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Amendment 1

Coronavirus Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Baroness Thornton:

Moved by Baroness Thornton

1: After Clause 15, to insert the following new Clause—“Monitoring body: effect of Schedule 12(1) The Secretary of State shall, within seven days of the date on which this Act is passed, appoint by order a body (“the relevant body”) to monitor the effect of Schedule 12 to this Act.(2) The relevant body must—(a) advise Her Majesty’s Government about the effect of Schedule 12;(b) make recommendations to Her Majesty’s Government about the amendment, suspension or repeal of Schedule 12.(3) The relevant body must publish a report in respect of paragraph 2(1) and (2) of Schedule 12 at least once every eight weeks during any period in which that Schedule is in operation.”Member’s explanatory statementThe purpose of this new Clause is to ensure that the impact of Schedule 12 (local authority care and support) is subject to monitoring and review by a body such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, the amendment would ensure that the impact of Schedule 12, which concerns local authority care and support, is subject to monitoring and review by an appropriate body. The amendment is about the voice of the people affected by Schedule 12 being heard in the process of the Government reviewing whether the system is working and whether they will keep it in place.

We on these Benches believe that that should be done by an independent body or organisation—that is, an independent voice that is not the Government or one of their organisations. The reason is that we know that this schedule will have an enormous impact on our social care systems. Given that those systems have already suffered a crisis in funding and resources—and will also be taking in volunteers to help—this is an important moment.

It is important for two groups of people in particular. Yesterday, I was struck by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson; as I said then, she made me realise that the impact of this Bill on the disabled is profound indeed. There are two groups that need to be represented and whose voices need to be heard. One is the elderly and housebound; for them, an organisation such as Age UK, or something similar, may be appropriate. The other is the disabled. Both groups of people will be physically and mentally affected by the schedule, but the disabled are a particular cause for concern because this is also about their rights. I gave the Minister notice of the fact that we want those rights to be suspended for a shorter period.

This amendment is about finding a way for affected people in those groups to have a voice. We all need to be very disciplined in this part of the journey through the Bill so I do not intend to speak for much longer; but I would like to say how impressed I am by the way that Age UK has been approaching this crisis, which, of course, has enormous implications for the people it seeks to champion, represent and campaign for. Age UK’s chief executive Steph Harland said:

“Before this crisis began, we were already very concerned about the large numbers of older people who were disadvantaged and isolated. The reality is we’re not at the toughest point of this crisis yet, and it’s difficult to predict what that will mean for us as individuals, our charity, and the older people who rely on us and our partners across the country. What we know with certainty is it will get far more difficult than it is today and older people’s needs will sky-rocket.”

She is quite right. This amendment makes the point that that voice needs to be heard, and the Government need to listen to it as part of their monitoring. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my Amendment 2 is also in this group and I want to speak briefly to it. I start by drawing the attention of the House to my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Amendment 2 is a probing amendment—a very friendly one, as I hope the Minister understands—regarding something that I foresee.

It is clear from discussions with my local government colleagues across the country that there are a number of issues in respect of which local communities are turning to their local authority as the nearest the port of government, as they see it—one they recognise and have a relationship with. Some councils can deal with many of the things that people are turning to them for; others would like to but do not have the powers to do so. As this public health challenge becomes increasingly severe, the demands on local government will be immense. Local authority employees, who are doing a great job up and down the country, will not be immune from getting the coronavirus, which, as I said yesterday, will also affect services not related directly it, such as refuse collection or environmental health; or they may not have equipment such as lorries or vans to deal with issues.

They will need a general power of direction—some way to say to other organisations within their jurisdiction, “We can’t negotiate; we can’t plead with you. This is a crisis. We need you to act. We need to requisition certain items, personnel or services off you.” I ask the Minister this: if the Government cannot accept this amendment, what arrangements will be in place—or what regulations will come forward in a very speedy way—to enable local government to best deal with the issues that will inevitably come to rest on its shoulders?

