Lord Kennedy of Southwark debates with Cabinet Office

There have been 44 exchanges between Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Cabinet Office

Thu 3rd September 2020 Representation of the People (Electoral Registers Publication Date) Regulations 2020 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (911 words)
Wed 26th February 2020 Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) Order (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (425 words)
Fri 19th July 2019 EEA Nationals (Indefinite Leave to Remain) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (1,350 words)
Thu 4th July 2019 Councils: Funding (Lords Chamber) 5 interactions (144 words)
Wed 3rd July 2019 Affordable Housing (Lords Chamber) 5 interactions (119 words)
Wed 5th June 2019 European Parliament Elections: Non-UK EU Citizens (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (88 words)
Thu 23rd May 2019 Electoral Commission: Referendums and Elections Spending (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (59 words)
Wed 22nd May 2019 Political Parties: Donation Rules (Lords Chamber) 4 interactions (102 words)
Mon 13th May 2019 Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (969 words)
Mon 18th March 2019 Non-Domestic Rating (Rates Retention and Levy and Safety Net) (Amendment) and (Levy Account Basis of Distribution) Regulations 2019 (Lords Chamber) 6 interactions (163 words)
Thu 14th February 2019 Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2019 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (265 words)
Thu 14th February 2019 Representation of the People (Election Expenses Exclusion) (Amendment) Order 2019 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (144 words)
Wed 13th February 2019 Election Expenditure (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (37 words)
Thu 31st January 2019 Social Housing (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (1,578 words)
Thu 13th December 2018 Constitutional Convention (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (1,562 words)
Mon 26th November 2018 Verify: Digital Identity System (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (12 words)
Tue 20th November 2018 Tenant Fees Bill (Lords Chamber) 16 interactions (1,140 words)
Thu 18th October 2018 Cyber Threats (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (1,575 words)
Thu 13th September 2018 Third-party Election Campaigning (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (2,033 words)
Tue 4th September 2018 Elections: Personation (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (63 words)
Tue 17th July 2018 Electoral Commission (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (109 words)
Mon 9th July 2018 New Towns Act 1981 (Local Authority Oversight) Regulations 2018 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (447 words)
Mon 9th July 2018 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (Business Rate Supplements Functions) Order 2018 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (313 words)
Wed 4th July 2018 European Union Referendum (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (41 words)
Thu 28th June 2018 Elections: Electoral Commission Recommendations (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (31 words)
Thu 7th June 2018 Online Material: Identification of Promoters (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (57 words)
Wed 23rd May 2018 Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018 (Lords Chamber) 6 interactions (926 words)
Wed 23rd May 2018 Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018 (Lords Chamber) 6 interactions (726 words)
Wed 23rd May 2018 Legislative Reform (Regulator of Social Housing) (England) Order 2018 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (101 words)
Tue 24th April 2018 Local Elections: Voter ID (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (111 words)
Tue 13th March 2018 Hate Crime (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (110 words)
Mon 12th March 2018 Cannabis (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (94 words)
Thu 8th February 2018 Housing Associations (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (74 words)
Thu 1st February 2018 Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 (Amendments to Audit Requirements) Order 2017 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (290 words)
Fri 15th December 2017 Local Government Elections (Referendum) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (1,379 words)
Thu 14th December 2017 Grenfell Tower (Lords Chamber) 4 interactions (179 words)
Wed 6th December 2017 Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017 (Grand Committee) 8 interactions (951 words)
Fri 27th October 2017 Democratic Political Activity (Funding and Expenditure) Bill [HL] (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (1,895 words)
Tue 24th October 2017 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (88 words)
Thu 12th October 2017 Housing: Availability and Affordability (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (2,006 words)
Thu 7th September 2017 Local Government Elections (Grand Committee) 3 interactions (1,542 words)
Wed 6th September 2017 Electoral Spending Limits: Wales (Lords Chamber) 3 interactions (71 words)
Thu 13th July 2017 Local Government Finance (Lords Chamber) 6 interactions (2,478 words)
Mon 26th June 2017 Boundary Reviews 2018 (Lords Chamber) 4 interactions (125 words)

Representation of the People (Electoral Registers Publication Date) Regulations 2020

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Thursday 3rd September 2020

(4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Cabinet Office
Lord Tyler Portrait Lord Tyler (LD) [V] - Hansard

My Lords, shortly I will have some welcoming comments to add to the substantial points made by my noble friends Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Rennard and other Members of your Lordships’ House, but first I register a double disappointment with the Minister’s introduction to this short debate. It was an obvious opportunity for him to give the Government’s outline response to the formidable report of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, published shortly before the recess, if only to indicate the likely timing for a fuller response. Other noble Lords have referred to that excellent report. Its key recommendation for the Government was that they must ensure that they treat improving accuracy and completeness as a major priority in future reforms to electoral registration and administration. Clearly, this SI forms part of that exercise.

As we have heard from colleagues on all sides, the date for revised registers to be published can have a long-term impact on their value. However, a more substantial issue that lies behind these discussions is the central priority objective of seeking to ensure that the absolute maximum of eligible fellow citizens are on that register. It would have been encouraging to hear the Minister reiterate the Government’s clear commitment to that effect.

My second disappointment relates to the Minister’s failure to make an unequivocal statement of support for the Electoral Commission. It is a statutory consultee for this SI under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. He will have seen, as we all have, an extraordinary attack on the commission last weekend by Amanda Milling, who is apparently something in the Conservative Party hierarchy. She was widely reported as accusing the commission of being “accountable to no one”. Whatever her position there, she surely has only a very limited grasp of the fundamentals of the UK constitution and particularly of the role of Parliament.

The Electoral Commission is a statutory regulator for our democracy whose independence and integrity are recognised worldwide. It is not accountable to the Government, let alone any political party, but it is accountable to Parliament. For Miss Milling to seek to undermine its authority in this way, with or without No. 10 approval, is surely outrageous. Why is she, presumably with her party colleagues, so scared of the commission undertaking the role it has been given by Parliament? For her to suggest that some of the commission’s investigatory responsibilities should be handed over to local police forces is plainly ridiculous and will rightly be condemned by her own party’s MPs and candidates. I hope and trust that the Minister will take the opportunity in this debate to disassociate the Government from this idiotic attack on the commission.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of a comprehensive electoral register for the credibility of, and public respect for, all levels of elections in this country. Since, as we now know, May 2021 will see an unprecedented number and range of elections as a result of the Covid-19 postponement, this is especially topical and relevant in the months leading up to them, as my noble friend Lord Wallace reminded the House. Therefore, I echo the concerns expressed on all sides of the House and, to be brief, I will not repeat them all.

In particular, I hope the Minister will be able to answer in detail the relevant questions posed by my noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord Rennard and by other Members, if not today, then in a written response to all participating in this debate.

I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, referred to Northern Ireland because I, too, do not fully understand exactly why it is not taken as read that it has an improved system for assuring that young attainers are registered. Surely, if it is a better system, we should be looking at it more carefully to see whether it could be more relevant on this side of the Irish Sea.

I also want to reinforce what was just said by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the effect on constituency boundaries, with which we will, of course, be very much concerned in your Lordships’ House in the coming weeks.

The key question for the Minister is that, surely, it must be important for the Government to have a clear picture—an updated estimate—of the number of eligible citizens not currently registered to vote. That is the bedrock of our parliamentary and local democracy, and it needs urgent attention.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for introducing the regulations and setting out for the House the reasons for their introduction. I support the regulations as they stand; they give EROs two additional months before they must publish the new electoral register for the area they are responsible for. I have a few questions and some observations to make.

One of the problems, referred to by a number of noble Lords, is underregistration in the United Kingdom. One of my concerns is that the pandemic will have made matters worse. There is nothing in this proposal that addresses that situation, other than extending the period by two months. I concur very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord Adonis when he referred to the problem of underregistration, as many other noble Lords have done. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, also pointed out that it is often people on the margins of society who find themselves excluded and left off the register.

As many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Mann, said, this particularly affects not only people’s right to express their view and support a party, or whoever, at an election but also their ability to confirm their identity, particularly in terms of their credit rating. If you are not registered to vote, it has huge implications for that and we really need to make sure that people, particularly young people, fully understand the consequences for them on this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord True, is vastly experienced in local government and led a London borough for many years. I am sure he appreciates the difficulties that many local authorities face at present. A vast array of duties and burdens is placed on local government, but there also must be an adequate level of resource to fulfil those obligations. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the difficulties caused by the redeployment of staff to other duties in some cases, the inability to carry out some functions at home, and the lack of specialist software and printed correspondence, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. However, other than extending by two months, we have not addressed those issues at all because this is not a normal year—this is not an election year—so what are we going to do beyond that?

It was good to hear from the noble Lord that there has been consultation with the wider electoral community. When I looked through the Explanatory Notes, that was not very clear. There was a reference to the Electoral Commission, but it is good to hear that the Government have consulted it, and I thank them very much for that. The Electoral Commission has a very important role. It expresses a view, collects data from the EROs, publishes data, develops standards and comes up with proposals, but it does not do the work on the ground. It is the EROs who do this and it is very important that they are consulted, so I was pleased to hear that we have done that.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the security of the ballot. This is vital and it must be the Government’s most important job to ensure that the elections next year, and in future, are free and fair. We cannot go on with any suggestion that elections are being manipulated. However, it goes beyond the register. The Government have a serious job to look at the activities of foreign states—and what it is alleged that they did or did not do—and the failure of some companies that have their platforms abused by all sorts of people but do nothing about it. It is vital that the Government get a grip on this issue; we have to be confident that our elections are free and fair and that the people elected are legitimate. It is important to ensure that we do this.

However, there is no reference to consultation with political parties in the Explanatory Memorandum, which says, at paragraph 12, that for businesses, voluntary groups and everybody else the impact is minimal. I think political parties are voluntary groups and the Cabinet Office meets with political parties at the political parties panel. They usually meet on the same day that the parties meet the Electoral Commission, but it is an entirely separate meeting. This should have been brought up there because I think that the impact will not be minimal for all parties and this has not been recognised, which is regrettable.

The elections will take place in May 2021. The register will be published two months later and you then have less time to get the data on to the computer systems to run elections. Parties are a vital part of the political process in this country, so they should have been recognised there. If, as a political party, you are working from an incorrect register, you could knock on a door and find that the person behind it is not who you thought they would be. This is an issue; it is annoying and should be corrected.

Many noble Lords have made many other points and I cannot comment on them all, but I am sure the noble Lord will respond to them clearly today or, as has been suggested, we will get a round-robin letter. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken with grace, in every sense of the word, for the kind reception to the regulations and the thoughtful contributions that have been made. Certainly, I will take up the point asked about by the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Kennedy. If I fail to answer any points in the time available, I will make sure that the House is informed.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was the first to express his very understandable concern—which I and the Government share—about those who are hard to reach, including people in student accommodation and care homes. It is extremely important and the Government are concerned to make sure that the maximum number of people who should have the right to vote do have the right to vote.

I do not accept the implication of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that there is a suspicion that the Government or the Conservatives wish to stop people registering in any way. That is entirely unfounded and I thought it a little aside from the general tone of the debate. Indeed, I explained to the House that the Government had declined to abandon the personal canvass—the door knocking—which was put forward as one of the things that we might do, because that is a way in which one can visit and get to people.

On automatic registration, which crept out in the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Wallace, Lord Rennard, and others, I know that an amendment has been tabled for the discussions we will shortly have on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, when there will be more time to explore this topic than there is now. Some argue that automatic registration negates the need for a canvass at all. However, automatic registration, in the eyes of some, goes against the fundamental principle of individual electoral registration —of individuals taking ownership of registering to vote. Significant practical issues would need to be overcome. For example, there was reference to data matching. No single dataset has been identified that would allow an ERO to establish all aspects of eligibility to register to vote, in particular nationality. The Government are therefore opposed to the creation of a new database containing personal identifiers that has national coverage. Such a database would clearly pose a significant risk to data security, to pick up on my noble friend Lord Patten’s point.

My noble friend Lord Hayward raised Northern Ireland. He is right to say that the canvass in Northern Ireland is not an annual event like in Great Britain. Because of a different approach to voter identification it is undertaken only once every 10 years. That means that when the canvass takes place it is much more resource intensive than the annual canvass in the rest of the UK. Because of the very unique set of circumstances facing electoral staff in Northern Ireland, the Coronavirus Act delayed the canvass in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was kind to refer to my service in local government. I said in my opening remarks that one should at every opportunity express the profoundest thanks to the EROs and others engaged in this operation. They are the oil that makes democracy work.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked some questions about making people co-operate and the co-operation requirement. I agree that that is an important point. It is currently a legal requirement to include reference to a civil penalty on the ITR form and on the canvass form, but I think that the noble Lord was saying that that could be made more prominent. I will certainly take away that point. I accept that it should be on the form. I understand that it is in the form because co-operation is important.

We welcome the Select Committee report referred to by the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Hayward. We will respond in due course.

I touched on canvass reform, which improves the way that EROs can canvass properties such as student accommodation and care homes. That has been welcomed by all across the electoral community. Officials are working to help facilitate relationships between EROs and care homes and student accommodation, which might include items such as better guidance. It is certainly extremely important that people in care homes should have the right to vote. I used to enjoy canvassing the care home at the bottom of my road because I rarely went away without a piece of cake. I thought that this was the reverse of treating, until I was told that the other slice was being saved for the Lib Dem candidate. I noticed that it was slightly bigger than the one given to me. Everybody of every age must have access to the vote.

My noble friend Lord Patten referred to algorithms. I will not follow on that. I come from the age when we learned logarithms at school. It is a dangerous area to go into, but I assure him that security is very important. We do not wish for more electoral delay. Indeed, the boundary review will be made against the pre-Covid March 2020 register to avoid further delay.

I hate disappointing the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. He is such an agreeable Member of your Lordships’ House and he constantly tells me that I disappoint him. I fear I might disappoint him again. He referred to the Electoral Commission. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is holding a review into the Electoral Commission. It is quite reasonable that political parties give their views on the topic. I do not think that it is an outrage. I am sure that Liberal Democrat Members will equally make comments and contributions to that review.

My noble friend Lord Hayward asked about flexibility. The purpose of this is very much flexibility. The Government do not expect everybody to now wait until 1 February 2021 if this can be done in the normal timescale, as it should. Some of that flexibility is to take account of the local lockdowns that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, referred to in his very interesting and informed remarks.

I hope that I have referred to most of the points that have been raised. If I have failed to do so I apologise to your Lordships here in person and I will repeat those apologies in the letter I will send to pick up any points that I failed to pick up in the debate.

I reiterate my thanks to all those involved in the election process. I certainly commit the Government to the position that we want the maximum number of people to exercise their vote in this country and to have the access to do it. My goodness, the sacrifices and battles that people made across the generations to secure the right to vote for every citizen mean that it is vital that it should be enjoyed. I hope that this modest measure to improve the canvass will assist in that objective. I look forward to further and perhaps longer discussions—I hope not too long—shortly on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. Indeed, as I have said to the House before, the Government are considering many aspects of the electoral system. Over this Session we will have many opportunities to engage on these important issues. I leave informed and improved by the many contributions today. I have not agreed with all of them, but I have agreed with very many of them. I am extremely grateful to those noble Lords who took part.

Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) Order

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Wednesday 26th February 2020

(7 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his place. I have watched him on the Back Benches over a number of years and wondered when his day would come; it has finally come and I congratulate him.

Article 2(3) of the order

“adds to that list of matters reasonably incurred expenditure by or on behalf of a disabled candidate that is reasonably attributable to the candidate’s disability.”

I understand that, in law, the word “reasonable” is very expensive and can lead to court cases, contests and arguments with officials about what constitutes reasonableness. I wonder whether we can have some explanation. To give an example, who will decide what is reasonable? Could it be that, if a person is in receipt of a benefit relating to disability, that in itself would lead to a qualification? Could it be simply a personal statement, where somebody says, “I am disabled”, or a doctor’s note saying that the person is sufficiently disabled? The word “reasonable” always worries me when I see it in law and I just wonder if we can hear a little more. We have a former Lord Chancellor here who smiles when I suggest that it is an expensive word—perhaps he would like to intervene to tell us what he believes would be the construct in this particular case.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord True, to the Dispatch Box today. I congratulate him on his appointment and I wish him well with his new responsibilities. I look forward to the many debates we will have over the coming weeks and months. I also very much agree with his comments about the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who I enjoyed working with very much and who is always worth listening to.

I have no issue whatever with the order before us today. A number of points have been raised, which I support, and I look forward to the noble Lord’s response. It is right that we ensure that candidates with a disability are able to stand for election so that we can ensure that our elected officials and officers reflect the people that they represent. I am very happy to support the order to ensure that expenditure related to a candidate’s disability does not come out of the election expenditure limit.

I follow on from the point that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made. I have mentioned it many times before and, every time, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, would agree with me. I would say, “Our election law is not fit for purpose,” and he would say, “I agree entirely.” We had a number of meetings—the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy all came along—and discussed these things. Everyone agrees that our election law is not fit for purpose and we have to sort it out.

One good thing about the election result is that this Government have been in office now for four or five years. They are not worried about what is going on at the other end, so they have plenty of time to look at this properly. We have to sort out election law; it is not fit for purpose. It was created for analogue elections; we now have digital elections, and we really must sort this out. I implore the noble Lord, when he goes back to his officials in the Cabinet Office, to tell his colleagues that they should use the fact that they have a majority in the other place to make sure that we can quickly, but also calmly, get to a situation where we can revise our electoral law to ensure that when people are elected, the law around the elections is fit for purpose and does what it is supposed to do. Having said that, I fully support the order before the House today.

Lord True Portrait Lord True - Hansard

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their kind comments. Having heard the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, say that we may be having some controversial and lively debates in the future, perhaps I should fix those comments in aspic so that I can save them and later bring them out of the fridge. But I respect tremendously each of the noble Lords who spoke, and I am very grateful for their comments.

On the EnAble Fund and its continuation, there is a point that the political parties have to accept their own responsibility to encourage disabled candidates to stand, as parties do. In terms of helping disabled people, every part of society has its contribution to make, and that must include political parties. The EnAble Fund was designed as an interim measure to allow political parties time to put in place support themselves. We are not reiterating the fact that political parties have a place. The Government are considering what support they might provide to succeed the current EnAble Fund, which I acknowledge is running out. The disability unit is currently considering options in connection with the national strategy for disabled people, which is due to be published later this year, so I can give the noble Lord some encouragement on that. But I reiterate that this applies to all political parties, and that they all deserve praise for what they are doing to encourage disabled candidates.

In the general points made by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Kennedy of Southwark—who was elected a councillor on the same day as I was in 1986; we have tramped our parallel ways while serving our parties since then, and it is very nice to see him opposite—they both asked more broadly about what the Government were going to do to deal with electoral law. On my first outing at the Dispatch Box, I am not going to rise as a trout to those particular flies, but I will take note of what both noble Lords said and will take that back to colleagues.

On the question that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, raised about the word “reasonable”, I am not going to tread too far into that area for obvious reasons, having spent some years throwing darts at the person on the Front Bench from behind. With a former Lord Chancellor behind, I am not going to have a long go at it. But it is true that the draft order does not define what a “reasonable” election expense is. There is an argument that trying to provide an exhaustive list of such expenses would potentially narrow the scope of application and could exclude some disability-related expenses that have not been listed.

The order gives some examples of the kind of thing that might be applied, but the Government want to ensure that the order exempts all—I must not use the “r” word that the noble Lord mentioned—disability election expenses that it can. I can give him further details of how the system actually works, but there is, first of all, a process of examination of the case and, secondly, obviously anybody who infringes electoral law in any form faces the risk of penalties thereafter. There is a balance, in that there is a right of confidentiality: some people wish to have some confidence about their disability and that also has to be taken into account. The reason there is no list of particular cases is that if something were inadvertently omitted it would be excluded from scope. I hope that that answers the question of the noble Lord, and if he would like any more information, I am sure we could provide it. If there are no more questions, I will thank noble Lords who have taken part.

The Government appreciate the unity on this matter. The instrument makes an important if small change to the electoral system. It can only be a good thing for local democratic representation and accountability: we all want to see more participation in that. Having made those points and tried to answer the questions, and having acknowledged the kindly comments, I commend the order to the House.

EEA Nationals (Indefinite Leave to Remain) Bill [HL]

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Friday 19th July 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend for putting into legislative form a mechanism to enable those citizens to whom we want to say, “We’re so glad you’re here, please stay”, to stay without encountering the problems that have been and are the subject of such concern and anxiety. In that sense, in “Please stay”, perhaps we have another form of remain—certainly something that is humane, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said. I wish I could be confident that it would find its way onto the statute book: I have less confidence about that than the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I say that as the sponsor of a Bill introduced in this House in June 2017 and passed by the House in July 2018—since when I have written down, “dot, dot, dot”. But it gives us the opportunity to fulfil reassurances and pledges given in 2016—as a matter of honour, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said—and to raise some weaknesses, which, the more one considers the settled status scheme, the more one becomes aware of.

Ministers say at every opportunity that they want to find reasons to accept, not reject, applications. By definition, an application-based scheme is bound to lead to some rejections; my noble friend Lady Smith made that point. The Bill is rights-based, which is much more appropriate for a country concerned to uphold the rule of law. It can also be a safety net for the current scheme, as has been pointed out.

Earlier this week, some Members of the House were at a discussion arranged by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law about this model of administrative justice, which has at its heart automation—the rule of technology, not law. The work that was reported was on the settled status scheme, but the point applies more widely. I know that caseworkers—human beings—are involved in the scheme, but it represents the acceleration of a trend towards quick justice at the expense of important safeguards, and therefore has wide and lasting significance.

I will quote the conclusion of the Public Law Project’s report; noble Lords will understand that there is a lot of analysis behind it. It comments on the,

“growing gap in individual experiences of administrative justice. For those who get positive outcomes, they will—likely with the growing support of increasingly advanced and integrated technology—get their positive outcomes more quickly. This could be a great benefit, reducing the problems associated with waiting and delay. For those who do not get positive outcomes, however, their fall is less likely to be protected by effective redress and support systems. For those in a position of social and economic advantage, there is a greater possibility of accessing high-quality advice services to cushion the fall. For those in a position of social and economic disadvantage, the landing is likely to be much harder. Given the impact that an incorrect immigration decision can have on the lives of individuals and families, this effect ought not to be underestimated”.

It is fundamental to, and a crucial part of, the Bill that there is no cut-off date. Under the settled status scheme, an EU national who does not apply during the operational period will become illegally resident. The EU Justice Sub-Committee of this House, of which I am a very new member, is interested to know how the Home Office will deal with these people, who will range from prisoners—I understand that none of the organisations funded by the Home Office to assist applicants works in prisons—to people who have been granted pre-settled status and do not take it further.

As noble Lords have observed, it seems that pre-settled status is currently given in most cases when an application for settled status does not succeed. The Minister for Immigration told the sub-committee that the Home Office would consult the Cabinet Office on how best to “nudge” people who need to convert. The likelihood of misunderstanding—“I’m okay now, I’ve got status”—among people whose status is actually a precursor to settled status, is very high. We also heard that the Home Office will not agree to a physical document, because a computer record is the “most secure” form of evidence. “Digital first” has become “digital only”—and I do not need to refer to recent history here, which noble Lords have mentioned and which we could all talk about with considerable emotion.

