their stated goals.

As the dust settles on the conference, the key questions in every sector contributing to climate change are, “How do we build on the progress of COP 26?” and, “What role can the UK play?” I will concentrate on just three areas: finance, China, and the UK’s own carbon reduction strategy.

On finance, it is important that companies set targets and keep to them and that we do not facilitate the funding of climate-threatening activities. On the former, can the noble Baroness confirm what carbon reduction plans the UK will require companies listed in the UK to set in future, and what sanctions there will be to ensure that they are fulfilled? Does she agree that choking off finance for new fossil fuel exploration and development is potentially crucial? If so, will the Government commit to banning new stock exchange listings of fossil fuel companies and funds? Will the Government also press for a change in the capital adequacy rules, so that they reflect the climate change risks attached to lending by banks to fossil fuel companies? Does she accept that this could in effect price out the viability of such loans in future?

On China, the Prime Minister has expressed his frustration that they did not make further commitments at COP 26. He rightly accepts that he is not in a position to tell President Xi what to do, but there seems to have been a retreat in the diplomatic resources and effort put into climate change diplomacy, not just with China but globally. China’s stock has been weakened in the eyes of the island states, and much of the developing world, by their unwillingness to move more quickly. Surely this is something we should be tapping into via our Diplomatic Service to encourage those countries to put pressure on China, which in the past has so assiduously sought their votes at the UN and in other international bodies. Will the diplomatic resources devoted to climate change be increased to allow this to happen?

Domestically, the Government’s policy, despite the targets, is characterised by a lack of consistency and ambition. Will the Government now make it clear that they oppose any further coal or oil extraction in this country? Will they up their game on insulating homes and installing heat pumps? Will they give real impetus to developing working carbon capture and storage schemes, which have been promised for so long but not delivered? Will they stop doing counterproductive things, such as the reduction in air passenger duty?

The Prime Minister, quoting Aristotle in his Statement, says that

“virtue comes ... from habit and practice”

and implies that he favours virtue, at least in our approach to climate change. Will he therefore heed his own, or rather Aristotle’s, words, cut out the hyperbole and more assiduously practise what he preaches?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. I am slightly disappointed, although, to be fair, the noble Baroness did highlight that much progress had been made. I think we have been very clear that we did not reach all the targets that we wanted to reach, but it is a misrepresentation of COP to say that we did not make some significant progress. The Glasgow climate pact was a historic agreement, the gap in ambition has narrowed and we now have net-zero commitments for over 90% of the world’s economy, up from just 30% two years ago.

COP has kept 1.5 degrees alive. I completely accept the noble Baroness’s point that we did not get as far as we wanted, but the combination of net-zero targets, enhanced 2030 emission-reduction commitments and agreed action in key sectors, all underpinned by the rules, systems and support agreed in Glasgow, will significantly reduce emissions by 2030 and can put the world on track for below two degrees. I totally accept, as does the Prime Minister, and indeed Alok Sharma, that there now needs to be a concerted effort and delivery by all countries. We are not on track for 1.5 degrees at the moment, but that is one reason why COP 26 agreed that countries will return next year with stronger emission reduction targets for 2030, so that we can keep the momentum going and try to get back on track.

So countries have agreed to return next year with their new targets. This will be combined with a yearly political round table to consider a global progress report and a leaders’ summit. The pact creates a new UN programme to work with countries to scale up their emission reduction targets, and these will report back next year. Following this COP, a yearly report from the UNFCCC, which was previously conducted every five years, will give a clearer picture of countries’ latest targets and how they are going to close the emissions gap. The noble Lord talked, for instance, about pressure on China. All these actions are aimed at shining the spotlight on all countries and globally, and helping us continue to move forward.

One thing that neither the noble Baroness nor the noble Lord mentioned, but which it is important to mention, is that the Paris rulebook—the guidelines on how the Paris Agreement is to be delivered—was completed after six years of discussion. These guidelines are an important step forward in transparency and holding countries to account for their targets.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly talked about coal. We have been quite clear that it was disappointing that some countries wanted softer language than perhaps we would have liked. However, I still maintain that this was the first time that a pact has mentioned coal power and fossil fuels. They were referenced in a COP text and were agreed by all the countries involved. Some 65 countries have now committed to phasing out coal, including four of the world’s top 20 coal power-generating countries: South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Poland. All major coal-financing countries have committed to end international coal finance by the end of 2021. We also saw a significant commitment of the G20 countries in that regard, which included China, the USA and India, which can have an immediate impact in the Asia-Pacific region.

The noble Lord asked about the Chancellor’s announcement. He set out plans for the UK to be the world’s first net-zero aligned financial centre, with new requirements for UK financial institutions and listed companies to publish net-zero transition plans that detail how they will adapt and decarbonise as the UK moves towards a net-zero economy by 2050, and further work and publications will come on that side of things.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness rightly mentioned the $100 billion climate finance target. Again, we have said that we deeply regret the fact that this target was not met in 2020 as originally committed to, but the plan does show that the goal will be met by 2023 at the latest and continues on a rising trajectory to 2025. We are increasingly hopeful of meeting, or coming close to meeting, the goal by 2022, although I accept that that is obviously still two years out. It has been important that 95% of the major developed country climate finance providers have come forward during COP with increased multi-year climate finance commitments, with some doubling or even quadrupling their climate finance.

We welcome Australia’s commitment to net zero by 2050. I can assure the noble Baroness that our trade deal with Australia will include a substantive chapter on climate change, which reaffirms our joint commitment to upholding our obligations under the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. That goes further than many previous trade agreements.

Domestic aviation, which both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness mentioned, accounts for less than 1% of the UK’s total emissions in 2019. We have announced, alongside the announcements in the Budget, a new ultra-long-haul ban to align more closely with our environmental objectives. We are also investing £180 million in a competition to support the development of plants for sustainable aviation fuel in the UK.

The noble Baroness asked about the Cambo field. That proposal is being scrutinised by independent regulators, and no decision has yet been taken, but the UK was the first G7 country to agree a landmark deal to support the oil and gas industry’s transition to clean green energy by 2050 while supporting 40,000 jobs. The reason we were able to bring people together and take these steps forward is that we are a world leader in this area. We are leading by example and we will continue to lead by example. While we did not achieve everything that we wanted at COP, it has been a major step forward for the world.

G20 and COP 26 World Leaders Summit

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 3rd November 2021

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement to the House. Ten months ago, in his new year message, the Prime Minister, with his usual optimistic rhetoric, declared that with the G7, COP and other global summits ahead of us, 2021 would be

“an amazing moment for this country.”

Yet as the winter nights draw in, I am sure that I am not the only one who feels that perhaps Mr Johnson overpromised and has not made the most of the available opportunities. As world leaders leave Glasgow, we all want COP 26 to be a success. You could say that we need it to be a success. The G20 could have been a springboard for the agreement that we need.

The noble Baroness is right, therefore, to tell the House that two weeks of COP remain, but Ministers cannot rely on warm words alone to deliver the outcome that we all need. On the climate crisis, Covid recovery and much more, it increasingly feels as if the Government are exposed and do not have a plan, despite their promises and commitments. While I appreciate the Minister’s frankness in saying that there is far more to be done, I implore the Prime Minister to use this moment—it is just a brief moment of opportunity—to show real leadership and, more importantly, the direction that is needed.

The Rome G20 started in much the same way as the G7 earlier this year, with Mr Johnson yet again, unfortunately, distracted by ongoing issues relating to the botched Brexit deal. The small steps agreed in Sunday’s communiqué are welcome, and I cannot emphasise enough that we want COP to succeed. Judging, however, by the Statement—if I have understood correctly from listening carefully to the noble Baroness—it is not entirely clear that even the Prime Minister is sure about what was agreed in Rome. Page 1 of my copy of the Statement says:

“We all agreed to seek to restrain the rise in world temperatures to 1.5 degrees centigrade”.

On page 2 it has been downgraded from an agreement to a “shared aim”. By page 3 it is back to “a commitment” on a target, while by page 4 it is downgraded again to an “aspiration” or an “ambition”. Either the Prime Minister is confused or he has someone writing his Statement with a thesaurus to hand.

Together, the G20 nations represent 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As the noble Baroness understands, the world is reliant on their actions towards net zero. If they fail, it will be the small developing countries that pay the price. That is why we need a plan for implementation, whatever the word used for it. I did not hear a plan, strategy or road map today. Where is the plan?

Can the noble Baroness confirm whether the Prime Minister personally advocated for a 2050 net-zero date in the communiqué, or was he satisfied with the inclusion of “around mid-century”? Given the Government’s own record on new coal mines and oil exploration in the UK, did our domestic policy undermine our ability to negotiate a stronger line? The noble Baroness may recall that the FCDO previously announced a climate diplomacy fund to prepare for the summit. Can she update the House on how that money has been spent? I am happy for her to write to me if she is unable to answer today.

On international development, we are grateful to the G20 for reiterating that the consequences of climate change are already being felt by the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. But, as much as I welcome the acknowledgement in the Prime Minister’s Statement of the impact on important coral reefs, I would like to have heard more about the devastating and deadly human impact of our collective failure to act. But given the Government’s attitude to development aid and the cuts made, perhaps we should not be surprised. I wonder whether other countries raised this with Mr Johnson, especially those that have seen the pandemic as a reason to increase international aid.

On a similar note—again, I am happy for the noble Baroness to write to me if she cannot answer this—she will be aware that the Chancellor recently announced that the IMF’s special drawing rights will now be reclassified as international aid. This might sound like an accounting dodge, but it is important: it means that millions of pounds of support to developing countries will be lost. Given that the UK is the only major donor to do this, can she explain why the Government have taken this route?

On Covid vaccinations, for much of the developing world, the threat from the climate crisis is rivalled only by Covid-19. According to Amnesty International, while 63% of people in G20 countries are vaccinated, the figure in low- and lower-middle income countries is just 10%. We welcome the G20’s commitment, as previously agreed by the World Health Organization, to vaccinating 70% of the world’s population by the middle of next year. But, again, we come back to the plan: there is a lack of clarity about how this will be achieved.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness has had the opportunity to read the 10-point plan to produce and distribute vaccinations globally produced by the Labour Party. She might find it helpful. But can she outline for us the Government’s plan which backs up the commitments made?

On a note of optimism, the rubber-stamping of the global minimum corporation tax could pave the way for a fairer global tax system. But we come back to the issue of the plan: this is still a long way from implementation. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether the legislation has been drafted to give effect to this commitment? What steps are our representatives taking to develop the accompanying global framework at the OECD? The proposal represents an opportunity to build a new economy in the aftermath of the pandemic, but we also must take a lead in responding to the more immediate threats of rising inflation and the shortages we have seen. The noble Baroness may recall—although she may not be aware—that in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the Labour Government, led by Gordon Brown, put forward a global plan to limit the damage and pave the way for recovery. That is the kind of leadership the UK needs and should provide again.

It is all very well, and is to be admired, for the Government to have aims, ambitions, and targets, and to work with others to secure commitments. But, coming back to my central point, unless there is a plan or detailed strategy to turn those commitments into reality, it is just warm words. If the Leader answers just one question today, can she tell us: where is the plan?

Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the Leader for repeating the Statement. Before I move on to COP 26, perhaps I might ask her a couple of questions about the G20 announcements.

First, the PM highlights the target of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population against Covid by the middle of next year. He then boasts about the fact that the UK is providing 100 million doses towards this effort, of which 70 million will have been donated by the end of 2022. Can the noble Baroness confirm that to date only 5 million doses have been delivered? Does she accept that, given the overall numbers required to meet the target, which the PM supports, run into several billions, just under 70 million doses from the UK by the middle of next year is simply inadequate? The WHO estimates that some 82 countries are at risk of missing the target, so will the UK be more ambitious and commit to increasing the number of vaccines it provides, so the target might stand a chance of being met?

The Prime Minister highlights the resolve of the G20 to work together to ease supply chain disruption. The declaration from Rome simply makes that statement with no hint of what the leaders intend to do about the problem. Can the noble Baroness explain what international action is planned and whether the Government intend to make any proposals to their G20 partners on how to resolve these problems? In relation to supply problems in the UK, could she update the House on the number of HGV drivers from the EU who have taken up the Government’s offer to work in the UK for the next two months? I think the last published figure was 27. Has it increased? On the assumption that we have not seen any significant increase in driver numbers, what assurances can she give that there will not be further disruption to the supply of presents and food in the run-up to Christmas?

On COP 26 and climate change, the agreements announced in Glasgow on deforestation and methane are very welcome. But does the noble Baroness accept that without the active participation of China in such programmes, and the general unwillingness of China to set targets commensurate with meeting the 1.5 degree target, the chances of hitting that target are remote. To date, the Government do not appear to have any strategy, working with like-minded international partners, of putting effective pressure on China. Does the noble Baroness accept that unless such pressure is brought to bear and there is further movement from China, COP 26 cannot result in a successful outcome?

Today’s announcement on sustainable finance is potentially extremely significant, because if it becomes more difficult for firms in the coal- and carbon-intensive manufacturing sectors to finance new projects, many of these projects simply will not happen. More generally, the announcement by many global firms and financial institutions that they will align their investment and lending with the Paris climate goals could, if executed, do more than anything else to reorient the world economy towards a net-zero model. But the track record of companies which have made such commitments in the past is not encouraging. In a number of high-profile cases, banks which have promised, for example, to divest themselves of fossil fuel investments have broken the rules which they set for themselves; and they have not applied the rules at all to some asset classes. What legal requirements do the Government plan to place on companies and financial institutions listed in London, or based in the UK, to set net-zero plans? What sanctions will apply if they either fail to set them in the first place or, having set them, simply fail to implement them?

At the weekend the Prime Minister said that the score was 5-1 against the chances of Glasgow succeeding. Yesterday he claimed that the forces of climate action had pulled back a goal, or possibly two. The fact this Government have allowed the score to get to 5-1 against is a telling indictment of the casual way they have approached this summit. Failure over the next few days to change the scoreline further would be a disaster not just for the Government but for the planet.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. I am sorry that they were perhaps slightly more downbeat, so I will try to improve the mood by putting forward some positive facts about things that I hope are going on.

Starting off on the noble Baroness’s comments about the G20, this was the first G20 which committed to setting out long-term strategies to achieve net zero by or around the mid-century, and all leaders expressed support for keeping 1.5 degrees within reach, including accelerating action in the 2020s. However, I think the Prime Minister has been quite clear that we would have liked to have gone further, and, as the noble Baroness recognised was said in the Statement, there is work to be done over the next 10 days to try to keep the momentum going forward and make sure that we can get further with what we want to do. However, as the Statement said, as recently as 2019, only one member of the G20 other than the UK had made specific commitments to achieve net zero; today, 18 countries in the G20 have, so we are making progress. I will write to the noble Baroness on the climate diplomacy fund as I do not have those figures to hand.

On where we have got to, our leadership of COP has seen 90% of the global economy now covered by net-zero commitments, up from just 30% when we assumed the presidency, and if we take into account the significant new commitments, we are closer to 2 degrees rather than over 3 degrees, as we were when we took over the COP leadership. However, I stress again that this is not enough; we need to keep 1.5 degrees in reach, which is why the Prime Minister has called on all countries to commit to further action and why over the next few days we will be looking to negotiators to deliver on leaders’ calls to ensure that COP 26 accelerates this further action. As I said, we accept that there is a way to go, but progress has been made over the last couple of days and we are looking to ensure that momentum continues into this week.

The noble Lord asked about China. We welcome China’s commitment to net zero before 2060, and it signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. It has committed to reach a peak in its emissions before 2030 and will then cut them to net zero by 2060, and of course it also pledged as part of the G20 commitment to stop funding coal projects overseas. Of course we will continue to engage with it and will continue to put pressure on it to move further and faster. I can assure the noble Lord that the Prime Minister spoke to President Xi before the summit and we will continue to work with international partners to move China in the direction that we would like to see it go.

On the noble Baroness’s comments about international development, as I said before and as she will know, we remain a world leader in international development. This year we provided over £10 billion towards poverty reduction, climate change and global security—a greater proportion of our national income than the majority of the G7. We are expected to be the third largest ODA donor in the G7 as a percentage of GNI this year and the third-highest bilateral humanitarian donor country.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about some of the various tax initiatives in both the G20 and COP 26 so far. We were pleased that the final political agreement has now been reached on the framework for the two-pillar solution on global taxation, as that was one of our priorities for the G7 presidency. The plan should be implemented to the 2023 timeline and we will continue to work with global partners now that we have reached this milestone to ensure that it is delivered.