Photo of Baroness McDonagh Baroness McDonagh Labour

My Lords, I want to speak in favour of Amendments 1 and 2, and later Amendment 6, which I think is trying to do the same thing. Like my noble friend Lady Thornton, I was struck by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, yesterday when she talked about the suspension of the Care Act, and the NICE regulations. We have to review how these are going to work in practice. I know that the Government are dealing with something that is moving very quickly, but often, having heard an announcement that sounds great, we look at the detail and find that the announcement and what happens in practice are two different things. One issue that my noble friend Lady Thornton’s amendment would allow us to review is the protective equipment and clothing of local authority staff in social care environments and, more broadly, the health service.

I want to make one specific point on this. In the last week, I have been contacted by many medical staff and charities. These fears are very broad. Many of us will have heard or read the recommendations from the Zhejiang University School of Medicine about protective clothing. I do not understand why the Government and NHS England have chosen not to procure those uniforms and protective clothing when there is now substantial evidence on this.

Doctors read data. They can see the data from Italy, where one type of protective clothing was used, and compare the number of fatalities there with the number in China. Will the Minister ask for some independent assessment of the protective clothing that we are using? The Government changed their stance on this only when independent universities produced data to show that modelling on the spread of the virus was wrong. I think the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer have to put this out for independent study, because it is perfectly possible for us to procure this clothing now. This pandemic is costing the country billions. A cost that equates to $10 per shift is perfectly affordable when lives are at risk.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 12:15 pm, 25th March 2020

My Lords, the objectives of my noble friend’s amendment are clearly correct. It proposes that we should keep under review the operation of the powers that are granted in key areas of the Bill because, as she rightly said, they could be extremely damaging and possibly catastrophic in certain sectors of society.

I have two concerns that I would like to probe. First, what my noble friend has done is select one of the many very serious areas that are affected by the Bill. My noble friend Lady McDonagh just raised another to do with protective equipment. We could go into the arrangements for mental health in the Bill, which are extremely serious. We might want to keep under review—I believe we should—the arrangements regarding testing, because it looks increasingly clear that only if we can move towards some form of mass testing will we be able to get this crisis under control. My noble friend has selected just one area but, if there is to be a review of this kind, it needs to look at the operations of the Act at large.

I also have a bigger concern. What my noble friend seeks to do—perfectly understandably, because Parliament will not be sitting for the next month and, as I understand it, will sit only intermittently after that—is set up a body that would do what is surely our job as parliamentarians, namely to keep under review the exercise of the powers that we as Parliament are granting. This goes to the heart of a wider issue. It is proposed that Parliament will not sit in any form for the next month. We will be in complete recess. As I understand it—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—there will not be provision for any committees to sit formally, not just in person but online or by using what is not even 21st-century technology but rather 20th-century technology to hold meetings.

Surely the right approach, which will be vital as we conduct our affairs in the weeks and possibly months ahead, is that we should keep under review both this crisis and the powers we are granting. When it is not possible to do this by meeting, we should do so electronically. We should do this regularly and in all the principal areas in which we, of necessity, are granting to the Government wholly exceptional powers that could have a very big social impact. I believe it is our duty to keep these under review.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My Lords, I too support the amendments in this group and the spirit in which they have been put forward. Many of us will have received briefings from various charities and organisations that are doing important work face-to-face with very vulnerable people. I declare an interest as my grandson is in lockdown in a residential unit for disabled children and children with epilepsy. As noble Lords can imagine, we as his family are very worried and concerned about the outcome of that. There are already staff shortages in that facility, as I am sure there are up and down the country.

I received a briefing from Barnardo’s and it resonated very much what with what the noble Baroness, Lady Grey- Thompson, was asking about yesterday, so I shall ask about vulnerable children and children with disabilities, many of whom may possibly be falling through the cracks and will not have support networks if local authorities are rolling back some of their duties under the Bill. It makes sense that charities and other bodies could come together under a local authority directive or umbrella to make sure that children who are in care or leaving care or who have disabilities receive care. Those who would normally be attending school and would receive support in school will not be getting that support now, so there is huge concern about thousands of children up and down the country who face incredible disadvantages and possible dangers without these systems in place and without local authorities functioning in the ways they normally would have done. Will the Minister tell us what measures can be put in place for the most vulnerable and at risk? Will the Government work with charities such as Barnardo’s and many others up and down the country to ensure that vulnerable children are identified and receive the support that they need?