I dislike the term “vulnerable”. To me, it sounds patronising, but it is widely adopted. The Public Law Project refers to people,

“in a position of social and economic disadvantage”.

I refuse to accept that elderly people are, by definition, vulnerable, and I think that the House will support me in that. Under the government scheme, people who we know fall into that group will, if they fail the application test—and many of them will struggle with it—become vulnerable to the Government’s policies. Whether hostile or compliant, or whatever you call them, these policies will affect you badly. People will be denied access to services and will be at risk of deportation.

Obviously, looked-after children and young care leavers fall into that category, and the right reverend Prelate drew our attention to that. I congratulate Coram Children’s Legal Centre and other organisations on the work that they undertake on this subject. In the time available, I can mention only a few of the issues that they have identified. One is the suitability criteria: is the applicant suitable for status? To quote a recent Coram report:

“Statistically, looked after children and care leavers are more likely to engage the suitability criteria than other children and young people”.

The report refers to the number of children aged over 10 who were looked after for at least a year and who have been,

“convicted or subject to youth cautions or youth conditional cautions”.

The Department for Education recognises these figures. The report also states:

“These children and young people will need to receive advice on the impact of any criminal record on their settlement scheme application before an application is made”—

and I want to stress those last five words. Looked-after children and care leavers will also need advice on nationality routes. They may have complex cases that fall outside the competency of an adviser accredited to the basic level introduced by the OISC for the scheme.

Then there are children who are eligible for the scheme but who do not have evidence of nationality or length of residence. Coram gives a number of case studies, such as that of Joao:

“Joao is a child whose estranged father is Portuguese. Joao’s mother (who holds a passport from Guinea-Bissau) fled his father, who was violent, in 2014. Joao’s mother has a biometric family member card that was issued in 2014 but Joao has no documents at all. The agency supporting Joao and his mother advised absolutely no contact between Joao/his mother and Joao’s estranged father due to the previous violence. Joao is unable to get a Portuguese passport without the active participation of both his parents in his nationality registration application”.

I could give a number of other examples, but in view of the time, I will not do so.

I will, however, refer to some of the recommendations made by Coram. It states:

“The Home Office should consult with the EU Commission on problems with accessing nationality documents and should have regard to its findings in guidance produced for both local authorities and for caseworkers on the exercise of discretion”.

It says that,

“the government should consider introducing a separate system that would ensure all children in the care of local authorities and care-leavers are granted settled status without having to meet the requirements of the EU settlement scheme”.

Reference is made to the statement of intent and to the fact that,

“the government ‘will accept alternative evidence of the EU citizen’s identity and nationality where the family member applicant is unable to obtain or produce the required document due to circumstances beyond their control or to compelling practical or compassionate reasons’, but further guidance on what constitutes compelling practical or compassionate reasons is required. Where necessary, the Home Office should take a pragmatic, flexible approach”.

I hope that the Home Office is familiar with all the recommendations made by specialist organisations, which identify the complexities of the scheme. The numbers affected may be small—although as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out, they may not be that small—but each person affected is an individual to whom we have a responsibility.

The Home Office wants to find reasons to accept. My noble friend’s Bill gets much nearer to achieving what most of us understand that to mean, having not necessarily initially understood the implications of the term “accept”. The Bill is much more inclusive to our friends, co-workers and fellow citizens, an approach that all noble Lords want to see, both for other EU citizens—I can still call them that—whom the UK says are welcome and for the 1.3 million UK citizens elsewhere in Europe. Like other noble Lords, including the noble Earl, I share a sense of shame at the position we are in the moment.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I welcome the Bill proposed today by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that this could have been fast-tracked through this House as other legislation has been and it is shameful that we have not made that generous offer that so many of us talked about in this debate. We live in hope that the new Prime Minister will listen to this debate and act swiftly in the next couple of weeks.

The noble Lord sent his best wishes to my noble friend Lady Hayter, who I count not just as my noble friend but as a dear friend. I first met my noble friend Lady Hayter in the early 1980s, when we were both active in the Labour Party in London. She has had a distinguished career outside this House—a considerable amount of it in and around the labour movement, including working in Europe for many years and as general secretary of the Fabian Society. I also worked closely with my noble friend when she served on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and as chair of the Labour Party, which she was very proud to be. At that time, I was the director of finance for the Labour Party and part of the senior management team. Towards the end of Governments, they become unpopular, money gets tight and the party membership goes down. My noble friend and other colleagues in my team worked to ensure that we got through some very difficult days, making sure that the party continued to function properly. The party owes my noble friend a great debt of gratitude for all she has done.

My noble friend is also one of a small group of Labour and Co-op Members of the House of Lords—about 18 of us. I do not know whether noble Lords know this, but the whole leadership of the Labour group here is all Labour and Co-op—the Opposition Leader, the Opposition Chief Whip and the deputy are all Labour and Co-op. The Co-op Party is very proud that the leadership of the Labour Peers are all Labour and Co-op. I am delighted that she remains Deputy Leader of our group. She was re-elected unanimously only last month and I wish her a speedy return to the Front Bench, where she enjoys the support not just of our party but of noble Lords across the House. I am delighted to be here today but I am not looking for any more jobs on this side. The worst day was when there were three government Statements from three Ministers and it was always me responding. I said, “Carry on, it’s me again”. I have more than enough jobs on this side of the House and I look forward to my noble friend being back soon.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that it is likely that this measure will get only this far in parliamentary proceedings. We will have the new Prime Minister next week and we are already hearing reports of a Queen’s Speech and attempts to shut Parliament down, so I fear that the Bill make no more progress. That is regrettable. The Bill has much merit and should be supported.

I think we would also agree that, no matter which way one voted, Brexit has been a total car crash—a shambles in terms of delivery from day one. It does not matter how you voted; it is an utter shambles. I have lost count of the number of ministerial resignations that can be attributed to Brexit—there was apparently another a couple of days ago. They just come and go now and hardly get reported in the media. It used to be a matter of news on the BBC that a Minister had gone but that does not seem to happen any more. We have been left a laughing stock around the world.

The Bill is simple and straightforward and provides for EEA nationals who are resident along with their families on the date of exit of the EU the right of abode here in the UK. It is important that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, reminded us of the pledge made by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel, and his Bill simply enables them to honour the pledge they made. I also associate myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. It is a question of honour and of trust. It is a question of behaving properly and of our standing in the world. I also associate my comments with those of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, as I do with those of every other speaker in today’s debate.

The Government have their scheme, which is better than when it started out although not by much. I welcome the decision to scrap the fee, taken a few months ago. But as the noble Earl said, the scheme has many flaws and risks seeing many people left in a precarious position. The noble Earl set out those flaws. I understand that the right of abode is different from settled status and indefinite leave to remain, but my biggest concern is the risk that we could have another Windrush-type scandal at some point in the future. I am sure the Minister will tell us that that will not happen and we should not worry: it will all be fine. But none of us can predict the future. All we can do is look at the past and the record, as a pointer of future outcomes. If we do that, the prognosis is not good.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester was right when he said that the Bill has fairness and simplicity at its heart. I am the son of immigrants. My parents are both Irish and came here to find work in the 1950s. I know that Irish people have a different status from other European nationals in this country, but they are immigrants. I am the eldest son of immigrants. I was struck by the point that the right reverend Prelate made about the Catholic community. I went to Catholic school—primary school in Camberwell and secondary school in Peckham. The parents of the children there were Irish, Italian, Spanish or West Indian and there were a few Africans. I remember the names—the Giuseppes, Luigis, Patricks and Paddys and all sorts of names, but not many English names. That is what we were. I remember Marys, Siobhans and Margarets from junior school. That illustrates the right reverend Prelate’s point. All these people came here to find work and made contributions to our country, and they were welcomed.

My mum was a nurse for many years and my dad became a black cab driver. My mum ended her working career in the Members’ Tea Room in the House of Commons for many years, serving cups of tea to many Members of this House who were at one time in the other place. Immigrants come to countries and make a fantastic contribution and we have not made them feel very welcome in recent years. That is very regrettable.

I thank the noble Lord for bringing this Bill back to the House today. It is ridiculous that we have waited two years for it. That highlights to me that we must deal with Private Members’ Bills better in this House. We have some wonderful Bills that receive Second Readings and then we are told that they will be committed to a Committee of the whole House. But they could go into Grand Committee. We could have a Grand Committee sitting today to consider other Bills, but we cannot do that. It is ridiculous, and we need the Government to think about that. If we are to have 40, 50 or 60 Private Members’ Bills, the House should facilitate that and make more progress. I hope that when we get the new Government, they will do that.

I thank the noble Lord for bringing the Bill forward and I look forward to it making progress, but I am afraid I am rather sceptical that it will.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I start by echoing the regret voiced by a number of noble Lords at the absence from the Front Bench of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. She was one of the first people I met here, because she was supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and we were introduced together. She was incredibly warm and friendly then, but I have since witnessed her forensic analysis of legislation and her dignified leadership of the Benches opposite, so I share other noble Lords’ sentiments and hope we see her back on the Bench opposite soon.

I turn to the Bill before us. Since the 2016 referendum, securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and those of UK nationals in the EU, has been the Government’s priority, and we are delivering on this commitment. Much of the debate today has centred on questioning the solidity and robustness of that commitment, and I will do my best in the time available to reassure your Lordships that this is indeed the case.

EU citizens have immeasurably enriched this country and our way of life, as noted by my noble friend Lord Cormack. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I also had two parents who were immigrants, from slightly further afield but both European, and went to a Catholic school—not the same school as him, but with plenty of similar names.

The Government absolutely share the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, to secure their rights of EU citizens here in an inclusive, accessible and robust way. In my response I will try to cover five areas: the applicability of the right of abode to EEA citizens as currently drafted in the Bill; the relative inclusivity of the EU settlement scheme compared with the Bill; the scheme’s progress; the issue of physical documentation, which a number of your Lordships raised; and, finally, some of the risks implicit with a declaratory system.

The EU settlement scheme has been created to ensure that every EU citizen can secure their right to remain here, whether or not there is a deal to leave the EU. Settled status, or indefinite leave to remain, granted under the scheme provides the holder with the same access to benefits, education and healthcare as those who currently acquire permanent residence under EU law.

Granting a right of abode, as in the Bill, would be inappropriate and unnecessary. Not all British nationals have a right of abode in the UK—only British citizens, together with certain Commonwealth citizens. Others, such as British Overseas Territories citizens, do not have an automatic right of abode, so extending a right of abode to other groups of non-British nationals would mean they have more rights than some British nationals. In common with other Governments over time, we believe this would not be appropriate.

Turning to the scope of protection, we believe that the Bill potentially offers less protection to EU citizens than the Government’s approach. I acknowledge that that is the last thing the noble Lord, Lord Oates, is intending, but that is our analysis. Those applying under the EU settlement scheme are not generally required to show they meet all the requirements of current free movement rules. The UK has decided, as a matter of domestic policy, that the main requirement for eligibility under the scheme is continuous residence in the UK. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, questioned this approach, but I hope noble Lords will agree that the principle of residence is relatively simple. By contrast, under the Bill a person would have to be lawfully resident here—that is, exercising their treaty rights under EU law. This could take many thousands of people out of the scope of protection, including those who are not economically active or self-sufficient and many vulnerable people who may not be exercising their treaty rights here.

I pause on that point, because the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Kennedy, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and potentially other noble Lords talked about the risks of vulnerable people. Whatever language we use around vulnerability and whatever approach we follow, those groups are the most at risk.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked for definitions of family members. There are slightly different definitions in the EU settlement scheme and the Bill, so in the interests of time I hope that he will accept it if I write to him and set out both.

I will now update your Lordships on progress with the EU settlement scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, questioned whether we would be able to reach the 3 million or 3.6 million people we believe are eligible. I am pleased to say that the scheme is running successfully. It was launched fully on 30 March this year, and we believe it provides a simple and streamlined process for resident EEA and Swiss citizens and their family members to obtain status under the UK’s domestic immigration rules. More than 950,000 applications have been received, and more than 850,000 people have already been granted status under the scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about pre-settled status for those who applied for settled status. We know that 35% of people have been granted pre-settled status, but we do not know what percentage of them applied for settled status. I stress that no application has been refused. I think that is significant when we are at nearly one-third of the figure.

I share the natural scepticism of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, about government IT schemes —I am not sure I am allowed to say that, but it is too late—but this case may be the exception that proves the rule, based on the data we have so far. She also asked about being able to use an iPhone. One can complete the online application on a smartphone, tablet, computer or laptop. The identity verification app, which I think the noble Baroness was referring to, is currently available only on Android devices, but my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has confirmed that it will be available on Apple devices later this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and my noble friend Lord Cormack talked about levels of anxiety—I think my noble friend used the term “peace of mind”—about one’s ability to stay in this country. Currently a straightforward application is being dealt with in between one and four days. I acknowledge the anxiety that people might feel, but the process is speedy. I am slightly anxious that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, put the Government in a no-win situation. We are doing it quickly, but she rightly raised a question about whether automation carries risks with it. I think we would prefer to err on the side of a speedy response for those who are waiting for one.

A number of noble Lords asked about help for vulnerable individuals. We are committed to helping vulnerable individuals to obtain their status under the scheme. We have awarded up to £9 million to 57 voluntary and community-sector organisations across the UK to help us reach the estimated 200,000 vulnerable or at-risk EU citizens and help them apply. We are also working closely with local authorities and others to ensure we reach looked-after children, who were mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Local authorities are empowered to apply on behalf of looked-after children and they have been granted sufficient funding to have the capacity to do so. Additional support is available to those who do not have the appropriate access, skills or confidence to apply online.

There has been much debate about physical evidence of settled status. Those granted status under the scheme will be given a secure digital status as part of moving to the system of digital by default. EU citizens will not be issued with a physical document. Unlike many EU countries, the UK does not require people to carry an identity document. Those granted status under the scheme can access this via a secure online service. They can control who they wish to share that information with to demonstrate their status and to exercise their rights. We believe that digital status is more secure. It cannot be lost, stolen or tampered with and is more easily used by people with some disabilities.

In common with the approach advocated by some groups, the Bill would create a declaratory system. As all noble Lords noted, the Government do not agree that conferring leave to remain automatically, by statute, under a declaratory system is the right approach to securing the status of resident EU citizens and their families. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, touched on the experience of members of the Windrush generation. They were granted indefinite leave to remain but without the means of proving that status. We are very anxious not to make the same mistake again. We are concerned that even if we ran a scheme in which, as the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended, obtaining proof of status was conferred by law with an option to apply for physical documentation, it could cause confusion among employers and service providers and impede EU citizens’ access to benefits and services to which they are entitled.

The Government’s approach provides resident EEA and Swiss citizens and their family members with clarity and certainty about their status here. We have already confirmed that, deal or no deal, the EU settlement scheme will continue to operate. I hope that helps to reassure my noble friends Lord Attlee and Lady Altmann, who expressed concerns about this. The Government have made it clear that anyone with reasonable grounds for missing the deadline will be allowed to make a late application.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was concerned about the risk to children. The spirit of the Government’s work in this area is that of creating a fair and compassionate system—we are not seeking to criminalise children.

The Government recognise the invaluable cultural, social and economic contributions that EU citizens make to the UK and as part of many of our families. Quite rightly, we have made generous provision to protect the status of those who have made the UK their home. I of course understand that the Bill seeks to protect those people. However, as I have tried to set out, the mechanism whereby it seeks to do that is not one the Government can support, as we believe that it could create difficulties for those same people and their families in the future. We continue to believe that the EU settlement scheme provides an inclusive route for EU citizens to secure their lives in the UK.

Councils: Funding

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Thursday 4th July 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Local Government Association’s initial findings of its survey of council finances, published on 2 July, what steps they are taking to ensure that councils have sufficient funding to fulfil their legal duties.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, the Government recognise the vital work that councils do to support their communities. That is why the 2019-20 settlement confirmed that councils’ core spending power will increase by 2.8% in cash terms, including an additional £650 million for social care. This is a real-terms increase in resources to support critical services. The department is preparing actively for the spending review, which is the right place to take long-term funding decisions.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

My Lords, the research just published by the Conservative-led Local Government Association—referred to in my Question—shows that one-third of local authorities fear they are going to run out of funds by 2022-23, rising to two-thirds of councils by 2024-25. In the light of this disturbing and sombre news, does the Minister have any words of encouragement, hope—something—for hard-pressed local councils and their civic leaderships as they end their conference today in Bournemouth?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

Local councillors and local government officials have done remarkably well to maintain, and in some cases improve, the quality of the services they provide despite, since 2010, a reduction in grant until recently, which was necessary to balance the national accounts. I recognise that they have done that without excessive rate increases. Looking forward, I have seen the report to which the noble Lord refers and welcome the Local Government Association’s attempt to quantify the pressure on resources. That information will be used by Ministers to feed into the spending review to make the case for a proper settlement for local government.

Affordable Housing

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Wednesday 3rd July 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to remove any impediments to selling public land to local authorities or housing associations at below its market value in order to increase the number of affordable houses.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so refer the House to my relevant registered interest.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, it is government policy to increase the number of homes being built, including affordable homes. As far as possible, any impediments to selling government land and accelerating new house-building have been—and are being—removed. Guidance issued by the Treasury indicates that decisions should take account of wider social costs and benefits in the public interest, and it may be appropriate to choose an option that does not generate the highest Exchequer receipt.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

I thank the noble Lord for that response. Making publicly held land available for the provision of social housing, encouraging below-value sales, would go a long way towards delivering on the Government’s pledges to fix our broken housing market, and have many other benefits. Can he tell us the likelihood of that happening?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I agree. Until quite recently the policy on the disposal of government surplus land was that the best price should be secured—in the interests of the taxpayer, who is the ultimate owner. That money went into a central coffer and was then disposed of according to the Government’s priorities. There was a presumption against short-circuiting that process and disposing of land at less than best value. Two years ago that policy was amended, following a meeting of the housing implementation task force and, as I said in my reply, it is now possible to take the wider social costs and benefits and the public interest into account and to make the housing land available directly. A recent example of that was a site that was made available to the Government, initially to the homes agency—the Housing Corporation as was—and then passed on to Wolverhampton Council for £1. Now, 450 homes are being built on that land. That is a good example of what the noble Lord has asked for, and I hope that we see much more of it.

European Parliament Elections: Non-UK EU Citizens

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Wednesday 5th June 2019

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place yesterday by my honourable friend Kevin Foster, Minister for the Constitution. The Answer is as follows:

“The Government took all the legal steps necessary to prepare for the European parliamentary elections and put in place all the necessary legislative and funding elements to enable returning officers to make their preparations. We worked with returning officers, the Electoral Commission and other agencies, such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the Association of Electoral Administrators, to support the smooth running of the polls. The Government are greatly appreciative of electoral administrators’ hard work inside and outside of election periods, which resulted in a higher turnout than for previous European parliamentary elections.

Electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to ensure that people who are eligible to vote in elections have the opportunity to do so. For the recent European parliamentary elections—as for all previous such elections—this included making sure that EU citizens who are resident in the UK and registered to vote in local elections were made aware that they needed to complete a voter registration and declaration form, commonly referred to as a UC1 or EC6, so they could vote in the UK. The Electoral Commission supported EROs in this and encouraged them to take additional steps to raise awareness of this requirement locally, through social media channels and other means.

The UC1 form implements a requirement under EU law. EU Council Directive 93/109/EC requires all member states to send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of, “sufficiently in advance of polling day”, to ensure that an EU citizen does not vote twice in the same European parliamentary election. This is not a new requirement and has been in place for previous European parliamentary elections. Similar provision applies to UK citizens living in other EU member states. The UC1 form was accessible on the websites of the Electoral Commission, local authorities and Your Vote Matters.

On 5 April, the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs on the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In it, the Electoral Commission reminded EROs to prepare and issue UC1 forms to EU citizens on the electoral register. On 3 May, the Electoral Commission published guidance advising EU citizens to avoid registering to vote using unofficial registration sites. The guidance further stated:

‘Any EU citizen who wants to vote in the European Parliamentary election in the UK must also print, complete and return a declaration form stating that they will only vote in the UK’.

The guidance also included a link to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded”.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in thanking returning officers and electoral staff for all that they do, and obviously I make my usual declaration as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Does the noble Lord accept that this is a very unsatisfactory situation where people were denied their right to vote? Is it not another example of why we urgently need to review, amend and update all the laws on elections, electoral registration, campaigning and, of course, the functions and purpose of the Electoral Commission?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. I am sorry if anybody who had done the right thing was thereafter denied the right to vote. As he knows, the Electoral Commission will undertake its normal inquiry into this election, as with any other election, and of course we will reflect on the results.

On the noble Lord’s general point, I repeat what I have said on an earlier occasion—probably in response to a question from him—that we have an analogue system in a digital age. We are taking some steps: for example, imprints on digital communications; and the Electoral Commission is issuing statutory guidance to distinguish between candidate expenditure and national expenditure. But I repeat my acceptance of an offer that he made earlier to have an all-party meeting with the Minister for the Constitution to see whether we can find a consensual way forward to make sure that we have an electoral system fit for the digital age and fit for purpose.

Electoral Commission: Referendums and Elections Spending

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Thursday 23rd May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

On the last point that the noble Lord raised, there was a court case relevant to this. The Electoral Commission is now in the process of issuing guidance which will give clarity to what scores against the local candidate’s expenditure and what should score against the party’s national expenditure. I hope the noble Lord welcomes that. I was relieved to hear that my party now finds it so much easier to raise money than any other party; this will come as welcome news to the party treasurer. So far as donations to the party are concerned, my party tries to stick rigorously to the rules—as I am sure all parties do. If an impermissible donation is presented, we are obliged to return it within 30 days.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for offering yesterday to speak to the Minister for the Constitution to seek another meeting to discuss these important matters further. Could the noble Lord also consider the need for a thorough review of the powers, functions and purpose of the Electoral Commission? Maybe that could be part of our future discussions.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

Following our exchange yesterday, I have been in touch with the Minister for the Constitution and he has agreed to the meeting that was discussed. It took me 24 hours to agree to that proposition; the noble Lord may think he is on a roll when it comes to the second one. So far as that is concerned, the Government have regular contact with the Electoral Commission on a range of issues, including its powers, and we keep those matters under review.

Political Parties: Donation Rules

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Wednesday 22nd May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the donation rules for political parties.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, on 5 May the Government announced a consultation on safeguarding UK elections. Recommendations for closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections and preventing shell companies sidestepping the current rules on political finance could be addressed in the consultation. The Government will take the views of interested groups such as the Parliamentary Parties Panel and the Electoral Commission to better understand the problems that we could seek to address in the consultation.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. He is highly respected in this House and, more importantly in this case, in his party. The Government often come out with consultations but we really have a problem in this country with our electoral law, with law governing political parties, with donations, loans and everything else in this area. Can he give an assurance to the House that, despite other problems, he will do everything in his power to make sure that we address this urgently?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I am grateful for the consensual approach adopted by the noble Lord. Quite recently he attended a meeting with me, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, my noble friend Lord Hayward, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, at which we sought to see whether there was a consensus on some of the challenges facing the electoral system. Subsequently, a meeting was held with the Electoral Commission. I would be more than happy to contact the Minister for the Constitution, who was also at that meeting, to see whether it would be helpful to have another round-table discussion to identify areas of consensus and to see whether we can make progress in developing a rigid and credible electoral system.

Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill [HL]

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
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Monday 13th May 2019

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Barker has made clear, we on these Benches also welcome this Bill and the proposed new census questions. This takes us into a broader debate on the 2021 census which we will undertake over the course of the next year. I recognise that this is barely the soup course of that—it is certainly not the main course—so perhaps the Minister could start by telling us, either now or during further consideration, when we may expect publication of the census order and the full consideration provided by taking it through the House. It is very tempting to ask about wider issues at this point, such as the integration of census data with other government data—household surveys and the like—and the discussions within government since the passing of the Digital Economy Act on how one begins to provide for administrative data replacing the survey data of the census in the next 10 years, as chapter 9 of the White Paper suggests. Clearly, when we discuss the census order, we will need to include debate about the future of the census and government management of public debate post 2021.

I cannot resist pointing out in passing that there seem to be some limits on UK sovereignty in the census process. Paragraph 1.29 of the White Paper notes that,

“the census in England and Wales aims to align with international standards set at global and regional level”.

I think that is code suggesting that we are aligning our national census with European standards. I am sure that many on the Conservative Benches think that is entirely improper and that we should move as far away from them as possible.

I have some specific questions. I also received a note from the British Legion about the Armed Forces questions. If I understand the difference between its note and what is in the White Paper, the question is about how far one includes the dependents of members of the armed services, and veterans and their families, in the survey one undertakes? I very much hope that the Minister will tell us more about that, either now or in Committee.

I noted with interest the discussion on questions of national identity from paragraph 3.115 of the White Paper on. In particular, it spends some time on whether or not one should allow Cornish identity to be written in. I give notice to declare that we would of course wish to insist that Yorkshire identity is also allowed to be written in under those circumstances. I was a little puzzled that it appears not to allow for multiple identities. As we know from the rather complex discussion we have had about different identities—English, Scottish, English and Scottish, British, European—these are out there in the public and it may be time to take some of them on board.

I also noticed the delicate discussion on whether or not one allows the Somali community, which has very particular needs, as discussed in the White Paper, to be identified separately from other African communities. It seems that, in public policy terms, there are some quite important questions about identifying particular communities. I once happened to canvass in a part of London which had a remarkably strong Congolese community. They were very surprised to know that I understood that some of them spoke Lingala and other languages; they did not expect a white person to understand anything about the Congo at all. There are good public policy reasons for wanting to identify certain communities, and I was puzzled about why that had been left out.

I was also slightly puzzled that there was no question on digital skills, given that we are moving towards a digital census. I am aware from discussions with the social housing association and other authorities in Bradford that there are some pockets where there are a remarkably large number of people who lack digital skills. Again, perhaps we might return to that in Committee.

As far as the new questions are concerned, I recognise their sensitivity but also their great utility. As a Liberal, I am in favour of open information as far as possible in an open and tolerant society and in the maximum transparency. We are, after all, talking about our preference for evidence-based policy, as against the myth-based policy that has unfortunately taken hold in British government in recent years. Perhaps the Minister could remind us, either now or in Committee, which other questions on the census are voluntary. I noted in the White Paper that the question about religion is voluntary. I am not sure whether there are others. It would be helpful if that was provided to be sure that we understand the categorisation taking place.

I also noted the question on heads of household filling in questionnaires. I wonder whether that is still appropriate and, although very convenient, whether it still provides something of a problem in some parts of the United Kingdom when it comes to sensitive questions such as sexual orientation and gender identity, thus discouraging full returns. I wonder whether there is a particular problem with heads of household in Northern Ireland.

I am torn on the question of privacy. I know that some within the LGBT community are concerned, as my noble friend Lady Barker suggested, about allowing this information to become public even 100 years after it was provided. Again, as a Liberal, I am in favour of making as much information public as soon as possible. I remember the exchange we had in this House when I was in government about the information in the Denning report and Lord Denning’s promise to those whom he interviewed that their answers would never be made public. The position I took as a junior member of the coalition Government was that, at the point when all of those who had been involved in that particular scandal were dead, it would be time to release those answers. I am in favour of limiting the length of privacy, but we should hear the concerns of those worried about it and do what we regard as necessary to allay them.

I welcome the Bill and the proposals. I look forward to further detailed examination in Committee and on Report.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town said in her opening remarks, the Opposition welcome and support the Bill before the House. There are, however, other pressing needs that require parliamentary time, and I hope we will see a few Bills to address those matters as well.

We have had a census in a form we recognise, providing useful data for Governments, local authorities and a whole range of other organisations, for the past 200 years, collected every 10 years, except in 1941, for very understandable reasons. I understand that the 2021 census will largely be conducted online, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, referenced. That is a sensible move, but where people are unable to complete the form online, then a paper-based option should remain available for use since there are still a number of people in this country who are digitally excluded. I am sure that that is an issue of concern to the Government and I very much support the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, that the Government should look into how we can get more people to complete the form online.

The census provides a whole range of data that would be almost impossible to collect in such a comprehensive form through any other method. As my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town said, it must be accurate, complete, comprehensive, consistent, credible and provide confidence that it will be used correctly.

I very much welcome the two new categories that the Bill allows to be asked on the census. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that it is very welcome that we have made such strides in the acceptance of people’s sexual orientation. There is always more to do, but I think we have made tremendous progress in recent years.

I am also very pleased that the Government have, through this Bill, ensured that there will be no financial penalty for respondents who do not complete these questions. It is regrettable that we still have no functioning Executive or Assembly in Northern Ireland. In the absence of such institutions, it is right that the Government have legislated to ensure that the same questions are asked in Northern Ireland, and that there will be no penalty there either for anyone who does not respond.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised several points that I wish to support her on. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, will be able to give satisfactory replies when he responds to the debate shortly. In respect of the sex question, where an individual is asked to pick either “male” or “female”, can the noble Lord tell the House how trans people should answer that question? Is it their sex at birth, their sex now, or should they respond in a way outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker?

Can the noble Lord say something about the guidance that will accompany the gender identity question? Can he say something about how intersex births are to be recorded? On the question of publishing de-anonymised data in 100 years’ time, I understand that there is the ability, through an instrument, to extend that period further, if it is thought necessary or desirable. Can it be extended only once, or can it be done many times? Has the noble Lord's department looked at this question, and can he provide information on this matter?

It is important that we get the same data for the United Kingdom, so I am pleased that the Scottish Government are also legislating on these matters, and that a legislative consent Motion is being sought from the Welsh Assembly.

Like many other noble Lords, I received the excellent briefing from the Royal British Legion, and while the issues raised are not directly the subject of this three-clause Bill, I will refer to them—as others have done—and hope that the Minister can provide the House with some information. First, I pay tribute to the work that the Royal British Legion does generally, supporting veterans and their families. Data is invaluable for the Legion in its campaigns—as it is for the Government and for local authorities. The Armed Forces Covenant is enshrined in statute, and has also been adopted by many local authorities in the United Kingdom. The Legion calls and campaigns, and the Government have an obligation that no member of the Armed Forces is left disadvantaged because of their service. To deliver that objective, the Legion is reliant on uniform data.

I very much support the Legion’s campaign for a new topic to be included in the 2021 census that concerns military service and membership of the Armed Forces community. I look forward to the final details of the question that will form part of the census coming forward for approval in 2020, but anything that the Minister can say now is most welcome.

My noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town also raised the issue of homelessness. In terms of the census, how do we reach these people and get as accurate a picture as possible? Again, it would be welcome if the Minister could say a little about what he expects the Government will say to encourage local authorities to do everything possible to collect data from this important group who are difficult to communicate with. There are several voluntary projects that could help. In Lewisham, where I live, the 999 club could certainly help the local authority. We must find ways to get to these people. For all local authorities to go the extra mile, they have to feel that the Government really want this data to be collected and will support them in doing so.

In conclusion, I confirm that the Opposition support this Bill and will work constructively with the Government to enable its passage through this House and on to the statute book.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have taken part in this relatively short debate, and particularly welcome the broad support for the legislation we have brought forward. I will try to answer the questions that have been raised, but if I do not, I will ensure that noble Lords have the answers before the Committee stage.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her support. The business managers will have noted her suggestions that there are other pieces of legislation—some of them controversial—that should be introduced. She set out why we need firm data in order for the public services to be effectively targeted. The census will be trialled later this year in a number of places, including Tower Hamlets, and there will be further consultation on the detailed questions.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked a key question about how homeless people will be counted. I agree that it is vital that those who face severe challenges in their lives are reached when we assess how public services are to be delivered. Since 2011, further research and engagement with charities have been undertaken to understand how people without a fixed place of abode can make a census response, so the ONS is planning to make forms available in night shelters and day centres, with practical help for filling them in. The ONS continues to work with these centres and other groups to ensure that people who may attend them only on a given day will also be able to take part.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also asked about the Armed Forces and veterans. We will consult the Royal British Legion and others on the detailed question or questions, which will be determined by secondary legislation later this year. There was a question about whether the veterans’ questions should be voluntary. I do not think they raise quite the same sensitivities as the two questions that will be voluntary, so they will be part of the compulsory section. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the only voluntary question is the one introduced in 2001 on religion and the two questions being dealt with today. All the others are voluntary.

Non-Domestic Rating (Rates Retention and Levy and Safety Net) (Amendment) and (Levy Account Basis of Distribution) Regulations 2019

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Monday 18th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Lord Beecham Portrait Lord Beecham (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, I declare my local government interests as vice-president of the LGA and as a councillor in Newcastle.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to the present situation in respect of business rates. There is a bland assumption by the Government that there is a uniform approach to what can be raised locally, either by domestic rates or business rates, but that is not the position. The amounts that can be generated vary considerably between authorities and the Government have paid little attention to that disparity, in terms of either council tax or business rates.

The Government are making much of the £180 million they are going to restore to authorities. That is £100 million less than the loss that Newcastle City Council alone has sustained in grants from central government since 2010. It is a pitifully small amount and will make little difference to the efforts of local councils—of all political characters—to maintain local services. This is not a substantial change in favour of local government and the Government have to look again at the wider issues of funding a sector of the economy which has been substantially underfunded for the last eight years.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, as the Minister said, the regulations are technical and in that sense I am happy to support them as they stand. I concur with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and my noble friend Lord Beecham and I am sure the Minister will respond to the points raised.

The only issue I want to raise concerns Northamptonshire being in the list of council areas that are involved in this scheme. I know the county council is the precept authority, or the collecting authority, but equally it is a council in crisis. The local government reorganisation is happening because the county council has effectively almost gone broke. Is the Minister confident that we should be doing this in this area, in view of the problems that have been widely reported over the past year? That said, I am very happy to support the regulations.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions of all three noble Lords. As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, this is the first non-Brexit SI, although I noticed it emptied the House as I rose to my feet. He mentioned that the announcement of £180 million going back would be popular with local government. We are always seeking to court popularity with local government, although we do not always achieve it. I am grateful to hear that on this occasion, we have.

The noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Beecham, raised slightly broader issues about the pressures confronting local authorities, which I recognise. We have had to take difficult decisions on public expenditure over recent years, and they have impacted on local authorities and government departments. There will be an opportunity to discuss that.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned Northamptonshire. The change in Northamptonshire is relatively minor and switches responsibility for one service from A to B. I do not think it detracts from the more structural changes that are now having to take place in that county.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley - Hansard

My Lords, I am not sure whether I declared my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I feel I should do so and remind the House of it.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

I, too, forgot to remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I was a vice-president of a preceding local government association, but I was expelled when I introduced rate capping.

Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2019

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Thursday 14th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, it is unfortunate that we are having to move progressively to electoral arrangements in the United Kingdom where candidates’ more personal details, such as their address, are not made available publicly. It seems that we are pursuing the need for security at a cost to transparency, and that has wider implications in all sorts of other areas.

I want to flag up two associated issues. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats did not come in on one of them; the supplementary vote, which I will now move on to. Why can we not extend the supplementary vote to parish councils? It has been successfully deployed in mayoral elections; any analysis of results under the supplementary vote over recent years show how successful it has been. Perhaps Ministers might still consider it for the future.

Then there is the question of candidate declarations. We are removing the need for candidates to indicate where they live—albeit not altogether, in that they may publish the area where they live rather than their individual address—but there is an argument for financial declarations by candidates prior to election. It has always struck me that there is far more opportunity for abuse in local government than in Parliament. We often hear of cases at a local level where people have sailed close to the line but within the rules. It may be that pre-election financial declarations are a way of dealing with this problem. I have flagged it up before and got nowhere, but I shall no doubt persist well into the future.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I am very happy to support the instruments we are discussing today. It is right to bring all these matters into line. The security of candidates is an important consideration, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. It is right to do this but, equally, it is regrettable that we have to balance the safety and security of candidates against the issues of openness and transparency. That is a terrible shame, but we live in times when candidates can be abused and treated improperly, so we need to give them the option of not publishing their address on the ballot paper. However, it is regrettable in many ways.

I fully support the instruments in front of us today. Of course, there is one other group of people to consider. The order says that, if you want, your address can be removed from the ballot paper. But when people get elected to the council, they often find that their name, address and telephone number get stuck on the council website. In present times, I am not convinced that we should do that. If people want to get hold of their local councillor, they should contact them at the town hall. Sometimes councils make decisions that people do not like, and making people’s personal details available may mean that we are exposing them to risks in a way we should not. Obviously that is not for today; it is a discussion for another time, but I think we should look at that as well. I am very happy to support the instruments before us.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate and for their support for the Motions we are bringing forward.

As I said, the background is a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We have already extended this facility to a large number of people who are standing for election, and the relatively modest Motions before us simply extend that facility on a voluntary basis to those standing for combined authority and local mayoral elections. As a number of noble Lords said, we do not want people to be discouraged from putting themselves forward for public office due to fear of intimidation; there has been some evidence of publicly elected people being subjected to intimidation. That is why we are doing it. However, I understand the point made in this debate that it is a matter of regret that we need to do so.

On the specific questions, as far as I am aware, we have no plans to revisit the voting procedures at local or parish council elections. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, suggested that before you stand for public office there should be some pre-election financial declaration. The Committee on Standards in Public Life might look at that in the first instance; it seems to fall within its remit, rather than being something for the Government to initiate.

On the final point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, it is for individual local authorities to decide what information they put on their websites about individual councillors. I hope that they would consult local councillors before putting their home address and telephone number on a website, and that they would not do that automatically. However, I imagine this is a matter best decided by local authorities, and I am sure they will have taken on board the point the noble Lord made. With those brief points, I commend these instruments to the House.

Representation of the People (Election Expenses Exclusion) (Amendment) Order 2019

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Thursday 14th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD) - Hansard

I thank the Minister for explaining this order and I want to record that I agree with it. It is entirely appropriate that any disability-related expenses in elections should be exempt from spending limits, on principle. That is because it helps disabled candidates to stand for election on equal terms with others. I noted the Minister’s comments about some objections that may have been raised on some of the details—but none is more important than the overall principle of equality of opportunity.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I am very happy to give the order my full support. I was glad that the noble Lord mentioned the political parties panel, because I was going to ask him about it. There is no mention of political parties at all in the consultation referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum. I know that the noble Lord mentioned it in his contribution, because I was going to ask him about it. The bodies listed in the Explanatory Memorandum do not pay election expenses and do not fill out election returns. I am glad that he covered that point. It is important that we keep the political parties informed on all these matters. They can often inform the Government’s thinking in a positive and helpful way. Since the noble Lord answered my question, that is fine. I am very happy to support the order.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, I have had a remarkably easy time—oh, I am sorry.

Election Expenditure

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Wednesday 13th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I entirely agree with the principle that the noble Lord has just enunciated. I was looking at the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883, which enshrined the principle to which he referred. The preamble states that,

“if its provisions are honestly carried out, the length of a man’s purse will not, as now, be such an important factor”.

I am afraid that a woman’s purse did not get a mention, it being 1883. The text continued,

“and the way will be opened for many men of talent, with small means, to take part in the government of the country, who have been hitherto deterred from seeking a seat in the House of Commons by the great expense which a contest entails”.

That principle is timeless, even if the language may not be.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while guidance, codes and statutory instruments may deliver some of the change we need, it is only through primary legislation that we will get the electoral law fit for purpose?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

That is why, in my Answer, I said that in the first instance, the code of practice will provide greater clarity for those taking part in our democratic process. At the meeting attended by the noble Lord and six other noble Lords yesterday, the point was made that there may be some inconsistency in the primary legislation, which may need addressing. What I have said does not preclude a more radical look at primary legislation, as the noble Lord suggested.

Social Housing

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Thursday 31st January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. First, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Osamor, on her excellent maiden speech, which was rooted in a strong sense of public service and community. It is a delight to see her take her place in your Lordships’ House. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for enabling us to have this debate. As my noble friend Lord Greaves said, there was nothing to disagree with in what he said. He drew attention to the excellent report from Shelter and he called for drastic and strategic action in his detailed analysis of the reasons why we need many more homes for social rent over the long term—two very important words.

As my noble friend Lady Grender said, all parties have failed over the past 30 years and we must start to work together. I entirely agreed when she said that the Treasury needs to be held to account in the spending review for investing in revenue subsidy through housing benefit at the cost of investing in social housing as part of our capital infrastructure.

The evidence given in support of the Motion has been there for all to hear in today’s debate. Despite a stream of government announcements over the past two to three years that they would act to solve the housing crisis, in practice, very little has been done to achieve it. The long-awaited Green Paper on social housing remains just a Green Paper.

The result is that today we have 320,000 people sleeping rough or living in temporary accommodation, which is a rise of 13,000 on the previous year. Local councils have to meet a bill of just under £1 billion to pay each year for temporary accommodation, and the social housing waiting list amounts to more than 1 million households. We have a private rented sector which now accommodates one household in five across the United Kingdom, up 50% in the past 10 years. As we have heard, we have a housing benefit bill that has risen to £21 billion today and, as I said, about which the Treasury seems to show little concern, when it could turn that current expenditure into capital infrastructure spending. Crucially, three times as many social homes have been sold in recent years as have been built.

In October, I led a debate in this House on affordable housing—that is, housing that is genuinely affordable. As I said then, the cost of home ownership can never be met by very large numbers of people. Average home prices are eight times annual workplace earnings; 20 years ago, the figure was just three and a half times. Private renters are now on average spending 41% of their income on housing, so saving becomes very difficult for them. Those figures come from the latest English Housing Survey.

The Government’s White Paper published in February 2017, called Fixing Our Broken Housing Market, stated:

“The starting point is to build more homes”.

Perhaps the Minister will note those words: it is about building more homes, not simply converting other dwellings outside the usual planning system, without the appropriate number of affordable homes being included, let alone social homes.

My noble friend Lady Thornhill pointed out the imbalance between government subsidy for owner occupation and for rent. As she said, the removal of the housing cap will help, but we cannot just leave it to local authorities. They need considerable subsidy and a real plan of action. They need the right to limit the right to buy, including the right to keep 100% of receipts from sales. There must be a debate about that issue because, as has been said, there is a real danger that local councils are simply being set up to fail.

The Chartered Institute of Housing, in a report in November 2018, said that £8 billion of government support is going into the private housing sector up to 2021, with half going into private owner occupation over that period, when social housing support is less than £2 billion a year. Two billion pounds is the sum of money that London-listed housebuilders declared as dividends in 2018. It is broadly the same sum as was spent by the Government to support social homes. I hope that noble Lords on all sides of the House will find themselves very concerned by those figures.

Help to Buy has finally been changed to assist only first-time buyers. As reports have shown, Help to Buy has encouraged higher house prices. A 2017 report from JP Morgan showed that it has led to higher profits, higher share prices, higher dividends and higher bonuses for builders. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Corriegarth, asked who would pay for this. I think that the answer lies in the debate we need to have about the balance between government subsidy of private housing and owner occupation and the cost of public housing and social housing. We should recognise that, in recent years, public money has been spent on subsidising owner occupation at the expense of building social homes for rent. Surely the time has come to redress that balance.

My noble friend Lord Greaves reminded us that council housing is one of the great success stories of the past century: locally provided for local people. He also reminded us of the originations of housing associations, which were similarly local. I agree with him: we must go back to greater local accountability in the provision of affordable housing. Mention has been made in the debate of the uplift in land value caused by planning permissions. Across all parties, there is huge concern about this matter; I hope that the Minister will be in a position to say something further on that. I am convinced that the Land Compensation Act 1961 must be amended, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, reminded us.

Now that the Shelter report is out, many other reports are out, all saying the same thing. We need a debate about the kind of social housing we want to build. It needs to be accessible. We need lifetime homes and decent space standards. We need to know where the social housing will go because different numbers are required in different parts of the country. Above all, we need an action plan for delivering solutions to the problem that has been identified so clearly. We need to think about key workers. We need to work out ways to reduce the high housing costs faced by so many people. We need a means to get young people on to the housing ladder. In saying that, I believe that we need a new generation of homes for social rent for those who need help with housing, such as key workers and those on low incomes, and for those for whom renting is a step on the ladder and who aspire to own their own home. I was very struck by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who said that this should be about not just social housing but sociable housing. I concur.

In October, I said that our current housing crisis represents the biggest failure of public policy in the past 20 years. Today’s debate has shown that to be true. We have built more than 2 million too few homes across the UK, resulting in high prices, high rents, fewer social homes and serious difficulties for younger people wanting to buy their own home. One in five households is now in the private rented sector, where conditions can be very poor and tenure insecure. We have an imbalance and a major problem to solve. It is the duty of any Government to solve that problem.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Whitty on securing the debate. I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Osamor on her excellent maiden speech; I look forward to hearing from her many more times. She brings a wealth of experience to our debates, as we heard today, and I am delighted to welcome her.

We all accept, I think, that we are in the middle of a housing crisis. Today’s debate is focused on the part of the housing crisis in which we see people in the most desperate need imaginable. You would have hoped that the Government would have focused their primary policy action there, but that is not the case and this failure is paid for by the taxpayer through increased housing benefit bills and other costs.

The Government understand that there is a problem. I accept entirely that successive Governments have not done as much as they should have. However, we have a crisis and despite all the evidence before them, the Government cannot bring themselves to take measures that would make a real difference to help those in the most desperate need and, at the same time, reduce costs and make housing more affordable for all, across all tenures. They are caught up in starter homes, pushing more right to buy with no programme for the replacement of the social homes lost, and the ridiculously named “affordable rent” model, which is totally unaffordable for many people. The result is a booming housing benefit bill and an increasing private rented sector with no real support for local authorities to deal with the rogues that operate at the bad end of the market; I am well aware that many excellent private landlords also want the rogues dealt with.

We need to hear more from the Government on a real commitment to building more social homes on proper social rents: a commitment that also involves housing associations being enabled to do the same and being encouraged to live up to and return to their founding principles—a commitment to make housing costs cheaper for everyone, whatever the tenure. The noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, raised the issue of community trusts and offsite-manufactured housing. I agree with her that such initiatives can make an important contribution to housing needs. I also think that the co-operative sector could play a much bigger role in an expanded sector, providing much-needed social homes where tenants have direct and real control over their homes.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for dropping—certainly quietly forgetting about—some of the worst provisions of the dreaded Housing and Planning Act, which must be a contender for one of the worst pieces of legislation. Written on the back of a cigarette packet, it was the biggest piece of ideological rubbish brought forward by the Government in recent years. We will all be better off for a commitment from the Government. I just do not understand why the Government are so reluctant to do more of what could make a real difference. To be fair, the Government have taken a positive step with the lifting of the borrowing cap to enable councils to build more homes. I congratulate them for that, but we need local authorities to be able to keep 100% of the receipts for council homes sold under right to buy. The Government should at least do that, if they are not going to suspend right to buy, as has happened in Scotland and Wales.