On the IMF special drawing rights, the historic $650 billion SDR allocation has provided much-needed resources for vulnerable countries to pay for vaccine and food imports as well as increasing fiscal space for countries to pursue development priorities, including on climate and the environment. We have also been a leading voice on advocating for a new IMF resilience and sustainability trust, which will provide low-interest funding to vulnerable countries to address long-term structural challenges, and we are considering a sizeable contribution to that once it is established.

I hope the noble Lord will be pleased to know that progress so far has meant that $130 trillion of financial assets, equating to 40% of global finance, will now be aligned with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement thanks to the climate commitments made from 450 financial services firms. On the announcement that the Chancellor made today, the aim of the plans is for financial services to set out clearly their overall targets for decarbonisation, how they will align with the UK’s net-zero commitment, and what concrete actions they are taking to deliver this. To ensure that this is robust and to prevent greenwashing, we will set up a transition plan task force to set the gold standard for transition planning across the economy. Firms listed on the London Stock Exchange will have regulatory expectations that they set out transparently to consumers, investors and the public on what steps they are taking to align their business with net zero. Obviously it will then be for the market to determine whether those plans are credible. However, next year we will publish a net-zero transition pathway for this sector setting out how the financial sector will evolve out to 2050.

The noble Lord and noble Baroness rightly asked about Covid and highlighted the fact that the G20 leaders have indeed adopted a target of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population against Covid by the middle of the year. They also agreed to establish a G20 joint finance health task force to enhance dialogue and global co-operation on issues related to pandemic prevention and preparedness responses. We are being ambitious in what we are doing. We are donating at least 100 million Covid vaccines within the next year, 30 million of which we aim to deliver by the end of this year. That is in addition to the £548 million we have committed to COVAX to provide vaccines to help deliver more than 1 billion vaccines to up to 92 lower-income countries. As I said, before the end of the year we will have donated 30 million of the Oxford vaccines but next year we will donate at least 20 million more as well as all the 20 million Janssen doses we have ordered to COVAX. I can assure the noble Lord that that puts us well on track to meet our commitment of 100 million doses by mid-2022.

The noble Lord asked about supply chains. G20 leaders focused on the need for ongoing global co-ordination and action to address the huge price volatilities we have been seeing and they agreed to work together to better monitor and address supply chain vulnerabilities as economies recover and to support the sustainability of the global economy. In fact, the noble Lord will no doubt be interested to know that there was a dedicated session for like-minded partners that focused on how international co-operation to strengthen and diversify the supply chain ecosystem could happen, so a lot of work and discussion took place in that area.

On HGVs, we are increasing apprenticeship training funding by £7,000, investing £70 million in HGV skills bootcamps and we are increasing testing availability by 50,000 a year so that we can address this issue.

Health and Social Care

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 9th September 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, according to the Prime Minister, the package of proposals in this Statement represents

“a project of our era equivalent to the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.”

How, then, do the proposals measure up to this challenging claim?

Taking the spending side first, the Statement covers three separate but related areas. First, there is the implementation, at last, of something like the Dilnot proposals for placing a cap on the contribution that individuals need to make towards their social care. This principle was legislated for by the coalition in 2014 and its implementation is long overdue. Secondly, the Government are making a major investment of about £10 billion per annum for the next three years in the NHS to deal with the backlog of elective procedures. Undoubtedly this is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient. Yesterday, the Prime Minister failed to give any assurances about the rate at which the backlog of procedures would be reduced. Can the Minister today give any further indication of timescale on this?

Thirdly, the Government claim to be making more resources available to state-funded social care beyond Dilnot. This is arguably the most pressing problem of all, with 112,000 vacancies, massive staff turnover rates and providers teetering on the edge of financial viability. Sadly, the Statement was almost silent on the substance. Instead, all details about the future of social care are yet again pushed back into the long-promised White Paper, for which no publication date has been set, as the noble Baroness pointed out. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no immediate increase at all in funds available for social care, not a penny? If so, how does she expect care homes and domiciliary care providers to survive over the coming months? Over the whole three-year period covered by the Statement, exactly how much additional central government funding will flow into adult social care provision unrelated to the Dilnot reforms, bearing in mind that the current annual cash shortfall is somewhere in the range of £6 billion to £14 billion?

After the first three years, the proceeds of the levy are supposed to go increasingly towards social care. However, given that, on the basis of previous experience, overall NHS spending in future is likely to be greater than that currently budgeted for, there will undoubtedly be pressure for this additional level of NHS funding to continue, even after the pandemic catch-up is more or less complete. What assurance can the Government give that over the medium term, the bulk of the revenue raised by the levy will go to social care, as promised? When later this year does the Minister expect the White Paper to be produced? We have heard so many assurances that it is almost here, nearly here or will soon be here. We are a bit sceptical.

The Government document states that they want to

“make care work a more rewarding vocation”.

How will these announcements allow care providers and local authorities to increase the wages of the many thousands of care workers stuck on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage? Do the Government really believe that offering a few training courses will solve the recruitment and retention problem in this sector? The Government say that they will

“ensure that the 5.4 million unpaid carers have the support and respite that they need”.

How much additional funding over the next three years will now be available to fulfil this promise?

The Government say that they will move towards equalising the amount paid by self-funders and those funded by local authorities. Do they plan to do this by reducing the amount paid by self-funders or by increasing the amount paid by local authorities? If it is the latter, where will the money come from?

I turn to the new hypothecated health and social care levy. Many people are indignant that a major manifesto promise has been broken, but why are they surprised? For this Prime Minister, a promise is not a binding commitment; it is simply a holding position, until it becomes easier to do something else. More surprising than a broken promise is that the Treasury has agreed to introduce a hypothecated tax—something that it normally never countenances, because of all the inflexibilities that it brings. Why has a new, unprecedented, hypothecated tax been introduced here? The obvious reason is that the Government know that they will have ever-growing demands for future spending in health and social care, for which tax rises will be required, and they see this tax as a vehicle for doing that in future. Can the noble Baroness confirm that, for this Parliament at least, there will be no more increases in the levy?

All in all, does this Statement amount—as the Prime Minister claims—to the equivalent for our age as the creation of the NHS and the welfare state? For those trying to run a care home, act as an unpaid carer or subsist on a minimum income, such a boast will ring hollow. Beveridge, Attlee and Bevan must be turning in their graves.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments, but I am slightly surprised that they have not welcomed our announcement of a new £36 billion package to help tackle NHS backlogs, reform adult social care and bring the health and social care system together on a long-term, sustainable footing. That is a hugely significant amount of money to help our precious NHS and to solve a problem that all across this House have acknowledged for many years.

We have indeed held many discussions throughout the year with leading members of the sector, specifically on reform, and will of course continue to do so. We have committed to spending an additional £5.6 billion on social care in England, across the next three years. As the noble Baroness rightly says, the deferred payments agreement remains in existence to enable people to use the value of their home, if they need to, without selling it. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked why this involves national insurance. To raise the sums needed for this significant investment in the NHS and to reform social care, only a broad-based tax, such as VAT, income tax or NICs, is able to do so. NICs already ring-fences funds for the NHS and successive Governments have increased it, so there is precedent for our belief that this is the best and fairest way.

The noble Lord is absolutely right: the levy will be ring-fenced for health and social care. HMRC will send funds to the health bodies in all four nations of the UK and, by 2023, to social care funding bodies, such as MHCLG, which will deliver it through local authorities. As I say, part of the reason for using NICs is that the more you earn, the more you pay. I am sure noble Lords are aware that a typical base-rate taxpayer, earning £24,100, will contribute roughly £180 a year, whereas a typical higher-rate taxpayer, earning £67,100, will contribute £715 a year. The highest-earning 14% of people will pay around half the revenues. The 6.2 million lowest earners will be kept out of the levy. The use of NICs also means that the cost of the levy will be shared between individuals and businesses; however, 40% of all businesses will pay nothing extra.

The noble Lord asked about tackling the backlog in the NHS. We will spend £2 billion this year, which is double our previous commitment to tackle the backlog. In addition, we plan to spend more than £8 billion in the following three years, from 2022-23 to 2024-25. On the waiting list, we do not know how many people who did not come forward for help from the NHS during the pandemic will now seek treatment, so plucking numbers out of the air about the size of the waiting list is not helpful. But I can certainly assure both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that the funding announced will deliver 9 million more checks, scans and procedures until 2024-25. This is a significant investment and, over the next three years, will be the biggest catch-up programme in NHS history.

The noble Baroness asked about local government. She is aware that, in 2021-22, we have provided councils with access to over £1 billion of additional funding for social care, on top of the significant funding provided to help the sector. In the spending review, we are also committed to ensuring that local authorities have access to sustainable funding for core budgets. This announcement includes funding to enable local authorities to move towards paying providers a fair rate for care, which should drive up the quality of adult social care services, improve workforce conditions and increase investment. The funding package covers the costs to local government of implementing the charging reforms, including the cap, the increased capital limit moving towards paying a fair rate for care, which I just mentioned, and associated implementation costs.

The noble Lord asked about self-funders. As he knows, under the current system, individuals who fund their care often pay more than individuals who are funded through their local authority for equivalent care. Under this new system, self-funders will have a choice to ask their local authority to commission their care on their behalf, which means that individuals fully funding their own care could choose to benefit from the market power of local authorities. We will be publishing a consultation document on the details of these proposals next month.

On other issues, we are investing more in supported housing and exploring other innovative housing solutions to support more people to live independently, as the noble Baroness said. As part of the additional £5.4 billion of investment announced, we will fund an extension to the established disabled facilities grant to enable more people to live independently in their own homes.

On the integration work, the House will be looking at the Health and Care Bill shortly, before Christmas, when it begins its passage through this House. That is laying the groundwork for reform, and we will see an improved oversight of how social care is commissioned and delivered. It will facilitate a greater integration between health and care services, on which these reforms build. As we have said, we will work further with the sector and more broadly to coproduce a comprehensive national plan for supporting and enabling integration between health and social care, but I am afraid that I cannot go any further than saying that the White Paper will be published later this year.

Finally, the social care workforce has worked incredibly during this pandemic. Our investment of £500 million across three years will deliver new qualifications, progression pathways and well-being and mental health support, which is critical. We will continue to support the fantastic 5.4 million carers to have the support, advice and respite they need.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I echo the Prime Minister’s commendation of the courage and ingenuity of everybody involved in the Kabul airlift. It was indeed the most impressive achievement.

This is a remarkably thin Statement. It does not contain any new facts or commitments to the people of Afghanistan, either in the UK or in Afghanistan. In terms of Afghans who want to come to the UK, in the Statement the Prime Minister repeated two promises: first, that for those to whom we have already made commitments, we will do our best to honour them; and, secondly, that beyond that we will work with the UN and other aid agencies to identify those we should help, as well as

“Afghans who have contributed to civil society or who face particular risk”

because they have stood up

“for democracy and human rights or because of their gender, sexuality or religion”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 22.]

I support those commitments, but fear that the first is unachievable in the foreseeable future and that the second offers false hope to many thousands of people. The first is unachievable because we have no means to get people who have a right to come to the UK out of the country. They cannot fly out, and many of the border crossings are, in effect, closed to them. To echo the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, how much confidence do the Government have that the Taliban will give those people safe passage? Do they even know how many of them there are? How are they planning, in the absence of any diplomatic presence in the country, to facilitate their departure?

On the second commitment, the number of people in the categories which the Government wish to help runs into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. How does the Government’s commitment to welcoming them into the UK square with their absolute limit of 5,000 refugees over the coming year? How will they decide who to prioritise when confronted with such large numbers of people who they say are technically eligible for visas and who are desperate, for their own safety, to leave the country now, not at some point over the next five years? The Government’s response to requests to take more than the 5,000 is that it is beyond the country’s capacity to do so. This claim does not withstand scrutiny. Even the Prime Minister accepts that the Government are inundated with offers of help from charities and ordinary citizens, and the Government appear to be doing nothing to require the large number of local authorities which are not offering to take a single refugee to play their part. Will they do so now? The fact is that the 5,000 one-year cap and the longer-term 20,000 cap have nothing to do with need. They are, frankly, the minimum that the Government think they can get away with, and they should do better.

The Prime Minister says that the UK will use

“every economic, political and diplomatic lever to protect our own countries from harm and to help the Afghan people.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 22.]

Again, that is a positive statement, but what does it amount to? On economic support through development aid, how do the Government intend to ensure that funds can be channelled in an effective way? How closely are they working with the UNDP, which seems to be developing pragmatic working relations with the Taliban? Will they make the disbursement of aid funds contingent on the Taliban keeping its promises; for example, in respect of safe passage or human rights?

On political and diplomatic levers, it is good to see the Foreign Secretary engaging—at last—with the Qatari and Pakistani Governments. In his Statement, the Foreign Secretary sets out some of the issues he discussed in those meetings, but not the outcomes. Can the Leader give the House any specific examples of action that will flow from that series of meetings?

In relation to dealing with the Taliban Administration, the Government say that they will now engage with them, which I am sure is the right approach, and they have appointed a non-resident chargé d’affaires in Doha. While that is welcome, it must surely be desirable to work towards re-establishing a physical diplomatic presence in Kabul. There are clearly challenges in doing so, but to what extent are the Government working with other western Governments, who also need to re-establish their position in Afghanistan, to facilitate that? Have they, for example, spoken to the EU, which is looking to set up a single diplomatic presence in Kabul? There will surely be administrative and security benefits in co-locating with such an office. Are the Government considering that possibility?

More generally, the Afghan debacle has shown the need for the UK to recalibrate its whole foreign policy stance and, in particular, to rebuild relations with the US, through NATO, and with the EU. The Statement is silent on these larger issues, but, frankly, until we address them, much of the micromanagement of the next phase of our involvement with Afghanistan is bound to be more difficult to deliver, making it more difficult for us to deliver on the promises that the Government have already made to the people of Afghanistan.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. Like them, I pay tribute to all those involved in Operation Pitting. We of course owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 150,000 people who served in Afghanistan and to the 457 who tragically lost their lives.

The noble Baroness asked about withdrawal. As she will recall from the speech that I gave when we came back to discuss this important issue a few weeks ago, we looked at a number of options when the US announced the plan for withdrawal, including the potential for staying longer or increasing our presence. But like our NATO allies, we had to be realistic about what was achievable without US support, and, like our other allies, we did not feel that we could continue the mission without the United States. The noble Baroness will know obviously that the Prime Minister convened a G7 meeting, at which he and other leaders asked President Biden to reconsider the timescale with which the withdrawal was taking place. Unfortunately, as the situation has shown, he was not successful, but efforts were made.

The noble Baroness rightly talked about the importance of the mental health of our veterans. We take this extremely seriously, encouraging anyone who is struggling to access support available, including a 24-hour mental health line. I was grateful for her recognition of the increased funding that we have put into this. Earlier this year, we launched the veterans’ mental health and well-being service, Op Courage, which provides a clear single route for accessing specialist care through the NHS. In the last financial year, NHS England provided £16.5 million for veteran-specific mental health services, which will be increased to £17.8 million in 2021-22, with an additional £10 million to the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust to distribute to charitable projects supporting veterans’ mental health needs. Of course, funding for the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is a matter for discussion between it and the Chancellor.

On the various questions that were asked around resettlement and relocation, I once again reiterate to the noble Lord and noble Baroness that we are clear that the Taliban must ensure safe passage for people out of Afghanistan—with the ongoing engagement that is happening, we are emphasising this first and foremost. The Afghan relocations and assistance policy for those who worked in Afghanistan remains open, and we will facilitate relocation from third countries, if possible, for those who are eligible. I am sure that my noble friend, who has been involved in conversations, will be able to shed some further light on the discussions that have been going on with Pakistan and Uzbekistan, for instance. I reassure the noble Baroness that the Home Office is working at pace to establish the details of the new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will provide protection for Afghan citizens identified as being most at risk. We have announced that this new scheme will relocate 5,000 vulnerable Afghans in the first year, with this potentially rising to 20,000 over a five-year period.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about an embassy in Kabul and what we are doing now. At this point, our diplomatic efforts have shifted to supporting the people of Afghanistan from outside the country, but we intend to re-establish an embassy in Kabul as soon as the security and political situation allows, and we are co-ordinating this effort with allies. The FCDO is sending rapid deployment teams to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to reinforce our embassy staff to process arrivals from Afghanistan, and we have also sent a rapid deployment team of seven to help people to transit through Dubai.

