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Breathing Space Scheme: Consultation Response - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:37 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made today in the other place by my honourable friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, I should like to make a Statement to the House on supporting people in problem debt. This is an issue close to my heart. As a former member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, I have seen at first hand the hardship that problem debt can cause. Now that I am in a position to bring about change, I am very focused on improving the lives of the most disadvantaged.

Problem debt places a heavy burden on households and can lead to family breakdown, stress and mental health issues. The Government have taken steps to prevent problem debt from occurring and to support those who have fallen into it. We have reformed the regulation of consumer credit and widened access to professional debt advice, and we are helping to build individual financial capability. Today, I can update the House on the Government’s plans to go further, with the introduction of a breathing space and a statutory debt repayment plan. I am very grateful for the support of my honourable friend for Rochester and Strood, whose Private Member’s Bill and ongoing work has made a key contribution to this becoming government policy.

For people who are just getting by, even a small income shock can provoke a cycle of debt dependence that can be difficult to escape. If then faced with invasive debt enforcement, it is no wonder that many people in problem debt simply disengage. The first step to countering problem debt is to ensure that consumer credit firms are properly regulated; loans should not be made to people who cannot afford to repay them. The Government have empowered the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that firms lend responsibly, protecting consumers from overborrowing. At Budget 2018, the Government announced new measures to increase access to affordable credit by helping foster a larger, more vibrant social lending sector.

In parallel, we have put in place support to help people make good financial decisions. The new Money and Pensions Service brings together three existing publicly funded money and pensions guidance services into one new organisation, providing free support and guidance on all aspects of people’s financial lives. Importantly, it also has a statutory duty to develop and co-ordinate a national strategy to improve people’s financial capability.

Despite these preventive measures, I recognise that many still fall into problem debt. For these people, further support is required. Seeking professional advice is a vital step in moving towards a sustainable debt solution. That is why we have increased public funding for free professional debt advice to almost £56 million this year, delivering 560,000 sessions in England. But more needs to be done. The Money and Pensions Service estimates that there are up to 9 million overindebted people in the UK, but only a fraction access free debt advice each year. That is why I can announce today, following consultation, how the Government will deliver their manifesto commitment to introduce a breathing space scheme for people in problem debt.

The scheme has two parts that, together, will protect debtors from creditor action, help them get professional advice on their debt problems and help them pay off their debts in a sustainable way. Breathing Space will provide debtors with a 60-day period in which interest and charges on their debts are frozen and enforcement action from creditors is paused. Creditors must not start new court action; communications with debtors relating to enforcement of their debt must stop; and benefit reductions to claim debt will pause. During this time, debtors will have to seek professional debt advice to find a sustainable solution to their debt problem. These protections will encourage people in problem debt to seek advice earlier and give them the head space to identify the right debt solution for them.

The statutory debt repayment plan is a new debt solution that extends the breathing space protections to debtors who commit to fully repaying their debts to a manageable timeline. Importantly, these payment plans will be flexible to changes in debtors’ life circumstances in order to remain sustainable over the long term. If their disposable income decreases, their payments will go down, and vice versa.

The Breathing Space scheme will make a real difference to the most vulnerable families across the country, and I recognise the sense of urgency across the House to deliver this policy quickly. So I am committed to delivering the scheme swiftly, working closely with key stakeholders to make sure that it works in practice. The Government will lay regulations on the breathing space element of the policy before the end of the year and intend to implement it as soon as possible in early 2021. We will continue to develop the statutory debt repayment plan to a longer timetable.

In addition, I am pleased to announce that the Government will go beyond their manifesto commitment in two areas. As many of us have heard in our constituencies, people’s experience of problem debt is changing. As I have seen at first hand, it is wrong to assume that overindebtedness is simply a product of taking out too much credit. Many people struggle to meet essential bills and can end up owing money to multiple creditors in the public and private sectors. For this policy to be successful it must properly reflect the issues that debtors are dealing with, so I can announce today that the Breathing Space scheme will cover a broad range of debts—not just financial services debts but arrears owed to utility companies and to central and local government. Council tax arrears, personal tax debts and benefit overpayments will be included, among others. This broad protection will make the policy effective for debtors and fair to creditors.

