34.One instrument relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prison and Young Offender Institution (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No.2) Rules 2020 (SI 2020/508), is drawn to the special attention of the House in this report (see pages 6 to 10 above).
35.This instrument extends the deadline for any amendments that can be made to applications for 2020 Direct Payments from 31 May to 30 June, to help farmers and land managers who may be unable to complete forms and gather evidence due to illness or meet with agents because of social distancing measures during the pandemic. This extension builds on the extension of the deadline for submissions of 2020 Direct Payment applications from 15 May to 15 June, as introduced by an earlier instrument.
36.This instrument introduces a temporary disregard (for the 2020–21 tax year only), so that employees who have been encouraged to work from home during the pandemic and have purchased home office equipment will not be liable to a Class 1 National Insurance Contributions charge if the costs are subsequently reimbursed by their employer. Expenditure will be eligible for this relief if: (i) equipment is obtained for the sole purpose of enabling the employee to work from home as a result of the pandemic, and (ii) the provision of the equipment would have been exempt from income tax if it had been provided directly to the employee by or on behalf of the employer. HM Revenue & Customs told the Committee that the “exemption applies to any home office equipment an employee needs to effectively perform the duties of their employment from home as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, and which the employer is willing to reimburse”. This may include, for example, a desk, laptop or other computer accessories.
37.This instrument amends temporarily certain publicity requirements placed on local planning authorities and applicants for developments where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required. The changes will expire on 31 December 2020. According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the temporary changes give local planning authorities and applicants (in the case of developments that require an EIA) greater flexibility in relation to the way they publicise planning applications if it is not reasonably practical to comply with particular requirements during the pandemic. For example, while local planning authorities still need to publicise planning applications so that those with an interest can make representations and participate in the decision-making process, the instrument allows them to only publish their planning register on a website rather than making it also physically available for inspection at a local office. MHCLG says that the temporary changes aim to support timely decision-making and avoid delays to development as a result of the pandemic, while maintaining public participation in the decision-making process. MHCLG has published guidance on the temporary changes. The Committee notes that while the instrument provides for temporary flexibility during the pandemic, where they can, local planning authorities are still required to erect site notices, issue neighbour notification letters and place newspaper adverts to publicise applications.
38.These amendments will streamline the process for authorities in England to make the Traffic Orders needed to deal with the effects of coronavirus, for example, installing cycle lanes or widening pavements to allow for social distancing. The emergency procedure allows the required notices to be published by digital media, for example, websites, online publications, social media or email. Letter or leaflet drops could also be used. Orders can then come into force at the end of seven days and works can start. A further notice should be published within 14 days confirming the duration and effect of the Order. Because of the lockdown, the Regulations also allow Traffic Orders for other purposes such as street works road closures to use digital media where the usual forms of advertising are not available. These amendments will expire on 30 April 2021. We note that consultation responses emphasised the need for clear guidance to ensure the new procedures are correctly used and the importance of liaising with freight and public transport operators when designing traffic measures.
39.These two sets of Regulations enable small and medium-size employers (those with fewer than 250 employees) to apply to HM Revenue & Customs for a refund of the cost of paying Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to employees whose incapacity for work is related to the pandemic. The scheme was first announced in the Budget on 11 March and applies to employees who are unwell having been infected with coronavirus or are self-isolating or shielding in line with government guidance. The instruments make provision for Great Britain and Northern Ireland respectively. Under the scheme, the maximum amount an employer may receive as a refund for a single employee is £191.70, equivalent to two weeks’ SSP. In line with other temporary changes that have been introduced in relation to SSP during the pandemic, refunds are available for any periods of incapacity for work starting on or after 13 March. Employers may claim back from both this scheme and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for the same employee but not for the same period of time for that employee. HMRC says that while the instruments are dependent on the Coronavirus Act 2020 and will expire alongside the Act two years after Royal Assent on 14 March 2022, it will consider whether further legislation is needed to close the temporary scheme.