The noble Baroness asked about support for local authorities and the work that they are doing. The support that we provide will be similar to the commitments that we have made under the Syrian resettlement programme, and we have already allocated £5 million of support to local councils to provide housing. Some 100 councils are already working across the UK to meet the demand for housing, and over 2,000 places have already been confirmed. The Communities Secretary is convening a round table with council leaders from across the country in the coming days to talk about how we can further work together to ensure that we can provide safety and security for the Afghans who have made it over here and to make sure that they can settle into local communities.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the situation on the ground. I can reassure them that we are working closely with the UN and NGO partners to continue to ensure that vital humanitarian aid reaches those who most need it. All UK aid is subject to strict monitoring and verification to ensure that it is used only to help the vulnerable people it is intended for, and any support will be provided outside of all state apparatus. We will continue to provide support through trusted UN and NGO agencies that have a track record in delivering in challenging circumstances. As the noble Lord rightly said, the UN is working on the ground and is currently seeking commitments from the Taliban to enable humanitarian work to continue. These commitments include respect for humanitarian principles accessed in international law, as well as guarantees for female aid workers across UN agencies and NGOs. We continue to support it in that very important work on the ground.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly alluded to the fact that we have said we will continue to use every humanitarian diplomacy lever to safeguard human rights and the gains made over the past two decades. We are working, for instance, on options for convening a meeting in the margins of the UN General Assembly in September. The focus and format are still under discussion, but the objective will be to bring the widest possible group of countries together to discuss Afghanistan and how we can work with our international partners in this very difficult and challenging situation.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Monday 12th July 2021

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, when the UK first committed troops to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the mission was clear. It was to destroy al-Qaeda’s ability to mount any further international terrorist attacks from the country. As the Statement makes clear, in this crucial respect the mission has been a success. However, while this is undoubtedly correct, it does not begin to give a balanced picture of the state of Afghanistan as the final British troops leave.

While the original mission was limited to destroying al-Qaeda, it rapidly became something more ambitious: to replace the Taliban regime with one which more closely fitted western norms of behaviour, not least in respect of the treatment of women and girls. At one level, this too has been a success: there has been a series of democratically elected Governments; there has been the education of millions of girls, and there has been a degree of economic development, particularly in and around Kabul, but there has not been stability. The Taliban never went away, and it is now rapidly filling the vacuum left by the departed NATO forces. However depressing this situation is, the Statement is undoubtedly correct that the UK on its own is not in a position to fill the void created as American troops return home. For the United Kingdom, the Statement reflects harsh reality.

Anyone who has heard recent testament of young professional women in Afghanistan who now fear for not only their livelihoods but their lives or who sees the pathetic attempts of thousands in Afghanistan to sell what little they have to leave the country before the Taliban returns cannot avoid the conclusion that the broader aims of the international intervention in the country are under real threat. The Statement says that the UK will not turn away from Afghanistan and that we will use

“every diplomatic and humanitarian lever”

to support the country. If true, this would be very welcome, but what is the commitment likely to mean in practice?

Let us start with aid. The Government are dramatically cutting the amount of development aid they are giving the country, including a 70% reduction in programmes for women and girls. This is harsh and perverse. Will they now reverse these cuts, or are they in reality breaking their promise to maximise their humanitarian response?

After much dither and delay, the Government have recently allowed Afghan interpreters who have worked with British forces to relocate directly to the UK. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, pointed out, and as we heard in Questions in your Lordships’ House last week, they are not automatically doing so for such interpreters currently in third countries. Will they now agree to do so not just as a matter of course but as a matter of conscience?

American intelligence currently believes that, as things stand, Kabul could fall to the Taliban within six months. Do the Government share this assessment, and are there any circumstances in which they would consider renewed military intervention to prevent it? The Taliban has claimed that it has changed and become less harsh, not least in its attitude towards women and girls, but such statements are widely mistrusted and not borne out by recent evidence. What diplomatic pressure is the UK seeking to bring to bear in association with its international allies and through the UN to ensure that the Taliban keeps to its commitments?

Today’s Statement reflects the fact that liberal interventionism, as expressed after the twin tower bombings, cannot succeed unless there is a broad consensus in the country where the intervention takes place to follow the norms set by western liberal democracies, but in countries where there is no history of democracy and where there remain deep tribal and regional fissures, and where no such consensus emerges, it is bound ultimately to fall short or fail.

The challenge now is to support those in Afghanistan who seek to promote democracy and tolerance and to put as much pressure as possible short of military intervention on the Taliban to moderate its policies. This will not be easy, but we owe it to the 457 British military personnel who have died in Afghanistan, to the thousands who still carry physical and mental scars and to those thousands of young Afghans, men and women, who are desperate for a brighter, tolerant future for their country to do whatever we can to prevent a return to the horrors of the past.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments, and I wholeheartedly endorse their tributes to our brave personnel who served in Afghanistan, to our NATO allies and, of course, to the people of Afghanistan. I also align myself with the comments made by both about the need to make sure that we do not lose the gains. I completely accept that there are many challenges ahead, but progress, particularly in relation to civil society and helping the development of the Afghan Government, cannot be lost. I hope to cover some of those issues as I go through my remarks.

The noble Baroness asked about discussions around the decision. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to US Secretary Blinken before the NATO announcement, and he has had numerous meetings since, as has the Defence Secretary, who met his counterparts from the US, France and Germany, and, of course, the Prime Minister discussed Afghanistan directly with President Biden on 10 June and at the NATO summit. There was also a lot of discussion about it at the summit.

The noble Baroness asked about the threat of al-Qaeda. We assess that al-Qaeda is now less active in Afghanistan than before 2001, but the group has not ceased to exist and remains a threat to both Afghanistan and the international community, so Afghanistan remains a counterterrorism priority. That is why we are working closely with the US and NATO allies to ensure that we are able to protect our shared interest in tackling terrorism, and we will continue to do that.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the political process. We have provided crucial capacity-building and technical advice to the Afghan Ministry for Peace and training for the Afghan negotiating team. We have enhanced the inclusivity of the negotiations through capacity-building support to the Afghan negotiation team, women’s networks and civil society organisations to help build women’s meaningful participation and representation, an issue touched on by both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. We are working closely with international and regional partners to further support peace efforts. The noble Baroness and noble Lord are absolutely right, and we have been very clear about it, as have all our international allies, that any political settlement must protect the progress made in the country, particularly around protection for women and minority groups.

The Prime Minister also spoke to President Ghani on 17 June and underlined our commitment to supporting Afghanistan to achieve a stable and democratic future following the withdrawal of troops. He gave his personal support, and they resolved together to continue working to counter the terrorist threat in Afghanistan. Those discussions will continue through international fora and directly with colleagues in the Afghanistan Government.

I reassure the noble Baroness that we remain committed to working with the US, NATO allies and international partners to support the ongoing training and mentoring of the Afghan defence force, and we will continue to provide financial and sustainment support until at least 2024. That is a commitment that we have already made. Obviously, we are extremely proud of the role we played during our 20 years in Afghanistan in helping to build that defence force and the resilience it has shown. It has been leading the security in Afghanistan for the past six years, and it has been a privilege for us to work with it.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about our international support. We will continue to support Afghanistan with more than £100 million of development assistance this year; it will remain one of the largest bilateral recipients of UK aid. We will continue to be a significant contributor to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, through which we will support rural development, building resilience to climatic shocks and infrastructure development. We will also continue to work to consolidate the substantial development gains that have been delivered since 2001. Through our Afghanistan multiyear humanitarian response programme, we will continue to provide urgent life-saving assistance and respond to immediate humanitarian need.

The noble Lord rightly talked about the significant progress that has been made in Afghanistan since 2001, not only on women’s rights but on the rights of minority groups, media freedoms, freedom of expression and access to education. It is imperative that we continue to work to protect this, and we will do so with our international allies and the Afghan Government to ensure this.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the ARAP relocation programme. The noble Baroness is absolutely right; we owe a huge debt of gratitude to interpreters and other locally employed staff who risk their lives working alongside UK forces in Afghanistan. We have already supported more than 1,500 former Afghan staff and their families to create new lives in the UK. The noble Lord is right that the ARAP process requires applicants to be in Afghanistan, as they are likely to face the greatest risks, but those in a third country seeking help to relocate can also contact the Afghan Threat and Risk Evaluation Unit for advice, which they will be given, so they can also access support through that. We are significantly accelerating the pace of relocations, in parallel with the military withdrawal, because we understand and accept that the situation for some in the country has changed. We will do all we can to continue to support those people who wish to relocate to the United Kingdom.

G7 and NATO Summits

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 17th June 2021

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I suspect that, for many people, the sight of the G7 leaders going about their business in a professional and businesslike manner in Cornwall was a great relief after the chaos of the Trump years. The 25-page long White House communiqué, which covers most of the world’s most pressing problems is, at first sight, extremely impressive. Any lingering concerns are not so much to do with the institution—to coin a phrase, “the G7 is back”—but over whether the specific pledges made are substantial enough to meet the challenges the communiqué identifies.

Before coming to the G7, the Prime Minister made great play in his Statement of signing the New Atlantic Charter with President Biden. As noble Lords will be aware, the first Atlantic Charter, signed in 1941, led to the formation of the United Nations. Could the noble Baroness inform the House of any single, specific initiative—large or small—she believes or hopes will flow from the new charter? If she is unable to do so, could she explain why the charter should be seen as anything other than a mere PR stunt?

On the summit itself, the Government very sensibly chose to steer their deliberations by commissioning the noble Lord, Lord Stern of Brentford, to set out the scale of ambition they should adopt. His report, G7 Leadership for Sustainable, Resilient and Inclusive Economic Recovery and Growth, sets out a definitive agenda for action on all the key issues the summit addressed. The communiqué simply thanks the noble Lord, Lord Stern, for his efforts, but sadly fails to rise to the challenges he sets. Take just three examples.

First, on Covid vaccines, the noble Lord points to the urgent need to close the £20 billion funding gap for COVAX. The summit committed to only a small fraction of that. Will the UK Government not only redouble their commitment to make vaccines available to those in the rest of the world who need them most and can afford them least, but commit to diverting surplus vaccines in the UK, and do so in the speediest possible fashion?

Secondly, on climate change the noble Lord, Lord Stern, makes the case for a doubling of climate finance and for a commitment to go beyond the $100 billion target to help developing countries to decarbonise. Such a commitment is lacking in the communiqué. Does the noble Baroness accept that, by cutting overseas development assistance, the Government significantly undermined the prospect of getting the necessary funding into developing countries, and in doing so, have made it much less likely they will agree to ambitious decarbonisation targets at COP 26?

Thirdly, on girls’ education, the communiqué commits to the target of getting 40 million more girls into school by 2026, which is terrific. Can the noble Baroness therefore explain why the Government have cut their bilateral support for girls’ education in the poorest countries by 40%? Can she explain whether the funds the Government have announced for the Global Partnership for Education are new money or simply a new announcement of old money?

The communiqué covers an extremely wide range of issues, but one final issue leapt out of the page for me. The text praises the

“incredible contribution of caregivers in our societies … and the importance of improving decent working conditions for these caregivers”.

What improved provision do the Government have in mind? Will they, as a start, commit to improving the provision of respite care so that carers, who are increasingly at the end of their tether as Covid restrictions continue to affect them, will get at least some relief from the very onerous daily burdens they carry?

The Prime Minister includes in his Statement reference to the trade deal with Australia. Will the noble Baroness confirm that the absolute maximum benefit this trade deal could conceivably deliver equates to one penny per person per week? Does she accept that the cost of this derisory benefit will be overwhelmed by the damage the deal threatens to do to our livestock industry—particularly in upland areas—and that the potential increased access to Australia for young people is frankly risible compared to their reduced access to live, work and study in Europe as a result of Brexit?

The Statement very wisely ignores the unseemly row on the margins of the summit around the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol and perhaps that is a matter for another day. But may I remind the noble Baroness that the single most important ingredient for conducting summits and international affairs successfully is trust? Through his unwillingness to stick to international law and his track record of breaking his promises, this Prime Minister has squandered it. Until it is rebuilt, our influence on the world stage will remain seriously impaired.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments and questions. They both rightly asked about vaccinations and, as they will know, G7 leaders committed to providing at least a further 1 billion doses to the poorest countries to help vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 through dose sharing and finance. The G7 will share at least half of these by the end of 2021. We have committed to providing at least 100 million surplus Covid vaccine doses to the rest of the world within the next year and 5 million will be shared by the end of September, with another 30 million by the end of 2021.

The noble Baroness is right that sharing supply, boosting manufacturing and funding the COVAX scheme all have critical roles. That is why G7 leaders talked about, and want to take concrete actions to overcome, bottlenecks and want to boost manufacturing so that we can increase the supply. The vaccines we will be providing will be across all our supply: AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Janssen and Moderna. We will be working with leaders to continue to ramp up that effort.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly raised climate change and the work done on that. Commitments were made at the summit. Most G7 countries will be reducing emissions by more than half by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. All countries will formally commit to their specific reductions when submitting their nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. Each country will also set up policy plans and milestones on how they plan to meet these, as we have done with our carbon budget.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about the climate finance commitment and, of course, we were the first G7 member to substantially increase our commitment. At the summit, Canada committed to doubling its climate finance through to 2025 and France, Germany, Japan and the US also agreed to increase their commitments, so there was welcome progress.

Both the noble Baroness and noble Lord talked about girls’ education, which is a priority for this Government. At the G7 summit, the Prime Minister announced that we will be pledging £430 million to the Global Partnership for Education for the next five years, which is our largest pledge ever and an uplift of 15%. At the summit the G7 collectively pledged at least $2.7 billion towards the Global Partnership for Education and we will continue to encourage partners around the world to contribute to that fund.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the Northern Ireland protocol. We are working to support the Good Friday agreement and urgently need to find solutions to support the peace process and minimise disruption. There was discussion of the protocol with our European partners at the summit. Those discussions will continue because we all want to ensure that we get to a satisfactory resolution.

The noble Baroness seemed to suggest that there had not been much movement on, for instance, global tax, over the last few years. But at the G7 we saw a major breakthrough on the issue that has been under discussion for over five years, particularly back in the historic two-pillar international agreement on global tax reform, to address the tax challenges we face. We are very hopeful that this agreement will provide a strong basis for securing a more detailed and comprehensive agreement among the G20 and OECD in July.

On the Australia trade deal, I am sure that the noble Lord will be delighted to know that the UK-Australia trade relationship was worth £13.9 billion last year and is set to grow under this deal. I assure him that British farmers will be protected by a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years, using tariff-rate quotas and safeguards. To the noble Baroness I say that, when the agreement is published, there will be a chapter on animal welfare, because we have been very clear that we will not compromise on our high standards. I can also confirm that, of course, formal scrutiny of the ratification process will take place once we have laid the final agreement—this will be once we have undergone legal checks—and the impact assessment will be published with it.

The noble Lord asked about the Atlantic charter. It recognises that the values that the US and UK share remain the same as they were in 1941, including defending democracy, reaffirming the importance of collective security and building a fair and sustainable global trading system. There was a very constructive relationship between the Prime Minister and President Biden, and it was a very successful summit.

Covid-19 Update

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 13th May 2021

(1 year ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I begin by apologising to the House that, in order for me to get home tonight, I have to be on a train at King’s Cross at 8.03 pm. Therefore, I may have to leave before the end of all the supplementary questions, for which I apologise. I will undertake to watch them tomorrow morning.

For some time, we on these Benches have been calling for a committee of inquiry to be established to examine the actions of the Government in handling the Covid crisis and to consider what lessons can be learned for the future, so the fact that the Government are now setting one up is very much to be welcomed. However, I am somewhat dismayed at the proposed timescale. In response to the Prime Minister’s Statement, the relatives of Covid victims have strongly argued that we need to be learning lessons now, not at some distant future date—and they are surely right.

The Government’s argument in favour of delay until next year is that we should not distract people who are

“in the heat of our struggle against this disease”.

However, without being complacent, by the autumn, unless the vaccines prove ineffective against any new variants that might by then emerge, we will not be in the heat of the struggle as we have seen it in recent months. In any event, there are many aspects of the inquiry—such as the planning, procurement or decision-making processes within government—that could easily be investigated now, without jeopardising the NHS’s ability to manage a further wave. To delay starting the inquiry by a year is simply unjustified.

The lengths of public inquiries vary; the 69 held since 1990 have varied between 45 days and 13 years. The average was two and a half years. It is therefore highly unlikely that this inquiry will be conducted and concluded before the next election. This will mean that the Government will avoid any accountability for their actions, for by the time we get around to the following general election, people and events will have moved on. More importantly, such a long timetable will enable the Government to hide behind the fact that the inquiry is ongoing, and delay making the changes needed to avoid repeating some of the errors of the past 15 months.