The House will recognise also the strong links between mental health issues and problem debt. Sadly, up to 23,000 people in England each year struggle with problem debt while in hospital because of mental health issues. The Breathing Space scheme must work for everyone facing problem debt. In particular, it must be open to the most vulnerable in society. To that end, I can confirm that people receiving treatment in mental health crisis can enter Breathing Space without seeking advice from a debt adviser, which could be a significant barrier for many. These protections will last the entirety of an individual’s crisis treatment, followed by a further 30 days to allow them to get back on their feet and decide whether they wish to enter the main Breathing Space scheme or work out another solution for their debts. Given that mental health issues are often recurring, there will be no limit to the number of times an individual can enter via this mechanism.

I thank the honourable Members for Liverpool Wavertree and North Norfolk, and my honourable friend the Member for Plymouth Moor View for their dedicated work on this issue, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute for raising this important issue.

Millions of people struggle with problem debt and the burdens it brings. The Government have committed to helping these people take control of their finances and get back on a stable financial footing. The Breathing Space scheme that I have described today will fulfil this commitment. I commend it to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 3:46 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, I declare my previous interest as a former chair of StepChange, the debt charity. I thank the Minister for repeating this Statement, and I am very happy to hear what he had to say. I have campaigned for both these changes in policy for a number of years, and it is astonishing to hear them being announced today. What on earth will I do with my time?

The Minister will recall the discussions we had during the passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill when he was the co-pilot, as he described it. We worked closely with the Government to try to get a breathing space scheme into scope. We did not succeed then, and the worry was that although these two measures were in the Conservative Party manifesto, they might, like so many other good and necessary policies in recent years, fall under the Brexit behemoth, but here we are. I welcome the excellent progress made on this issue.

I was interested to hear that the Minister making the announcement in the other place revealed that this is an issue close to his heart. I think everyone who has seen at first hand the hardship that problem debt can cause realises that it places a heavy burden on households and can lead to family breakdown, stress and mental health issues. It was good to hear the Government accept that it is wrong to assume that overindebtedness is simply a product of feckless people taking out too much credit. Many hard-working families struggle to meet essential bills and can end up owing money to multiple creditors in the public and private sectors. My experience in StepChange was that the majority of the 500,000 or so people who contacted the charity each year had successfully managed their finances for many years before illness or another unexpected factor tipped them into unmanageable debt, which they desperately wanted to repay.

With this announcement today, the Government have taken a significant step which will do a huge amount to encourage people to seek the free professional advice they need timeously when problem debt occurs. The combination of the breathing space and the statutory debt recovery scheme will support those who have the capacity to repay their debts but lack the knowledge and expertise to deal with their multiple creditors. It will allow them to do so in a way that will repay much more to creditors and in a shorter time. This system has worked for many years in Scotland, and it is good to see that pioneering approach being extended to England and Wales, and hopefully to Northern Ireland in due course.

The detail of the government response has only just gone up on the website and there is a lot to take in, but I would like to make a few points. I worry that the breathing space period of 60 days may not be long enough in practice, and I am sure that this will be something we will need to come back to, but I think the best thing is to begin with that length and review it in the light of experience. It is good that the protections include the freezing of further default interest, charges and enforcement action once somebody has taken the first step of seeking debt advice. We are delighted that government debt will be included in both schemes. In particular, this should give some protection to many people against the rather aggressive action that is sometimes taken by bailiffs collecting council tax arrears.

The introduction of a special version of the breathing space for people experiencing a mental health crisis is most welcome. It is good that there is not going to be a public register, with all that that might bring in terms of unsolicited approaches to those on it from unscrupulous third parties. I think the Government have taken the right decision about a private register. We are sad that we will not see the breathing space scheme until 2020 and will not see the statutory debt management recovery scheme until 2021 or later, but I hope that HMT will do what it can to expedite both schemes. We certainly stand ready to help if that is required.

I have some reservations about the suggested level of the statutory fair share element in the SDRP. The current scheme agreed with large creditors is much higher than the 9% suggested in the Treasury’s response. However, I am aware that there is a broader discussion on comprehensive debt advice funding being worked on by the new Money and Pensions Service.

I will conclude by discussing two other issues. Unmanageable personal debt is a by-product of many factors, but most are linked to the health of the economy. Lack of affordable credit, slow wage growth, growth in zero-hours contracts and changes brought in by the gig economy all play a part. In addition, it is incontestable that the introduction of universal credit is causing strain and stress here. While this new policy is welcome—and it is—other issues need to be addressed. Does the Minister agree?