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated

My Lords, I rise to support Amendments 1 and 2. I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and I echo her words. I am the mother of a 40 year-old autistic and disabled son, although he does not use any services. I have been inundated by charities telling me that they are very concerned, especially charities which are serving the needs of ethnic minority disabled and elderly people who do not necessarily feel that they have the voice that others have in connecting with local and national organisations. So I welcome the idea suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, of an independent body and a voice. I echo that very much.

My second and final point is with regard to the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about the role of local authorities. Yesterday, I passionately and enthusiastically overran the guide time, for which I apologise to the House once again, because I had been inundated by groups saying that they were deeply concerned about burial issues. I noted that the Minister said that it would be up to the local authority. I am already deeply concerned that local authorities are incredibly burdened so, unless they are mandated to do so, they will not seek to talk to a wider range of groups. Yet again yesterday I was contacted in the evening by a number of organisations that say they are willing to work with the Government and local authorities to ensure the provision of extra burial places and storage facilities if the Government are looking for them.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, I strongly support Amendment 1, which was moved by my noble friend Lady Thornton, and I hope that the Government will accept it. It is essential to have such a monitoring body covering local authority care and support. If we were in any doubt, surely the searing speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, yesterday should have convinced us. Is the Minister aware that organisations caring for the vulnerable and disabled are being hit by the triple whammy of increased operational costs, loss of income from increased vacancies and staff shortages exacerbated by the crisis and a lack of personal protection equipment?

In addition, for those in the third sector, fundraising has collapsed. Will the Minister ensure that all care organisations involved are contacted urgently and directly to offer practical government help? In care homes in lockdown across the country, staff are worried stiff. We certainly do not want to see scenes such as the one in Spain where a care home was discovered abandoned with all the residents dead. I should add that my wife is a trustee of the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity, which has many care homes across the country.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, yesterday I had the privilege of being able to speak, so I will be brief. I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Thornton and the words of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. Normally, he and I would be knocking bells out of each other but, on this occasion, we happen to be in total agreement.

I want to reinforce the point that in times of trauma, as we are at the moment, civil society is always critical to survival. That is true in war zones and it will be true in the weeks ahead. I have registered interests in a number of voluntary and charitable organisations, including the RNIB and the Alzheimer’s Society. I want to stress the importance of monitoring. That is not in the sense of a suspicion that the Government will somehow abuse these powers deliberately but because the prioritisation that underpins this power of suspension of normal rights understandably presumes that it will not be possible to carry out the norms of support available.

We learned today that a staggering 250,000 people have already indicated that they are prepared to volunteer. I recently stood down as a board member of the National Citizen Service, among other voluntary commitments. Picking up on the point made by my noble friend Lord Hain, it would be useful if we were able to reinforce very quickly the fact that those organisations in civil society—this is true at the local level as well—are picking up this cudgel and are able, not necessarily to fill the vacuum but to reach out, particularly to the 1.5 million people who have been asked to isolate themselves completely for 12 weeks. I hope we will be able to revisit that when things are clearer in three or four weeks’ time.

I very rarely speak about this, but I want to put on record what it must be like for someone without sight in a high-rise flat. They cannot even look out of the window to see the sun and the birds or make any contact. That is prison. Being able to reach out, even with local government’s lack of capacity, through the voluntary sector and volunteers to make contact, provide support and ensure that, where someone has a crisis, their rights are being upheld, will be vital. I believe that the Minister gets all this. From everything I have seen and understood in a metaphorical sense, he and the team around him are tremendously hard-working and appreciate these issues, working as they are in incredibly difficult circumstances. Given that, I hope that there can be a positive response because, frankly, if we cannot mobilise in this way as well as monitor the rights of those who yesterday the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spelled out in a way that I could never manage, we will have let down those who need us most at this critical time.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Crossbench

My Lords, I hope noble Lords have noticed that my noble friend Lord Low has tried to speak twice, so when I finish, I am sure he will be given an opportunity to do so. When we are so short of people to oversee our proceedings, it is difficult.

I want to make two points. The first is that I am very supportive of the first amendment for two reasons. When I originally read the Bill, I assumed that the issue of local authorities having to decide who needs care in terms of the available resources was about the staff resources available, but it is clear that some among the population with severe disabilities are worried that it is about the allocation of financial resources. That is a very important reason for us to monitor regularly whether it is about money or staff because, as a nurse myself, I know that if we are very short of staff, we will have to prioritise in some form in both the NHS and social care.