The Government’s mind is clearly made up on the timescale, but I wonder whether the noble Baroness the Leader of the House could be a bit more specific about some aspects of it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked, when the Government say “spring 2022”, what is their definition of “spring”? Also, can the Minister specifically deny rumours from within Whitehall that civil servants working on the inquiry have been told to expect it to start next July? Have the Government any thoughts on how long the inquiry might last? Will they set even an indicative deadline for it to report?

Will they encourage the inquiry to produce interim reports on specific aspects of its work that could be completed first—an approach adopted in some other, analogous inquiries? For example, it would be sensible to know at the earliest possible moment what went wrong in the planning for the pandemic. We need those lessons to be learned before the next one arrives. It would also be sensible, and possible, to have an early report on procurement practices to ensure that the excesses of the last 15 months are never repeated. Can the noble Baroness give any indication of who might lead it? If she cannot, can she give us any indication of when we might know? Yesterday, it emerged that the Department of Health and Social Care has already concluded an internal inquiry which the Government are refusing to publish. Why is this, and will they now do so?

The urgency of the inquiry might not be so great if we felt confident that the Government had already learned the lessons of the past 15 months, but I am afraid that we do not. I will take just two examples. First, the delay in implementing the stricter measures that were urgently required in the autumn has been replicated by the delay in adding India to the red list. This has led to a large number of travellers from India entering the UK while the virus was rampant in that country, and to its inevitable importation here. We need a timelier approach to dealing with such new threats. The inquiry could explain why that has been lacking until now.

Secondly, the central test and trace system is now being disbanded, with most of the central PHE staff having been sacked, leaving open how any future surges will be managed. We need an ongoing, effective test and trace system to deal with new variants and localised outbreaks. The inquiry could shine a light on how that might be achieved.

Finally, on the creation of a UK commission on Covid commemoration, I completely agree that a national memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral is a good idea, but I gently suggest to the Government that the best memorial of this crisis would be a commitment to paying properly those staff working in the NHS and social care, whose dedication has been phenomenal and without whose efforts the effects of the pandemic would have been even more destructive.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. I am afraid that I will not be able to go into the detail of the inquiry that both have asked for, but I will do my best to give the information that I can. The inquiry will begin its work in spring 2022. I do not know where the noble Lord got July from, but even I accept that that stretches the word “spring”. It will be funded by the Government.

The noble Lord asked about details. It will be for the chair of the inquiry to decide how to deliver it. They will be independent and will deliver it in line with the terms of reference and in accordance with the requirements set out in the Inquiries Act. That legislation sets out, for instance, that the chair will be appointed by the sponsoring Minister. It will all be done on a statutory basis, with full formal powers.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about timing. I am well aware of the differences of views on timing, and I understand calls for things to move forward. However, we believe that this is the right timescale, because the end of the lockdown will not be the end of the pandemic. The WHO has said that the pandemic has reached its peak globally, so we are certainly not through it. As the noble Baroness rightly said, we are uncertain about the effect of future waves, and new variants continue to present risks. We believe that a premature inquiry risks distracting the NHS, as the noble Baroness said, and Ministers, officials and departments from the ongoing response. An inquiry could not operate at sufficient pace to assist us in making the judgments that we might need to make in the medium term. So we believe that spring 2022, when we are on the other side of the pressures of this winter, which I hope will be far fewer than last winter, is the right time to start the inquiry. We are committed to that.

I will also say that we are continuously learning. While there has not been an inquiry, our whole approach in responding to the pandemic has been to draw up and develop plans based on experience. It is wrong to suggest that we are totally blind in what we are doing; we are learning lessons.

The noble Lord asked about the informal review. As is standard practice across departments, an informal lessons-learned review was carried out by DHSC officials to inform future working, so that we continually learn and improve our approach. It was not a formal or overarching review of the pandemic, but an internal, departmental ways-of-working review.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about the Indian variant. Cases have risen and we are watching it closely. We are assessing the threats but, at this stage, there is no evidence that the Indian variant is resistant to vaccines. This is something that we will keep under review. We are continuing to deploy surge and community testing efforts to find and isolate cases where there is evidence of community transmission, in addition to the comprehensive work under way to track and trace all contacts of cases.

The noble Baroness asked about the road map. At this stage, we are continuing with it and the next step is on Monday. We will keep things under review, but the road map remains the programme that we intend to follow, at this point. Having gone through the pandemic, as all of us have, I cannot make categorical commitments. All I can say is that the road map remains the programme that we are pursuing.

While we have been successful in closing vaccination disparities between different ethnic groups, I will write to the noble Baroness with the latest data, as she asked. I do not have it to hand.

The noble Baroness also asked about booster shots. As we complete the programme for first vaccinations, we are ramping this up. We are working with our current vaccine suppliers and new ones, such as CureVac, to work out which vaccines will be effective as boosters. We signed an agreement for a further 60 million doses of Pfizer, which will be part of the booster programme. That work is in train.

The noble Baroness also rightly asked about the global picture on COVAX. She and the House will know that we are one of the biggest donors to COVAX and we are working through it to ensure global access to vaccines. We have contributed £540 million, which has helped over 70 middle-income and lower-income countries receive doses. At the virtual G7 meeting in February, we encouraged other donors to give more money. At the G7 summit later, we will continue to play that role.

The noble Lord rightly asked about nurses’ pay and talked about the fantastic work that they have done during the pandemic. As he knows, we have committed to providing NHS staff a pay lift at a time when this has been paused in the wider public sector. We have given written evidence to the independent pay review, which is common practice, and we are now waiting to hear back its recommendations, which I cannot pre-empt. We will consider the recommendations when they are given to us.

Integrated Review

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 17th March 2021

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, the integrated review is an extremely sobering document. In part, this is because of the new and changing security threats it outlines, but it is also because the Government’s policy is riddled with flaws and inconsistencies, which means that it does not offer a credible basis for achieving its aims. These are, as the Prime Minister, said,

“to make the United Kingdom stronger, safer and more prosperous, while standing up for our values.”

Will the review do so? Take its central strategic tenet. According to the Statement:

“Our approach will place diplomacy first.”

For a nation of our size, military capabilities and history, this is a very sensible priority. But what have the Government done to demonstrate that they understand what such an approach requires?

The first requirement is that the UK should be a trusted partner. Here, the Government’s track record is dire. They have twice in the past year broken their pledges under the EU withdrawal Act and Irish protocol and find themselves being taken to court by our most important trading and security partner for breaking the law. Other countries are watching and asking how much our word is now really worth.

The Government cannot be trusted either on their legal commitments to development assistance. They have cut development aid, and with it our ability to wield soft power, at a time when such assistance was never more needed. The Prime Minister says that the cut will be restored when the fiscal situation allows. Is it not the truth, however, that the Government used the pandemic as a convenient pretext to make the cut and have no intention whatsoever of reversing it any time soon?

Another aspect of wielding soft power is to stand up for the values that we wish to promulgate. These include the promotion of human rights. Yet the Government make it pretty clear in the document that trade will trump human rights, not least in our dealings with China. The Foreign Secretary admitted as much yesterday, saying that the UK would be willing to strike trade deals with countries that violate international standards and human rights. Will the Minister tell us whether that is really the Government’s position? If so, what does their alleged commitment to human rights actually amount to?

Throughout the review, the Government largely airbrush out the importance to the UK in every possible respect of the EU. They fail to admit that Brexit will make us poorer, less secure and less influential internationally. Instead, they blandly state that,

“we will enjoy constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours in the European Union.”

I wonder if anybody has told the noble Lord, Lord Frost.

When it comes to military spending, the additional £16 billion promised last autumn does not even fill the black hole in the procurement budget. Our Armed Forces will remain short of armed vehicles, fighter planes, submarines and frigates. Yet the Prime Minister is proposing a tilt to the Indo-Pacific that does not just involve diplomacy and trade but the sending of an aircraft carrier, wholly dependent on US escorts and planes, to the South China Sea. This is but one example of our being increasingly dependent on the United States. It is certainly not the action of a sovereign global power.

The one area where the review sets out a wholly new commitment is the proposed increase in nuclear warheads to 260, some 45% more than the number planned for the mid-2020s by the coalition Government. The review says that this is necessary,

“in recognition of the evolving security environment”.

What on earth does that mean? The review states that the Government might consider using nuclear weapons against chemical or biological attacks or cyberattacks, even by non-nuclear states. This is a massive expansion of the potential role of nuclear weapons and appears to be in breach of our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. How can the Government possibly justify such a reckless, dangerous and potentially illegal policy shift?

When it comes to trade, the review repeats the Government’s commitment to have a trade agreement in place to cover 80% of our trade by 2022. Surely, this is completely unrealistic. Our combined trade with the US, India and China comes to more than 20%, and there is no chance of reaching a trade agreement with any of them in the foreseeable future. Why, then, is the completely unachievable 80% target repeated? It is simply pie in the sky.

The document is suffused with such fanciful and misleading assertions. To pick one from many: it trumpets the support the Government have given to our creative and cultural sectors, yet their failure to maintain the ability of our creative and cultural sectors to perform in the EU is decimating them. Try telling a young musician, facing the cancellation of all her European work, to pivot to the east. It would be a joke if it were not so serious.

This review demonstrates the Prime Minister’s trademark policy of trying to have your cake and eating it. It avoids hard choices, particularly in relation to China, instead of making them. By pivoting away from Europe, it ignores both history and the basic rule that security, defence and foreign policy should start, not finish, with your neighbours. It is a truly depressing document from a truly depressing Government.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I was going to thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments, but I might just thank the noble Baroness in the light of the noble Lord’s comments. However, I will try to address some of the criticisms that he somewhat unfairly levels at this document.

The noble Baroness began her comments on the approach of the new Administration. We believe this review aligns well with the US vision, highlighting the need to build back better and the importance of science and technology, climate change, health resilience and protecting our democracies. We look forward to working with them on all of those. She also asked about the counter state threats legislation, which I can confirm will provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the necessary tools to tackle evolving state threats. It will create new offences, tools and powers to criminalise other harmful activity conducted by and on behalf of states.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about China. As this document sets out, we believe there is scope for positive and constructive engagement with China, for instance on things such as trade co-operation and tackling climate change. However, we are very clear-sighted about the challenges. To reassure the noble Baroness, we will always protect our vital interests, including sensitive infrastructure, and will not accept investment that compromises our national security.

The noble Lord asked about trade and human rights. I say categorically that we are clear that trade does not come at the expense of human rights. Our experience is that having strong economic relationships with partners enables us to have open discussions with them on a range of issues, including human rights, and we most certainly do so. I remind the noble Lord that under our global human rights sanctions regime we have designated 68 individuals and three entities from nine countries—including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Venezuela and Ukraine—around the world for a variety of human rights abuses or violations. We will continue to take these issues extremely seriously.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness rightly spoke about our leadership on the global stage. This will be a year for our leadership that will set the tone for our international engagement for the decade ahead, in our presidency of the G7, which we have also invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea and India to attend, the Global Partnership for Education and COP 26 in Glasgow in November. I say to the noble Lord that we will continue to have a strong, positive relationship with our European friends and partners. That will continue to be a priority for us.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness spoke about international development spending. The document clearly states that we are committed to returning to spending 0.5% of GNI on ODA as soon as the economic situation allows—

Covid-19: Road Map

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Tuesday 23rd February 2021

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, the Government’s proposals for moving out of lockdown are being made possible by the extraordinarily impressive vaccination programme. As someone who has now had their first vaccination, I wish to echo the tribute given by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, to those who have developed the vaccines at breakneck speed, to those who manufacture and distribute them and to NHS staff and volunteers who are administering them so efficiently and cheerfully.

The Prime Minister says that the measures are being driven by data rather than dates, yet very specific dates are being set for each stage of the easing. The Covid response document says:

“The indicative … dates in the roadmap are all contingent on the data and subject to change.”

The implication is that change might be in both directions and that, if the data are better than expected, either the dates to trigger each step might change or the activities that are allowed in each step might change. Is this correct?

It is obviously welcome to parents and children alike that schools are to reopen soon, but bringing the whole school back in one go, particularly when secondary schools will be required to do very regular testing, seems a very big ask. Why did the Government reject the approach adopted by my colleague Kirsty Williams in Wales, allowing some classes to come back this week but phasing the return to allow it to happen more smoothly?

On local elections, the document says that the Government will

“enable a broader range of campaign-related activity from 8 March”.

What does this mean? Up to this point, the Government have, without any medical justification, sought to ban parties from even delivering leaflets. When will we know what will now be allowed?

The resumption of care home visits is very welcome. But if the care home patient has been vaccinated and all the visitors are required to take a rapid flow test, why are they also required to wear PPE, given that face masks will significantly reduce the quality of many visits, especially for those with dementia?

From 29 March, six people or two households will be able to meet outdoors, but we are told to “minimise travel” until step 3 begins on 17 May. What does this mean for the vast majority of possible family and other reunions, which can take place only if people travel by car or public transport to meet each other? For example, can I and my wife travel 50 miles to have a socially distanced walk with another household in our family over Easter, as we would very much like to do, or does the minimising travel rule mean that the Government are telling us not to? This is a straightforward, practical question, to which millions of households now need a clear answer.

On how we operate in Parliament, the Statement says that the Government will conduct a review of social distancing that will

“be critical in determining how Parliament can safely return in a way that I know honourable Members would wish.”

Can the noble Baroness give any indication on the timing of this review? The document accompanying the Statement simply says that this will happen before step 4. Does that mean that the Government believe that the earliest that social distancing rules in the Chamber might be relaxed is 21 June?

On providing support for those hit financially by the pandemic, it seems perverse not to say now what continuing support will be given. People are asked to wait until the Budget, but surely the Government could have outlined the principal measures that they intend to take now to avoid another week of sleepless nights for many business owners in the retail, arts and hospitality sectors. For the Prime Minister to say that the Government are not going to “pull the rug out” from under them is simply not good enough.

Finally, on track and trace, the evidence remains that a large proportion of those told to self-isolate do not do so because of financial necessity. The £500 support scheme is clearly failing in its purpose, yet the Statement and supporting document propose no remedy. Will the Government now commit to repaying lost earnings up to a sensible limit to enable the isolate element of test, trace and isolate to work effectively for the first time? If not, why on earth not?

The Statement and the growing success of the vaccination programme give the whole country hope for an eventual return to something approaching normality. Despite the many specific questions and doubts that we might have on the details of the provisions and the timetable, we can certainly share the Government’s hope that by late June a large degree of normality can indeed be resumed.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and for their broad welcome of the road map. I will now attempt to answer some of their questions.

The noble Baroness asked about vaccinating teachers. As we have said, we have kept this under review. As both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will know, the JCVI advises that the immediate priority for the vaccination programme should be to prevent deaths and to protect health and care staff, which is where the prioritisation has been made. Based on the latest evidence, PHE has advised that the risks to education staff are similar to those for most other occupations and that occupational risk is not the only factor driving increased infections and the risk of mortality for certain groups. I assure the noble Baroness that work has been done in this area. The JCVI will look again at the prioritisation after phase 1 and we await its advice on that.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked broader questions on education. In response to the noble Lord, I think that we all agree that there is clear evidence that the extended time without face-to-face teaching has been extremely detrimental for young people. We believe that with the vaccine rollout, and on the basis of our assessment of the current data against the four tests, all pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face education from 8 March. That is why we have made that decision and why it is the first big step that we are taking. Schools have already worked extremely hard to implement a range of protective measures; indeed, since January, schools have conducted 3 million rapid tests. Of course, schools have still been able to take the children of key workers and others, so they have been able to start this regular testing, admittedly with fewer pupils, and they have processes in place.

I say to the noble Baroness that, in addition to that testing and the already established rapid testing regime, we will introduce twice-weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils, initially on site and then at home. Teachers in primary and secondary schools and further education will have twice-weekly asymptomatic testing and we will offer all schoolchildren’s households, including members of their support and childcare bubbles, and those who work in the proximity of schoolchildren free twice-weekly tests. Noble Lords will also be aware that we are temporarily recommending the use of face coverings in classrooms unless the two-metre distancing rule can be maintained. As we have said, schools were always safe and we believe that all these measures will help with the interaction and contact issue that led us to have to close schools before.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the dates in the road map. He is absolutely right that we will review the data against the tests before taking each step. Because it takes four weeks for the data to reflect the impact of the changes and we want to give a week’s notice, there will be at least five weeks between each step. The Chief Medical Officer has been clear that moving any faster before we know the impact of each step could increase the risks, so we intend to keep five weeks between each step at a minimum.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the £500 test and trace payment for those on low incomes who have to self-isolate. We are continuing this scheme and, in this announcement, have extended its eligibility to the parents of children who are isolating.