Finally, while it is true that the Government have acted to correct abuses in the consumer credit market, high-interest loans are still being made to people who cannot afford to repay them. Banks are not averse to making punitive charges for temporary overdrafts. Guarantor loans are a current concern, and it is a matter of considerable regret that the Government have not taken action to outlaw logbook loans. In relation to the latter, will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss how we might progress the Law Commission draft Bill on goods mortgages, which would inter alia have the effect of repealing the Victorian legislation that gives rise to these bans?

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches very much welcome the introduction of the breathing space and the statutory debt repayment schemes, although we do have a few questions about execution.

To debtors, this reform may seem to have been quite a long time coming: I can recall discussions in Parliament in 2015, as well as outside long before that. The proposal was, of course, included in the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto. Many people and organisations have played a part in getting us to this stage. I particularly want to mention StepChange and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. The critical point in getting the Government to do something arose during the passage through this House of what is now the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018. The amendment to the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about breathing space now appears as Section 6 of the Act. This section encouraged and enabled the Government to do what they have announced today.

Turning to the schemes themselves, we are pleased that the Government have in most cases followed the advice they were given in the consultation—which seemed to be a model of its kind, unlike some of the other consultations that the Minister and I have had to discuss in this Chamber. We believe that the eligibility criteria for the breathing space scheme are broadly right, although we have doubts about the restriction to only once in 12 months. We encourage the Government to think again about this and—as they say they are minded to—to include provision for joint debts to qualify for inclusion in the scheme.

We are also happy to see that local and central government debts are to be included in the new scheme and very pleased to see the inclusion of small sole-trader debts, which we think is a vital element. We especially welcome the unlimited extension and repeated entry to the scheme for those in mental health crisis.

The Government’s very helpful consultation and policy response paper does qualify the inclusion of universal credit advances and third-party deductions from universal credit. The document is very vague about the timing of their eventual inclusion. I ask the Minister to give the House a little more detail and encourage him to speed up the process of including these two elements.

When it comes to which ongoing bills should be paid during the breathing space, I think that the Government have it about right in giving debt advice agencies the discretion over whether to remove people who do not keep up specified ongoing payments from the scheme.

Debt and debt repayment continue to be severe problems for millions of people in this country. As the Minister noted, the Money and Pensions Service has estimated that around 9 million people are overburdened with debt. We also now know that real incomes have started to fall again.

The Government’s proposals are a significant step forward in addressing problem debt, and we welcome them. However, we are disappointed with the timetable for the introduction of these measures. Early 2021 seems a very long way off—probably an intolerably long way off if you have unmanageable debt. All the Government’s proposed measures can be introduced by SI. Parliament is not currently overpressed with business. Why can we not use some of that time to bring forward the implementation date?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I thank both noble Lords for their generous welcome to the announcement, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I remember the forceful case he made during the passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, drawing on his experience in StepChange, which drew on research showing that schemes such as this stop people getting into a cycle of debt and end up with the creditors getting more than they would, had such a scheme not been available. As the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, said, his amendments to the Bill enable us to make progress. As he said, I was a co-pilot with my noble friend Lord Freud on the Bill—the two intellectuals Freud and Young took that Bill through the House.

I take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about 60 days possibly being not long enough. He will know that that is more than the six weeks pledged in our manifesto and more than the six weeks available in Scotland. We believe we have that right. I agree entirely with what he said about the Insolvency Service’s register being private and not public. I take his point, which was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, about trying to speed things up.

I take the point that the 9% top slice that the agencies will get is less than the 13% currently available, but by contrast this is guaranteed in a way the 13% might not be. Also, we believe it will be on a much broader base. Of course we will keep the revenue stream under regular review, but we think we have it about right.

On loans, the FCA has announced a tough new package of measures on high-cost credit. It has the powers to introduce caps, but perhaps I can make more inquiries about that specific point. I have no hesitation in agreeing to a meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which I welcome. Perhaps it would make sense to involve the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has prime policy responsibility for the subject matter.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for his welcome of the scheme. The once-only ability to go into the breathing space does not apply to those with mental health problems. We wanted the first time to have a sustainable, long-term solution to the debt problems and there was an anxiety about the possibility of abuse if people could go on applying. We will look at that. He has a valid point about joint debts. Likewise, often a small trader’s personal finances are inextricably involved with the business. It makes sense to have eligibility for small traders up to the VAT limit.

