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Amendment 13

Coronavirus Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Baroness Ludford:

Moved by Baroness Ludford

13: After Clause 99, insert the following new Clause—“Powers within the Act: necessity and proportionality All powers under this Act must be exercised in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010, especially with regard to the principles of necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the powers in this Act to be exercised in accordance with the principles of necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination and to be compatible with human rights law.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, my amendment is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is also in favour. It is pretty self-explanatory and should not cause the Government any problems in accepting it. Indeed, the Minister, in replying just now, talked about getting advice from scientists on what was necessary.

The Minister has made a declaration that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, but the amendment would provide further reassurance. According to the long title, the Bill is to:

“Make provision in connection with coronavirus; and for connected purposes.”

That is quite wide. There are references to a test of necessity—or, variously, necessity and proportionality—in some provisions in the Bill but not in others. There is no consistency, for instance, even between Schedules 21 and 22.

Our Constitution Committee, which I thank for its report, says at paragraph 16 that

“there may be a need to resolve difficult legal questions concerning the proportionality and necessity of restrictions and directions, and of their compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998”,

and by “resolve” it means in the courts. It would obviously be preferable to front-load those tests by requiring the Government to observe them in exercising all their powers under the Bill, which is what this umbrella amendment would provide, rather than load up the courts.

In parallel with these tests, the Delegated Powers Committee report, which I thank the committee for, drew attention to the absence in some clauses of a reference to the coronavirus crisis as justification. That mainly concerns postponement of elections, but not exclusively. I am therefore doing precisely what the committee suggests in paragraph 9 of its report—I have given the Minister notice of these requests: I

“seek an explanation from the Minister about why these powers are not, on the face of each individual clause, explicitly linked to coronavirus”,

and

“look to the Minister to provide an ironclad assurance that the powers contained in the Bill will be exercisable in relation to the coronavirus outbreak only and in no other circumstances.”

Lastly, will the Minister clarify the situation with regulations? The ones issued last Saturday under the Public Health Act, on premises, are not abolished by the Bill, but the February ones, on persons, are. In a reply during Second Reading yesterday, the Minister said that the powers to enforce the Prime Minister’s instructions regarding essential travel and gatherings

“will be introduced by regulations under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.”—[Official Report, 24/3/20; col. 1733.]

But I have learned from tweets by journalists that those will be introduced tomorrow, when we are not here. As I asked at Second Reading yesterday, how will these regulations mesh with the Bill and with regulations to be made under it? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench

My Lords, I signed Amendment 13 and I offer two sentences on it. The amendment will have no legal effect because, admirably, nothing in the Bill seeks to oust or modify provisions of the Human Rights Act or the Equality Act. But if the Minister can confirm that there is no intention of departing from those important statutes, that would be a powerful signal to the sceptics and conspiracy theorists, both here and abroad, who might otherwise wrongly suggest that in enacting this unfortunately necessary legislation, we are abandoning some of the fundamental legal and moral principles that bind us together.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Labour

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, rightly said, we on these Benches support these provisions. I thoroughly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, just said and it would be of enormous importance if the Minister gave the assurances that the noble Lord seeks.

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

My Lords, I too support the amendment and hope that the Minister will make appropriate noises about why this matters. Around the world, legislation is being passed in other countries that does not have these kinds of protections attached to it. We are seeing legislation going through in Hungary and, I am afraid, elsewhere, which will greatly erode the rights of the people living in those places. I strongly encourage the Government not only to say that the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act will be conformed to, but to ensure that those are firm instructions given to all those who will be exercising powers under this exceptional piece of legislation.