The noble Baroness asked more broadly about economic support for a range of groups and businesses. I reiterate what the Prime Minister said yesterday: we are committed to doing whatever it takes to support the country through Covid. Details of the next phase of the plan for jobs and the additional support for businesses and individuals will be provided in the Budget next week. The announcements at the Budget will reflect the steps set out in this road map, ensuring that as restrictions ease and the economy gradually and safely reopens, the level of support for businesses and individuals is carefully tailored to reflect the changing circumstances. I remind noble Lords that we have put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive economic responses to the pandemic, so our support will continue.

The noble Lord asked about the May elections. He will be aware that we published a delivery plan setting out how polls can be delivered in a Covid-secure way. We will publish further guidance shortly for candidates, their agents and political parties on campaigning during these elections.

The noble Lord also asked about social care. He said, rightly, that from 8 March care home residents will be allowed close contact indoors with one named visitor—something that I know is good news for everyone. He asked about the wearing of PPE. As he rightly said, with the vaccination programme having been rolled out in care homes, every resident in a care home has been offered a vaccination but, balancing the risks, we still believe that the right approach is to be cautious. At step 2 of the road map, we will take a further decision on extending the number of visitors. We all appreciate the noble Lord’s comments, so we will obviously look at extending contact and so on in care homes at every step of the way.

I will have to write to the noble Baroness about her question on the action we are taking in relation to courts. I entirely agree with her suggestion that we need to develop a road map for returning to normality in Parliament. Through the commission and the usual channels, we will work extremely hard with the administration to begin developing that immediately, while of course keeping in step with the situation more broadly.

The noble Lord asked about the review of social distancing. He is right that this will be completed ahead of step 4—that is, before 21 June. However, in the light of the increased number of vaccinations being delivered, we will also talk to PHE about whether further mitigations can be used—for instance, in the Chamber—to allow us to move forward before then. Obviously there might be other things that we can use, such as the one-and-a-half-metre rule, which we have not really been able to implement here, and face masks. I cannot make any promises but, along with the noble Lord and, I am sure, the rest of the commission, we will talk to PHE about what we can do.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 28th January 2021

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, this Statement marks the most sombre milestone. One hundred thousand deaths is an horrific figure. Our hearts go out to the families of all those who have died and to all those who are currently suffering from the disease, either at home or in hospital. We must also pay tribute again to the staff in the NHS and in care homes, who are fighting the battle against Covid on a daily basis, often under the most extreme pressure.

On Monday, in announcing the 100,000 figure, the Prime Minister said that the Government “did everything we could”, since the pandemic struck, to minimise its impact. This simply is not true. Among the many things the Prime Minister chose not to do was to take SAGE’s advice, on 21 September, for a circuit-breaker of restrictions. Instead, he did nothing for three weeks and then introduced a watered-down version of what SAGE had recommended. Many people died as a result. I know it is a big ask, but I ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to suggest to the Prime Minister that he would have more credibility in the future if he stopped misrepresenting his actions in the past.

I have not, until now, been a huge fan of the immediate initiation of an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic because I thought that all our efforts should now be going into fighting it. However, as the Government clearly do not believe that they have made any mistakes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I can now see no other way in which a light can be shone on past failings to ensure that they are not repeated. When do the Government intend to make good on the Prime Minister’s commitment, some six months ago, that an inquiry should indeed be held?

Today’s Statement repeats some past mistakes. Most obviously, the restrictions on arrivals to the UK from 22 countries where there is a known variant of the disease are both too little and too late. The requirement to spend quarantine in a hotel is a good one; it has been extremely effective elsewhere—Australia, for example. But given the weakness of the policing of self-quarantining, it surely makes sense now for all arrivals in the UK to quarantine in a hotel. The measure is too little, and it is certainly too late. We should have been doing this months ago.

The Statement is understandably upbeat on the progress of the vaccination programme, and we congratulate all those who have worked so hard to develop the vaccine, and now to deliver it. But it is curiously silent on the other principal pillar of the fight against the virus—the track, trace and isolate system. That system may have become a bit more successful at tracking and tracing, but it remains very largely ineffective in persuading those who are asked to stay at home actually to do so.

The reason for that is undisputed. A large proportion of those affected simply cannot afford to take the time off work. The Government’s response so far, in terms of financial support, has been pathetically inadequate. We hear that arguments are still under way within government about what to do next. Given that they spent £22 billion on the track and trace system but peanuts on the isolate system, surely it is now time to introduce a system that makes up for people’s loss of earnings if it is to stand any chance of being successful. So when do the Government intend to announce a new compensation scheme that might actually work?

Looking forward to the easing of the lockdown, the Government say that nothing will happen for at least another six weeks. But they completely fail to set out the criteria against which they will make their decisions in mid-February. That failure has both practical and psychological costs: practical because nobody can begin to plan for the reopening, and psychological because all that people can see in front of them is a further long period of lockdown, with no clarity on the conditions that will allow its easing.

Why is it impossible to set thresholds of case numbers and hospital occupancy, above which restrictions will remain, but below which they might—not will, but might— be reduced? Why cannot the Government say in advance of mid-February how, and by what stages, the opening of schools and the economy as a whole will proceed? In that way, school leaders would be able to plan now for a resumption of normal classes and would not need a further two weeks while a decision was taken to open up. The idea that parents need two weeks’ notice for their children to go back to school is just nonsense; given the stress they are under, two days would be more than long enough.

Will the Government therefore bring forward the point at which they tell schools the basis on which they will reopen, whenever the actual reopening date proves to be? Will they equally signal to those businesses which are now unable to operate the triggers that will enable them to do so?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. Like them, my thoughts and sympathies are with every family that has tragically lost loved ones during this terrible pandemic.

The noble Baroness asked about working with local government. I assure her that we are working extremely closely with local government, and indeed many partners. This is a national endeavour, uniting local and national government, the NHS and many more. Over the past few months, we have recruited and trained a vaccination work force of 80,000, including retired clinicians, the Armed Forces, pharmacists and volunteers. Over 200,000 members of the public and businesses have offered non-clinical support and help with the logistics of the programme.

I can certainly assure both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we are doing everything we can to roll this programme out as smoothly as possible. We are sharing data to ensure that priority groups around the country are receiving their vaccines as quickly as possible. We have vaccinated over 80% of the over 80s, and 75% of elderly care home residents. Vaccinations are now being offered to everyone over the age of 70.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about an investigation or inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. As the Prime Minister has said, we will turn to that, but at the moment I hope he understands that we have other priorities that we are working on.

The noble Baroness once again rightly asked about schools. We have bought 1.3 million devices and delivered over 870,000 to schools in England so far during the pandemic. We bought an additional 300,000 laptops and tablets this year, increasing our investment by another £100 million. We have spent over £400 million supporting disadvantaged children who need help with access to technology. I fully recognise that there are people who will fall, and currently are still falling, through the gaps, but we are working closely with our school partners around the country to try to make sure that all families and all children have access to the technology that they need.

The noble Baroness asked about vaccine prioritisation. It is an issue that many have rightly raised. I reiterate that the JCVI advises that the immediate priority for the vaccination programme should be to prevent deaths and protect healthcare staff, with old age deemed the biggest single factor determining mortality. That is why we are following the advice of the independent body. The top four priority groups account for 88% of Covid deaths.

I say to the noble Baroness that the ONS has looked at rates of death involving Covid in men and women who work as teaching and education professionals. They were not statistically significant when compared to the rates seen in the population among those of the same age and sex. I know that sounds slightly bureaucratic, but we are looking at the data and have taken advice from the JCVI. There is a reason for the prioritisation, although I entirely accept that there are many groups who would like to have the vaccine as soon as possible. That is why we are rolling out the programme as we are.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the international travel situation, as announced by the Home Secretary yesterday. The noble Baroness asked a number of questions. There will be further information and details set out next week, so I am afraid that I am not able to provide any additional information than that provided yesterday. But we will introduce a new managed isolation process in hotels for those who cannot be refused entry, including those arriving home from countries where an international travel ban has already been imposed. Further details about this policy will come next week—we are working as quickly as possible across government and industry to bring these measures in.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about test and trace. We have contacted over 7 million people who may otherwise have spread the virus through the system, and we have reached 86.7% of those testing positive, so the system continues to work and improve.

The noble Lord asked about support for those self-isolating. As he will be well aware, there is a one-off £500 test and trace support payment, which helps those on low incomes who are self-isolating, and we have extended that until the end of March. In total, more than 4 million people could be eligible to receive this support payment. In addition to that, accepting that not everyone is covered by it, we have provided £25 million funding to local authorities to make discretionary payments to those facing financial hardship who are not eligible for the £500 scheme. We have also made statutory sick pay available from day one, while making emergency changes to reimburse small and medium-sized businesses with two weeks of sick pay per employee. Of course, we continue to support the lowest paid with a temporary universal credit uplift worth £1,000.

The noble Lord asked about our future plans. The reason why the Prime Minister set out the end of February as when we will return with a plan is that at this point we do not yet have the data on the impact of the vaccine rollout on case rates, hospitalisations and deaths, which will be vital in determining the timeline to releasing the measures. By mid-February, we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisation and deaths, using data from both the UK and nations such as Israel. We will know how successful the current restrictions have been in driving down infections and we will know how many people are still in hospital with Covid. We intend to look at all that data and information and will set out the results of that and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown when we announce that on the week of 22 February.

Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing restrictions in a sustainable way, beginning as we have said with the reopening of schools, which is our national priority. We hope to commence the reopening of schools from 8 March with other economic and social restrictions being removed after that.

Covid-19 Update

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 7th January 2021

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I begin by associating myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in respect of recent events in America. This is probably the most sombre Statement we have heard on Covid. Despite all the restrictions of the past nine months, the incidence of the disease and the numbers of hospital admissions and deaths are at record highs. These terrible figures make today’s measures inevitable and we support them.

The difference between the first time we went into lockdown and today is, of course, the arrival of the vaccines. This is what can give the country some hope. The key challenge now posed to the Government, the NHS and the whole country is how to get as many people vaccinated as speedily as possible. The government targets are extremely ambitions. While such ambition is commendable, the failure to achieve so many past targets, particularly in relation to test and trace, make us somewhat cautious about simply accepting them. If they are to be achieved, every possible resource must be brought into play. In this respect, there are legitimate questions to be asked of the Government.

First, we clearly need more qualified health professionals to administer the vaccines than those currently employed by the NHS. Many retired doctors and nurses are desperately keen to get involved, but they are finding that the bureaucracy required before they can get started is ludicrously burdensome and disproportionately prescriptive. Both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have said in recent days that they would look into this, so what is the Government’s target for producing a new, streamlined application process for such retired medics? The Government will not meet their targets without them, so they had better get a move on.

Secondly, I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and ask why more pharmacists are not planned to be involved. They have an extremely good track record in administering flu jabs. What reason is there for not involving in the Covid vaccination programme any pharmacy that takes part in the national flu vaccination programme?

Thirdly, particularly at the larger vaccination centres, there appears to be a need for volunteers to support the medics in managing the flow of those being vaccinated, helping, among other things, to sort out their transport requirements. Last year, some 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS to deal with the disease. Is this volunteer pool being activated to help facilitate the vaccination process?

If we need every possible resource to be brought to bear, we also need to ensure that everybody who needs a vaccination actually gets one. In recent weeks, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has explained that, unless you are enrolled with a GP, you will not be covered by the programme at all. That is simply not good enough. Particularly in the inner cities, there are vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, who are unlikely to be registered with a GP, and unless the Government act those groups will fall through the cracks. Will the Government undertake to work with relevant homeless, refugee and other charities that are in touch with these registered groups to make sure that they do get registered and vaccinated in due time?

I fully accept that the Government need to be rigorous about the priority order in which they undertake the vaccinations. However, do they accept that there is a strong case for vaccinating teachers and other school staff at a relatively early stage, possibly placing them in category 7—that is, when all the over-65s and the most vulnerable have been vaccinated? This will facilitate the resumption of the education system and give those who work in our schools the protection that they deserve.

Even if the vaccination programme goes to plan, the economic costs of Covid will be dire for many individuals and businesses. The Government have taken many welcome steps to support those affected, but there are two areas where I believe further action is needed. First, we know that many individuals who should be self-isolating fail to do so because they cannot afford the loss of income that this would involve. The Government established a scheme involving a payment of £500 for those on low income, administered by local authorities, but this is not working properly. Not enough funds have been made available—we suggest that full salary support should be offered in any event—not enough of those affected even know about the scheme, and many of those who need support are not covered by it. Could the Government undertake an urgent and fundamental review of the scheme, because at present its failure seriously undermines the whole test, track and trace system.

Secondly, it is now clear that for many businesses, particularly in retail, hospitality, the arts and accommodation, the impact of Covid will last far longer than anybody ever feared. For those who cannot trade at all, even the current government support will simply be inadequate because they cannot escape their overheads, so many fundamentally sound businesses will go under unless the support packages are improved and lengthened. Will the Government now commit to an enhanced support package arranged to last until the summer? Will they modify the job support scheme to include those who were previously excluded?

The Government have consistently responded slowly, overpromised and underdelivered. Trust and faith in government requires the Government to level with people, not just on the current threat but on the realistic, unvarnished possibilities of dealing with it. Only on that basis will we all be able to work together, as we wish to do, to see off this terrible scourge.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and questions. I wish the noble Baroness a very happy birthday. I hope she enjoys a gin or two later, as I am sure she will. I also fully endorse the comments of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary about the shocking events in the United States last night.

The noble Baroness asked about data. From Monday we will publish daily data on the vaccination programme, going through the levels of detail that she asked about. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the economic response, quite rightly, and they will be aware that we have put in place one of the world’s most comprehensive responses to the pandemic, spending over £280 billion so far on economic support. Of course, this week, we also announced additional support worth £4.6 billion for businesses affected by the new restrictions.

All businesses in England legally required to close as a result of this lockdown will receive one-off grants of up to £9,000, which will benefit over 600,000 businesses. As more businesses are forced to close by the restrictions, more will also receive the monthly grants, worth up to £3,000, which, taken together, means that businesses could receive up to £18,000 over the next three months if they have been forced to close due to restrictions. That is in no way to diminish the terrible time many businesses are having, but it is further support, and I believe it shows that we will continue to keep the package under review and react to circumstances as and when we can. Of course, I remind the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we have protected 12 million jobs so far through the furlough and self-employment schemes, both of which have been extended to April.

On the vaccine programme, by the end of the week, we expect there to be 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, with another seven major centres following next week. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about community pharmacies, and as more supplies become available and they can administer significant numbers of doses of the vaccine, they will certainly play a role in the programme. We have undertaken months of extensive preparations and significant investment, including £230 million for our manufacturing infrastructure, so that we can ensure that this ambitious programme, as the noble Lord rightly said, is rolled out.

He mentioned the bureaucracy for those wanting to help with the vaccination programme, and he may have heard my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday, when he was asked about this, saying that we will be tackling this as an immediate priority. Of course, we will work with charities and groups across civil society to help deliver our ambitious plan. Once again, the British people have shown their willingness to engage and help to deliver the programmes that we need, by volunteering and other things. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who is doing that on our behalf, and we thank them in advance.

The noble Baroness asked about education. We have bought over 1 million laptops and tablets for disadvantaged young people throughout this pandemic. Over 560,000 have already been delivered, with an extra 100,000 this week alone, and by the end of the week we hope to have delivered 750,000 devices to the most disadvantaged families. We are working with all the UK’s leading mobile network operators to provide free data for educational sites and to deliver 4G routers to families who need to access the internet. Of course, we will continue to work closely with teachers to support them through this difficult time, and we are very grateful for all the work that they undertook over the Christmas holidays in order to provide Covid-secure environments for young people. We know how disappointing it is that, unfortunately, the variant has meant that we have had to take the very difficult decision to close schools in the short term.

The noble Baroness asked about culture. She may well be aware that theatres, although with no audiences, are still able to open for training, rehearsals and filming. Of course, we have created the £1.7 billion Culture Recovery Fund, and, so far, over £500 million of grants have been awarded to the sector. The noble Baroness also asked about support for renters. The measures are currently being reviewed and we will provide an update shortly.

There are a variety of ways in which the NHS can increase its capacity—for instance, through opening further surge beds in existing hospitals, mutual aid, using independent sector capacity and, of course, opening extra capacity in the Nightingale hospitals. I assure her that, around the country, options will be explored and taken up where they are both relevant and necessary across the country.