The other issue about which many of us have been written to was spoken to yesterday by my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson. If people with dementia are rapidly discharged from NHS care into care homes, which clearly they should be if that is appropriate, we need to ensure that there is no retrospective charging for them and their families. That is another important reason for Amendment 1.

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 12:30 pm, 25th March 2020

I thank my noble friend very much for her support. I do not think I had tried to speak—maybe I gave the wrong signal in some way.

I very much agree with what my co-signatory to the amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, but I do not wish to add to it. I am perfectly content that she covered what needed to be said.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour

My Lords, I too am very keen to support these amendments, particularly Amendment 1. Any form of monitoring has to be valued. It is important that we keep on top of those who might be suffering, particularly the most vulnerable. A new word in our dictionary is “intersectionality”. The situation is most problematic where people have multiple disadvantages and I want to mention a number of them.

I am particularly concerned about the healthcare that might be available in our prisons. I am concerned for staff and prisoners. Only this morning it was announced that a number of people in our prison system have the virus and are becoming ill. In many prisons they are being kept in isolation because of overcrowding. That means that there will be mental health issues, which many of our prisoners already have. Therefore, I strongly advise making mobile phones available to everyone in their cells, so that they can make contact with their relatives and have the opportunity to speak and get support.

I am also very keen that we think about releasing large numbers of prisoners. Those awaiting trial should be allowed to have bail and, if necessary, have ankle bracelets fitted. We should certainly let out the pregnant women in prison referred to this morning. We should also think about elderly prisoners—those over the age of 65—as well as those with underlying health issues.

This is a population invisible to us. Therefore, I ask that, in monitoring, we take account of that too. We have to find ways of making sure that our prisons do not erupt into a source of serious disease and serious unrest, as that makes for a double punishment.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, first, I strongly support the very sensible amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. As I think we all know, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said so eloquently yesterday, myriad people are very worried about what is going on and are concerned that things will happen to them but their voice will not be heard. The Government have enough to worry about, so, from their point of view, it seems very sensible to have a review process in which an organisation such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations acts as a sort of funnel, pulling together all the myriad concerns that many of us seek to represent today through a single forum which can communicate regularly with the Government —it would be a two-way process. It seems eminently sensible to make sure that the people who are most worried feel that they are being heard and that there is a dialogue.

Secondly, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. The variety of powers that local authorities will be required to have—particularly in relation to children in care, children going through adoption or fostering, and child carers—is incredibly important. If they are worried, think what that is doing to the people they are caring for. Therefore, I feel that clarification in that respect would be enormously helpful.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I start by welcoming this amendment, which in its spirit and intention is utterly sensible, thoughtful and right. I would like to speak on it in a way that reassures the House that the intention of the amendment and the many speeches in the Chamber today are exactly aligned with the way government is thinking and in which we have sought to build the Bill.

I also echo the many noble Lords who have mentioned the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. Who could not have been moved by both the emotional way in which she explained herself and the very real and tangible anxiety of people—particularly in the disabled community, but anyone who depends on local authority services—who must feel incredibly vulnerable and worried that their affairs may not be given the priority they deserve, and may feel exposed and anxious about the future? That testimony was incredibly powerful and moving. It was taken to heart.

I also say a big thank you to all those who have engaged with us as we have drafted the Bill at pace, both at a senior level from major organisations such as the LGA and smaller ones and stakeholders. I assure the House that we absolutely are listening to groups that have concerns about provisions for their stakeholders. We have our ears open. The Government’s whole “protect life” strategy is shaped around an absolute priority of trying to save the lives, affairs and futures of the most vulnerable in our society. These provisions are here not because we want to leave anyone behind but because we want to enable local authorities to make the decisions they need to in order to make a fair, pragmatic and sensible distribution and prioritisation. It is our hope that these provisions will never come into play and that the commitment of resources we have made into the local authority area will see a generous and sensible provision for all those most vulnerable in society.