Earlier today, I sought to insinuate into this debate something about people in prison. I was surprised to find that there was no real reference to prisons in the legislation. But this morning it was mentioned that there is a problem inside the prisons—a number of people have already been diagnosed as having Covid-19—and so people are being confined to their cells. It was indicated that decisions might be made about releasing certain people from custody. Again, I ask that this is done in a way that conforms to the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, and that real steps are taken with respect to fairness. I ask also that people in prison—who are not getting access to their families in the way that most people who are self-isolating can, through the internet and so on—are given the mechanisms to do that: to have virtual meetings and other mechanisms for contact with their families. At the moment, there is misinformation inside the prison system, and it is likely to cause a great deal of unrest. I urge the Government to be clear about the importance of conforming to human rights and equality standards.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am a signatory to this amendment. I shall say two things: first, it is pleasing that the powers within the Bill talk about applying them under human rights legislation; secondly, I am glad those rights are included, because giving two and a half hours of parliamentary scrutiny to a Bill with such wide powers, even though it is emergency legislation, is not the way to make good legislation.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I am very pleased to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy; I second what she said about the prisons and would add immigration detention centres to that. People who have been accused of no crime should not be being held in dangerous conditions that threaten their lives. Particularly with this amendment, we have been focusing a lot on the level of fear. We have heard a great deal of powerful testimony about how fearful many people are—people with disabilities, people who are already ill and sick, and people who are old and frail. Regarding the kinds of reassurances that have been asked for: people may not know the fine details of the rights legislation, but a simple reassurance from the Government that they will comply with something that guarantees people’s rights will be terribly important.

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

My Lords, I am sorry to rise again and beg the indulgence of the Committee. One of the categories of people that I am concerned about are non-documented—essentially, illegal—immigrants. The idea that they might have Covid-19 but not seek medical help because they are fearful of what might happen with regard to their immigration status should be a matter of concern to us. I hope that the Government will make a statement to say that nobody will face detriment to their position by seeking help, and that deportation will not meet them at the end of recovery. Something like that has to be said, or we will see the virus spreading through this category of people.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated

My Lords, I too beg the indulgence of the Committee. I have raised this point on a number of occasions; I am raising it now with respect to the powers within the Bill relating to necessity and proportionality, particularly as regards matters of dignity in death and what may happen in the unforeseen circumstances that thousands of deaths occur among the faith communities, and cremation may be decided upon due to the lack of burial spaces and storage facilities. I am suggesting that Schedule 28 affects our human rights obligations.

I am requesting, therefore, on behalf of the many hundreds of individuals who have written to me, including faith leaders and organisations, that the Government remove from paragraphs 13(1) and (2) in Part 4 of Schedule 28 the words

“have regard to the desirability of disposing” and replace them with “dispose”, and then delete from paragraphs 13(1)(b) and 13(2)(b) the words

“in a way that appears” so that the necessary guarantees are provided in the legislation, which will be required to provide assurance to the relevant faith communities.

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

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and all those who have signed up to this amendment have made incredibly important points that the Government utterly confirms. I reassure the Committee that this Bill is very clearly focused on the present danger of SARS-CoV and the Covid-19 disease. If there is any other virus—and even if this virus mutates— we will need a new Act or at least to amend this one.

The Government are 100% committed to protecting and respecting human rights. We have a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our human rights commitments. That will not change. We have strong human rights protections, with a comprehensive and well-established constitutional and legal system. The Human Rights Act 1998 gives further effect in UK law to the rights and freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. Nothing in this Bill contradicts that.

I reassure a number of speakers—including but not limited to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy—that there is nothing in this Act that allows the Government to breach or disapply the Human Rights Act or the Equality Act. The Bill itself is fully compliant with the Human Rights Act and the Government have certified this on the face of the Bill— in fact, I signed it myself in accordance with Section 19. Pursuant to Section 6 of the Human Rights Act, every exercise of power by a public authority under this Bill is already required to be compliant with the Human Rights Act. I further reassure the House that, at all times, this Government will act with proportionality.

I am advised by legal counsel that the amendment is potentially both unnecessary and unhelpful. If we accept it, it might imply that the Human Rights Act and Equality Act do not apply in this way in other Bills or Acts that do not feature this sort of provision. For that reason, I suggest that the amendment should be withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he said, which gave considerable reassurance—up to the last sentence or two. I was permitted by the Public Bill Office to table this amendment, so I am therefore slightly surprised at his reporting of the advice he has had from legal counsel. Obviously, I have to take note of what he said. No doubt they have greater legal minds than mine, although I note that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, co-signed my amendment. I am a little taken aback by what the Minister said, but I none the less welcome the rest of his response. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Clauses 100 to 102 agreed.

Schedule 1 agreed.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, paragraphs 2 and 3 of Schedule 2 were omitted from the Bill by mistake. The correction was published yesterday. The question is that Schedule 2, as corrected, be the second schedule to the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed.

Schedules 3 to 29 agreed.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, there is an error in the Marshalled List. “Schedule 29” before Amendment 14 should instead read “After Schedule 29”.

Amendment 14 not moved.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.