The noble Lord asked about the test and trace support payments—the £500 for those on low incomes to self-isolate. We have provided £50 million to local authorities delivering this scheme and have made sure that those advised to self-isolate by the NHS app can also access the payment. We have also made available £15 million for discretionary funding for those facing hardship when self-isolating but who are not eligible for the payment. The noble Lord will also be aware that we have made statutory sick pay available from day one.

Covid 19: Winter Plan

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Tuesday 24th November 2020

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, this is the most positive Statement the Prime Minister has been able to give since March, as we now have the real prospect of effective mass vaccination against coronavirus, which offers a route—of whatever length—back to normality. Huge congratulations are due to the team in Oxford and the other groups which produced the vaccine in record times. Reading accounts of how this has been achieved, I see that the key improvement on normal practice has been a willingness to work outside the normal silos in which scientists and others usually work. I hope this lesson will be learned for future vaccines, other areas of scientific research and public policy more generally.

There will no doubt be valid discussions about which groups other than those in care homes and the elderly should have priority on vaccine programmes, but the experience of the flu vaccination programme earlier this autumn should give us all some confidence that the programme can be undertaken speedily and effectively. I have one question about the vaccination programme. Do the Government intend that all those who receive the vaccine will get a vaccination certificate? One can certainly see many attractions of this, not least in that, if it were part of an international agreement to recognise such certificates, it could facilitate the return to greater normality in international travel, with the attendant benefits for the airline and tourism sectors.

The Statement sets out four criteria against which decisions on the placing of regions into tiers will be based and says that the tiering will be reviewed on a fortnightly basis. Can the noble Baroness clarify how that will work? The Prime Minister said yesterday that there will be a uniform approach, but the Health Secretary said it would depend on local circumstances. Which is it to be?

It is clear that, in tier 3 areas, the hospitality sector will continue to be very badly hit. Obviously, I understand the need for that, but will the Government look at additional, narrowly targeted support for this sector so that, when the toughest restrictions are lifted, there is still a hospitality sector able to reopen?

The Statement says that another £7 billion will be allocated to the test and trace system, bringing the total spend on this to some £22 billion—a huge sum which is, for example, greater than the total cost of Crossrail. I do not think that a single person believes that this has been money well spent so far. I hope that the new rapid tests will prove effective, but unless people who should get tested actually do so and then self-isolate if necessary, they will be ineffective. Equally, unless the tracking system also works, the money will be wasted. On all those grounds, the system to date has underperformed, to put it kindly.

In Liverpool, although the headline number of people tested is high, in the most deprived areas the take-up has been only 4% of residents. How do the Government aim to tackle this particular take-up problem? The proportion of people who self-isolate when asked to do so is still abysmally low. This is in no small measure due to the financial costs of doing so. There is of course the grant of £500 per week theoretically available so that those on low pay can be compensated for isolating. However, this is subject to so many conditions that, at the moment, apparently some 80% of all applications are rejected—this from a Government who have shown no such rigour when doling out PPE contracts worth millions of pounds. Will the Government now urgently recast the £500 scheme so that it can be accessed by those who need it?

Finally, I have a very specific question, of which I have given the noble Baroness prior notice. Page 24 of the winter plan document states that places of worship will be allowed to reopen but that there will be limits, depending on the tier, on the number of people with whom congregants can “interact”. Can the noble Baroness explain what “interact” means in this context, given that before the lockdown people were required to socially distance, wear masks and certainly not touch each other? Does it mean that there will be more or less “interaction” in churches now than there was a month ago?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions. We have published our winter plan, the aim of which is to take us through to spring. I will first answer a few questions on the tier system, which both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord touched on.

We have adapted our tiers in this plan on evidence that gives us the best chance to control the virus, developing community testing with scientific advice from national advisers and local directors of public health. The noble Baroness is right: these tiers are designed to reduce and keep the R below 1 and to support areas moving down tiers. That is the aim of where we are going. I will move on to vaccines, mass testing and other elements that we think will play an important part as we move towards the spring and, I hope, some kind of normality.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness are absolutely right. To provide clarity and consistency, all tier restrictions have been standardised and will not be negotiated locally—so that is tiers 1, 2 and 3. Both asked about decisions on moving out of tiers. Decisions on the areas that go in and out of tiers will be based on a range of indicators, including: case detection rates in all age groups; case detection rates in the over-60s; the rate at which cases are rising or falling; the positivity rate—so the number of positive cases detected as a percentage of tests taken; and pressure on the NHS, including current and projected occupancy. Tiering allocations will be reviewed every 14 days, so there is a process and range of measures that will be published around which decisions will be made. While we appreciate that people would like to see firm thresholds, because areas and localities are different we will need to take into account local factors as well, but the indicators that I mentioned are key ones.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about local engagement on the basis that there is now some consistency among tiers. Absolutely, there will be local engagement. In particular, we will offer local authorities in tier 3 areas the opportunity to participate in a new community asymptomatic testing programme to help to find people who have the virus but do not show symptoms. Local authority directors of public health will be able to select their own approaches for delivering tests and priority testing targets and, as the noble Lord said, we hope that will mean that there is proper targeting of local areas, and some of the issues around take-up that he mentioned can be addressed through this local programme.

The programme will involve a six-week surge of testing capability to enable regular testing to be rolled out to the community in a way that works for the local authority with support from national government, including sufficient test supply, funding to cover support set-up costs and staffing test sites and support for extra contact tracing to break up clusters before they become outbreaks. That is where the additional funding that the noble Lord mentioned for test and trace will be focused.

The noble Baroness asked about contracts, and I can only reassure her that we will, of course, follow all the proper processes, procedures and oversights in awarding any future contracts.

In relation to Christmas, just as we came in discussions finished with the devolved Administrations, and they have reached some conclusions. Between 23 and 27 December, up to three households will be able to join together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble. The noble Baroness rightly asked about the clinically extremely vulnerable. Everyone must continue to take personal responsibility for spreading the virus and protecting their loved ones. For someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable, forming a Christmas bubble carries additional risk, but it will be a personal choice. People should take all precautions, including maintaining social distance from those they do not live with at all times, and they should consider seeing their bubble outside, where the risks are lower—but that will be a personal choice for people.

From 23 to 27 December, travel will be permitted between tiers and nations for the purposes of joining a Christmas bubble. People coming to or from Northern Ireland—and I see the noble Lord sitting there—will be permitted to travel a day either side of 23 and 27 December. I am sure there will be further information coming out, but that has come hot off the press.

In relation to care homes, we have launched testing pilots across 20 care homes, using PCR and the new rapid turnaround tests to allow up to two specific visitors to take two tests a week so they can do indoor visits to residents, including some physical contact. We intend to roll out this approach in a phased way across December, because we have made a commitment to provide tests to enable care home residents to have two visitors tested twice a week.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about vaccines, which is a key part of our route out by spring, we hope. It is about a combination of the mass testing that I have talked about and, obviously, the improved therapeutics that we have, which are having an impact when people are in hospital, but also vaccines. We anticipate that a number of safe and effective vaccines will be available in 2021, and we have taken steps to ensure that the UK has access to them. As everyone will know, we have agreements with seven separate vaccine developers, but we accept that the shift will not happen overnight, which is why spring is the timescale that we are looking towards.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about a vaccination certificate. I am not aware of that, but I will take that issue back and raise it. I reassure him that an enormous amount of preparation is taking place to make sure that we have adequate provision, transport, PPE and logistical experts to ensure that the rollout is successful. As he rightly says, the NHS is working from a great base—every year for the flu vaccine we have to roll out a vaccination programme, so we are starting from a good base.

I will attempt to answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on interaction in places of worship. Social distancing rules should continue to be followed within places of worship, including during communal worship, which can of course now take place in all three tiers. That means that in areas under tier 1 restrictions, people should attend only in groups of up to six—the rule of six—and in tiers 2 and 3, people must not mix outside their household or household bubble. People should stay socially distanced. There should be closer distance only when absolutely essential to enable a faith practice to be carried out—for example, contact with a faith leader—and time spent in such contact should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Integrated Review

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Monday 23rd November 2020

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for answering questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement. The Prime Minister begins by saying that he

“will update the House on the Government’s integrated review of foreign, defence, security and development policy”

but the Statement does nothing of the sort. It is simply a statement of increased military expenditure, particularly on the Navy. The Prime Minister has successfully wrenched the nation’s credit card from the Chancellor’s possession long enough to provide for significant additional expenditure on defence kit. In themselves many, if not all, of the items on the shopping list are clearly desirable. Who could possibly object to having more frigates or drones, better AI or the National Cyber Force? But it seems more than somewhat bizarre to be announcing this additional spending in advance of the completion of the integrated review. Could the noble Baroness explain to the House exactly when that review will be published?

It is particularly worrying when we hear repeated rumours of a cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP spent on overseas development. Can the noble Baroness the Leader confirm that these rumours are simply untrue? If she cannot, what is the rationale to spend more on military kit and to cut the aid budget? How could robbing Peter to pay Paul in this way possibly lead to a net gain in our credibility and reputation, taking account of the soft, as well as hard, power we wield as a nation?

The Statement waxes lyrical on the need to fight terrorism, and no one can disagree, but the best way to fight terrorism and protect our security as a nation is in the closest possible co-ordination with our nearest allies. Is it therefore not reckless of the Government to have completely failed to address security co-operation with our EU partners, as part of the Brexit negotiations? Does leaving the EU systems for sharing information on criminals and terrorists, and the European arrest warrant, not present a body blow to our ability to identify, track and trace individuals who pose a direct threat to our security?

There is no update or set of principles on foreign policy, just a general statement that the world is an increasingly dangerous place. This a pretty thin basis for detailed defence procurement priorities. In the Statement, the Prime Minister says that new technological advances will

“surmount the old limits of logistics”,

but there are no advances that mean that fighting ships do not require refuelling or that sailors do not require feeding. When one of our carriers is deployed to the Far East, for example, how is it to be provisioned and, given that the new frigates will not be built for a number of years, how will it be protected?

While there is quite a lot about the Navy in the Statement, there is nothing at all about the Army. What does this mean for Army expenditure? For example, are the Government committed to keeping troop levels at their current levels and are rumours about reducing the number of tanks correct? How does this increased expenditure fit into the Government’s overall public expenditure plans? We will be hearing more from the Chancellor later this week but, given the weakness of public finances, the expenditure being discussed today simply cannot be funded by increased borrowing. To echo the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, which other areas of public expenditure will fall or which taxes will rise to pay for this?

The noble Baroness will no doubt say that she cannot give an answer to these questions because that would pre-empt Wednesday’s Statement—but today’s Statement pre-empts Wednesday’s Statement. The truth is that the Prime Minister has done what he does best: making exaggerated claims for future policy developments, while leaving the Chancellor of the Exchequer to pick up the bill. That is the fundamental problem with this Statement. It is isolated from the integrated foreign, defence, security and development review and from the overall tax-and-spend strategy of the Government. With its soaring rhetoric, Boys Own breathlessness and glowing references to past glories, it runs the risk of being isolated from any realistic assessment of Britain’s place in the modern world.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. I will start by talking briefly about the integrated review, as they both asked some questions about it. We will conclude and publish the full integrated review early next year. Both noble Lords asked about the delay and, as they rightly said, the review was announced in February; it was then paused in April, due to Covid, and restarted in June. So we did have a delay in the review and it will now conclude early next year. However, we are in the final phases of it, aligning our ambition with our resources. The defence settlement outlines the first conclusions of the review, which will put us on the front foot as we equip our Armed Forces for the threats of today and tomorrow, while ensuring that long-term defence projects have certainty and are not put on hold.

When the full integrated review concludes early next year, it will set out our overarching strategy for national security and foreign policy, including defence, diplomacy, development and national resilience. It will set the direction for more detailed strategies and departmental activity in the coming years. It will also set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation, and a strong direction for recovery from Covid at home and overseas. That issue was touched on at the G20 virtual summit held over the weekend, when all the leaders discussed it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly talked about making sure that all parties were engaged. I can certainly reassure her that this is a cross-Whitehall process, allowing all to contribute expertise and analysis—not only within Whitehall but with partners, including NATO. Our closest allies have been involved during the process and will continue to be so. She also asked about the defence review, which is ongoing. Further details will be updated in due course.

Both noble Lords asked about spending. This is the only multiyear settlement for any government department that will be announced this year. I can reassure them that it has been fully costed, building on extensive work by the Treasury and MoD to understand what future capabilities will cost and how much can be delivered through efficiencies.

The noble Baroness talked about jobs, quite rightly. We expect this settlement to create up to 10,000 jobs each year across the UK, and as many as two-thirds more in the supply chain. Both noble Lords will be aware that in 2018-19, the MoD supported over 400,000 jobs, while defence spent £19.2 billion with UK industry last year. This new settlement will support further jobs in a whole array of areas: in shipbuilding, for instance, and obviously in emerging technologies—in space and in the building of the Tempest. We hope that this spending will create jobs in a range of ways. Part of the investment will also be looking to upskill and make sure that we can provide jobs for people around the whole of the United Kingdom—Scotland obviously being key to some of the developments that we are talking about. Hopefully this will be a UK-wide investment in jobs.

Both noble Lords rightly asked about international development. We are of course extremely proud of our work there. We remain committed to supporting international development and helping the world’s poorest people. Of course, our Armed Forces are also a humanitarian force for good, coming to the aid of the most vulnerable following natural disasters, bringing stability to countries marred by conflict with peacekeeping missions and bolstering efforts to tackle Covid in the developing world. Both noble Lords will both know that the spending review will be announced on Wednesday; funding will be announced then.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the Army. I can assure him that the UK will continue to have full-spectrum Armed Forces, including an armoured capability. But we also need to ensure that we focus on how the Army is equipped and what we want it to do. This settlement will ensure that our soldiers have some of the best equipment in the world, so that they can continue to do their fantastic job.

Both noble Lords talked about global leadership. They are absolutely right, which is why this settlement raises our defence spending to 2.2% of GDP. That is more in cash terms than any other European ally or NATO member, other than the United States. We will continue to lead internationally. Next year is a critical year for our international leadership, as we have the G7 presidency, COP 26 and the 75th anniversary of the first UNGA meeting in London. We will continue to play our part on the global stage, and this settlement will help us to do that.

Covid-19 Update

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 14th October 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for responding to questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement. Although we are discussing a Statement barely 48 hours after it was made, things on the ground, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, have moved on apace since Monday. Infections have risen, deaths have risen rapidly, and people have become more confused and more worried.

In the Statement, the Prime Minister said the Government are seeking to balance the

“objectives of saving lives and protecting the NHS while keeping our children in school and … protecting jobs and livelihoods.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/10/20; col. 23.]

What he did not do was level with the British people about what his scientific advisers have been proposing. We now know that last month, SAGE urged an immediate circuit breaker of more restrictive measures, because, as the noble Baroness said, and in its words,

“not acting now … will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences.”

That was several weeks ago. No action was taken, and we do now have a “very large epidemic” on our hands. That is why my colleagues in the other place and those on these Benches support the leader of the Opposition’s proposal for a short circuit breaker, to give time to get firmly in place some measures to get the virus under control, in the hope that we might have some relaxation—albeit possibly temporarily—at Christmas. I have never seen the Prime Minister as one of nature’s Roundheads but as things stand, he looks set to succeed and follow Oliver Cromwell by cancelling Christmas as we know it.

The one welcome change in the Government’s position over recent days is that they have been willing, for the first time since March, to have a serious dialogue with civic leaders in those areas most heavily affected by the virus. This is extremely welcome but long overdue. However, it needs to go much further. The national test, track and trace system is failing, and failing badly. A large proportion of people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive are still not being contacted. Some 27% of those asked to isolate do not do so. Will the Government now effect a step change in the role they give to all local directors of public health to implement the track, trace and isolate system in their areas? Will they do so across the country and not only, as currently envisaged, in very high-alert areas; and will they give them the resources they need to do the job properly? If they do not, I fear we are simply going to see a large increase in the number of areas requiring the highest level of restrictions.

The Prime Minister’s Statement seems to bring clarity to an extremely confused picture, but it simply does not. It is completely unclear, for example, on the criteria the Government will use to decide which areas fall into the “very high”, “high” and “medium” categories. Can the noble Baroness tell the House what those criteria are?

The Prime Minister said the measures announced on Monday could lead to additional measures if local government leaders agreed. What measures do the Government have in mind? What happens if the Government think additional measures are needed and local leaders do not? Equally, if local authority leaders think that more restrictive measures should be imposed in advance of any government initiative—as is now the case with Essex County Council, and which is, I believe, the policy of the Mayor London—what will the Government’s response be?