I want to see a rise in home ownership but not a decline in the council homes available for rent. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was right to point out that the intent behind the right to buy policy was probably to increase home ownership, but 40 years on many of those homes have found their way into the private rented sector and, in an act of madness, councils are having to rent back the homes they sold in the first place at vastly increased prices. It is a matter of regret for us all.

As I have told the House before, like my noble friends Lord Bassam and Lady Donaghy, I grew up in council properties; in my case, in the Borough of Southwark, on the Aylesbury and Pelier estates, which are very close to where the noble Lord, Lord Hayward—he is on his place on the Government Benches—now lives. The properties I lived in as a child were warm, safe and dry; they were good for our family and helped us to thrive, as the noble Lord, Lord Porter, made reference to in his speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Bird, was absolutely right when he described council housing in the 1960s and 1970s, and my own experience was very similar. We had teachers, office workers, young families, retired people and unemployed people all living together. That is not the situation now on many of our council estates. Moving forward to today, I and all my siblings are home owners and we recognise how lucky we were as children to have a decent home to live in. My noble friend Lord Sawyer was right to say that the story now is often one of pain, misery and suffering. I think that life is very tough for people with young families trying to make ends meet while paying the market rent for a private rented property or, as I have said, the unaffordable affordable rent model. The year before last, I actually wrote an article for the Fabian Society about how living in a council home had helped my family to thrive. At this point, I should mention that I serve on the executive committee of the society.

Looking at government statistics, we have new housing completions in 2017-18 reaching 163,000, a 16% increase on the previous year, but looking at the figures in detail, only 27,410 were built by housing associations and just 1,700 by local authorities. One must ask how many of those homes that were built in the social sector will be let at truly affordable rents. I fear not enough, even among the small number of homes being built.

The noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Corriegarth, made an interesting contribution, although I did not agree with very much of it. However, I agree with him that prevention is better than cure, but to deliver that we need to see more initiatives, policies and resources being targeted at prevention; otherwise, the taxpayer and society as a whole will pay many times over for this policy failure. We need to deal with the problem in the first place.

The removal of the borrowing cap is obviously welcome, but that on its own will produce around only an additional 9,000 homes each year, nowhere near the 100,000 social homes that I believe need to be built every year to deal with this problem. My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe made the point about the need for new social homes to be genuinely affordable. As I said earlier in my contribution, this is a really important point.

Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the Government will look at removing housing borrowing from contributing to public debt? What plans do they have for local authorities with no housing revenue account to enable them to access borrowing in order to build homes to meet local housing need? The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, also made a good point about looking at making more use of brownfield sites. We need to do much more of that.

One of the most shocking things we have seen in recent years is the rising number of people who are homeless. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford paid tribute to the work of churches and faith communities in supporting homeless people, and I join with him in paying my own tribute. Homelessness is of course in plain sight outside this Palace. My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe told the House about the homeless person who last year died literally feet away from this House. I think that that is absolutely tragic. Indeed, you cannot walk from a mainline station to get to the Palace without seeing homeless people sitting in doorways through these bitterly cold nights. It is a shocking and shameful scandal that has grown substantially since 2010. Despite the Homelessness Reduction Act, unless we provide realistic money to local authorities to pay for interventions and thus deliver on their new obligations, what is a well-intentioned piece of legislation will not have the impact it could have to help towards solving the tragedy of homelessness.

I also think that housing policy and good intentions are often frustrated by the work of other departments and a lack of joined-up thinking across government. This is a trap that all Governments can fall into. I think that the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions need to be looked at carefully to see the damage that they are inflicting on other government programmes and initiatives. Can the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, tell the House how the policy decisions and proposals are discussed across government in order to avoid these problems?

In conclusion, I thank my noble friend for bringing this Motion before us. It has been an excellent debate with great contributions from across the House. We all want to solve this problem and we want to support the Government in doing that.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been a very constructive debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has just said. In particular I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for choosing it and for introducing it with a very eloquent non rant.

It is almost 40 years since my first speech as a housing Minister in 1981. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was then working for the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union prior to running the Labour Party. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, was a Newcastle city councillor keeping tabs on the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who was entering his middle period as the leader, and a youthful noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was waiting to be able to vote in his first general election. Affordable housing was a priority for the Government then and it remains a priority for the Government today.

It was during my time as a housing Minister in the 1980s that I met the noble Baroness, Lady Osamor. She was campaigning for the renovation of the Broadwater Farm estate and, as important, for the empowerment of the local community and an improvement in its relations with the local authority and with central government. I remember meeting community leaders, of whom she was one, and the charismatic Dolly Kiffin. It is good to renew her acquaintance after all those years. I commend her on her speech and look forward to her future contributions.

An occasional partisan note has crept into our debate. As noble Lords know, I am the least partisan of Ministers. Perhaps I may just put one or two statistics before your Lordships to redress the balance; this debate is about social housing. Between 1997 and 2010, the stock of social housing fell by 420,000. Since 2010, the overall stock of social housing has increased by 79,000. Some 12,440 local authority dwellings were built between 2010-11 and 2017-18, up from 2,920 over the previous 13 years. The briefing we all got from the Home Builders Federation said that housing output was up by 78% in the last five years and that the supply has risen to its fourth highest level since 1971. For the year ending March 2018, the planning system granted permission for 359,000 new homes. There is more in my brief which I will not deploy because I want to answer the debate and because we are in no way complacent about the task ahead.

I would like to make two general points about social housing. First, there has been much emphasis on the need for more housing at social rents, a point made by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Shipley, as opposed to affordable rents. I understand the case, but there is a trade-off between rent levels on the one hand and the number of homes that can be built on the other. For the sake of argument, let us assume that an extra £1 billion became available. On average across England, we would expect either to build 12,500 homes at social rents or twice that number—25,000—at affordable rents: double the number of homes to house those in housing need. Moreover, approximately two-thirds of social housing tenants receive housing benefit to support the payment of their rent. So I understand why housing Ministers want to maximise supply, and I plead guilty to this. More recently, the Government have recognised the case for social rents in areas of high demand, a point made in this debate, and we have turned the dial back to provide a minimum of 12,500 new social rent homes. But those who call for a major reversion to traditional social rents must recognise the cost in lost output, and that is true whatever the level of investment available.

The second general point is one that has not been made at all in this debate: if you are in housing need, of course the number of new social homes built is relevant and the more the better. But someone in housing need is eight times more likely to be rehoused through a re-let of an existing social home, than through a new home. So increasing the number of re-lets is a key ingredient in helping those in need. Without changing the rules on security of tenure, I am all in favour of a dialogue between social landlords and their tenants where the tenants’ circumstances have improved substantially, partly as a result of having a decent home, so that they are now in a position to consider home ownership and explore help to buy, shared ownership, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and other home ownership options.

That is also why I have always been a keen supporter of portable discounts—basically, turning the discount that a social tenant is entitled to under right to buy into cash so that the tenant can buy a home. It has a number of benefits. It widens the choice of home that the tenant can buy beyond just the one he is in. It secures a re-let at a fraction of the cost of new build, and of course it does so more quickly. Moreover, it does not erode the stock of social houses, a point made by many noble Lords. The concept is being tested through the current voluntary right-to-buy pilot for housing association tenants in the Midlands; the discounts are funded by central government. I hope housing associations consider whether this has a greater role to play in tackling waiting lists.

On this, and in response to points made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I was interested to read in last week’s Inside Housing an article by Mark Henderson, the chief executive of Home Group, supporting voluntary right to buy. He said that 87% of his tenants wanted to own their own homes. He went on to say:

“At Home Group, for example, we want to go a step further”,

than the national federation’s offer of replacing one for one.

“We will be able to build two homes for every home sold, including at least one for social or affordable rent. This means that”,

voluntary right to buy,

“will lead to a net increase in the amount of affordable homes in an area, alongside helping customers achieve their aspirations of homeownership”.

I hope other housing associations might consider following his lead.

This brings me to right to buy and the points made by many of those who have spoken, including the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, about the use of right-to-buy receipts. Since the reform of the housing revenue account and the introduction of self-financing in April 2012, a proportion of receipts is paid to the Treasury to reflect the reduction in the amount owed to the Treasury and as part of the self-financing settlement, but also to tackle the budget deficit. However, noble Lords will know that we have just undertaken a consultation on the use of right-to-buy receipts. We are considering the responses and how to take these forward. I will ensure that all the points made by noble Lords about more flexibility and the use of capital receipts are taken on board before we come to a final decision on that. Capital receipts could be used for the purposes the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, suggested, namely, regenerating existing local housing stock. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked whether local authorities that have transferred their stock can borrow. Yes, they can. They can borrow through their general fund in line with the prudential code. If they want to, they can then on-loan to a third party for housing development.

I turn to rough sleeping, a topic covered by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, the noble Baronesses, Lady Lawrence and Lady Warwick, and others. Many referred to the tragic death of a rough sleeper on our own doorstep a few weeks ago. Under the first rough sleepers initiative, which was launched in 1990 and which my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones mentioned, the number of people sleeping rough in central London fell by more than half—from an estimated more than 1,000 before the initiative began to around 420 in November 1992. The model was taken forward by the incoming Labour Government and extended to other parts of the country, but the challenge today is as acute as ever.

In response to my noble friend, there are four ingredients to a successful strategy. The first is prevention. The Homelessness Reduction Act, backed by £1.2 billion and piloted through this House by the noble Lord, Lord Best, should give people the help they need earlier and reduce homelessness. Secondly, we need outreach workers with the skills to build up confidence and trust with the rough sleepers and persuade them to abandon that lifestyle. Thirdly, we need direct access hostels with all the necessary support services such as health—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister—and the resources to deal with the underlying problems. Fourthly, we need move-on accommodation so that people can put their lives back together and re-enter the mainstream.

I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in praising those who do heroic work: Centrepoint, The Passage, St Mungo’s and Change Grow Live. Initiatives such as No Second Night Out are particularly important and worthy of support. I pay tribute and wish every success to my ministerial colleague in the department, Heather Wheeler, committing to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and—in response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer—end it completely by 2027. It is an ambitious agenda, backed up by £100 million in funding for the first two years, and in December we published a delivery plan showing how we intend to deliver on the 61 commitments made.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his contribution outlining the consequences of ending rent control. When I bought my copy of the Big Issue today from Phil in Great Peter Street, he asked to be remembered to the noble Lord. Phil suggested that those in the Victoria area who are recruiting staff could do well to call in on the nearby hostel where Phil stays, where they would find some motivated and hard-working employees who deserve a break, like him.

Many noble Lords spoke about encouraging local authorities to build, and we want to see councils deliver a new generation of homes. We have abolished the housing revenue account cap, and my noble friend Lord Porter deserves credit for the role he has played in securing that freedom. We hope that will enable them to double delivery to around 10,000 homes per year by 2021-22.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, criticised stock transfer, when a local authority transfers its stock to a housing association. This can happen only where the tenants have voted for it. In many cases, after they voted for it, the regeneration of a stock took place at a faster rate than would have taken place under the local authority— so I do not think that is a fair criticism of housing policy.

Removing the borrowing cap will help to diversify the housebuilding market, with councils better able to take on projects and sites that private developers might consider too small. To further help councils build, we are providing a longer-term rent deal for five years from 2020 that provides local authorities with a stable investment environment to deliver the new homes.

I was struck by the phrase “long-term” in the noble Lord’s Motion—a challenge to all Administrations accused of short-termism. I agree with him that if we are to make faster progress we need to give those who supply social housing greater certainty. That is why in September the Prime Minister announced a £2 billion long-term funding pilot, starting in 2022, which will boost affordable housing by giving housing associations the long-term certainty they need and will move away from the stop/start delivery that has characterised previous approaches to funding. This funding certainty makes it more viable for the larger housing associations—many noble Lords have key roles to play in housing associations—to take risks and invest in more ambitious projects and larger sites, with the funding guaranteed beyond the current spending review.

We recognise that our commitment to increase the supply of homes requires a modern construction industry—a point raised by my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, who talked about off-site construction. The strategic partnerships we are developing with housing associations are being used to promote modern methods of construction. This is supported by our £4.5 billion home building fund providing support to builders using modern methods of construction, which will, we hope, help to address the shortage of skilled on-site construction workers in addition to encouraging custom builders and new entrants to the market.

My noble friend Lord Garel-Jones suggested that we should build up rather than along and pointed to the difference between our cities and many in Europe. It so happens that yesterday the Secretary of State for Housing announced that, as part of a fresh initiative, 78 homes will be built on London’s rooftops by the summer after Homes England agreed a £9 million funding deal with Apex Airspace Development. This follows our revised NPPF supporting opportunities to use the airspace above existing buildings. These will be built off-site then winched into position to minimise disruption to existing residents.

Many noble Lords referred to poor standards in the private rented sector. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked about selective licensing, which is basically a scheme to drive up standards and safety in the private rented sector, where they are known to be poor. Last year, at the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I got up very early one morning and went to Newham with the noble Lord, the Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, and the police to see how selective licensing was enforced—basically, by going into premises that are as yet unlicensed but suspected of being tenanted. What struck me—and, I am sure, the noble Lord—was the appalling conditions many tenants were living in, paying extortionate rents, but also the sensitivity of the team from Newham in explaining to frightened tenants exactly what was going on and what their rights were. I was deeply impressed that morning.

Since 2015, eight schemes have been approved by the Secretary of State for Housing: one was rejected but it then successfully reapplied. In response to the noble Baroness, a review is under way: we are due to publish it in the spring and I will make sure that the chartered institute report to which she referred is fed into it before we come to any conclusions.

My noble friend Lady Bloomfield raised a number of important points on planning, investment and construction. Last year we updated the NPPF to tackle unaffordable house prices in many areas across the country. The framework sets out a new way for councils to calculate the housing needs of their local communities. We are working closely with other government departments and local authorities to identify and free up public sector land to maximise the amount of affordable housing built on it. The community trust partnership mentioned by my noble friend is one model that can help bring private sector investment alongside local authorities and provide experience to increase affordable housing.

One of the key points that has arisen during the debate—which I will certainly raise with the Secretary of State—was the cost of land and the Land Compensation Act 1961. At the moment we have the CIL, the infrastructure levy, and Section 106, both of which seek to capture the value of land. Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Best and Lord Judd, said that we ought to go further and do more. We are committed to capturing increases in land values to reinvest in local infrastructure, central services and further housing. That is why we are at the moment making important changes to ensure that the existing mechanisms for securing funding for infrastructure and affordable housing work as effectively as possible. I take seriously the comments and suggestions made during the debate.

I am conscious that I will not be able to get through everything in the time available but, quickly, on public sector land, an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, the aim of the programme is to release land with a capacity for at least 160,000 homes in England from the central government estate by 1 March 2020. The noble Baroness asked what the percentage of affordable might be. The answer is, as I think she knows, that local authorities set their own percentages in their local plan. It is a matter for them, having assessed local need, to judge what should happen on new developments.

On supported housing, I was interested in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Healy. There is a need for specialist and other supportable, affordable housing for older and vulnerable members of society. We have delivered 34,000 new supported homes in England since 2011 and, together with the Department for Health and Social Care, we continue to make funding available for investment in new supported housing. Our announcement last summer that the housing costs for supported housing would continue to be made by housing benefit has been greatly reassuring to those active in the market. I hope it will be welcomed by the sector and unlock fresh investment.

I apologise for not dealing with all the questions. I have many good replies in front of me which, sadly, I do not have time to read out but which I will answer.

The Government support the case for delivering more affordable housing and are committed to doing so. We want to support the delivery of the right homes, be they for rent, ownership or supported housing in the right places. We have listened to the sector and to today’s debate. We have introduced a number of measures to create a more stable investment environment. We have abolished the HRA borrowing caps; announced longer-term funding; increased our affordable homes programme to £9 billion; announced social rent funding; and set long-term rent certainty. We are not complacent but now is the time for councils and housing associations to step and deliver the affordable housing that communities need. I thank all noble Lords again for their contributions to this debate.

Constitutional Convention

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Thursday 13th December 2018

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate about our very complicated constitution, with a disparate range of views, not all of which are going to be easy to reconcile: that in a sense makes the case for having a convention. I join the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who has had a very distinguished career, both in this House and in the other place. He and I were reminiscing just a few weeks ago about a visit we made to Zimbabwe—he mentioned Rhodesia in his speech—at a time when we hoped we might be able to help Zimbabwe in a more positive direction than it turned out. We tried very hard; unfortunately, not enough people listened. He recounted to the House the wide range of activities he has been involved in, as a Minister and as a Member of both Houses, and the House has demonstrated how much it appreciates him and wishes him well in his retirement.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on securing this debate: I absolutely support the objective behind it of having a constitutional convention. A number of points have been made, but I reflected on what happened yesterday. It brought home to me just how dysfunctional and medieval our political system is. A dispute in a minority party at the other end of the House, which nobody but 317 people were involved in, was supposed to keep us all on the edge of our seats about the destiny of our nation. If that is British democracy, it is a shameful humiliation that it has been brought down to that. The reality is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says, that in fact our British political system is at the mercy of the minorities who control the two largest parties—which are in themselves minorities—and we have the nerve to call that a democracy. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on that. We have some very fundamental thinking to do, because people are angry, disengaged and alienated. If we do not do something about it, I actually think we have to worry about civil disorder and unrest when people do not find any democratic outlets for securing the things that matter to them.

I pick on the big picture—the more focused picture. The dimension of England is always the problem for those of us who believe that some form of federal United Kingdom is the only way we can resolve the piecemeal reforms that we have initiated. The argument is that England is too big, so we can do nothing about it, but my noble friend Lord Greaves and others have made some suggestions. For example, my noble friend Lady Janke said we could look at how local government was secured in other countries, and mentioned Sweden and Germany. One of the problems with local government is that it just does not have its powers or financial resources secured: these should be constitutional rights enshrined in the law, and not subject to the will of some passing Secretary of State to start changing the powers or the allocation of how money is distributed, if he needs to please the Daily Mail on a given day for a headline.

Yet this is how our country is being run and has been run and there is very little that people can do. People in local government are asked to do more and more with less and less and as a result people say, “You are no use, you can’t do anything, you are not actually delivering for us”. We need a radical rethink, from top to bottom and side to side, but I suggest that before we have a federal constitution for the United Kingdom we absolutely have to address proper, effective, accountable devolution for England. However, I say in passing that that one of the bad consequences of the Scottish devolution settlement and the creation of a majority SNP Government is that it has been the victim of exactly the same paranoia that has been characteristic, in England, of taking control away from local government and centralising it under the control of a few Ministers. In Edinburgh we have lost control of the police, the fire service and many aspects of planning. We have lost control of our ability to actually fund the services that the Government expect us to provide.

We need, therefore, to start thinking about how we can draw people together, analyse the dysfunctionality that is characteristic of the way we run ourselves and, yes, learn from other countries. The interesting thing about Europe, never mind over 50 years but over the last 20 or 30 years, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is that when countries had the opportunity to look at the kind of democracy they wanted to be, none of them looked at the United Kingdom as the model to follow. They looked at countries that had proper constitutions and proper arrangements. My noble friend Lord Steel once famously said, “The British constitution is not worth the paper it isn’t written on”. Nobody quite knows what it is: it is there to be manipulated at will by minorities who happen to be in control at any given time.

I was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and was very proud to be part of it. To be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, he acknowledged that while we naturally and unsurprisingly give the Labour Party credit—which it deserves because it had had a bloodied nose and needed to learn from it, and did learn from it—the convention was an offshoot of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, which was cross-party and non-party, which is really important. When we established the convention, we wanted to be sure that it was as representative and as legitimate as possible, so every elected Member of Parliament and of the European Parliament from Scotland was invited, ex officio, to be a member. Every council in Scotland was invited to send representations and it was supplemented by representatives of trade unions, business organisations, churches, women’s groups and a whole variety of civic society, to enable them to participate and be involved in it. It was not official; the Government of the day treated it with a degree of dismissive contempt and the SNP turned up only to walk out—with the intention of walking out, I think it would be fair to say.

That was unfortunate because there was plenty of room for building consensus, and we did. Indeed, I remember an occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I were on the opposite sides of the argument about the voting system. He claimed that I had a gun to his head and the chair of the Labour Party at the time said that the gun was loaded. It was not loaded by me; it was loaded just as much by the Labour movement and other members of the Labour Party, because they recognised that if you were going to secure a Parliament in Scotland commanding the support of the people of Scotland, it had to be genuinely representative of all parts of Scotland—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will understand that— not just the Glasgow Labour Party, which was what people feared. I give credit to Donald Dewar and other leaders for acknowledging that that was necessary. As a result of that, we moved from having an assembly to having a Parliament, to having more than the powers of the Scottish Office and to being elected by a proportional system.

That takes us on to issues such as referendums. If anything has been a constitutional outrage and abuse, it has been the use of referendums in this country. We have no constitutional basis for a referendum. We have a representative system of government, which the people boast about and celebrate, and then we suddenly throw into it the whim of a referendum, which is nearly always to meet the needs of a particular party in a mess. The net result of that political party in a mess has made the country a mess. What a disgraceful piece of leadership that turned out to be. The Scottish independence referendum was possibly the only way to address an issue: if a nationalist party wins a majority and says, “We have a mandate to try for independence”, a referendum is the way to test it. However, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that a simple question and a simple majority is the answer. Something as fundamental as constitutional change has to carry a very substantial majority for it to stick. If not, we have exactly the situation we have now; a country split down the middle, incapable of resolving its differences by any proper mechanism.

I am personally not very keen on the idea of a second referendum. I support a people’s vote only as a default mechanism because there does not seem to be any other way of resolving the dilemma. If Parliament can find a majority for a system that is genuinely uniting, I would support that, but the reality is that that does not look likely so it seems to me that we have to consult the people.

Fundamentally, I suggest that a constitutional convention needs to look from the bottom up. It needs to consult as widely as possible. It needs to include politicians: I do not think we can exclude them because in the end it will be politicians who have to implement it. The people making suggestions and having ideas who do not have political antennae need to be informed by that, but I agree that the politicians should not be the drivers. It should be a collective decision that draws from all opinions and especially from the grass roots up.

It has been done in other countries. The founding fathers of the United States built their system on it. Talking about the United States perhaps builds in one particular factor, which is that the lack of a written constitution and of real guarantees means that we have a lack of checks and balances built into our constitutional system. To those who say that we should just do everything gradually, bit by bit, I say that doing it that way is how we have got to this state. We have failed to do anything fundamental by analysing what we need to do. Some say that having gone down the road we have, with a Northern Ireland Assembly, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a London Assembly and the demand now for much more local and regional government in England, we are well on the way to creating a quasi, if not actual, federal United Kingdom. It is not possible to have a federal constitution that is not written down. By definition, you have to define where the powers lie and how disputes are resolved and the mechanisms for doing so. The whole point about a federal constitution is that power is divided according to the appropriate body for delivering it, and the powers and resources for that body are secured by the constitution, not by the Government of the day or the political minority that happens to be in control.