40.Payments under the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, set up in April, are imminent and these Regulations provide how the money is to be taken into account if the self-employed person has claimed Universal Credit in the meantime. In some cases, the support from Universal Credit may end but others, according to need and income, will continue to be ‘topped-up’. The Regulations similarly stipulate how grants and payments from other support schemes are to be treated, for example, from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Small Business Grant Fund and the Retail Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund. The instruments also introduce greater flexibility that allows claimants to be brought back into Universal Credit after an initial claim has failed or an award has ceased because earnings have exceeded entitlement.
41.This instrument makes changes to the rules on tax credits to protect the entitlement to Working Tax Credits (WTC) of claimants who are affected by the pandemic, such as furloughed workers under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the self-employed who are receiving support under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. The changes made by this instrument include, for example, temporarily increasing the current one-month time limit to three months for claimants who are critical workers to inform HMRC of changes of circumstances that affect entitlement to tax credits, and ensuring that certain payments, such as vouchers or money paid in lieu of free school meals, are disregarded as income for tax credits purposes. The instrument also ensures that the capital from the new NHS and Social Care Coronavirus Life Assurance (England) Scheme, a £60,000 lump sum payment for families of frontline workers in England who die in service as a result of the pandemic, is disregarded for tax credit purposes, while any interest from capital received by the recipient is taken into account as income, in line with the normal treatment of capital in relation to tax credits. Asked about equivalent arrangements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, HM Revenue & Customs confirmed that the instrument only makes provision for England and that similar schemes to be introduced by the devolved administrations have not been covered. HMRC told us that “in the event that tax credit claimants receive payments under those schemes we would consider the extent to which existing rules would allow for a payment under those similar schemes to be disregarded or additional legislation be required”.
42.This instrument introduces two new standard fees for asylum and immigration (non-asylum) appeals to the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) which use the new online procedure. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is progressively digitising the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) and the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated these plans. The online procedure, where appeals are handled digitally from initial application to hearing, is now mandatory and requires additional preparation. These new fees aim to ensure that legal aid providers are appropriately remunerated for their work. The Explanatory Memorandum states that in 2018-19 there were just over 6,000 legally-aided cases of this type. We note, however, that the required consultation process only began on the day the instrument was laid — we regard this as poor practice.
43.These draft Regulations propose to ban the supply of single-use plastic straws, single-use plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers in England to prevent environmental pollution and harm to human and animal health. The instrument supersedes an earlier instrument which was laid before Parliament in March 2020 and which we reported on but which was subsequently withdrawn. The new instrument includes the same exemptions for the use of plastic straws and plastic-stemmed cotton buds for medical and certain other specified purposes. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) explains that the earlier instrument was withdrawn because of the huge challenges posed to businesses and local authorities by the pandemic, and that the Government were mindful of introducing new burdens on them at this time. The new draft Regulations delay the introduction of the ban from the end of April until October 2020. While we understand the Government’s concerns, we also note that, as the ban was first announced in April 2018, businesses and local authorities have had considerable time to prepare before the pandemic began. Defra told us that the new instrument contains some minor corrections and consequential changes and an updated transitional provision which will enable retailers to continue supplying existing stock obtained before the instrument comes into force, rather than stock obtained before 30 April 2020, as under the previous instrument. We have asked the Department to revise the Explanatory Memorandum (EM) to include this further information. We welcome that in addition to the EM and an Impact Assessment in relation to the ban on plastic straws, the Department has published regulatory triage assessments for the ban on plastic stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds which were not publicly available when we considered the original instrument.
9 Common Agricultural Policy (Control and Enforcement, Cross-Compliance, Scrutiny of Transactions and Appeals) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 (). See, Session 2019-21, para 13, (HL Paper 60).
10 See Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Consultation and pre-decision matters (last updated 13 May 2020): [accessed 27 May 2020].
11 HM Revenue and Customs, Check if you can claim a grant through the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (last updated 29 May 2020): [accessed 27 May 2020].