The Government have briefed that they are preparing to open some of the Nightingale hospitals. It is widely believed in Yorkshire that, as far as the Nightingale hospital in Harrogate is concerned, this will not happen, because the hospital simply does not have the staff available to allow it to operate safely. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that this is not the case?

The country is now at a very dangerous point. The Government are at odds with their own scientific advisers, many council leaders and many of their own Back-Benchers. Their rules are complex and, in some cases, perverse. Track and trace is a shambles: it has lost the confidence of the majority of the population. It is time for a reset.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments and questions. First, they are right to point out some of the statistics to highlight the situation we are in. As the noble Baroness rightly said, there are now more people in hospital with Covid than when we went into lockdown on 23 March, and the number of people testing positive for Covid has quadrupled in the last three weeks, so we are very cognisant, as I know we all are in this House, of the issues that face us.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness referenced the need for action in September. We did take robust and proportionate action when introducing measures in England, including the rule of six and the 10 pm curfew, which we discussed in this House, as well as advising people to work from home when they can. Each of those was carefully judged to protect lives and reduce transmission, while minimising the impact on people’s livelihoods.

So, we did take robust action, but with the step change in cases, more action is needed, which is why we made the decision to move to the tiered approach. The reason we have gone for the tiered approach rather than the circuit breaker is that, as the Prime Minister said to the leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Question Time today, the disease is appearing more strongly in some areas and regions than others, which is a different situation from March. That is why we are introducing this approach, which can be tailored more effectively to local situations. However, having said that, we regularly, and will regularly, keep measures under review to ensure that we are always taking the best action we can.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness mentioned evidence. Evidence is considered by SAGE and its advice is published regularly online when it is no longer under live consideration for policy decisions. That is exactly what happened in this case. I hope I can reassure noble Lords that we will continue to take advice from a wide range of scientific and medical experts, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to inform our decisions. We are, as the noble Baroness rightly said, constantly having to evaluate the balance between protecting the NHS, saving lives, keeping our economy moving and keeping our children in school. These are very difficult issues to balance and I think the tone of the noble Lord’s and the noble Baroness’s questions, which I very much welcome, expresses the gravity of the situation and the difficult decisions that are being made.

I can assure the noble Baroness that as a member of Cabinet I have regular briefings, along with my Cabinet colleagues, from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser about the latest data. As I have said, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have to take decisions based on the best available science, along with considerations of the economic, operational, social and policy implications that follow, and that is what we do.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both reiterated criticisms of the test and trace system. I remind noble Lords that our daily capacity for testing is now around 340,000, with the aim of reaching more than 500,000 by the end of October. We increased capacity by around 30% in September alone. We are testing at a higher rate than other European countries and we have assembled the largest testing network in our history, including 96 NHS labs, 151 walk-in sites, 258 mobile testing sites and 77 regional sites. We are also looking to combine, as effectively as possible, the national framework and local expertise, which is why, since August, NHS test and trace has provided local authorities with dedicated teams of contact tracers to work alongside local public health officials to provide a more specialist service. We have provided more than £300 million to local authorities to help with this and, across the country now, we have 95 local authority contact tracing teams that are live, and more are coming online in the coming weeks. We have been very cognisant of some of the criticisms and are improving the situation on the ground. More than 700,000 people have been contacted and advised to isolate through the system and the latest figures show that more than 82% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about moving between tiers. Decisions on which areas are in which tier are made on a number of factors, including the rate of transmission, how quickly it is increasing and the effectiveness of current interventions, as well as hospitalisations and hospital capacity. Of course, all is also done in line with work and conversations with local leaders to discuss all their evidence and what they are seeing on the ground. It is a collaborative effort, but a range of factors is taken into account.

The noble Lord also asked about the Harrogate Nightingale Hospital. I am not sure whether he is aware, but it is currently being used. CT scanners have been made available to provide people with safer and faster access for a range of conditions, including cancer. As he will be aware, there are two hospitals providing that kind of support, Harrogate and Exeter, and another three Nightingale hospitals in some of the areas with the highest rates have been put on standby in order that they can play their part, along with the rest of our fantastic NHS, as we deal with this crisis.


Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 23rd September 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for agreeing to answer questions on the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday.

The Government now face four tough challenges in combating coronavirus. The first is how to act proportionately to drive down infections and deaths while at the same time allowing as much economic and social activity as possible to continue. This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act but, if the threat is as severe as the scientists believe, I find it surprising that the rule of six remains intact and allows, for example, individuals from six different households to meet in a restaurant, possibly for several hours, with zero social distancing. If I were a generous-hearted soul, I could invite five noble Lords for breakfast, five different ones for lunch and five different ones for supper. That sounds a lot to me. Can the noble Baroness confirm that Professor Whitty argued for stronger measures than those now being proposed? The rules also appear inconsistent. Why can 30 people attend a funeral but only 15 a wedding? That seems bizarre. Can the noble Baroness explain the science behind that decision?

The second challenge is how to identify those with the virus quickly and then isolate them from the rest of the population. Sadly, the Government’s track record on test, track and trace is hopelessly inadequate. It is miles behind the system devised in Germany, where, for example, anyone entering the country by car can have a prompt test at the side of the motorway, the results of which are quickly relayed to a working app, and where localised delays in getting tests done are so rare that they become major news stories. To argue that the German success and our failures have anything to do with our attitudes towards freedom is both risible and insulting. The Government are at least trying to be clearer on those who have priority in getting a test in future. But does the noble Baroness accept that it seems illogical to exclude from the priority list ancillary staff who work in hospitals, care homes and schools? Surely a caretaker, cleaner or member of the catering staff is just as capable of spreading the virus as a doctor, care worker or teacher.

The third challenge relates to persuading the public to adhere to the rules, and the Government have this week strengthened the stick and the carrot. On the stick, the Government have proposed increased penalties, but they are no good without more effective enforcement. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the Government will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need to do this. But will he really live up to his promise? Up to now, the Government have provided extra resources to local government at levels well below what they believe they need to do their Covid work effectively. Will the noble Baroness confirm that the Government will now make funds available to police forces and local authorities at a level that they, not the Government, judge to be required to do their job properly? On carrots, the Government have announced a new £500 isolation support payment for people on low incomes who have tested positive or been told to self-isolate. What is the definition of “low income”, and how quickly and by what means do they intend to get this extremely sensible initiative up and running?

The fourth challenge relates to the additional economic damage that the new restrictions will bring. The hospitality, arts and sport sectors will be particularly badly hit. We are told that the Chancellor and Business Secretary will bring forward further plans to help support those most affected. But the new restrictions bite from tomorrow. So when will the promised new business support measures be announced and take effect? Businesses have a very small cash cushion to keep them going while the Government decide what they are going to do to support them.

Finally, the Prime Minster expressed the Government’s willingness to give the Commons every opportunity to scrutinise government decisions. This is a sound principle but, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, forcefully pointed out, Parliament has effectively surrendered its scrutiny role over Covid legislation. The principal Covid Act was passed with barely any debate, and the delay in debating statutory instruments means that by the time we do discuss them they have been in operation for many weeks in most cases. So the scrutiny is, in effect, meaningless.

This deficiency, however, could easily be rectified by the Government. Will the noble Baroness assure the House that future statutory instruments such as the one coming into force tomorrow will be debated at the earliest opportunity? In the specific case of those new rules, and in light of the completion of the debate on the Agriculture Bill yesterday, can she give any reason why the House should not discuss the new statutory instrument tomorrow, in advance of it coming into effect, rather than at a later date when it will already have done so?

For the Government’s measures to work, individuals across the country have got to believe that they are necessary and proportionate. The scientists can set out the objective evidence, but only the Government can decide on the response. Bringing Parliament and the nation with them will be vital in the months ahead. To achieve that, they will need less bombast and more openness. I hope that we might now get it.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments and questions. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government remain committed to the test and trace system, and it will clearly play an important part in our efforts to continue to tackle the virus. I am sure she will be pleased to know that the test and trace app will be rolled out nationally tomorrow, further enhancing that programme. It is designed to work alongside the traditional contact tracing services and testing to help people understand if they are at risk. On her questions about the rules, my personal interpretation is that she could indeed invite two noble Lords to join her for curry if two had left, as the rule is about six people. Children are counted as individuals, so they are counted as one of the six.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about evidence. Certainly both the Government and the scientific advisers looked at a range of evidence in order to come up with the package that we have.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness quite rightly talked about the economic impacts, which we are all extremely aware of. They will know that through the measures we have taken so far we have protected 12 million people and jobs through the furlough and self-employed schemes, at a cost of £40 billion. However, I entirely accept their points about the impact that this virus is still having, and the impact it is still having on our economy. I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Chancellor, and those across government, are working with employers, representatives, unions and businesses to continue to work out exactly what the best form of support for businesses in all sectors is. We keep that package under constant review.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the prioritisation of testing. He is absolutely right: at the moment prioritisation is for those who work in acute clinical care, broader NHS staff and people in care homes, and targeted testing for teaching staff. He is obviously quite right to mention other individuals who work within these settings, and we will keep the prioritisation under review. As we increase our testing and look towards the 500,000 tests that we hope to get to by the end of October, we hope to be able to offer tests much more widely and include more people within that prioritisation.

On face coverings, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, talked about indoor settings with lots of people. That is why we are now mandating face coverings in indoor settings and enclosed places which are freely accessed by the public, where it may not be possible to maintain social distancing. He will be aware that we already had those measures in place for shops and supermarkets and on public transport. It is for that very reason that we are now extending the mandatory wearing of face coverings to hospitality settings, taxis and private hire vehicles—again, in enclosed settings where it is particularly difficult for people to maintain social distancing.

The noble Lord also asked about extra funding for the police and local authorities. We have already announced an initial £50 million to support the range of enforcement activity we would expect to see in relation to the new rules that we have just announced. It will be up to the police to decide how they wish to deploy that—for instance, it could be used for increasing patrols to enforce social contact rules, deploying police to high-risk areas where there is rising concern, and providing more support to local authorities and NHS Test and Trace where quarantine and self-isolation breaches are being escalated. Of course, those are just some of the ways in which this funding could be used at a local level.

In relation to the new payment that was announced, the £500 is targeted at those on low incomes and who cannot work from home. It is an additional payment, on top of statutory sick pay and existing benefits or support, such as universal credit, employment support allowance, local housing allowance or hardship fund payments. It will become available for those who are required to self-isolate from 28 September. Local authorities are working quickly to set up these support schemes, and we expect them to be in place by 12 October. Anyone who has had to self-isolate from 28 September will receive backdated payments. That is, I hope, the detail of the new scheme.

The noble Lord talked about parliamentary scrutiny, which is of course extremely important. Each SI has undergone full scrutiny, in line with the requirements of its parent Act. We have been using the appropriate parliamentary procedures for considering regulations, including waiting for the JCSI and the SLSC to report on them before they are debated. On Monday, we will have a more general debate, in line with the commitment we made, on the Coronavirus Act itself.

The noble Lord asked about tomorrow. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—who is sitting there—will be well aware, we have two days of full discussions on coronavirus SIs, so I do not think we can criticise the House or anyone within it for the work they are doing on this. We will be discussing the SIs that were to be in the Grand Committee in the Chamber. We are dealing with them in order: there are deadlines within which we have to discuss these SIs, and that is the order in which we are taking them. I hope the noble Lord will accept that, as well as the fact that we have two coronavirus Statements today, we are taking this very seriously and ensuring parliamentary scrutiny.

Covid-19 Update

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 25th June 2020

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for answering questions on this Statement.

I welcome the broad thrust of the Government’s proposals because as the risks of catching Covid-19 have diminished, the economic and mental health costs being incurred by many people are increasing. At some point, the costs of remaining in lockdown were bound to be greater than those of lifting it, and that moment appears to have arrived.

As far as the detailed proposals are concerned, the Prime Minister says that they are based on the principle of,

“trust the British public to use their common sense.”

“Trust the people” is of course an old Liberal slogan, so I cannot but applaud that, but the problem about using one’s common sense is that there is no universally agreed view of what common sense constitutes in any particular circumstance. Everybody will disagree with the Government on what it means in specific instances now, and I will mention just two of my own. I do not understand why local cricket clubs cannot re-open when so many other sports are operating, and I do not know why cathedrals and large churches are not allowed any choral music at all, even though individual choristers could stand apart from each other and many metres away from the congregation. These are relatively small issues, but they matter a lot to those affected. What is the process for keeping such inconveniences under review? Will the Government look at further small steps that would seem to many to be an application of the common sense which the Prime Minister claims is the hallmark of his policy?

Going forward, the two bigger challenges are support for the economy and dealing with any new outbreaks. Today’s Statement is not primarily about the economy but it has major economic implications, not only for those working in sectors where the lockdown is effectively being removed, but also for those where it is not. My only plea to the Government is to be nuanced in any stimulus they give to the economy, and to concentrate on giving continued support to sectors that at present cannot begin to return to normal, such as the performing arts, where a failure to be generous now could lead to a long-term hollowing out of the sector.

There is also the issue facing those who are currently shielding, who will not be able to return to work safely at the end of July, because their workplace will not have adequate anti-Covid-19 measures in place, due to the intrinsic nature of the work. Working as a chef is one example. Will the Government extend the provision of statutory sick pay for such people? If not, how are they supposed to make ends meet?

The second big challenge is how to deal with any resurgence of the disease, which is likely to begin with localised outbreaks. In this respect it is instructive to look at what has happened in Germany. The recent outbreak at the Gütersloh meat processing factory saw 1,500 cases out of a workforce of 7,000. This led almost immediately to the lockdown, for a week, of a district of some 360,000 people, and the rapid deployment of some 100 mobile testing teams to identify further infection among the population as a whole. My concern is that a similar outbreak here would not be met with a similarly decisive response.

If such an outbreak happened in England, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, who would make the decision to lock down the equivalent of a London borough or a district council area? How quickly could such a decision be made? What capacity exists for large-scale local testing in such an area, and what contingency planning has already been undertaken by the Government to ensure that there is a decisive response?

At present, the “track, trace and isolate” policy is based on a national system of telephone callers who have no knowledge of local areas, no local credibility and therefore limited powers of persuasion. It is backed up by an app which, at best, will not be ready for months, and in any event is now not the most important thing that is going to happen but

“the cherry on top of the cake”.

Will the Government now refocus their “track and trace” efforts towards a more locally led approach, and will they change tack and commit to being open with people when significant new outbreaks occur in specific local settings—for example, in meat processing plants, as has happened in two or three cases in the UK already?

While loosening the lockdown and opening up more of the economy is welcome, it will only remain welcome while we avoid a generalised second wave of infections. This is perfectly possible with a rigorous, locally based “track, trace and isolate” system. At present, however, neither I nor anybody else believes that such a system is in place. Until it is, the Government run the risk of making the same hash of coming out of the pandemic as they did of going into it.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. Both rightly asked about the “test and trace” system. It has been important to learn as we have developed this new technology, which is why it has undergone testing on the Isle of Wight and in a series of field tests. This has uncovered some issues with the app, particularly the Google-Apple framework. We are now bringing together the app and the Google-Apple solution so that we can carry out contact tracing and make it easier to order tests and access advice and guidance on self-isolation.

On 18 June, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that NHSX has begun the next phase of development in building this app, and we will conduct a national rollout only when we are confident of having got it right. The noble Baroness is right that other countries have started to roll out apps, but they too—Singapore, for instance—have found very similar issues with the compatibility of this data. Germany has had 12.2 million downloads, but as we have said, you need about 60% of the population for this to be a fully functioning rollout, and downloads are not the same as rollout. I am not saying that there are no issues, but a lot of countries are grappling with this. We are making progress and will continue to do so.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness rightly asked about local outbreaks, and the noble Lord referred to specific examples. I can confirm that there are ongoing discussions with local authorities. Each local area has its own local action committee and its own arrangements to choose how it wants to run its local outbreak plans. Decisions will be supported at a local level by the Joint Biosecurity Centre—which is also tracking data and will be involved—Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace. We have made £300 million available to local authorities to work with NHS Test and Trace in developing local outbreak control plans, which will identify and contain potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, ensure that testing capacities are effectively deployed and help the most vulnerable in isolation. We are in discussions with local authorities about what enforcement powers are available and what more can be granted. As has always been the case, if multiple cases appear in a specific setting, a specialist team from the local authority or Public Health England will help to manage the outbreak. A lot of work from central and local government is ongoing throughout this pandemic, and it will continue.

