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Lord Ezra: My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Kempston, is it not a fact that a number of Continental countries have mandatory interest payments and that they have found that that has expedited the payment of bills?
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, do the rules which apply to government departments apply also to National Health Service trusts, particularly when they are contracted with private facilities? I have had notice that one particular trust has delayed payments beyond six months.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, all that I have with me is a list of government departments, so I am afraid that I cannot answer that question on healthcare trusts. However, I shall endeavour to find out the answer this afternoon and shall write to the noble Countess.
Lord Peston: My Lords, this is a difficult problem to solve. Does the noble Lord have any evidence that the problem is getting worse? Has anything occurred in the past few years to exacerbate it? One obvious thought that I had was that when interest rates were extraordinarily high one could see a culture of non-payment or delayed payment emerging, but, although that ought to be self-regulating as interest rates fall, the people who write to me about it say that the problem is just as bad now as it ever was. Although I am sympathetic to some of the Government's solutions, they all seem to share one troubling characteristic: they will make money for the banks rather than for the real economy. Will the Minister comment on that?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not know whether there is any particular reason why this has become a bigger problem over recent years, if indeed it has become a bigger problem. It would be unfair--if not against the rules of order and procedure--to ask all noble Lords who have paid bills rather late, having waited for red demands, to put up their hands. This is a matter which is probably of long standing. Something like 84 per cent. of small firms admit to paying their suppliers late. Although it is a problem, from the investigations that have been carried out, largely by Professor Nick Wilson of the University of Bradford, it is quite clear that small firms which have put in place good credit controls are not so plagued by the problem as those which do not have good credit controls in place.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, if there is any logic in the economic theory just propounded by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, one would expect that as interest rates fell the factoring of invoices of small businesses would decline. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether that has happened.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I believe I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I am not able to speculate on whether or not the position has changed due to the reduction in interest rates. I am afraid that I cannot help my noble friend in that regard either. I suspect that the increasing use of credit and cheque payments between companies and the competitive nature of business all play a part in the late payment syndrome.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, has the noble Lord had the benefit of consultations with his right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who, in the course of his excellent autobiography, described the very great benefits that accrued to middle-sized firms from delaying payment till the last possible moment?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, first I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, upon having asked that question. I took a small wager with my staff on whether or not somebody would put that question to me. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who has had a successful business career and has suffered setbacks in that career at various stages, has propounded the simple proposition that when companies get into trouble it is important that their creditors are understanding. In that way, those companies can get out of the trouble and become good payers again.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, while I thank the Minister for his replies to the questions, does he agree that very often it is a matter of large firms withholding payment from small firms, as has happened in the case just reported to me? Does he also agree that the Government can do a great deal to change the general culture as well as introduce legislation? It would be of assistance if the culture was changed so that fast payment of bills was insisted upon in the case of small firms.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as far as concerns the case to which the noble Baroness has referred, of which I am aware, there is considerable dispute, as there often is in the building industry, between contractors as to the work done and the value of the work done. The case that the noble Baroness has in mind is very much on those lines rather than one where the principle is a desire not to pay the sub-contractor. The general point and those I have already made--which I believe have general agreement--that to put interest on late payment will have a detrimental effect on many small firms are issues that we come back to every time we look at the problem.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, do I gather from that Answer that the original statement that television in cells has been rejected has now been modified? Is the noble Baroness aware that everybody is opposed to this, including the Daily Mail, the last vestige of recondite Howardism, Sir John Learmont and so on? Am I to understand that the Government are for once backing down and showing good sense?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I may have to disappoint the noble Earl. The Home Secretary in his response to Sir John Learmont still believes that televisions in cells would not be consistent with the view that prison conditions should be decent but austere. Nevertheless, he is considering the policy; not reconsidering the fundamental policy. Provision for prisoners to watch television in communal areas during association periods and the use of television for information and educational programmes will be unaffected by this policy.
Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge: My Lords, can the noble Baroness give an indication of the average length of time spent in cell in Her Majesty's prisons, since clearly the whole matter depends upon that?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I cannot give a precise answer. However, more prisoners than ever before spend more than 12 hours each day out of their cells. The improvement has been dramatic in the past three years. Forty-one per cent. of prisoners now spend more than 12 hours per day out of their cells compared with 24 per cent. only three years ago.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, does not the Minister's first answer shows a remarkable degree of indecision? It is more than six months since the Home Secretary opposed Sir John Learmont's view. We still do not know what the policy is. Prisoners do not know whether existing televisions are to be removed, whether there are to be separate categories for separate kinds of prison, like local prisons, or whether the presumed policy as announced by the Home Secretary is to be modified in any way. Is not such indecision a recipe for unrest in our prisons?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there is certainly no indecision. The noble Lord may well have noticed that the Home Secretary and the Home Office have been particularly busy on departmental policy in recent times. But there are important considerations, including timetabling, order and control and giving prisoners due notice. All these matters need to be taken into account in coming to a conclusion about the policy. However, the principle that in-cell television is not consistent with decent but austere provisions is still the basic policy. What we are considering here is implementation.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my right honourable friend has not changed his fundamental view about in-cell television. He strongly believes that people who enter prison for wrong-doing should give up some of their everyday activities, one of which is in-cell television.
Lord Murray of Epping Forest: My Lords, if any action is to be taken, will the Minister at least consider the desirability of using televisions in cells as an incentive to good conduct, and in particular allow them to be installed in such areas as drug-free wings?
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