That would be a fundamental, radical change to the way we do things in this country. It is a citizens’ contract that has never been built. To the extent that we have acquiesced in the way that the country has been run, it is now breaking down to the point where it threatens our ability to make the country governable. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is very timely. I point out to him that my noble friend Lord Purvis suggested a Bill three or four years ago. Indeed, there is a fairly proud history of doing that. But the reality is that we need to move and to recognise that this constitution does not work.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock for tabling this Motion for debate today. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his diligent and exemplary service in both Houses, totalling 54 years. I have had the privilege of benefiting from the noble Lord’s wise counsel during my eight years as a Member of your Lordships’ House. I agree with other noble Lords that he will be much missed on all sides of the House.

Despite what else is going on in the political sphere—or perhaps because of it—it is good to have this debate today. Since 1997 in particular there has been considerable constitutional change in the United Kingdom. Most of it has been very welcome and needed and has made our country better. The devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were long overdue. It is a tragedy that the Northern Ireland Assembly is presently suspended and, like other noble Lords, I hope that an agreement can be reached to get it up and running again soon.

The establishment of the Greater London Authority, the Mayor of London and the London Assembly has been very welcome. I agree with my noble friend Lord Adonis about the success of the office of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly. I pay tribute to the members of the London Assembly. They do a very good job holding the mayor—of whatever political persuasion—to account each and every day. The establishment of the Supreme Court and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law were also welcome initiatives.

Not so welcome, in my opinion, have been the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the English votes for English laws procedure in the House of Commons, which my noble friend Lord Foulkes also referred to. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that there has to be a holistic approach to constitutional reform and the fact that there has not been has helped create the problems we face today. The decision in 2015 to have English votes for English laws highlights that we have not completed the constitutional changes needed and have left ourselves with a particular problem in England. Most noble Lords who spoke accepted that there is an issue there. So this debate is very welcome in that context.

My noble friend Lord Foulkes spoke about the need for a constitutional convention and he makes a very powerful case. Whether it is a convention or a convocation, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I do not really mind. We have to accept that we have a serious problem and we need to deal with it.

Our present Brexit crisis means that the Government are doing little else. That is a problem for us all. From what I can see, there is no strategic thinking about what changes are needed in the governance of the United Kingdom, no analysis of the problems, and no looking at how we can meet the challenges that we face and how can we do things in a better way that gives our citizens better engagement, understanding and ownership, and a feeling that that their views matter.

Nowhere is that more of a problem that in the present arrangements in England. I agree with my noble friend Lord Murphy about devolution in England —the lack of it, the problems that has caused and the urgent need for this to be readdressed. Many noble Lords made comments about the derisory powers of city leaders and mayors in comparison with those of their European counterparts. Boris Johnson is not a man I often agree with, but even he made the case for the additional devolution of fiscal powers to London during his term of office many years ago, although of course even he was unsuccessful in achieving that.

I also contend that the failure to deal with the issues in England has created much greater pressure on the union. I very much agree with the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, which observed that while there had been devolution of power elsewhere in the United Kingdom, England was a centralised unit, and:

“As a result, there is dissatisfaction within England with the current territorial constitution”.

I believe that a lot of our problems can be tracked back to one central issue. My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock referred to the comments made by the Mayor of Liverpool about this being a top-down agenda. We have heard that he has left the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. When George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he looked at the whole question of where power is and created the northern powerhouse initiative. He sought to devolve powers—we can argue whether he was right or wrong—and to reorganise governance arrangements. I did not agree with all this but today, with his departure from government and now from the House of Commons, it has stalled. There appears to be no reforming zeal anywhere in government. There is no interest in the Treasury. There is no interest in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to move this forward. There is definitely no interest in Downing Street for this agenda. The combined authority/metro mayor model is flawed and confused and now lacks a champion in government.

I remember a contribution to a previous debate by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley—he is not in his place today—in which he told us that where he lives in Cambridgeshire, there are actually five tiers of local government: the metro mayor and the combined authority, the police and crime commissioner, the county council, the district council and the parish council. That is no way to deliver services and to be accountable to the local electorate.

To be fair, there is not much thinking in my own party on this at the moment. We need to look at these things. One of the benefits of being in opposition—there are not many—is that you can look at these matters, do some thinking, bring something forward and challenge ideas. That is important and we need to do that. The Member for Oldham West and Royton in the other place, Mr Jim McMahon MP, has begun some important work looking at the devolution settlement for England. As an Opposition we need to be coming forward with ideas to meet the challenges of governance that we face today. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hain’s comments about devolution in England and how we need to develop things. He also referred to the Member for Wigan in the other place, Lisa Nandy MP, and the important work she is doing looking at towns and how they can feel isolated and not engaged.

There is also a big job to be done by think tanks and organisations such as the Fabian Society, a much-respected organisation on the left of British politics, which has been affiliated to the Labour Party since its formation. If you look at our 1997 manifesto, the society had great influence on the issues we fought and won that election on. I should also make it clear that I have been a member of the society for 30 years and serve on its executive committee.

Thinking in other political parties is important as well. We need to make sure that political parties and organisations aligned with them also think about these things. No one party or organisation is the source of all good ideas. In the 2017 general election the Labour Party supported a constitutional convention as a way forward. Getting some sort of body together to consider these very important issues is a very welcome idea. It should comprise representatives of political parties, civil society and academia. We may need a number of different organisations to consider these questions urgently, because it cannot be just a body or a group of people who are seen to be detached. The issue of real citizen engagement has to be central to the work that any convention or convocation does.

The Library briefing was very helpful. I was interested to read about the work of Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick and agree with them that,

“genuine, well-grounded deliberation does not take place spontaneously”.

To go down this route would take considerable planning but could produce recommendations that are reasoned and coherent and, most importantly, address the issues that need addressing. Their Blueprint for a UK Constitutional Convention is a good piece of work and could form the basis of how we move forward, notwithstanding the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport about how we deliver constitutional change in our country. As I said earlier, however, there also needs to be thinking within the political parties and I suspect—unless the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, surprises us all when he responds—that the Government are at present not persuaded as to the merits of these proposals from my noble friend Lord Foulkes. There is plenty of time for us in the political parties to consider these issues carefully and maybe to persuade the Government at a later date.

I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock for bringing his Motion forward today. It has been a very useful debate and I look forward to the response from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on his choice of subject and its timing, this debate coming as it does in a month when a number of important constitutional issues have captured the headlines. I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Higgins. I first heard him speak from my party’s Front Bench in 1974, when he was part of Ted Heath’s opposition team, and have followed his career ever since. I remember him in particular chairing the Treasury Select Committee in the 1990s. The debates here will be the poorer without him. I hope that he does not entirely absent himself from political discourse, but uses other platforms. I was touched by his genuine tribute to his successors, the fact that he has done 54 years in public service and the way that he stuck up for his beliefs at a time when they were unpopular. The children of this country are for ever grateful to him for the rebate of VAT on children’s shoes.

It has been a real pleasure for me to listen to this debate, well informed and topical as it has been, as I have a long-standing interest in constitutional issues. I was my party’s spokesman in another place on the subject at the turn of the century, when we debated what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, along with Lords reform. I served on a democracy taskforce, chaired by Ken Clarke, with fellow members including the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Tyrie, which promoted the policy of English votes for English laws. I shall come back to that in a moment. As the leader of the House in another place, I promoted some reforms in the coalition Government to give back to Parliament some of the powers the Executive had taken away. I have also done some time on the council of the Hansard Society and worked with my noble friend Lord Norton, when he was commissioned by the then leader of my party, now my noble friend Lord Hague, to work up his report on strengthening Parliament.

However, the pleasure of listening to and learning from this debate has been moderated by the knowledge that I am expected to wind it up. Noble Lords have given me a long frontier to patrol and while I will try to address some of the key issues raised, my remarks will mostly be a contribution to the debate rather than a summation. The wide-ranging nature of this debate highlights one of the problems with a constitutional convention—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. Noble Lords have raised so many issues that any convention looking into them would take years to do them justice. When I got the brief from the Cabinet Office for this debate, it was over 100 pages long and covered over 25 topics that could come under such a convention. Noble Lords have raised many others.

I am not averse to independent conventions looking at certain constitutional issues. Indeed, there have been many successful examples which we have heard of during this debate. We have had the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on reforms to this House; there were the Silk and Smith commissions on devolved powers; recent commissions, such as that of the UCL Constitution Unit on referendums, have added greatly to the debate and knowledge in this area. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord McConnell, reminded us that they were both part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and I applaud the success of that convention in producing two reports prior to the devolution changes in 1997. I also applaud the work of the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord Hain, on the Act of Union Bill, which I understand we will now be debating early next year. But the point about all these conventions is that they were narrowly focused, rather than the wide-ranging agenda proposed by the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, reminded us of the fate of the Kilbrandon commission.

The helpful Library briefing note for this debate referenced the work undertaken by Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Alan Renwick, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on their Blueprint for A UK Constitutional Convention. However, the quote that he used was not this one. The summary to the report said:

“While some activists would like to see an overarching constitutional review, there is good reason to think this would be too complex and controversial to yield useful results. Limiting the convention to one aspect of the constitution is likely to be better”.

As this suggests, it would be worth considering how such a large topic could be disaggregated and prioritised, with the key issues being more clearly defined.

The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, helpfully does not stipulate that the Government should initiate such a convention; indeed, he implied in his opening remarks that this was something the Opposition should do. Anticipating a government response the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that there was no way that the Government would agree to this. What struck me during the discussion about the nature of such a convention was what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said when he spoke of the convention on which he served: that it was successful because it reflected the settled will of the people of Scotland. That convention had a purpose and that was why it succeeded. The whole argument behind this convention is, because there is no settled will or purpose, there is clear disagreement. Some noble Lords want a written constitution, including the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Dykes; others who have taken part in this debate would be firmly against a written constitution. The suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, that we should do this quickly and urgently is not an optimistic prognosis, given the difficulties it would have to cover.

While our debate has been wide-ranging, it has not covered everything that affects democratic accountability. For example, I regret the recent erosion of collective responsibility in government and the selective briefing of exchanges in Cabinet, both of which I believe hinder good government. Another issue central to democratic accountability in this country is the role of our political parties, hardly mentioned in this debate. Half of all voters think that British politics is broken. Only one in seven thinks that the Tories and Labour represent the views of the public—I will come to the Liberal Democrats in a moment. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly spoke of those who feel disfranchised and dispossessed. The noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke of alienation.

Half of those who spoke in this debate served in the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out, as party membership declines, as has happened in my party, with its centre of gravity shifting to the right, or is swollen by supporters with a particular ideology, as has happened to the Labour Party in its shifts to the left, it may become more difficult for candidates in the centre of the political spectrum to get selected. Putting aside our age, how many of us who have spoken in this debate—predominantly remainers or Blairites—would be selected today?

Meanwhile, what has happened to the Liberal Democrats? For all my political life, when a Conservative Government have faced difficulties, whether that be under Macmillan in the 1960s, Heath in the 1970s, Thatcher in the early 1980s or Major in the 1990s, the third party has been a safety valve and has won by-elections, particularly when the Opposition party have also been unpopular. There was Orpington, Berwick, Crosby, Hillhead, Newbury and Christchurch among a long list, which brings back painful memories. Today, with a Government who are facing unprecedented difficulties and visibly divided, and a Labour Party led by its most left-wing leader in history—without Michael Foot’s gift of oratory and Cabinet experience—where is our third party? It is languishing in single figures. I make this point not to provoke but to underline the central importance of our parties to democratic accountability and the risk of their being seen as not relevant to voters. I reinforce the point made during this debate about the broad terms of reference of any convention on democratic accountability.

No one, except I think the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned the role of social media in our democracy. Last Saturday a former head of GCHQ said that Facebook poses a threat to democracy without tougher regulation. As I have said before, usually in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, we have an analogue regulatory system for our elections in a digital age. During the last three decades, the internet has revolutionised not only the way we interact with each other but the way we do politics. The digital landscape poses challenges for our democratic accountability that we cannot afford to shy away from addressing, so it is incumbent on this Government to keep pace with the changes to technology. We are determined to have a system that is fit for purpose, and we will be introducing reforms once relevant court cases have been disposed of and the relevant Select Committee and Electoral Commission reports are available to achieve that objective.

As others have outlined during this debate, constitutional conventions can work in some circumstances, but it depends on the situation. Other countries which have tried have found the process challenging. The recommendations of the conventions in British Columbia and Ontario were rejected when they were put to the public in referendums. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by the Irish constitutional convention, only two were put to referendum and only one passed. In Iceland, where a more wide-ranging constitutional convention was undertaken, all six of the proposals of the constitutional council were passed following a referendum. However, they have not been taken forward by subsequent Governments. That highlights one of our key concerns with proposals for a constitutional convention: that they often fail to deliver the intended result.

I shall try to touch on some of the points that were raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, touched on AV and criticised first past the post. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that he has seen the hurdles facing those who want a second vote on the referendum where the result was 52% to 48%. What hurdles will confront those who want a second referendum on the result of the referendum we had on AV, when the vote was 67.9% to 32.1%, particularly against a background of the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that we should not repeat referendums too often?

A number of noble Lords made a valid point about the potential tension between government by referendum and government by representative democracy. What would have happened 40 years ago if any of us had stood for Parliament and been elected making it quite clear that we were opposed to capital punishment but there had been a referendum and the people decided that they wanted it? Would MPs have had to respect the result of the referendum and go against what they had said in their election address? There is a potential tension there which was rightly brought out in a number of comments.

English votes for English laws came in for a little bit of criticism from one or two noble Lords. I remember sitting in another place on a Standing Committee considering the Labour Government’s proposal to ban smoking in public places. In Standing Committee, there was an amendment to extend the ban to pubs, which was opposed by the Minister in the Standing Committee. There were enough people on the Standing Committee to demand a vote and the Government were saved by a Member of Parliament from Scotland, where smoking had already been banned in pubs, voting not to ban smoking in pubs in England. From that moment I became a strong advocate of English votes for English laws. Contrary to what a number of noble Lords have said, I think it has embedded fairness and balance into Parliament’s law-making process. I think it has strengthened England’s voice, just as devolution strengthened the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within our union. I think it is right that elected Members of the House of Commons who represent constituencies in England have the opportunity to give their consent on domestic legislation that affects only them, simply mirroring the position in Scotland.

On the case for an English Parliament, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, cast some doubts as to whether it would work, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, pointed out the asymmetry in the United Kingdom with such a large component of it being accounted for by one unit. If one looks at Andrew Blick’s pamphlet Federalism: The UK’s Future?, he makes the point that an English Parliament would not deliver the benefits of decentralisation associated with devolution. I think there is no consensus that an English Parliament is the way forward. I believe that English votes for English laws delivers a coherent constitutional response without the upheaval of an English Parliament.

Rather than work up the case for an English Parliament, we prefer to strengthen communities and regions within England through, in particular, the northern powerhouse and the Midlands engine and by developing a devolution framework for England, providing clarity for all English authorities about the future of English devolution. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said about the German Länder, but it seems to me that we do not have the building blocks that they have in Germany to create the structure that they have there.

A number of noble Lords mentioned regional assemblies. This was piloted in the north-west by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, and did not find favour, so since the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 came into force we have taken major steps to decentralise governance in England through devolution deals and combined authorities headed by elected mayors in seven city regions, with an eighth mayor in North of Tyne to be elected in May. A number of noble Lords said that this is asymmetrical and a muddle—I think that was the expression used—but it has happened only when it was what local authorities asked the Government to do. Combined authorities are created when that is what local authorities have decided to do. Likewise, if they want elected mayors rather than the traditional local authority settlement, that is what they can have.

I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about building on the success of elected mayors. Looking not just at London but at Manchester, we have arranged for particular combined authorities to assume the delivery of central government programmes such as the work and health programme and the life chances fund, and to help to develop new and innovative ways of working with local public services such as health and justice. I agree that this is a model we should build on. I think my noble friend Lord Heseltine can claim to be the champion of mayors in advance of anyone else who may make that claim.

I think elected mayors have been one of the successes in the British constitution. They chair their combined authorities and ensure strong and strategic leadership across a clear economic geography as a recognised leader who is accountable to voters in their region. They can act nationally and internationally as an ambassador for their region, boosting the area’s profile and helping to attract inward investment. Mayors also have soft powers, such as the ability to convene a range of stakeholders to tackle complex issues such as homelessness, and I applaud what Andy Burnham is doing on Manchester on that point. I think the introduction of strong mayors has been one of the most important constitutional changes in past years.

With two minutes left, I am not going to be able to do justice to the issues that were raised about Brexit and the impact on devolution, but I was struck by what two noble Lords said about having a single constitutional member in the Cabinet or, as I think was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, getting rid of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales altogether. As an English MP, I would have been worried about the potential impact on sentiment in Scotland if it no longer had a voice in a UK Cabinet but if he—

Verify: Digital Identity System

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Monday 26th November 2018

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Cabinet Office
Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I would not describe the service in quite the terms that the noble Lord has just used. Progress is being made towards the target of 25 million users by 2020. It is not the case that HMRC is not using Verify. Noble Lords who want to can upload their self-assessment tax return using Verify, and if they so wish they can check their income tax account using Verify. More and more government services are now subscribing to Verify; the MoD recently added an additional service, and some 18 services are now available. It is not the case that we are abdicating the whole thing to the private sector. Verify, which is a government service, will continue to provide a digital identity service to the public sector, and it is talking to the NHS and to local government in order to continue to broaden the base.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House clearly what went wrong?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

I challenge the premise on which the noble Lord based his question. Verify was launched in 2016 and, as I said in my initial reply, now has 3 million subscribers who have completed 8 million transactions. I signed up to Verify over the weekend and, if noble Lords have not, I suggest that they make themselves familiar with this new and innovative service.

Tenant Fees Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Tuesday 20th November 2018

(1 year, 10 months ago)

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Baroness Grender Portrait Baroness Grender (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 29 and 30 and in support of Amendment 28, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I thank the Minister for all the meetings with him and his officials and for the meeting today on guidance. I look forward to continuing to meet to make sure that we do what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, described and make sure that the Bill is beautifully polished before it receives Royal Assent.

Amendment 27 would cap the change of sharer charge to £50 and Amendment 29 would avoid exorbitant charges to end a tenancy. Amendment 30 would avoid what I hope is an unintended consequence, which is that paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 allows landlords to insist on all the rent for the remainder of the fixed term. It aims to make the provision a little more tenant friendly by limiting the tenant’s liability for the rent to the point at which the property is relet.

Regarding a change of tenant, if a sharer moves out, it is normally their and the remaining housemates’ responsibility to find a replacement. The alternatives are for the remaining housemates to pay rent on an empty bedroom or for them all to move out, with the associated costs. Currently the fees associated with changing a tenant are comparable to those of starting a new tenancy. Indeed, Generation Rent recorded an average of £248 in its research. This reflects the limited options available to tenants rather than the actual costs involved. As the tenants tend to do all the marketing though sites such as Gumtree and SpareRoom, the landlord’s costs are limited to the referencing process. Even then, the existing tenants have an incentive to find a new housemate who will pass the referencing process and whom they can rely on to pay a regular rent.

If there is to be a fee, it should reflect the landlord’s or the agent’s reduced cost in that circumstance. The Bill as drafted says that the charge is capped at £50, but it still allows landlords to charge more than that—so it is not really a cap but more of a floor. The possibility remains that landlords would charge as much as they could. A true cap would not permit fees above a specified sum.

I turn to Amendments 29 and 30. People will always need to move unexpectedly in circumstances where their personal or professional life changes. The Government have recognised this through their proposed longer-tenancies model, which we welcome, giving tenants the flexibility to exit the tenancy without penalty before the fixed period ends. However, paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 allows landlords to insist on all the rent for the rest of the fixed term, which is unnecessary if they are able to relet the property, has the potential to create financial hardship for tenants and could even see some people trapped in difficult relationships. The amendments would limit the tenant’s liability for the rent until the point when the property was relet, which should take place within a reasonable timeframe. I very much appreciate that there is a little more clarity in terms of the draft guidance at the moment, but that is of course draft guidance and I am seeking to probe what can be in the Bill regarding this issue.

Regarding costs at the end of a tenancy, no one makes the decision to move lightly. To end your tenancy early would mean that you face significant changes in your personal or professional life. The Bill should therefore limit the cost of this where possible. As it currently stands, my understanding is that it would appear to make a tenant leaving a tenancy liable for the rent for the remainder of the fixed term, plus the costs of remarketing the property. A tenant moving out could pay all of this and the landlord could still get a new tenant within a month of the tenancy. The landlord therefore could possibly receive several months of double rent through sheer luck. To make it more of a level playing field and limit the departing tenant’s liability, the Bill should apply a reasonableness test. As soon as the property has a new tenant, the former tenant’s liability should end, and the landlord should have an obligation to deal reasonably with any request to leave. I beg to move.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, as this is my first contribution to the proceedings, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

This group of amendments covers Schedule 1 to the Bill, specifically around issues of changing or terminating the tenancy agreement. Amendment 28 is in my name and I have also put my name to Amendments 29 and 30, while I support the intention behind Amendment 27 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Grender and Lady Thornhill. Amendment 27 would cap the amount that could be charged for a change in tenancy to £50, and that seems very reasonable. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said, otherwise the £50 becomes a floor rather than a ceiling. The problem with the clause as worded is that it leaves the way open for a large amount to be charged. I think that that is unfair and not reasonable.

My Amendment 28 seeks to ensure that in a situation where the only change is that of a tenant, a charge cannot be made. I hope that the Government will agree that there is no loss of rental income if you are just replacing one name with another, and to allow a charge to be made in that situation seems very unfair.

Amendment 29 would require the landlord to react reasonably to any request for an early exit, including when taking steps to relet the property. If they do not do so, this payment would be a prohibited payment, for all the reasons that we have heard in this short debate. Amendment 30 seeks to provide better clarification than is provided by the schedule as presently worded.

The Earl of Lytton Portrait The Earl of Lytton (CB) - Hansard

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 29. I entirely understand the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. A number of individuals collectively forming “tenant” particularly occurs in London and other metropolitan areas. Those of us who inhabit the countryside tend to have single tenants in a building, rather than a system of sharing.

I have absolutely no problem with the idea of ensuring that landlords are not overcharging beyond reasonable cost. My concern is that this is beginning to look like micromanagement of the letting process. The question is, “reasonable” by whose standards? For instance, a group of tenants—perhaps four of them—decides to take on a property on a two-year term. Let us suppose they collectively decide that they want to finish the tenancy after one year and want to move out in the run-up to Christmas, which is known to be a difficult time for the letting market because things tend not to get going again until into the new year. By whose standards would “reasonableness” be measured? Would it be by reference to the tenants, who, after all, have agreed to take on the property on a two-year basis and wish to terminate after one year; or by reference to the reasonable costs the landlord would run up in that process? All sorts of things hang on that—for example, rent voids and running costs such as heating and security while the place is unoccupied, were that to happen.