The noble Baroness asked about the one-metre rule, particularly in respect of businesses. It is for each business to carry out its own risk assessment, in consultation with workers, to inform their actions and the mitigation steps they may take if they move to the one-metre-plus rule. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness will have seen that a significant amount of detailed guidance has been published since the Prime Minister’s Statement. Obviously, employers have a duty under the law to protect the health and safety of their employees, and if there are concerns about employers’ steps, employees should get in touch with their employee representative, union, local authority or the Health and Safety Executive. We have announced an additional £14 million for the Health and Safety Executive for extra call-centre staff, inspectors and equipment.

I hope that the noble Baroness can assure her eight-year-old friend, whose name I am afraid I have forgotten—

Global Britain

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Thursday 18th June 2020

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for answering questions on the Statement. To me, the Statement raises three principal questions. First, why is this change happening at all? Secondly, why is it happening now? Thirdly, is it a good idea?

On the first point, the Statement and the Prime Minister’s comments on Tuesday make it very clear why this move is being made. First, he and many in the Conservative Party believe that DfID has simply too much money, or, as the Prime Minister disparagingly put it, that it acts like a “giant cashpoint in the sky”. He also believes that it spends it badly, as the disgraceful and wilfully inaccurate anti-DfID briefings put out by the Government and faithfully repeated in some of yesterday’s newspapers made clear.

Secondly, the Prime Minister wants to use the money for something other than DfID’s core aims of extreme poverty reduction and the fight against disease. He says in the Statement:

“We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling”,

with the clear implication that this was the wrong set of priorities. Yet income per head in Tanzania is under $4,000 while that in Montenegro, one of the six west Balkan countries, is $22,000—over five times as much. Even the poorest western Balkan country, Kosovo, is more than three times as prosperous as Tanzania.

If you are worried about poverty, the current priorities make absolute sense, but they make no sense at all if you want the money to gain diplomatic leverage against Russia. This may well be desirable, but it is not what DfID was established for and it is not what development aid should be used for. From now on, poverty and disease are not to be the hallmarks of our development policy. The priorities are to be—I quote from the Prime Minister’s letter to parliamentarians on Tuesday—“driven by the overarching strategy set by the National Security Council.” What expertise does the National Security Council have in poverty reduction and combating disease, and will it now be strengthened to include people who do have such expertise?

Why is this move being made now? As Justine Greening pointed out, the Government should be concentrating their efforts on fighting coronavirus rather than tinkering with departmental boundaries. It is not as though the Government are making such a good fist of dealing with coronavirus that they have extra capacity on their hands and are looking for other things to do. There are other big problems as well, not least Brexit, where things are not exactly going swimmingly. Indeed, cynics have argued that the only reason the decision has been announced now is to throw some red meat to the Government’s critics on their own Back Benches regarding their handling of the coronavirus crisis. If that is not the reason, what is it? Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us.

Finally, is the abolition of DfID and the refocusing of its priorities a good thing? Outside one wing of the Tory party, the move has no supporters. Three Prime Ministers, including David Cameron, have condemned it, and so too have at least three former Conservative International Development Secretaries. The Prime Minister’s claim that the decision reflects

“a massive consultation over a long period of time”

is simply belied by the fact that of the 400-plus NGOs working with DfID, none was consulted at all.

All those with experience in this field are concerned that the focus of development aid will shift away from the reduction of extreme poverty and disease. All are concerned that the transparency and accountability of the development programme will be reduced. And all are concerned that as a result, far from enhancing the concept of global Britain, this will diminish it.

The Prime Minister makes a habit of claiming that his policies and initiatives are world class when they are anything but. However, in the case of DfID, he has done the opposite. Here, we do have a world-class institution and set of policies—and he has disparaged it. But this Prime Minister has long wanted to get his hands on DfID funds to promote other foreign policy goals. He will now indeed have his hands on the money, but he is devoid of any articulated foreign policy on which to spend it. “Global Britain” seems to mean “anywhere but Europe”, but beyond that phrase, the policy is completely vacuous. The decision is, as Andrew Mitchell has said, an “extraordinary mistake” by a Prime Minister for whom extraordinary mistakes are becoming a hallmark of his tenure. The poorest will suffer most, but the Prime Minister simply does not care.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their questions and comments. First, I fully endorse the tribute paid by the noble Baroness to the remarkable life of Dame Vera Lynn. I thank her for making those statements at the Dispatch Box.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about the timing of this announcement. While the arrangements for two separate departments were right in their time, things have changed. In particular, the coronavirus has imposed a fundamental change in the way that we operate. It has shown that a whole-of-government effort is as important abroad as it is at home. That is why we believe that the time is right to integrate diplomacy and overseas development. The merger of DfID and the FCO will unite development and diplomacy in one department, which will bring together Britain’s international effort. It is about bringing together the best of both and putting the ambition, vision and expertise of our world-leading development experts at the heart of our international policy.

The noble Baroness asked about discussions. The Prime Minister did of course discuss this merger with both Secretaries of State affected. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are right that programmes funded by UK aid are consistently rated as some of the most transparent and effective in the world. It is that very expertise that will now be at the heart of the new department. I assure the noble Lord that our commitment to the world’s poorest remains as strong as ever. Tackling extreme poverty around the world remains a government priority and we believe that bringing these two departments together will enable us to use all our levers in a comprehensive approach to achieve that goal. Reducing poverty remains central to the new department’s mission.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord talked about the broader context of foreign and international policy; I refer to the review that is being undertaken of our foreign, defence and development policy. This merger of the two departments—and it is a merger—is within the context of that review, which will define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role within the world, and its outcomes, which will shape the objectives of the new department. The review will establish the strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy, determining the capabilities and structural reforms needed and how we will work with international partners and organisations to promote the UK’s interests around the world. Both this review and the merger are evidence of the Prime Minister’s commitment to a unified British foreign policy as we go forward.

The noble Baroness rightly asked about staff. There will be no compulsory redundancies, although some roles and responsibilities will change. Staff will be worked with very closely throughout this process and full details, including the structure of the department, will be set out in due course. As I have repeatedly stressed, we want this merger to bring out the best of what we do in aid and diplomacy, and we believe it will also create new work and travel opportunities for staff. The majority of DfID and FCO staff working overseas are already collocated and work together very closely. This will build on work that is ongoing. I can confirm to the noble Baroness that we will continue to spend ODA money according to legal requirements and continue to abide by the OECD and DAC rules for aid.

House of Lords: Allowances

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Wednesday 6th May 2020

(2 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
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I thank all noble Lords for their comments. I am going to restrict my comments on this Motion to allowances, because we will come on to some broader points that noble Lords raised on other issues in debating the next Motion. However, I am very happy to reiterate the words of my noble friend Lord True yesterday: there is absolutely no basis to the Sunday Times story. It is not government policy and nothing that I recognise, and I am very sorry for the hurt and upset it has caused in your Lordships’ House. I put on record again that it is not true.

Regarding the number of contributions, this debate has made clear the difficult decisions and balances that the commission had to strike in coming up with these proposals. I completely recognise, as we all do, the very real-life consequences once decisions have been made. That is why, as I said in my opening remarks, the allowance will be under constant review. We are in a moving picture and in unprecedented times, as I think everybody recognises. We are doing our best to move as and when we can to ensure that we take all this into account.

The voting Lobbies have been set up, but I very much hope that the noble Lord will not feel the need to use them today. I reiterate that this is under constant review. It is temporary, along with all the proceedings that we are undertaking. However, despite all the issues raised by noble Lords, and the restrictions we are dealing with in the Virtual Proceedings, I believe that we are able to do our job in very difficult circumstances. We are all very grateful to all those supporting us in being able to do so, notwithstanding the very real impact this is having on so many people’s lives.

Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby
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The noble Baroness has not really addressed the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Alderdice. Can she confirm whether she personally, and on behalf of the Government, believes that there should be a review? If so, when does she believe that should happen by? If she does not think so, on what basis does she think we can continue with what everybody accepts is an unacceptable, temporary situation, without any sense of when it might come to an end?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
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As the noble Lord is aware, since he is on the commission, this is not a government decision but a decision of the commission, on whose behalf I am speaking. The Motion makes it clear that it is a temporary arrangement. As noble Lords know, I have said that it is under constant review. We can discuss with the Lord Speaker what that reviewing may look like, but it is not my decision alone as I am part of the commission.

We will have to see when and how we start to move. We are anticipating new guidance over the weekend on what restrictions will be happening. I am sure that all of us in the House will look at how to implement them. We all want to return as a House, as everyone has stated, but we have to stick to government guidelines and ensure that we have a safe working environment for Peers and staff. We have put Virtual Proceedings in place and are trying to roll them out. We are trying to increase the amount of business being done in Virtual Proceedings, which we will obviously discuss on the next Motion as we look to take more legislative stages online.

This is a constantly moving issue. I can assure noble Lords that—whether they know it or not—my staff and team, through the usual channels and with all the other leaders, are working constantly to ensure that we are doing our best to allow noble Lords the opportunities to address the issues that they want to.

Global Britain

Debate between Baroness Evans of Bowes Park and Lord Newby
Monday 3rd February 2020

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Newby Portrait Lord Newby (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I am of course delighted that she has, because in doing so she has shown herself willing to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny where the Prime Minister has not, despite the fact that the meat of this Statement is his Written Statement to Parliament today on the UK’s approach to the Brexit negotiations. I hope that this will set a precedent, and one which she will commend to her leader in another place.

It is very instructive to compare the Prime Minister’s Statement to that issued by the EU, also today, on its approach to the negotiations. The EU document runs to some 30 pages; the Prime Minister’s to one and a half, albeit in small type. It is still pretty thin. In a number of respects, the two sets of proposals are complementary, and the tone is certainly conciliatory, which is to be welcomed. The Government are now perfectly explicit that they want a Canada-type trade agreement. In terms of the degree of closeness to the EU, that is the height of their ambitions and they accept that if they fail to get such a deal, they will revert to normal third-country arrangements. The latter option would clearly be extremely damaging, as this House has discussed many times, but so in my view would be a Canada-type agreement.

Such an agreement will require customs checks and controls, sanitary and phytosanitary controls, and much form-filling. It will not be the frictionless trade of which Mrs May was such a proponent; nor “unfettered” trade, which was the terminology of the Conservative election manifesto. For the sake of clarity, can the Leader of the House confirm that a Canada-type agreement would inevitably lead to such controls? In respect of trade between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, can she confirm that the permanent customs border will now be down the middle of the Irish Sea rather than on the UK-Irish land border? Can she also explain how a Canada-type deal would cover agricultural products given that the real Canada agreement involves tariffs and quotas on agricultural products such as poultry, eggs, beef, pork and wheat? What discussions have taken place between the Government and the NFU to ascertain how British farm production would be affected by the imposition of such Canada-type tariffs and quotas?

One area where there is clearly no current agreement between the UK and EU position is fishing. The EU document talks of aiming

“to avoid economic dislocation for Union fishermen”

and to

“build on existing reciprocal access conditions, quota shares and the traditional activity of the Union fleet”.

How do the Government square this with their aim of extending the scope of exclusive UK fishery rights? Can the Leader confirm that, when it comes to services, the Government stand by their assessment of two years ago that a Canada-style agreement would involve more than 550 restrictions in services trade?

On security, the EU document discusses co-operation between law enforcement and judicial authorities, which will be in line with arrangements for co-operation with third countries. This is a million miles short of the co-operation which now protects the UK through the Prüm and European arrest warrant systems. How do the Government, whose own document talks only about putting in place a “pragmatic agreement”, envisage replicating the benefits for the security of our citizens which the present arrangements provide?

Moving on to the section in the Statement headed “Global Britain”, I am afraid that we now enter a zone of almost entirely windy rhetoric, culminating in the hyperbolic statement that Global Britain will be

“an even stronger force for good in the world.”

To exemplify this new reality, the Statement refers to the COP 26 climate change summit that is to take place in Glasgow—our chairing of which, of course, has nothing to do with EU membership and long predates Brexit. The Government say that their approach to COP 26 is to lead by example, but the truth is that the only example they seem to be setting is of chaos and confusion. Following the sacking of Claire Perry O’Neill, can the Leader say who will now be in charge of preparing for this summit, when she expects the Cabinet sub-committee set up to manage it to have its first ever meeting, and when the Government will begin to publish their plans for the summit? The only thing that we know about it is that the costs have gone up from £250 million to £450 million, but we are no closer to knowing what the Government plan the summit to achieve.

For all the talk of global Britain, most of the rest of the globe thinks that, in pursuing Brexit, we have taken leave of our senses. Nothing in this Statement is likely to persuade them that they are wrong.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and noble Lord, Lord Newby, for their comments and questions. I apologise for the confusion around the timing of this Statement. I also heard “I was in, I was out, I was in”, so I apologise for that.

The noble Baroness asked about our commitment to environmental and animal welfare standards. I can only reiterate what we have made clear time and again—not only me at the Dispatch Box but all my Front-Bench team covering these areas: that we remain firmly committed to upholding our standards and that, without exception, imports to the UK will meet our stringent food safety standards.

The noble Baroness asked about the political declaration, which makes it clear that the future relationship will be based on a free trade agreement. It also describes the future EU-UK relationship as a core economic partnership based on a free trade agreement supported by other agreements where appropriate. As both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said, the Prime Minister has made it clear that we are looking for a Canada-style deal.

The noble Lord asked about customs and friction at the border. Yes, we recognise that leaving the EU will result in change. We are leaving the customs union and single market and do not seek alignment with EU rules. That means that exporters and importers will have to comply with new processes, but we will do everything we can to mitigate any practical effects. We will seek to minimise friction through customs facilitation and co-operation between regulators, for example. A huge amount of work goes on around the world to minimise the cost of trade, including in the WTO, so there is plenty of work to build on. The noble Lord will also be aware that customs processes nowadays are electronic and done away from the border, so, again, we believe that we can mitigate many of the issues that may—I say only “may”—arise. Around the world, there are plenty of supply chains that do not depend on being part of a customs union, most obviously between the US, Canada and Mexico.

The noble Baroness asked about scrutiny and keeping Parliament informed. I reiterate our commitment to doing that. She also mentioned the length of the WMS that we published in comparison to the EU’s negotiating mandate. We anticipate that we will publish a further, detailed document towards the end of February in parallel to the EU’s finalisation of its own mandate. We will of course provide regular updates to the House and look forward to the continuing scrutiny of our excellent EU Committee and other committees as the work goes on. We will do all we can to make sure that this House remains informed. The latest situation is that discussions with the EU on the structure and frequency of negotiations have begun. We expect negotiations to begin in the first week of March, once the EU’s mandate process is complete, although we would be happy to begin them sooner if it so desired.

The noble Baroness asked about Gibraltar. I reiterate that we will be negotiating for the whole UK family, which includes Gibraltar. As with the withdrawal agreement, we will negotiate with the EU as a whole. There are clearly some circumstances which are specific to Gibraltar and we have discussed these with the Governments of Gibraltar and Spain. We had constructive conversations in the course of the withdrawal agreement, and we will continue to do so.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the Department for International Trade. DIT now has a full complement of trade negotiators. We have scaled up to be roughly similar in size to the US trade representation. Since 2016, the number of trade policy officials has grown significantly, from around 45 to some 575. Trade policy groups are supported by around 70 lawyers and 90 analysts. A lot of work has gone in to upping the skill set in that department, which will be critical in the months ahead.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about fisheries. I repeat that, when we leave the EU, we are committed to working closely with our partners, including the EU, Norway and Faroe Islands, to manage shared stocks in a sustainable way and to share fishing opportunities on a fair and scientific basis. The noble Lord also talked about internal security. As he knows, the political declaration provides the basis for our future security relationship, covering practical operational co-operation, data-driven law enforcement and multilateral co-operation through EU agencies. The detail of this will be a matter for further discussion. We are absolutely keen and open to discussing options for maintaining co-operation on the exchange of criminal records, DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data. The EU currently has agreements with third parties, including ones providing co-operation, through tools such as SIS II and Prüm. None of these agreements involves CJEU jurisdiction in those countries.

The noble Baroness asked about the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We made a manifesto commitment to continue to grant asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution. The Government demonstrated their intentions by writing to the EU Commission on 22 October last year to commence negotiations on this issue. We are seeking a reciprocal post-exit agreement with the EU on this matter. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, touched on COP 26 and climate change. I assure him that this is a priority for the Government. We are delighted to be hosting this important global event. It looks like it will be bringing together over 30,000 delegates from around the world to tackle climate change. Our record on action on climate change is second to none. We are the first major economy to enshrine a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We are doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion. We are absolutely committed and determined to make COP 26 a resounding success; we are sure it will be.