On universal credit, any overpayments will be stopped immediately, although there is an IT issue that prevents the same process being applied to other payments. Perhaps I could write to the noble Lord, but the objective is to address those IT problems as soon as possible.

Finally, the noble Lord mentioned the timetable. This was raised in the other place. He might have followed the exchanges. The Economic Secretary said that he had had discussions with his officials to try to drive the timetable through as quickly as possible. There are some IT issues about making sure the public sector interface with the Insolvency Service can react to people entering and leaving the breathing space. We want to get it right, but I will certainly tell the Economic Secretary that both noble Lords expressed anxiety about the timetable and asked whether it could possibly be accelerated.

Photo of Lord Boateng Lord Boateng Labour 3:59 pm, 19th June 2019

My Lords, the scheme is welcome. My early experience as a lawyer helping to run a citizens advice bureau service in north-west London taught me that two particular categories of people are often overlooked on this issue. The first is those who cannot read or write, who can find themselves falling into enormous difficulties as a result of not being able to share that fact with the authorities. The other is those who do not read, write or even understand English. Speaking from experience, I think it is absolutely vital that the scheme provides adequate resources for training facilities that meet the needs of those two special and sometimes overlooked groups.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The noble Lord makes a valid point. Those who are innumerate or illiterate will have difficulties in this area. The Money and Pensions Service will ensure that there are debt advice agencies available that can meet the needs that the noble Lord has just explained, also ensuring that those who may not have English as their first or second language are also able to access the debt advice agencies. Our objective is to make the breathing space available to everyone who has a debt problem, whatever their background.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, I welcome this Statement, and thank the Minister for repeating it. I also want to note the work that the Church of England and the Children’s Society have done promoting these matters. I am particularly pleased that public and utilities debt is to be included in this, but—taking advice from Donald Tusk, who said “Don’t waste the extension”—can the Minister say who will ensure that plans are put in place for sustainable debt resolution? It was said that debtors will have to seek professional advice. How will that be ensured, so that we do not simply prolong the problem of debt where it will be exacerbated? Secondly—and I am sorry if I missed this in the Statement—when might we expect the new regulations to be published?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

On the latter point, the first regulations will be laid towards the end of this year. I will write to the right reverend Prelate about the timetable for the sustainable development plans. Can I pay tribute to the work that the Church has done in this area? There is the Just Finance Foundation, founded by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lifesavers financial education programme, very active in primary schools, and Christians Against Poverty, a registered debt advice agency. I pay tribute to the work that they do.

The idea is that those who enter into a breathing space will, after a dialogue with the debt advice agency, then have a sustainable debt plan which takes into account the resources that are available and arrives at something which enables them to meet their debts—but over a period ideally not more than seven years. It is designed to ensure that they have enough to meet their obligations, including their ongoing debts. There may be some cases where the income simply is not available to enter a sustainable debt plan, in which case they may be advised for bankruptcy or IVA. The idea is to give a breathing space of 60 days in which a person can come to terms with their financial circumstances and have professional advice about the best way through, enabling them to get their life back on an even keel.

Photo of Baroness Ford Baroness Ford Non-affiliated

My Lords, like other noble Lords I greatly welcome the announcement made today and, in particular, the provisions and support offered to people with mental health difficulties and debt. However, when someone is in a crisis involving their mental health, they are probably at their least able or well-equipped to access the kind of advice that the Minister has described. Can he say whether there are plans in place to train and support health professionals in the NHS—particularly mental health professionals—to give support and advice to those who need to access the breathing space period?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. There is a crucial role in this for an approved mental health practitioner, who could be a social worker or a GP with the relevant qualifications. The AMHP can say to the debt advice agency that this person has a debt problem and is unable to go through the whole process of putting together a plan. But they get a buy-in to the next round, in that their debts are frozen, they enter the breathing space and they do not have to enter into a repayment plan until such time as the crisis is over and they are able to do so.