I appreciate that things get more difficult when you have a number of tenants and one wants to go, because that creates a dynamic which, as the noble Baroness rightly said—and has said previously—affects the other occupants. It would be really undesirable if landlords responded by simply deciding not to agree to early termination. That would be the worst of all possible worlds. As a private sector landlord, I have never used that other than when someone wants to terminate at short notice and before the property can reasonably be re-let. That tends not to happen in the high-pressure circumstances of inner-London shared residential, but with a freestanding property in the countryside, where things are quite different. The Bill will apply across the nation.

I counsel a little caution here, and perhaps the Minister would care to comment. If the culture creeps in whereby no early termination of a lease is possible or will be agreed, we will be back here later with another measure to say that landlords must provide that facility. I do not see this as necessarily being the endpoint, and I should like to tease out that issue to give some closure on what we are doing with residential landlord and tenant. Hopefully, the situation can stabilise so that everyone will know where they are for, at any rate, the reasonably foreseeable future.

Break in Debate

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

My Lords, Amendments 31 and 32 in my name seek to add two new sub-paragraphs to paragraph 8 of Schedule 1. The schedule is concerned with permitted payments and paragraph 8 is concerned with payments in respect of utilities. Amendment 31 seeks to place a requirement on the landlord to review the various utility contracts and switch tariffs or suppliers to one that would be the most beneficial to the tenant.

We are all aware that the utility market is competitive and that there is a whole range of offers and deals. If the landlord or letting agent is able to make a charge for utilities, it is not unreasonable to require them to do something about getting the best deal and the best value for the benefit of their tenant. Looking at the market to see what is available is not too onerous a task and a reasonable obligation.

Amendment 32 proposes that the amount charged to the tenant must be the reasonable costs incurred, and any excess would be a prohibited payment. This amendment seeks to close a potential loophole by restricting what can be charged to reasonable costs incurred. I beg to move.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in these two amendments, which would help to tighten up the Bill. As he said, paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 is very open-ended, and he referred to a loophole potentially lying within it as it is worded. I think his amendment will tighten it and will do so partly because it is in the interests of the tenant, who may secure a cash saving in the amount they pay for a utility even though they may have to pay a fee to achieve it. I therefore hope the Minister might be willing to look at that carefully. As paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 is currently drafted, it simply refers to the fact that the tenancy agreement may require the payment to be made, but it does not define why it would have to be made. That is why the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is so helpful.

Break in Debate

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, the Countess of Lytton is clearly even more formidable than the noble Earl.

I too have a lot of sympathy with these amendments, but I believe there are already sufficient existing protections—not in this Bill but in other legislation—which address the concerns raised by noble Lords. Landlords who resell energy to their tenants for domestic use are governed by maximum resale price provisions set by Ofgem under Section 44 of the Electricity Act 1989 and Section 37 of the Gas Act 1986. This prevents landlords from overcharging tenants; they cannot charge the tenant more than the landlord has paid. If the landlord does overcharge, the tenant is entitled to have the charge lowered and overpayments refunded. The tenant can also bring a claim against their landlord to the small claims court for the amount that has been overcharged plus interest. In addition, on other utilities, landlords are prohibited from overcharging tenants for the resale of water under the maximum resale price provisions set out in the Water Resale Order 2006. If the landlord does overcharge, the tenant can take legal action through the small claims court to recover any overpayment and the tenant is eligible to recover interest at a rate of twice the average base interest rate of the Bank of England for the period they have been overcharged.

Amendment 31 would specifically require landlords to review any contract held for the provision of utilities and to consider switching provider if this would be beneficial to the tenant. In the majority of cases, tenants will be responsible for paying their own energy bills; they will pay them direct to the supplier and not to the landlord. So in most cases, tenants will already have the right to choose their own supplier. The tenancy agreement will set out who is responsible for paying these charges. Where the landlord is responsible for paying the bills, they may seek to recover these costs through the rent or directly from the tenant but, as I have already explained, they are already prevented from overcharging for this for energy and water.

Through, for example, the How to Rent guide, we encourage tenants to speak to their landlord or agent if they think their utilities payments are too high or if they want to request a change of supplier. In many cases, it may be in the interest of the landlord to move to a more competitive supplier as that may help to market their property in the future.

In addition, the Government’s Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill received Royal Assent on 19 July. This requires Ofgem to implement a price cap on standard variable and default tariffs, which will guarantee protection for the 11 million households currently on the highest energy tariffs.

Against that background, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, for his very helpful response. I will withdraw my amendment shortly, but I would like to check something. He helpfully set out the legislation which will prevent people from being overcharged by landlords, but I cannot recall off the top of my head whether this will be clearly laid out in the guidance so that people will be very much aware of their rights and obligations. That would go some way to allaying the fears that are behind these amendments.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

Before the noble Lord sits down I would like to say that that is a very helpful suggestion. We will indeed look at the guidance to see whether that suggestion can be incorporated.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

In that case, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Break in Debate

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

My Lords, all the amendments in this group are in my name except Amendment 37, although I support that amendment as well. They seek to amend Schedule 2, which concerns holding deposits. Amendment 33 would remove from the Bill the ability for a holding deposit to be withheld if the prospective tenant is prohibited from being granted a tenancy due to the restrictions of the Immigration Act and has failed the right to rent check. It is of course a probing amendment and I look forward to the Government setting out their case to justify this part of the Bill.

Amendment 34 would strengthen paragraph 8 of Schedule 2 by adding the word “knowingly”. That is a reasonable bar to have to reach for a deposit to be lost. Otherwise, it is unfair on the prospective tenant. If you knowingly provide false and misleading information, fine, but if it is unintentional, it seems harsh that the deposit can be withheld.

Amendment 35 would allow a tenant to decide not to proceed with a tenancy by notifying the landlord or letting agent before the deadline. It gives the tenant a reasonable period in which they can change their mind and not lose the deposit. I hope the Government can respond positively to that amendment.

Amendment 36 seeks to put into the Bill a requirement, where a holding deposit is withheld, that the landlord or agent say why they are doing so; that they set out the information they believe is false or misleading and which has been relied upon to withhold the deposit; and that they explain how the tenant can challenge the decision, including how to get advice on doing so, to ensure that the decision is sound. Again, I hope that the Government can respond to this amendment because people should be able to understand why a decision has been made and be clear on whether there is anything they can do. If your deposit is withheld, it must be right that you be told why and that the reasons be set out. If you do not like the decision, you should be told where you can go to get further advice and challenge it.

The final amendment in the group, Amendment 37, has been tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Grender and Lady Thornhill. It looks sensible and I look forward to hearing the explanation behind it. I beg to move.

Baroness Thornhill Portrait Baroness Thornhill (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I rise to speak briefly to the final amendment in this group, Amendment 37. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his remarks and I should say that we support his amendments.

If the Bill is rightly concerned with redressing the balance of power a little more towards tenants, this modest amendment would surely do that. Its purpose is to ensure that on payment of a holding deposit, which can sometimes be a significant amount of money, the tenant actually gets to see the tenancy agreement and therefore knows the terms of the contract that they will be asked to sign and abide by. The real question is whether there is a good reason for tenants not automatically and always being given this right. I am at a loss to understand this. In life, if we buy a product or a service, we see all the terms and conditions. We tick the “I agree” box online, while on paper we sign on the dotted line—although, like me, I suspect that we do not actually read all of the small print. The situation we are discussing would not arise in any other consumer transaction, so the amendment seeks to ensure that the same applies when people rent their home.

It is impossible for tenants to spot and negotiate out of the tenancy agreement any unfair terms if they have not received it before signing or moving into the property, the more so as they might ultimately incur default fees. Even if they receive the agreement in good time, they do not have much power to negotiate the terms because they stand to lose their holding deposit if they walk away. The ability of tenants to negotiate unfair terms out of a contract would be made just a little easier through the provision in this amendment.

It is equally important that the Bill makes it clear that the draft tenancy agreement must meet a certain universal standard. Thus the amendment refers to the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the legislation that would form the basis for the standard. The rationale is that if the tenancy agreement contained unfair terms, the tenant could ask for those to be removed. If the landlord refused to remove them, the tenant could pull out of the tenancy and claim the holding deposit back on the basis that the draft agreement did not comply with the Consumer Rights Act.

Existing government guidelines for the Act on what are and are not “unfair terms” are quite clear. They talk about transferring risks to consumers—in this case the tenant—that cannot be controlled. The tenancy agreement might be the first time the tenant gets to see what default fees the landlord is setting, and sometimes, even more significantly—and perhaps horrifically—it does not specify the level of default fees they might subsequently wish to apply. Efforts elsewhere in the Bill to define default fees more tightly might help to address these concerns, but surely it is both fair and reasonable for tenants to have some ability to negotiate the terms of their contract before signing it.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth - Hansard

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for moving his amendment.

This set of amendments deals with the treatment of holding deposits under Schedule 2 to the Bill. As I have set out on previous occasions, the purpose of a holding deposit is to enable both the landlord and the tenant to demonstrate their commitment to entering into a tenancy agreement while reference checks are undertaken. It is important that there is earnest from both parties to the agreement. As I have said on a previous occasion, it must be wrong for a landlord to have more than one agreement with a tenant; there can be only one on both sides. So that we have a case of what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, we have to be careful in looking at the amendments.

Amendments 33 to 35, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, seek to make changes to the circumstances in which landlords and agents can retain a holding deposit. From the outset of this policy, landlords and letting agents have expressed concern that tenants speculating on multiple properties might be a side-effect of the ban. That is why we are allowing a landlord to ask for a holding deposit so that tenants can demonstrate that they are sincere in their application—as I am sure they are, in the vast majority of cases. It is a pledge from the tenant to a given property. This mitigates the risk of landlords and agents being out of pocket if a tenant registers an interest, only to withdraw if something better comes along. I therefore cannot agree to Amendment 35.

We also want to ensure that landlords do not take an overly cautious approach and preselect tenants that they perceive as the most likely to pass a reference check. Permitting landlords to retain holding deposits in circumstances where a tenant fails a right-to-rent check—which I referred to in discussion on the previous amendment, moved by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes—is a key mitigation against such behaviour. I therefore cannot accept Amendment 33.

Amendment 34 suggests that a landlord or agent should refund the holding deposit only if the tenant “knowingly” provides false or misleading information. Again, I am afraid I cannot accept such an amendment, although I appreciate the spirit in which it was moved. Requiring the landlord to refund the holding deposit in these situations would be near-impossible because the landlord is unlikely to have the necessary evidence to prove whether a tenant has done something knowingly. It would simply be one party’s word against the other. Given that the landlord is liable for a significant financial fine, we believe that the inclusion of a “knowingly” test is more likely to lead to them taking a risk-averse approach, which would not help tenants. I firmly believe that the approach set out in the Bill with respect to holding deposits is the fairest to both landlords and tenants.

As I have said, I recognise the desire expressed by noble Lords for greater transparency regarding the treatment of holding deposits; I have previously indicated that I will look at that. I understand the rationale behind Amendments 36 and 37. Without a commitment on where we will end up, I am happy to look at this issue ahead of Report. I appreciate the valuable points made during the debate on these amendments and the importance for tenants of understanding how their holding deposit is handled and why it may not be returned. That seems entirely fair. I have listened to noble Lords’ concerns on these issues and will be happy to return to them at Report. I listened to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, on Amendment 37 in relation to sight of the agreement ahead of entering into it. Again, that seems to have some strength in it and I am happy to look at it.

I should say that we are making great progress; I believe that noble Lords who have looked at the guidance notes will acknowledge that. The notes, which will set out the procedures for, and the rights and obligations of, landlords and agents will provide great assistance in this area. That will support tenants in understanding how to seek appropriate redress if they are dissatisfied, including through provision of draft letters to help tenants raise concerns with their landlords and agents around the treatment of their holding deposit. As I have indicated, I am very happy that noble Lords from around the Committee should engage in this process with officials to help us to clarify points made in the guidance notes to improve them in the interests of landlords and tenants. I acknowledge that we have made some important strides in the process of making sure it is much more lucid and transparent, and less riddled with jargon.

Landlords and agents should give tenants sufficient time to understand the terms of any agreement before signing. I am clear on that. That is why the period before the deadline for agreement is there; it is intended to allow that. I will also ensure that a link to the consumer guidance on the Bill is included in the How to Rent guide. That will also help. Landlords are of course required by law to give their tenants these guides to help raise awareness. I hope those assurances enable the noble Lord and the noble Baroness not to press their amendments.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark - Hansard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for that thoughtful and helpful response to this short debate. I will happily withdraw my amendment shortly. Of my four amendments the most important was Amendment 36, which the noble Lord responded to in detail. I was pleased that he did so, because it is only right and fair that if your deposit is withheld you should understand why and how you can challenge that. I will certainly look at that and I hope to bring something back at Report. I thank him very much for that.

I also listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. I thought she made a very strong case for her amendment. Again, I am very pleased that the noble Lord will look at that. I hope we will have something on Report that we can all agree on. At this stage, I am very happy to withdraw my amendment.

Cyber Threats

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Thursday 18th October 2018

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Lord Fox (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on securing this debate, which has been wide-ranging. It has moved from kettles to China, from spying to crime and to botnet threats. I look forward to the Minister encapsulating the debate in his response. For what it is worth, I would characterise its mood as a slightly uneasy sense that we have been doing the right things but may have to do a lot more. The degree of uneasiness has varied from noble Lord to noble Lord but I fear that I sit at the pessimistic end of that spectrum.

As the noble Viscount set out, we sit in a very complex landscape, and that complexity has been deepened by the speed of change and the degree of complexity and connectivity across our lives. But we should not forget that there is also a huge political dimension to all this. The world is changing, probably faster than many of us have experienced for a long time. The move towards more autocratic leadership in some very important places fosters these kind of threats and that is why a multilateral approach is absolutely central. Many Peers have highlighted that—not least the mover of this Motion—and I will come back to it.

The other game-changer—I do not think this has been alluded to much—is the asymmetry in the possibility for one individual a long way away to take on a Government or a large national corporation, or at least think they can. I do not think we have seen that situation before, and it emboldens individuals or groups of individuals to do things hitherto not considered possible. The Government have clearly demonstrated that they are seeking to commit on this issue. It is hard to tell how successful this has been, because as the noble Lords, Lord West and Lord Ricketts, and others, have highlighted, the NCSC has been active and—we believe—successful, but we do not see its best work. That is the conundrum with those kinds of agencies; it is defending a negative. But looking forward, I would like to hear from the Minister how the Government support the NCSC and how its role will grow.

Of course, as a number of speakers have said, it is not just about government. Businesses and individuals are all involved and we all have to run very fast to keep up with changes. I had two emails today seeking to compromise my bank account—I am sure most speakers did. At a business level, the noble Lord, Lord St John, is right: it comes to the fore from time to time but very rarely flows from the IT team to the C-suite. One suggestion I would have is that if businesses were required to report—at least partially—the amount of cybercrime they were resisting, the C-suite would be confronted with it on a more systematic basis, and would perhaps do something about it by seeing the benefit of investment in that kind of technology.

This takes us to the critical national infrastructure. Again, I would be pleased to hear from the Minister how the Government believe the CNI community is reacting to the threat. Is it stepping up to the plate and actually moving fast enough? Again, it is hard to tell. Organisations such as the NHS—a part of our infrastructure in a different way—clearly were not investing in IT, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, set out, it suffered the consequences. We have rail, road, the electricity distribution networks and the other utilities. Where do the Government think we are on the road to resilience? Stepping beyond that, the Government have resolved to work with the communications service providers and industry to make the internet more secure, so what is the progress? What are the landmarks on that journey? The physical architecture of our internet providers is clearly very vulnerable; it sits in green boxes on the most of our street corners. Delivery is poorly controlled, as we know. If that is an example of resilience, I am not filled with confidence.

Of course, we have also seen how the private sector has suffered from what I would call self-inflicted problems. That serves as another interesting series of cases. One is the complex and jumbled nature of the technology that many of our largest corporations have. They have layer upon layer, with legacy technology that dates back not just years but decades. Across Britain, some of our most important institutions are built on computer technology that goes back to when I was an undergraduate at university—I have to tell you, that was some time ago.

A further point has arisen around the internet of things and the idea that the boss’s kettle will listen in on important discussions. We can challenge the culture of “Everything always on; everything always in the cloud”. That was not always the case and I do not see why it should always be what we do in the future. As the noble Lord, Lord West, said, the Government have a role in advising individuals where they should put their data and how accessible that data is—24/7 or not at all. We would not stick our entire wealth in a shed at the bottom of our garden, put a bolt on it and expect no one to steal it. So why do we put all our data into the cloud with a flimsy password and expect people not to extract value from it?

However, it is not just about Governments. As I have just alluded to, criminals innovate. International crime is a global free enterprise and an extraordinarily successful innovator. Government is not usually as good an innovator as individuals working in those ways. That innovation then spreads to state actors. We have seen how state actors can take on some of the technology that sits in the dark web and put it to their use. Regulators and government are very slow to react. We have only to look at how Russia sought to disfigure the EU referendum debate to see how slow the authorities have been to respond. We want some sense of how government is seeking to speed up the response to innovation in crime and in state ventures.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, highlighted the role of the private sector. The relationship between government and private sector and how technology is adopted are important elements. What do the Government think is the right balance between technology developed in the private sector and technology which government seeks to develop? Who decides what and where the focus should be in what we develop as a government or authority? How do the Government develop meaningful relationships with the private sector? In some cases, companies which have such technology are not those which want to be associated with government. How do we create those relationships?

Once we have the technology, how do we hold on to it? We have seen highly innovative players in our own sphere develop technology which has then been hoovered up by large parts of the internet oligopoly and, frankly, taken out of use for other players. If we need an example, we should look at the three main private sector global companies, which are buying up the patents in blockchain technology. They are taking it out of use for other people for their own uses. I am sure that it is the same for quantum computing as well. How do we hold on to what we have?

Of course innovation is difficult, as many noble Lords have said, but it is about having the right people. The noble Lord, Lord St John, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, were right about the need to bring in a broader community of individuals, not least because the sort of people coming out of university and being recruited to the cyber technology sphere are also recruited by a bunch of other people. They are being recruited to be engineers or to be the quants in big banks. They are a sought-after community of people, so we need to broaden our footprint. The noble Lord, Lord St John, talked about drawing in people from the armed services. Something worth looking at is how people are recruited to come in and take engineering degrees. The new university that is starting up in Hereford is changing the approach to recruitment for engineering, which has always been maths dominated—if you do not have a maths A-level, you cannot do it but people develop at different paces and as different sorts. Some of those initiatives are very important, because we have to deploy the full intellectual capability on our side in this country.

On accountability, I do not intend to throw stones at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but is it the right place to co-ordinate the skills, when other ministries hold the education and further education budgets and when we have UK Research and Innovation? Where should the skills portfolio sit? Is the Minister happy that this is the right place for that technology?

The noble Viscount was right to highlight the need for international co-operation post Brexit. The Government are right to try to maintain co-operation, assuming Brexit happens, with the EU 27, but how will it work? Will the EU network and information systems directive be replaced like for like? Will we shadow it? I am sure that the Minister has heard the same questions in respect of lots of other rules and regulations. The question is: how and when? Given that the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security is a legal organisation, how do we subscribe to it when we are not a member of the European Union? It is all very well to say that we have an aspiration for such things; I am more interested in the how and when.

On internationalism, the UK needs to continue to be a key driver in the multilateral approach to these matters. We have mentioned Five Eyes, NATO and the Commonwealth and beyond. We must not let the signals that can be interpreted from the Brexit process be seen as a withdrawing from multilateralism. I believe that the Government are committed to those institutions and working to make them more effective, but an endorsement from the Minister would be helpful.

Today, almost every warp and weft of our national fabric comprises digital communications and digital data. The implications of widespread denial of service have been seen at the very least through what WannaCry achieved in attacking the NHS and what individual businesses have managed to achieve through acts of self-harm. Those are just relatively unsophisticated examples of what can happen; we have had heard predictions or worries about much more profound attacks. That is why I welcome this debate and why the contributions that we have heard today are very important. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, as other noble Lords have done, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on securing this debate. I thank him for giving the House the opportunity to debate issues of immense importance to the country.

I am sure everyone agrees that the threats posed and the risks involved mean that solutions have to be global to tackle the scale, the risk and the complexity of the challenge. There are no borders in cyberspace, no visas and no checkpoints. To meet the challenge, we have to work with partners locally, nationally and internationally, and government has to ensure that by working together we protect the United Kingdom and, with partners, protect the world from the real dangers that it faces.

We have heard in this debate about some of the threats to every part of our life: everything from the stealing of our own personal data to attacks on businesses through ransomware and other forms of cybercrime, terrorism, state-sponsored attacks on other countries’ interests and the threat of military capabilities being taken over, with devastating consequences.

It is good that the Government have developed the National Cyber Security Strategy, have made a commitment to invest nearly £2 billion in cybersecurity and created the National Cyber Security Centre, which has done so much to protect everyone already. However, I wonder whether this large sum of money—and it is large—will be enough to deliver all the protections we will need.

To meet the challenge, we have to work with our partners at the United Nations, NATO, Interpol, the Commonwealth, other organisations we are not members of, such as the African Union, and those we are members of, including the European Union. This further highlights the madness of Brexit when the world is getting smaller and more interdependent, with greater risks, and we risk huge damage in areas of security, as we do in every other part of our life as a progressive, free, liberal, fair-minded trading nation. The Government have identified, quite rightly, that cyber is a tier 1 threat to national security, based on both the high likelihood and the high impact of such an attack. The scope of cyber risks is part of the problem as our world relies on digital technologies in every sense to deliver almost everything we need.

The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, has huge knowledge of these issues, as the first National Security Adviser. As he said, cyber threats need a whole-society response, across the whole range of threats to the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Borwick, made important points about passwords and the basic protections we all need to be aware of in order to take proper action to protect ourselves. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, made valuable points about having the aptitude to see complex patterns and about educating the general public to spot when things go wrong. Often these are things that the general public are not aware of. Too quickly they are drawn into giving up their data, passwords and access—and have their money and data stolen, doing much harm. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, referred to the dangers posed by weaknesses in the systems and the importance of protecting SMEs from these threats. I also agree with the points he made about simple passwords and other basic security checks, which echoed those made by the noble Lord, Lord Borwick.

My first point is about the scale and complexity of the challenge faced by the world, which I fear is not understood by many. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the need for an international, outcomes-based approach to governance. I also agree with the points he made about the need for partnership between the public and private sectors, in addition to partnerships between states, agencies and international organisations. One of the most disappointing things we have witnessed as the internet has developed and changed our lives so completely is the attitude of so many technology platforms, which have so often failed individuals, communities and nations in not protecting people’s data through either poor security or reckless practice. People’s data is entrusted to them but so often making money from the data has been much more important than security or data protection.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made the point that there needs to be proper redress for citizens who have suffered as a result of data breaches. I agree with him. Of course, individuals have a responsibility to protect their own data and to be their own first line of defence—their own first guardians when they go online—just as people have to do when they go about their lives generally, taking simple precautions to protect themselves. But that does not excuse poor practice by technology platforms, or companies involved in information or communications not working together and not working with Governments and agencies, nationally and internationally. They need to play their full role without excuses, helping to deliver the security we all need.

With regard to allegations concerning foreign powers, it is suggested that Russia is one of the main proponents of these cyberattacks that seek to interfere with and undermine elections and referendums here and in the United States and other countries. That is totally unacceptable. The reluctance to look at the referendum on leaving the EU is staggering when you consider the enormity of the decision, and if that decision has been stolen that surely is a matter of grave concern to every democrat. We have to ensure that our elections and referendums are safe, secure and free from unwarranted interference.