I will take just a moment to outline a few provisions that are in place, to reassure the House that we are not in any way removing all safeguards. For instance, I assure noble Lords that the Care Quality Commission will continue to provide independent expert regulation of health and care providers. It has already announced arrangements for a proportionate approach to ensuring standards of care over the coming period. We have published an ethical framework to provide support to ongoing response planning and decision-making. This sets out a clear set of principles and behaviours when challenging decisions on how to redirect resources where they are most needed and how to prioritise individual care.

We are working closely with the sector on additional guidance to ensure that procedures and prioritisation of needs operate in the best way possible during this period. The emergency Coronavirus Bill also contains provisions allowing the Secretary of State to direct local authorities to comply with the guidance we issue.

Legislation underpinning our crucial safeguarding arrangements to protect vulnerable people from neglect or abuse remains in place. That was a point that many noble Lords made very well yesterday. We are leaving all statutory duties relating to deprivation of liberty safeguards fully in place.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hussein-Ece, Lady Thornton and Lady Uddin, all raised the question of carers. I assure the House that we totally agree with the intent of the amendment. We need to ensure that users and carers retain a clear voice in the coming period and are able to make their concerns known. Our guidance on the Care Act changes will cover this. A national steering group is leading the sector’s preparations for Covid-19; it includes both user and carer representatives.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, quite rightly raised the question of commitment to democracy and oversight. I assure the House that we absolutely embrace the ongoing functioning of Parliament. While I cannot speak for the House authorities and their arrangements for Parliament, I can speak for the health department. We are introducing technology there, such as video data and home-working, at pace. We are seeing a generational transformation in working practices in the last fortnight. These arrangements have been embraced, and I expect them to be embraced in other parts of the workings of the House.

We will also continue to report on the eight-weekly cycle. The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, and others emphasised the importance of monitoring. We will put in place structures for providing the correct kind of monitoring.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, rightly emphasised the importance of civil society, which is absolutely key, while the noble Lord, Lord Hain, emphasised the importance of volunteers. I reassure the House that the Bill contains extensive arrangements for a volunteer army to be recruited in a safe, orderly and accountable way and for funding to be put in place for volunteers. The Chancellor has announced generous and important provisions for charities; the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is entirely right that they have seen their donations dry up. They need support and provision if they are to play an important role against this contagion.

I completely understand the intent of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. We have spoken offline about his concerns, which I have taken back. I reassure him that we have worked closely with the LGA and, in its dialogue with us, its emphasis has been on financial commitment rather than changes in the law. We have made a substantial £1.6 billion commitment but we will keep the question of legal changes under review.

The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, mentioned PPE, which although it lies to one side of this amendment is of concern to us all. I reassure the Chamber that a massive global procurement programme is in place. Distribution of existing PPE stocks is happening via the Army. A hotline has been issued to all front-line workers in the NHS and social care. We are moving fast and impactfully on that situation.

Lastly, we should not overlook Wales. The Welsh parliament has considered every question of this Bill and has signed off its legislative consent Motion. I am extremely grateful to Vaughan Gething, the Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh parliament, for his support.

For those reasons, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. I also thank all the House for its supportive remarks on this amendment.

I say to my noble friend Lord Adonis that the two things we are talking about—the accountability of Parliament and our need to monitor these things, and the voice of the users and people at the receiving end of care, or non-care—are not in conflict. We need to be doing both, of course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, was quite right to point to vulnerable children and their care. My noble friends Lord Hain and Lord Blunkett were also absolutely correct about the importance of civil society in getting us through this crisis.

My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley is not here, but she is listening to us. She texted me to say, “Thank you for mentioning carers”. Of course in all this, the carers —people who are at home, many of them quite elderly themselves—are caring for people who will be at the sharp end of what comes next. We should not forget that.

I found two things very useful. First, the noble Lord, Lord Russell, mentioned the NCVO’s role in this, and he is absolutely right. Secondly, and finally, the Minister mentioned that the Government will produce guidance on the enactment of these clauses. This has to be done quickly but I put in a plea: that the voices we have talked about in this short but pertinent debate should be heard in the construction of that guidance, too. On that basis, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clauses 16 and 17 agreed.

Amendment 2 not moved.

Clauses 18 to 81 agreed.

Clause 82: Business tenancies in England and Wales: protection from forfeiture etc

Amendments 3 and 4 not moved.

Clause 82 agreed.

Clauses 83 and 84 agreed.