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Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I accept that in the early days it was sensible to adopt the jurisdiction for a limited period. What is now the objection to adopting it indefinitely?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble and learned Lord. However, we are looking for improvements in the procedures. While those improvements to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights are being discussed, it is right to renew for only a limited period.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are immensely strong reasons for enabling our own courts to try cases under the convention? The reasons so far given for not doing so have convinced few people. Will the Government open their mind to that point?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I know that my noble friend feels strongly about this matter and I have some sympathy. We must look again at the situation. However, we must also look at improvements in the fact-finding procedures in Strasbourg. We must ensure that the quality of judges in the new permanent court and the procedures for their selection are top rate. We are looking for worthwhile improvements and that matter will be considered.

Earl Russell: My Lords, will the Minister dissociate the Government from the phrase "so-called court" used by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, sometimes there are misconceptions. The Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is quite different from the European Court of Justice. That is why the phrase "so-called" sometimes creeps in.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, in view of the fact that this Government--the Home Secretary, in

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particular--are one of the most unsuccessful litigants in the English courts, will the Government be looking for improvements in the procedures in this country in relation to judicial review?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, that has nothing to do with the European Court of Human Rights. However clever the noble Lord believes himself to be, that was not a clever question.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, will my noble friend answer my Question as to whether the transfer of authority to raise large sums from the British taxpayer should be a matter for approval by both Houses of Parliament, which it was not in this case?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, considering the amounts that are raised from the British taxpayer, £2.25 million does not seem to be in the "large sums" category. I must correct my noble friend. The UK contributes £2.25 million annually towards the administering of the convention. If your Lordships wish to discuss the matter, the usual channels will take careful note of that. However, I cannot say any more today.

Lord Finsberg: My Lords, is it not a fact that until the recent perverse and stupid judgment in regard to Gibraltar, the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg gave almost complete satisfaction? Is the noble Baroness aware that not only Ministers but also the Parliamentary Assembly--of which I have the honour to be vice-president--are examining the guidelines in order to ensure that potential judges, unlike some chosen in the past, are much more versed in the law?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, my noble friend puts in far better terms exactly what I was seeking to explain when I talked of improving the quality of the European Court of Human Rights.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House why British citizens have, at great cost, to go to Strasbourg to exercise their rights when, if the Government changed their policy, cases could be heard in British courts?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, that is exactly the same point raised by my noble friend Lord Renton a few moments ago. I said that steps to improve the quality of the system would be looked at.

Lord Kennet: My Lords, will the noble Baroness elucidate an earlier answer to a supplementary question? She spoke of the "so-called" court. Which does she consider to be more "so-called", the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights, and why?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, they are entirely different bodies. I happen to believe that both have a rightful function. I did not use the word "so-called". I was attempting to clarify for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, how confusion sometimes arises and why people sometimes use the phrase "so-called".

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Vehicles for the Disabled: VAT Rating

3.17 p.m.

Lord Tebbit asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of the Question asked by Viscount Ingleby on 24th January 1996 (HL Deb., col. 1030), they have reviewed the criteria for the exemption from VAT of vehicles such as the Scott-Track Venturer designed for the use of disabled people.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I am pleased to say that, in the light of further information provided by the manufacturer, Customs and Excise accept that the Venturer is eligible for zero rating as being designed solely for disabled people.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will my noble friend accept that he is now not only a popular Minister, but also that he has given a popular Answer? Is he also aware--and are noble Lords aware--that, although this Question was tabled by me after a hint from my noble friend, so it might be called "placed", to my knowledge no other Question of the same kind has been tabled in the other place? Can my noble friend say how many of these vehicles have had VAT charged upon them and whether that VAT can now be reclaimed? Will he also join me in thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby--who is unable to be here today due to the illness of his wife--for initially raising this matter?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, was keen to be here today but unfortunately cannot be. I know that he will be pleased with the outcome. I believe two or three of those vehicles have been sold--one to our noble friend and one or two to an organisation which takes disabled people out into the country. Customers who have paid tax on the vehicles should contact Scott-Track, the manufacturers, for a refund. Lastly, I am delighted to have my popularity restored.

National Audit Office: Access to Papers

3.19 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will give instructions to government departments to refrain from using the term "Not for National Audit Office eyes" in any documents circulating within the public service.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, no. There is a long-standing convention agreed with the National Audit Office that the NAO does not have access to certain categories of departmental papers. These categories are papers dealing with the responses to NAO inquiries and proposals for NAO investigations and draft NAO reports; briefing papers for an accounting officer's appearance before the PAC; papers dealing with the contents of Treasury minutes

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responding to PAC reports; and papers, including interdepartmental correspondence, about relations with the NAO.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Answer he has just given will puzzle a number of us because the papers which appeared on the front page of the Independent earlier this week did not fall into any of those categories? What is the point of having a National Audit Office as the guardian of public expenditure if officials can try to deprive it of critical information? Is he aware that the case to which I refer concerns a report by Price Waterhouse? Is he further aware that it seems to many of us astonishing that this procedure has been accepted by the Government?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord should guard against founding on leaked documents an attempt to build a case in public. At the time the official wrote the document the Department of Transport was considering a draft report by the NAO into British Rail Maintenance Limited sales. His note was in the context of considering a response to the NAO. That falls very firmly within the first category I mentioned in my original Answer.

Viscount Chandos: My Lords, if the Minister does not feel that the parallels between this shabby saga and the subject of this afternoon's Statement are enlightening, can he instead say what the Government's attitude would be to a public company making a similarly poor sale of assets and concealing that from its auditors, from the Stock Exchange and consequently from its shareholders? Should the public sector not adhere to best practice, not only in achieving value for taxpayers but also in disclosure of its dealings, particularly in respect of management buy-outs of privatised industries?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Viscount continued with his prepared question without altering it in the light of my Answer, which I think shows clearly that the rules and procedures of the Government and the National Audit Office, agreed by the National Audit Office, were fully followed. As to the case itself, the position is that the National Audit Office investigates every privatisation. In this particular example the Department of Transport is quite clear that the British Rail Board did not distinguish cash from other components of the assets, like debts and creditors. In its study for the Department of Transport Ernst & Young is confident that all the necessary information, including details of the Eastleigh depot's cash balances and its future trading prospects, was available to all bidders. The noble Viscount should not let his obsession against privatisation colour his judgment.

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