There are huge risks to business and our prosperity from cyberattacks. An organisation that I am involved in recently had its whole website cloned as thieves tried to steal information. The thieves were outside the European Union. We have taken measures and boosted our protections to stop this happening again. We are a small organisation and have been able to recover from this, but for a business this can be devastating, not only in the loss of money and income but in reputational damage and potentially the complete destruction of the business as customers lose confidence in its ability to deliver products or services safely. Who will buy products and services from a company that has developed a reputation for serious lapses in security and the protection of other people’s data? The mandatory data-breach reporting under the GDPR is a very good thing and the data generated by this will help the Information Commissioner and the Government to have greater understanding of the scale of the problem.

The large hacks and breaches in companies such as TalkTalk are the ones that get the media attention but, as I said, in much smaller organisations the disruption to operations can be just as damaging. Figures I have seen suggest that cyberattacks cost UK business £34 billion in 2016. But we have to ask: how much is business putting into resilience and preparedness? Is all the effort going into building cyber defences? If you have not prepared well and built a robust structure for the day you get a breach, you have seriously weakened your operation. This leads me back to the point I made earlier about the money the Government are putting into cybersecurity. Is the Minister satisfied that the funds being made available are adequate?

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, told us that NATO has formally recognised cyberspace as a new frontier in defence and I hope the British Government have done that as well. My noble friends Lord Browne of Ladyton and Lord West of Spithead have considerable experience in these matters from their previous roles. My noble friend Lord West made the important point about risk management: our weaknesses in basic protections are a huge risk and need to be improved. He also referred to the move to 5G and the decision about ZTE. I hope the Minister will respond to that point when he replies shortly. My noble friend Lord Browne spoke about the threat to our weapons systems and nuclear capabilities. He referred to the report from the United States. He is right to question whether we have the protections in place to ensure that our nuclear deterrent is actually a deterrent. Are we taking the military cyber threat seriously enough? My noble friend’s comments about the risk of hostile forces being able to hack into and take control of our systems deserve a specific response today but also outside the Chamber.

Will the Minister also say something about the ministerial and Cabinet-level response to these threats? Does he think that the National Security Council is nimble enough and able to provide the consideration of these important matters in a proper strategic way? Is he satisfied that we have got this right at the present time and what is the process of review to ensure that we keep up with new developments and potential new attacks? That leads me on to the issue of critical national infrastructure—not only the police and military capabilities but our NHS functions, our transport services and the delivery of food, medicines and power. Can the Minister say something about the ability to repel a cyber threat to critical infrastructure and, as with business, the resilience plans in place to deal with a successful cyberattack?

Finally, this has been an excellent debate. I thank the noble Viscount for tabling this Motion, which has enabled the House to debate an important issue, which I am sure we will return to again and again.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I thank all the speakers who have brought a wide range and depth of experience and expertise to it, not least the mover, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, who made a thoughtful introduction and crammed 15 helpful suggestions into three minutes at the end of his speech. A number of themes ran through the debate, in particular the need for partnership. I hope I have not misunderstood the tone of the debate when I say there has been no fundamental disagreement about the thrust of government policy, but some severe warnings and some very helpful suggestions about how we might do better. Some of them were on a highly technical front, and some were based on broad common sense.

I say to the noble Viscount that this is a very timely debate, following the second anniversary of the National Cyber Security Centre and the publication of its 2018 annual review this week, which was launched by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the director of GCHQ and the CEO of the NCSC. It is one of the best annual reports I have seen as a Minister, although I have not risen to the challenge on the last page,

“Can you find the secret codeword?”

As this debate has made clear, protecting the British people, the systems that we rely upon and our very democracy itself is a central responsibility of government. As our digitally connected world has rapidly expanded, so too has the scale of vulnerabilities and the frequency of attacks that we face—a point well made by my noble friend Lord Lucas. It is for this reason that cybersecurity remains a top priority for the Government, because it impacts on our national security and our economic prosperity. I was impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, said when he outlined the cost to the economy of lax cybersecurity.

We recognised the need for a comprehensive and active response when we launched the National Cyber Security Strategy in 2016, where we defined a cyberattack—this is in response to the request from the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for a definition —as a,

“deliberate exploitation of computer systems, digitally-dependent enterprises and networks to cause harm”.

We set out ambitious proposals to defend our people, deter our adversaries and develop the capabilities we need to ensure that the UK remains the safest place to live and do business online. Those proposals will be supported by £1.9 billion of investment over five years, which was mentioned by many noble Lords, to drive transformation. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked whether I thought that that was enough. He will know that there is a spending review for 2020 onwards, and I am sure that the concerns expressed in this debate will be taken on board as colleagues move to a decision on future spending patterns.

One of the most visible elements of the strategy was the formation of the National Cyber Security Centre to bring together our very best intelligence and technical expertise in a world-leading authority—the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, described it very aptly—that will be our single centre of excellence to innovate and create, to work in partnership with industry to block attacks on a scale of tens of millions per month, which was mentioned by several noble Lords, and to blend behavioural science with technical expertise to provide the best advice and guidance for people and organisations to protect themselves.

On our response when attacks get through, the NCSC brings everyone together to reduce the harm from significant incidents, whether that is an attack on Parliament, which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Borwick, or disruption to health services. On the attack on Parliament, I understand that it is unlikely to recur. I have had a note from the chief technology and security officer in Parliament that says that the correct people now get the required detail from Parliament’s Apple account manager to make sure that such a delay does not happen again. Our response is calibrated by the severity of the attack, and the National Security Council will consider the full range of security, diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal.

How we set up the National Cyber Security Centre reflects the single, clear message that underpins our strategy, which has been echoed throughout this debate, that we need not a whole of government approach but a whole of society approach, as the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, described it. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked how we are delivering it. The national strategy binds all of government into delivering a set of cross-cutting objectives which require a collective response that reaches out to the private sector and beyond—and, indeed, to other countries, because while we can lead the way, we know that we cannot solve these problems alone. This point was made by nearly every noble Lord who took part in this debate.

On the key subject of skills, which was raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lords, Lord Ricketts and Lord St John of Bletso, we are already developing a pipeline of talent and inspiring and developing cybersecurity experts and entrepreneurs, whether through our programmes in schools and universities, our work with industry to figure out the best way to retrain career changers with aptitude and ambition and by promoting cyberapprentices. On the specific recommendations of the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy—a question raised by the noble Viscount—the Government have recently submitted their response and we look forward to its publication.

We also are building on our world-class universities and ground-breaking research to establish a pipeline of cutting-edge cybersecurity companies with a range of interventions to incubate and accelerate and to support our innovative companies to export overseas, turning many great ideas into global businesses. This in turn will help other countries to become more secure and will boost the UK cybersecurity industry, which is now generating more than £5 billion for the economy.

Third-party Election Campaigning

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Thursday 13th September 2018

(2 years ago)

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Lord Tyler Portrait Lord Tyler (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate. In response to the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I suspect every Member of this House is involved in a number of charities and I have also been a full-time employee of a major charity in the past—so I have an awareness of their concerns and current interests.

We are enormously indebted to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, not just for securing this debate but for his leadership of the very important group that looked from outside Parliament at the work we were undertaking in preparation for the original Bill, and then through its passage and beyond. The four commission reports to which he referred are extremely important and I am glad that much attention is being paid to them today.

I am also extremely conscious of the importance of the work by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. Noble Lords may recall that there was huge support across the House for the proposition built into the Bill that there should be a review. I acknowledge the success that the House had in doing that. I think that the Commons had not even thought that that might be useful and necessary; we thought that it was and we were fully justified by the very effective report that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, produced. In it he emphasised, as he has again today, the importance of the word “transparency”. That did not appear in the Bill’s title by accident. It is the purpose of the legislation. It might well be said that we need more transparency in other areas of politics—I shall come back to that—but that was a very important motivation.

The noble Lord said that it was important that the public—all of us—should be aware of exactly who third-party campaigners are and what they are spending. It has again been emphasised to your Lordships today that this is not a new concept. It was not suddenly thought in 2013-14 that it was desirable to do this; it went right back to PPERA in 2000. As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who was also involved in that process, emphasised, a great deal of thought went into trying to get the balance right. The fact that we did not get it completely right first time, as implied by the title of the review by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, may well indicate how important it is for your Lordships’ House and Parliament generally to undertake post-legislative scrutiny just as much as pre-legislative scrutiny. This is a classic case.

It would be worthwhile very quickly to refer to the excellent brief from the Lords Library on this debate, which summarises neatly the recommendations of the report from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, which are:

“A revision of the statutory definition of regulated activity. The report argued that the current definition of regulated activity captured activity that could be ‘reasonably regarded’ as intended to influence voters, which created ‘too much ambiguity’ about what expenditure on campaigning activity was regulated. Therefore, the statutory definition should be changed to ‘one of actual intention’ … A reduction of the regulated period before a general election from twelve months to four … Clarification on how staff costs should be regulated to ensure that work undertaken on electoral campaigning that is ‘incidental’ to a person’s normal job does not count … Registration with the Electoral Commission which is published on their website should provide greater transparency about each individual third party campaigner, and therefore more information should be provided as to the purpose of the campaign, where that campaigning is planned to take place, and broad estimates of likely expenditure … The Government and the regulator to monitor the use of social media to ensure that the regulatory framework continued to strike the right balance”.

All those recommendations are valid. They meet a number of the points made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, but they go beyond that. They open some very important questions about the integrity of our political process, especially in relation to social media. As a number of colleagues have said, life has moved on quite a long way since 2000—and even since 2014. While those recommendations echo some of those from the noble and right reverend Lord’s commission, a number of issues go beyond that which should now be taken seriously into account as the Government prepare for the next Session, which one hopes will not be dominated by the complete traffic jam of Brexit.

I am not sure that we have all yet taken full account of the changing circumstances to which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, and my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire referred. For example, it is important to look back to some of the discussions that took place in 2014. For example, I recall my then noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, who is an acknowledged expert on US politics because of her role at Harvard and a number of other roles on the other side of the Atlantic, warning of the increasing influence of a small group of right-wing billionaires in American politics outwith the party system. Indeed, since then I have read with huge interest the extraordinary book Dark Money, which is analytical and takes forensic interest in the way money is used in the United States. The Koch brothers, to whom my noble friend Lord Wallace referred, are among a number of people who have invested huge sums of money seeking to influence American politics outwith the party system.

Since 2014, we have had three important developments: Trump; the 2016 EU referendum, to which reference has been made; and the extraordinary increase in the amount of money invested between 2015 and 2017 in social media messages. Unsolicited campaign messaging in social media has exploded. Some say—I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Young, say it in the past—that we have no direct evidence that this is all very influential. Well, if it is not influential, it is an extraordinary waste of money.

On this side of the Atlantic, the increase in the amount of money invested by the political parties and by the campaign groups in the referendum in 2016, has been astronomical. It has gone from a few hundred thousand pounds in the case of the Labour Party to millions; and it has gone from millions to doubling millions in the Conservative Party—and, as my noble friend Lord Wallace said, we still do not know precisely how much money was spent by campaigning groups in the 2016 EU referendum. If all that expenditure had no impact on the result of the 2015 election, in the referendum of 2016 and in the election of 2017, the donors who provided all that money—whence I know not; in some cases, it was clearly foreign money—must surely believe that their money was wasted.

As has already been said, it is extraordinary that we have not caught up with the need for imprints on all messages to all voters that come via social media in the way that there has to be with written material. I understand that that was a requirement during the referendum on Scottish independence. Having learned the lesson that it was important then, why did the Government not insist on such an addition for the elections and the referendum that have taken place since? I understand that the Electoral Commission recommended that about 10 years ago, so it at least was ahead of the game.

I will refer briefly to two further issues, because we should take them into account during this one opportunity that we are likely to have in the immediate future to debate these important concerns, to which all Members have referred. Members of your Lordships’ House may recall that Lady Williams and I suggested at quite an early stage of the Bill that we should at least examine whether its provisions should exclude charities. A number of colleagues here today have said how it is charities that seem to have been most affected by the so-called chilling effect. We argued that, since charities are already subject to the requirements of the Charity Commission, there was a perfectly valid argument for saying that they should be excluded from the legislation and treated differently—and if it was necessary to improve or update the charities legislation, and the role and responsibilities of the Charity Commission, so be it.

We undertook to pursue this with coalition Government Ministers at the time, who were sympathetic to that view. However, the charities seemed ambivalent as to whether that would be to their advantage. Other organisations from a very different background, some of which my noble friend referred to—a rather more right-wing background, if I may put it that way, that was much more comparable to what was going on in the United States—were only too pleased to keep the charities with them. It gave them a degree of extra respectability; it was a sort of human shield for some of their less desirable activities.

I do not know whether the charities still feel that they should be subject to this legislation; clearly, if it was going to be a matter for review and amendment, we should look at it again. The Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which provided us with an excellent brief—not least because it was very brief: just two pages—made the point that the Act as it stands:

“Makes it harder for charities to pursue their mission”.

It reduces the abilities of charities and—a key point:

“The effects of the Lobbying Act on how charities approach campaigning can’t be isolated from other policies and opinions that reduce the ability of charities to speak out”.

It would appear that its representations are actually just about charities. If that is the case, we should be open and honest about this and say that it is an issue that may need to be addressed in due course. I very much accept what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about charities. I have been active in support of charities over many years and continue to be, particularly charities concerned with international development in Africa and Asia, and I entirely understand the point he made.

There is one other issue I will refer to briefly, because I think it is important: it has been referred to obliquely by other noble Lords. I believe that it is about time we made sure that there was an even playing field between non-party campaigning and party campaigning. The present restrictions on party campaigning are clearly no longer fit for purpose in the present world of social media. We have had a number of discussions in your Lordships’ House and in the other place on this issue. We really need to look at it very seriously. I know that there is a problem of time, but in due course I hope that we will get to a Session when we are not completely tied down by Brexit legislation—and it will be important, for reasons that have already been advanced, that all this legislation is reviewed before the next general election.

It is simply not true that there is effective transparency on national expenditure in constituency campaigns. The two regimes that apply, and the difficulties that the Electoral Commission and even the police have in dealing with what should and should not appear in the reports of constituency candidates and their agents, are clearly matters of real concern that affect the whole integrity of our electoral process. Similarly, I have already mentioned the lack of effective transparency on unsolicited campaign material, and the vast increase in expenditure with very little identification of where it is coming from and who is paying for it. For all we know, the biggest single investors, in terms of time and staff, in the British electoral process at the moment are some Russian guys: it is extraordinary, the way we have allowed that to happen. It is being examined very carefully, of course, in the United States, with no conclusion. It is being examined by the DCMS Select Committee in the other place, but we have not yet had an authoritative response from the Government.

Reference has been made to the extent to which non-party campaigners are suffering from a disproportionate impact. That is due partly to the fact that the clarity of the law in terms of party campaigners has not been completely resolved: it is still work in progress, it is unfinished business and it is urgent. There is a need for thorough parliamentary review and reform, to apply not just to the non-party campaigning activities that are important to this country’s democratic health but to party campaigning as well. I have a Private Member’s Bill that might go some way towards that, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, knows. Maybe, one day, there will be a chance to get to Committee on that Bill.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, first, as other noble Lords have done, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for tabling this Motion for debate today. I bring to the attention of the House that I am involved as a trustee of two charities. The first is the United St Saviour’s Charity, which works with disadvantaged communities in north Southwark and has been doing so, following a bequest, since 1541. I am also involved with the Millwall Community Trust, which has not been around for quite as long but again works with communities, with young people, young men and women, in the boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham and helps them develop important skills. It is recognised as one of the earliest and most successful football charities. Neither of those charities engages in any activities that are covered by Part 2 of the Act we are debating today.

We have had the benefit of two general elections to see how the Act has operated—to see both what was stated to be the intention of the Act and the reality of the powers contained within it being in force. That benefit can inform our debates very well today. We have also had the benefit of the review undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, which was set up by the Government and published in March 2016.

The Bill that became the Act was introduced into Parliament by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, when he was in the other place as the Leader of the House of Commons. I am reminded that we were told and Members of the other place were advised, among other things, that the Bill would assist in making transparent who is lobbying whom and for what. It is fair to say that it did not turn out quite like that. The Bill was described on various occasions as hurried, badly drafted, sinister and partisan. It had a very limited focus and effect on lobbying and, as we know, was often referred to as the gagging Bill.

The Motion before us turns our attention to Part 2 of the Act, which concerns non-party campaigning. This is an area where there can be no doubt that the Act has had a major effect on the campaigning activities of charities. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, had also told the other place:

“The Government’s clear view is that nothing in the Bill should change the basic way in which third parties campaign and register with the Electoral Commission”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/9/13; col. 181.]

I contend that that clearly is not what happened and that we now find ourselves in a most regrettable position.

There have been rules about what third parties can do in elections since the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made clear in his remarks. I agree with his comments about how campaigning has changed and am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, has agreed with me many times that our laws governing elections are not fit for purpose. I hope that we see action soon from the Government to address these major failings since, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, life has moved on. I also agree with the suggestion about having imprints in all social media now. The world has changed dramatically; we need to know who is putting this stuff out and why, and how we can get in touch with them if we need to deal with any issues of wrongdoing. It is really important that we know who is doing what.

Part 2 of the Act reduced considerably—by approximately two-thirds—the maximum overall spending limit, while widening the range of expenditure that has to be accounted for in the spending limit. It also introduced the concepts of constituency spending and targeted spending. The regulated period is one year before the general election but, as we saw last year, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has been shown to be a weak, flimsy and easily-got-around piece of legislation. It is ridiculous and unfair that a charity campaigning on an issue could quite easily, through no fault of its own, have spent to the legal maximum before it was aware there would be a general election. How can it possibly plan like that? It is ridiculous.

It is worth pointing out that the inclusion of staffing costs in the overall expenditure limit is particularly unfair and quickly eats it up. I am sure it is particularly galling for charities and campaigners to realise that staffing costs are omitted from the national spending limits of political parties. If those costs were included, I suspect that one or two parties would find that they had spent their national campaign budget before they had actually started campaigning. Again, that is very unfair on the charities.

Overall, the Act has made it considerably harder for charities to campaign on the very core issues which are their reason for existing in the first place. My noble friend Lord Judd was absolutely right to tell the House about the engagement and experience of charities and the important work they do. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made points about accountability and transparency, which I am happy to agree with—with the caveat that Part 2 of the Act went too far and had a damaging effect on third-party campaigning.

I also agree with the noble Lord’s comments about certain think tanks. As he said, the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Institute for Economic Affairs, to name but two, are somewhat opaque about where their funding comes from. They spend considerable time giving their views in the media but are less open about where their funding comes from. The sooner that they are required to declare where they funding comes from, the better—that would be a welcome move.

It is right, normal and legitimate and should be welcomed in a healthy, democratic country that organisations will engage in the democratic process. The Act has damaged that and made it much harder. Registered charities cannot endorse or support a political party or candidate anyway; that is illegal. Many noble Lords made reference to the Sheila McKechnie Foundation report and the excellent work that it has done on the impact of the Act. It found that people’s voices go missing from debate, and that is not healthy.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, when he asked the Government to think again about the effects of the Act on legitimate campaigning undertaken by the voluntary sector. The noble Lord, Lord Suri, is right that where charities, people who work for them or volunteers have done wrong they must be held to account—we would all agree with that—but, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and my noble friend Lord Judd said, campaigning for change is a perfectly legitimate role for charities to undertake.

Let us be clear that campaigns and campaigners can be irritating, especially for Governments and people in power, but that is of course part of their role. It does not mean that they should not be heard. Charities feeling that it is harder to pursue their mission, or those organisations working on politically sensitive and controversial issues being particularly at risk, is not a good place for us to be. Smaller organisations are affected by the impact on coalition working, and that again is again very concerning.

It is very hard for charities to ensure that they remain on the right side of the requirements of the Act, and that has understandably led to many of them taking a very cautious approach and, in some cases, avoiding activity where there is any question of uncertainty. This has resulted in significant resources of time and money being diverted to compliance work rather than their core activities, and in some cases campaigns have stopped completely. As I have said, I think that is all very regrettable and damaging to civil society, but it is part of a wider set of activities that the Government have embarked on in recent years.

During this debate a number of noble Lords have referred to a review conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. This was a government commitment to review Part 2 of the Act after the 2015 general election, which was very welcome. The noble Lord spent a lot of time on his review, which was published in March 2016. When it was published, it was broadly welcomed by the charity and voluntary sector and by the Government. The House of Lords Select Committee on Charities described the recommendations as eminently sensible and recommended that the Government implement the review in full.

As we have heard, the proposed reforms sought to address the problem that the noble Lord identified with this part of the Act, which he believed—and I agree with him—failed to get the balance right. The noble Lord did not suggest that this part of the Act should be repealed but sought some sensible changes: a shorter regulatory period, from 12 months to four months, to help campaigners; clarification about what happens in the context of a snap general election—of course, a year later we had one, which we had to deal with; and clarification about joint working. The reforms sought to deal with some of the problems that have been identified as causing charities and the third sector real problems today.

In a recent speech Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said:

“I want to see civil society recover its confidence to speak into our public life. The greatest social and political changes in our history have come about because independent people formed associations to press for change. If that means respectful criticism of government, so be it. … The business of civil society is society, and within the limits of charity law, you have the right to campaign, to persuade the public, and to press for change in the systems which affect the life of this country”.

I agree with every word of that quote, but it is frustrating that Matt Hancock is saying that at the same time as the Government confirm that they are not intending to legislate for any of the reforms that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, put forward.

What is the reason given? We are told that it is pressure of time in Parliament. I have been a Member of this House for only eight years, but I can confidently say that this is one of the quieter periods for legislation that I have experienced in that time. I also think that if the Government brought a Bill forward to implement the noble Lord’s reforms, it would get a very positive reception here. It would certainly not get bogged down in lots of amendments, as the Government might fear; I think it would have a very easy passage in this House. It would actually be a very positive experience for us all to have the opportunity to get away from Brexit and talk about something else, so the Government might find that such a Bill was very welcome.

I very much endorse the noble Lord’s recommendations. I also think it is really important to remove staff costs from activity that counts towards the spending limit. As I said, political parties would be really badly affected if that applied to their national campaigns in the regulated period before a general election. It is also plainly unfair that a snap general election could cause a charity to be in breach of spending limits and be at risk of sanctions primarily because it did not have a crystal ball to anticipate the calling of a general election. It is fair to say that most of the Cabinet did not know a general election would be called last year—we heard reports of them being shocked before the Prime Minister came out to announce it to the world—so why should a poor little charity have any idea what is going to happen in terms of a general election?

I very much thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for bringing his Motion to the House today and enabling us to have this important debate.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on his choice of subject and on the speech that he made in introducing it. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part; they have brought to the debate not just their experience of when the legislation went through but their experience in many voluntary sectors. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned his experience at Nacro and Oxfam as well as some of the umbrella bodies that speak for the voluntary organisations. Many other noble Lords drew on their own experience of working in the voluntary sector. I cannot hold a candle to what some noble Lords have done in this field, although I chaired a housing association for some seven years before I became an MP.