I take on board the noble Baroness’s point that we need to ensure, first, that there are enough approved mental health practitioners; and, secondly, that they know what to do if they meet somebody with a debt problem—to contact one of the debt advice agencies and get the breathing space.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

I thank my noble friend the Minister for mentioning the CAP, a charity established in the north of England which I have known of for quite a while. I get its reports regularly and it seems very successful in dealing with this sort of difficulty. I hope that as the government machinery is developed, we might learn a little from that. I commend the thought that that might be a useful form of co-operation. It may be that such co-operation exists already; if so, so much the better; if not, please do.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, like other noble Lords I warmly welcome today’s announcement. At the start of his presentation, the Minister talked about progress that was being made other than via these announcements, and he referred to financial capability. Can he update us on what progress has been made in that area? He touched upon the issue of overpayments of social security, whether through universal credit or otherwise. Can he say again how that fits into this scheme and whether the sanctions delivered on people might be covered by it?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The second part of the noble Lord’s question is easier to answer than the first. Any overpayments to the DWP will stop. People will not have their benefits docked if part of their benefit is an overpayment of a previous benefit; that will stop from day one. Likewise, if they have been overpaid universal credit and it is being docked because that is being paid back, that will stop on day one. On financial capability, I remember the noble Lord’s interventions during consideration of the Bill referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I mentioned in passing the work of the Church in financial education, but the noble Lord’s question deserves a more substantive reply than I can give at the moment. Perhaps I could write to him about progress on developing financial capability.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register, as an adviser to a social enterprise which helps people in debt to manage and consolidate their debt more cheaply in the workplace. I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on this Statement, and in particular I congratulate our honourable friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who has clearly listened carefully to the debates and points made on this issue. The extent of the measures announced today goes a long way towards proving that he is genuine in saying that this issue, which we have worked on extensively across this House, is close to his heart. I pay tribute also to the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Sharkey, who were instrumental in this area, and thank the Government for introducing something so necessary. I have one brief question. Will the Minister find out what plans the department has to make sure that these schemes are publicised, so that those who need them are rapidly directed to the help that will be available?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

May I, in turn, compliment my noble friend, who was a Minister at the DWP and can perhaps claim some maternity regarding some of the policies we are now discussing? She made a very valid point about the role of your Lordships’ House. I recall the debates on the Bill; it was improved as it went through, partly as a result of the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. My noble friend mentioned publicity, and I entirely agree. When the time is right and we are ready to launch the new scheme, it should of course be well publicised so that those in financial difficulty know that it is available and, crucially, how to access it.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, I do not know whether the Minister saw the recent “Panorama” programme that included a section on guarantor loans and the disgraceful activities of a company that was loading an individual up with another £10,000-worth of debt. Not only was she unable to pay; I think her mother was also involved. I recommend that the Minister watch that programme if he has not seen it, because the activities of some of these companies are reprehensible and are putting people in impossible situations. I heard reference to the possibility of the FCA introducing caps. Can he confirm that the FCA will take action?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am not sure whether the noble Lord followed the exchanges in the other place, but an honourable Member raised the question of guarantor loans. I think I am right in saying that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that he had recently met the FCA about guarantor loans, so perhaps I could write to the noble Lord about the outcome of that exchange.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the picture he has painted of millions of people in debt and in poverty is at odds with the rosy picture that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, tried to paint at Question Time earlier today? Could he have a word with his noble friend and explain to her that United Nations rapporteurs have no incentive to tell other than the truth? That is what they are there for. When that Minister comes here, it is to answer questions from the right reverend Prelates and Cross-Benchers, as well as from Members from political parties. It would do her and the House a great deal of service if she would make some attempt to answer them fairly and honestly.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am reluctant to rise to the bait that the noble Lord dangles in front of me. My noble friend made a robust defence of government policy.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I have probably mistimed this but the Minister, who is well known for his quickness on his feet in debate and for his ability to spin out of absolutely nothing a brilliant joke, may have slightly overstepped himself. When he tried to pay tribute to the work done on the Bill, he got himself to the point where he could use the wonderful phrase, “Young and Freud did it”. In fact, it was the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, who took the Bill through this House, with his great co-piloting. The dual team was indeed a dream team and we had a great time. The noble Baroness also got the issue that we are trying to get very well. She did a lot of work behind the scenes and I pay tribute to that.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The noble Lord is absolutely right. There are so many Bills going through the House on which my services are sometimes required that I may have muddled them up. My noble friend Lady Buscombe is not a great philosopher, unlike my noble friend Lord Freud. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for putting the record straight and pay tribute to the work that my noble friend did. I know that she worked extremely hard to get consent and was as generous as she could be—within the constraints, as he will understand—in bending government policy to accept opposition amendments.