I also thank the noble and right reverend Lord for his significant contribution to the development of third-party campaigning rules, including as chair of the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, which closely monitored the changes to third-party campaigning and published a series of useful reports before and after the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 was passed.

We have heard much today about the important role that third-party organisations play in society. The Government recognise the invaluable contribution of third-party organisations and will continue to provide support and guidance to ensure that such organisations can meet their charitable aims. As a number of noble Lords rightly pointed out, the charitable aims include not just meeting the direct needs of the group that they seek to help but raising the profile and seeking to change the law. As the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Ramsbotham, and others have said, that is absolutely in line with their charitable objectives.

The Government published the Civil Society Strategy on 9 August, setting out how they will support charities and social enterprises. This includes plans to create a cross-government group to work with civil society and a renewal of the Government’s commitment to the compact principles. These are the principles that govern the relationship between the social sector and the Government. We are committed to embedding open policy-making across departments, giving civil society significant opportunities to achieve policy change, and are currently developing a commitment to this as part of the UK’s next national action plan for open government. We have also provided additional funding for third-party organisations. In 2018 the Government have doubled charitable donations through the UK’s Aid Match scheme, which pledges £1 for every £1 donated. Twenty-five charities across the UK will have their charitable appeals for 2017 and 2018 boosted, raising a total of £66 million.

When preparing for this debate, I read all four reports from the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement chaired by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. I found them highly informative, providing a comprehensive insight into the key concerns around third-party campaigning. I also reread the significant contributions by my noble friend Lord Hodgson, which I will come to in a moment. I also read the contributions which both of them have made to our debate on the subject, including when the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, tabled amendments to the Act.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hodgson for his significant contribution to the third-party campaigning rules. His report has been referred to by many speakers, and I reread it last night. I understand that my noble friend has been in regular correspondence on third-party campaigning rules with Cabinet Office Ministers and will shortly be meeting the Minister for the Constitution to further discuss his report.

Third-party campaigners play an important part in the political process. Our democracy is strengthened by people campaigning for what they believe in, whether or not they are a candidate or political party. Voluntary organisations, charities, civil society and trade unions all play their part. I say that as someone who fought 10 general elections which were informed and enlivened by third-party campaigners. I recall, in particular, the campaign against the Newbury bypass, when I was Secretary of State for Transport and the candidate for North-West Hants. Digging a small bypass across my lawn was, I think, taking enthusiastic campaigning a little too far.

Much of the campaigning undertaken by such third parties is conveying their views about policies and issues. Under charity law, charities have the right to undertake campaigning and political activity where it supports their charitable aim, where trustees consider it to be an effective use of charitable resources, and provided that they do not engage in party politics. Electoral law does not change this. I listened with interest to the speech of my noble friend Lord Suri, but it is of course for the Charity Commission to act if there is a breach of charity law in the way that he implied.

The rules on third-party campaigning apply only to expenditure undertaken for electoral purposes. These rules exist to give the public more confidence in the way third parties interact with the political system. They ensure that campaigning is transparent and prevents any individual, company or organisation exerting undue influence on an election. Without these rules, our political system would be open to unknown groups spending unknown amounts of money on unknown activities to influence an election. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said: that it was not difficult to see where the line should be drawn. I am grateful for his broad support for the legislation which he helped to put on the statute book.

The Electoral Commission has a duty to provide advice and guidance to third-party campaigners to ensure that they understand the rules and are confident about campaigning. The commission has a series of guidance documents for third-party campaigners on its website. This includes information on registering as a third-party campaigners and guidance on reporting expenses to the commission.

The commission is currently working on a new guidance document with the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the NCVO and Bond, the UK network for international development organisations. That guidance will cover areas of particular concern to smaller, issues-based campaigners. This includes the application of the purpose test to issue-based campaigns and the application of the third-party campaigner rules at an unscheduled UK parliamentary general election. The commission aims to publish this guidance early next year, and I can tell noble Lords who have taken part in this debate that I will ensure that all the contributions and suggestions they made during this debate are taken on board by the Electoral Commission.

Regulation of third-party campaigning at the constituency level has existed for a long time. The Representation of the People Act 1983 brought together in one place the legislation regulating third-party expenditure in parliamentary and local government election campaigns in individual constituencies.

The regulation of expenditure on campaigning activities by third parties on a national level has been a more recent occurrence. In 1998, the Committee on Standards in Public Life was tasked with reviewing the funding system and recommended reforms to political funding and spending. These recommendations were introduced by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

PPERA contains provisions on the regulated activity and registration of third-party campaigners, the spending rules for third-party campaigners, the rules on donations to third-party campaigners and the reporting of third-party campaign spending to the Electoral Commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace said, that provided the framework for Part II of the 2014 Act, which was introduced in response to a 2013 Electoral Commission review of political parties and election finance law. I do not think that any noble Lord has suggested that Part II should be repealed. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said: that a lot of thought went into the construction of that Act, although they may not have got everything spot on.

The review suggested that the rules on third-party campaigning should be changed to reflect the scope of rules for political parties. It also called for a review of the implications of the campaign spending limits set by PPERA. These proposals become Part II of the 2014 Act.

The Bill’s passage through this House was paused for six weeks between Second Reading and Committee, to enable further consultation on the Bill. The Government made a number of amendments on Report—including, significantly, raising the threshold for registration, and therefore taking a number of smaller organisations outwith its scope, and requiring a review to examine the functioning of the whole system of regulating non-party campaigning. Subsequently, my noble friend Lord Hodgson was called upon to produce his review on third-party campaigning regulation, published, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in March 2016.

The 2014 Act brought greater transparency to when third parties campaign in an election. It required relevant expenditure on such campaigns to be recorded and disclosed more fully. A number of reports evaluated the effects of the 2014 Act on third-party campaigning. In September 2015, the Commission for Civil Society and Democratic Engagement published its report, Non-Party Campaigning Ahead of Elections. In his report, my noble friend reviewed the campaigning rules and found that it was,

“far from clear the extent to which it was the reality of the legislation’s provisions rather than the perception of what restrictions they imposed, which affected organisations’ behaviour”.

This makes sense. Nothing within the 2014 Act was intended to change the basic way in which third parties campaign and register with the Electoral Commission. In its briefing for this debate the Electoral Commission said:

“We continue to work with the charity and voluntary sectors and other campaigners to ensure that they understand the rules and are confident about campaigning. In particular we are working on addressing the misplaced perceptions about the rules that might cause a ‘chilling effect’ amongst campaigners”.

The Electoral Commission commented on the rules in one of its reports on the 2017 election. In November last year it published its report, Political Finance Regulation at the June 2017 UK General Election. The Electoral Commission said:

“For the most part, we are pleased to observe that parties and other campaigners intended to, and did, comply with election spending and funding rules”.

I shall try to deal with some of the points made during our debate. The rules for joint campaigning were raised. Working together with other organisations on common causes is a well-established feature for most civil society organisations, charities and trade unions, and it is important that when it happens at an election, the rules on third-party campaigning capture this activity.

The rules on joint campaigning prevent undue influence by ensuring that spending limits are respected and that they cannot be evaded by a joint campaign falsely claiming to be separate campaigns. My noble friend Lord Hodgson spoke about those who were not angels and what he called outliers, who are all too ready to abuse the spending rules. Joint campaigning rules are important to ensure transparency about which groups are campaigning together on a particular issue and what they are collectively expending.

The issue of snap elections was raised. Whether we will have more snap elections after the result of the most recent one, I am not sure. The regulated periods for elections are clearly set out in PPERA. Also, with the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the start date of regulated periods in advance of scheduled general elections should be known with greater certainty than was the case before, so unexpected general elections—it says here—should be less frequent.

I was also asked whether the regulatory period should be changed from 12 months to four months. The regulated period for third parties is the same as for political parties, and having any difference between the two is likely to increase the complexity of election law. If one did that, one would need an amendment to require an anti-avoidance provision to prevent third parties being used as fronts for a political party or campaigner during any period where third-party campaigners were not regulated but political parties were.

The noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Kennedy, raised the issue of transparency of income for campaigning charities. Your Lordships’ Select Committee on Charities published a report in March 2017 called, Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society. It stated:

“We do not believe that significant additional regulation of the sector through increased mandatory reporting requirements would be desirable, as this would be a substantial bureaucratic burden on smaller charities”.

Of course, the Charity Commission has done much in recent years to improve the information publicly available about charities and is now consulting on changes to its annual return, which would further increase charities’ transparency.

In a nutshell, the 2014 Act did not target charities and has never prevented charities or other organisations from campaigning in line with the law. In the 2017 general election, 68 charities registered as third parties with the Electoral Commission, which was an increase from 2005, when 25 charities registered. The Act, piloted so capably by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is about giving the public more confidence in the way third parties interact with the political system. It makes the political system more accountable and prevents opaque and unaccountable groups spending large sums of money attempting to influence the political system.

My noble friend Lord Hodgson suggested a number of changes to the 2014 Act. I am happy to say that we are making progress with one of them: the suggestion that imprints should be required for electronic material as well as on printed material for third parties. We recognise the growing number of campaigners using social media to convey their message to the public—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. On 29 July this year, the Cabinet Office launched an open consultation, Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information, which seeks views on proposed changes to electoral law, including the inclusion of imprints on digital campaign materials. The consultation will close at midnight on 22 October. We have doubts about implementing my noble friend’s package of recommendations and we have made it clear—I understand my noble friend’s disappointment—that we will not legislate on this. During our debate, a number of noble Lords have suggested that we need to further revisit the legislation in the light of the experience in recent elections. My noble friend was keen that his recommendations be taken forward as a single package.

To take one of those recommendations, a principal one, perhaps—to amend the definition of “regulated activity”—the Government agree with the Electoral Commission that no amendment to this definition is required. The commission believes that the current definition works well. It covers spending which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success. I say to my noble friend that I have made detailed inquiries about this and I am advised—and I am bound to say that I agree—that moving to a test of actual intention would be difficult to regulate and enforce. He made the point that this phrase occurs within the Representation of the People Act 1983 and asked why it could not simply be moved across. The intention test in that Act is appropriate for candidate spending and referendum campaigning since, in those cases, it is obvious that the candidate or campaigner has that intention. It is not suitable, however, in the case of third-party campaigners, who have a different background. Their campaigning may be issue-based and one cannot simply transpose that provision across.

A number of general points were made by the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Kennedy, about broader confidence in the electoral system. I say to both of them and to the House that the Government will be working towards a comprehensive programme of reform over the next few months and years to ensure that our electoral system is fit for purpose and enhances confidence in our democratic institutions. Finally, I assure noble Lords that we are committed to ensuring that third-party campaigners can continue to play a meaningful role in the democratic process. We need to strike a balance between, on one hand, the rights of people and organisations to campaign and, on the other, maintaining the integrity of the electoral process by having transparency of expenditure. We believe that the current legislation does this, but we will continue to work with the Electoral Commission, voluntary organisations and charities to ensure that the legislation is fully understood and clarified, where necessary, so that the crucial balance that I referred to is maintained.

Elections: Personation

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Tuesday 4th September 2018

(2 years ago)

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, the House is grateful for my noble friend’s report, Securing the Ballot, which included some 50 recommendations, nearly all of which are being pursued by the Government, including some that go directly to the issue that he raises: namely, the probity of local government. My noble friend will know better than anyone else that, if the level of corruption in a local authority reaches an unsustainable, unacceptable level, the Government can put in commissioners—which is exactly what my noble friend did with Tower Hamlets.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, why does the Minister think that so few cases have been investigated and so few prosecutions brought? Is there some failure on the part of the authorities, or is it the case that, while we must always remain vigilant and a greater police presence at polling stations is one way to do that, this crime is committed on very few occasions?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

The noble Lord is quite correct to say that there are relatively few convictions. According to the Electoral Commission report for the past year there were 200 allegations of personation in the past four years. He asks the good question: why it is difficult to prosecute? If you think about it, if you go to a polling station and try to vote and you find that somebody else has already voted in your name and you are disfranchised, it is quite difficult to find out who voted in your place. That may be one reason why there are relatively few prosecutions in the case of personation. The introduction of voter ID would of course reduce the risk to a minimum.

Electoral Commission

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Tuesday 17th July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place earlier today. The Answer is as follows:

“I am proud to say that the UK has a clear and robust electoral system, and we should all be proud of the democracy in which we live and work. I would like to place on record my thanks to all those involved in the electoral community who work hard at every poll to deliver it within the law, such that we can be proud of our democracy.

The Electoral Commission is the independent body that oversees the conduct of elections and referendums and regulates political finance. The commission reports regularly on the running of elections and referendums, and conducts thorough investigations into allegations that rules have been breached.

Electoral law exists to ensure fair campaigning, and the Electoral Commission has determined that those rules have been broken. Both Vote Leave and BeLeave have been fined and referred to the police. It would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on ongoing police investigations.

That electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed. The Government will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission, along with many other stakeholders in the electoral system, to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections.

Let me make it clear for the record that we will continue to implement the referendum’s result and to make a success of it”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, on 28 June and on previous occasions in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, agreed with me that our legislation on elections and referendums was not fit for purpose. But today the Minister has repeated the Answer given in the other place by the Minister for the Constitution. In the fourth paragraph, he said:

“That electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed”.

Are the Minister and I correct—and I think we are—or is his honourable friend the Member for Norwich North in the other place correct? We cannot both be.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

On several occasions, I have repeated a statement that my party made just over a year ago:

“There is a broad consensus that election law is fragmented, confused and unclear, with two different sets of legislation and poor guidance from the Electoral Commission”.—[Official Report, 7/6/18; col. 1403.]

As the noble Lord knows, a number of inquiries are under way that I do think we need to wait for before we decide how best to legislate. I am aware of the strong views of the Electoral Commission that the current level of sanctions is too low.

There are the DCMS inquiry into fake news, which we need to wait for, and the Intelligence and Security Committee’s inquiry into the activity of the Russians in the referendum and recent elections. There are ongoing investigations by the Electoral Commission into the referendum, and a court case is still pending. We have just had a very interesting report on referendums from UCL. I am not in favour of delay, but it makes sense to have the reports of the various inquiries that I have just referred to before we decide how best to proceed. I make it clear that the Government take extremely seriously what has been reported in the investigation out today.

New Towns Act 1981 (Local Authority Oversight) Regulations 2018

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Monday 9th July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

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Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, and I recognise the contribution of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor in getting us to this stage.

As the Minister said, these regulations relate to both the new town development corporation model and to the oversight of them being transferred from the Secretary of State to local government where local government requests it—and, rightly, any designation will be subject to consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. As he also said, it is important that this process is locally led.

Our country has a proud history of the creation of new towns, mostly through the development corporation model. However, local government has a strong history of delivery—Northumberland County Council with Cramlington new town is an excellent example of local government leadership.

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor referred to changing the regulations so as not to have an imposed borrowing limit of £100 million. That is the right thing to do. However, it means that strong financial controls will need to be in place and, in that respect, it will be necessary for the boundaries of the local authority oversight powers and the new town development corporation’s powers to be clarified in some detail in guidance as to exactly where the dividing line between the two is.

I am also pleased that the membership will be made up of a majority of independent members, who will have to demonstrate the required expertise and skills to make a success of the development corporation. However, what steps might the Government introduce in guidance to make sure that the appointment of independent members is a full and open process in which it can be demonstrated why they have been appointed?

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor talked about the quality of development and the number of homes of quality that are required. He was absolutely right in what he has said. From my perspective, in order for this process to work, we need more highly professional planners who understand how to build communities rather than dormitory developments in the form of new housing estates. In my view, over recent years planning has become more about gatekeeping developers than strategic planning, so I hope that these regulations will be seen as a major opportunity to reverse that trend.

In conclusion, as the Minister said, this is about local ownership. Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor said, this should not be controversial because it is a major and welcome step forward.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am happy to support the regulations before the House and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, on securing this change to the legislation when the Bill was going through the House. I am very happy that we will provide local authorities with the option of being able to lead on new town developments. That is a good thing and, as other noble Lords said, will allow a level of independence so that they can go forward. Given that, I am happy to support the regulations as they are.

I was pleased that the Government listened to the responses to the consultation on the financial limits; that is very good news. However, the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee talks about the length of the consultation. I have mentioned a number of times the question of consultations from the department. This appears to be truncated down to four weeks, whereas ideally it should be six weeks and perhaps even longer. There is also a general point to be made about the consultation itself, in that, whether it produces negative or positive responses, the level of those responses is actually very low. The Government should look at ways of trying to get more people to engage with what they are doing.

I agree strongly with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, about the construction of new towns and bringing the process up to date. Indeed, it is a good intention on the part of the Government to deliver on this. A number of noble Lords observed that new homes must be of sufficient quality, which is extremely important. They must be properly energy efficient, built using the best techniques and set within the right infrastructure. In that way we will have homes in new towns and elsewhere that will be there for many years. If we do not get this right, we will simply create housing problems for future generations. I am conscious that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, while Governments of all persuasions built a lot of housing, in the end a good deal of it turned out to be of very poor quality. For all the promises, those houses failed the families who had to live in them. Of course, some of the properties are still here today. So it is important that, whatever is built, be it in new towns or elsewhere, quality should underpin it. Hopefully, having a local element in new towns, with local people being fully involved, will help with that. Again, I am happy to support the regulations.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, for his continuing support and for putting these proposals into an historical context. As the Minister responsible for new towns in the 1980s, I found it rather nostalgic to be taken through the history of the new towns. As he and other noble Lords said, the climate has changed since then. There is more of an appetite for local engagement, and indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, we now have the proven competence of local authorities to undertake major developments.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said that the introduction of the regulations was a necessary and important step in helping to increase the country’s housing supply. Indeed, I think that there is general agreement on all sides of the House that localising new town development corporation powers will provide local authorities with a new and powerful vehicle for driving forward high-quality new communities at scale. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy said about quality. That is why we have written that into the regulations. The Government want the initiative to be a success and we recognise that the change that we have made, with the slightly lighter touch of the Treasury, makes it a more appetising proposition for local authorities.

I shall pick up some of the points that were made. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about the relationship between the oversight authority and the new town development corporation. Prior to agreeing to the establishment of a locally led development corporation, we would expect to see a proposal for governance arrangements that provided appropriate oversight of and independence for the new town development corporation.

On the membership of the development corporation, we want it to have operational independence to get on with the job, but we have required that the board should have a majority of independent members. In response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, the appointment of the chair, the deputy chair and the independent board members should be through an open, transparent and publicly advertised process in line with the broader principles for local authority appointments. There has already been some indication of an appetite for these new regulations. The four local authorities that lead the North Essex Garden Communities project have expressed an interest in setting up a locally led new town development corporation.

The regulations provide a vital lever for delivering the transformational housing growth that we need while ensuring that surrounding existing communities will also benefit from well-planned infrastructure and community amenities. I beg to move.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (Business Rate Supplements Functions) Order 2018

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Monday 9th July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

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Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD) - Hansard

My Lords, I again remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome these orders. I am a firm believer in voluntary taxation, and the system used in this case with the business rate supplement is similar to that used for business improvement districts. In that respect, it is a procedure that can command public support: if the business rate payers involved do not want to pay the money they have the right to reject it in a ballot. There is therefore a democratic process, which is very helpful.

On average, around 90% of business rate payers under any of these four orders will not be paying any additional money. Around 10% in Cambridge and 14% in Peterborough will have to pay a bit more. The Minister kindly read out the total sums of money that could be raised with a 2p in the pound levy. Clearly, rateable values vary. Could the Minister, either now or in writing, tell us the highest amount that might have to be paid by a business rate payer in each of these four areas, given that the threshold is to be a £50,000 valuation but some clearly have a higher valuation than that? Of the £35 million in the West Midlands, say, what is the highest single amount that might have to be paid by a business rate payer?

Overall, I do not think that these orders relate to the overall structure of combined authorities. There have been debates about mayors’ powers and the fact that the scrutiny systems need to be made stronger in combined authorities. Of course, in London an assembly lies behind the mayoral structure, which does not exist for the combined authorities elsewhere in England. All that having been said, the specific process relating to a business rate supplement stands on its own. It seems appropriate and should be supported.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I also draw the attention of the House to the fact that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am generally happy to support the orders before the House, but there is a point to be made about business rates. I accept that this is a supplement and in that sense it could be subject to a referendum, a plan and stuff, but there is the point about business rates in general and what business has to pay in an area. We have many questions here about the cost to business of further taxation. In the West Midlands, for example, if a further £35 million is raised, what does that do to the economy? Is that the best use of that money?

That then comes back to the whole issue of combined authorities. Where they are established, the funding provided by government is relatively small. I am sure the noble Lord will not agree, but I have made the point before to his noble friend Lord Bourne that we have this rather confusing patchwork of local government emerging in England. We need a clear structure that we will get to. I am all in favour of devolution, but I would like to understand what the plan is. Certain places will potentially have four, five or maybe six authorities, whereas in another place there will be just one. That does not seem to be very good government at all. I am all in favour of devolution, but I am not convinced that the combined authority model is the best way forward.

I am happy to support the orders, as I said. I welcome the fact that the supplementary rates will have to be subject to a ballot. That is good news, but generally there is the whole issue of business rates and the effect on businesses, particularly on the high street.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their support for the measures before the House. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that the average increase, if we go ahead with 2p in the pound, is 4% on the business rate bill, but I would like to write to the noble Lord—a generous suggestion that he made—setting out what the highest amount might be in the highest rateable-value property in a particular area.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his broad support. I know that he finds these differing structures untidy and has complained about them before, but the Government are responding to what local people want, which varies in different parts of the country so different patterns emerge. I am not sure that I can take the debate any further today. Doubtless, when we have future debates on combined authorities, I will make the same point. In the meantime, I commend the orders.

European Union Referendum

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Excerpts
Wednesday 4th July 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

Noble Lords had an opportunity to debate and vote on that in the recent EU withdrawal Bill. The notion of a second referendum was not one that found favour in either House. On the rest of the noble Baroness’s question, since the referendum, Parliament has voted to trigger Article 50 and we have passed the EU withdrawal Bill. That gives us a democratic mandate.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, I know the noble Lord agrees that our laws on elections and referendums are not fit for purpose. Will he give an assurance to the House that the Government will act when all these inquiries and investigations are over?

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

Yes. On one of the many occasions that we have debated this, I think I quoted a comment made by my party before the last election about the fitness for purpose of the current legislation. It makes sense to await the outcome of the court case, the EC inquiries into the referendum and the elections, and other inquiries. Then we can stand back and look at how the electoral law can best be brought up to date so that we have a digital framework for a digital age.

Elections: Electoral Commission Recommendations

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Thursday 28th June 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham - Hansard

My noble friend will know that the Electoral Commission has made requests for legislation, particularly to increase the sanctions that are available to it. He referred to some commission inquiries. Last month, the commission published an inquiry into the activities of Vote Leave during the referendum campaign. He is quite right that there are two outstanding inquiries: one into Better for the Country Ltd and Arron Banks, and one into Vote Leave, Darren Grimes and Veterans for Britain, which commenced in November last year and, as I understand it, will be completed later this year. The Electoral Commission is an independent body so I need to be careful with what I say, but I am sure that Sir John Holmes will read my noble friend’s comments.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op) - Hansard

My Lords, does the Minister agree that our legislation on elections and referendums has not kept pace with technological advances, risks interference from abroad and is generally not fit for purpose?