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Lord Rea: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, she implied that the fact that the counsellors were with that practice was because of its fund-holding status. The practice with which I have been involved has had counsellors present for something like 15 to 20 years.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am very glad to hear what the noble Lord said. That makes it even more interesting.

We are extremely proud of our National Health Service. It provides patients with treatment and care which are both clinically effective and a good use of taxpayers' money. We were extremely pleased to see that the Royal College of Nursing's parliamentary brief for this debate endorses that view. The National Health Service will continue to strive to meet the needs of individual patients and will adapt as their needs change and as medical knowledge advances.

Lord Hacking: My Lords, before my noble friend finally sits down, if I understood her correctly, she said that the pressure of demographic changes on health costs will be less during the next decade. Perhaps she will tell the House what is the basis of that assertion, particularly in view of the figures which I gave to your Lordships

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which indicate a substantial increase in health costs year by year and that there has been an enormous increase between 1990 and 1995.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, my understanding is that we do not accept the figures in the report on this matter. We believe that demographic pressures are expected to add only about 0.5 per cent. per year to costs for the next 10 years compared with 1 per cent. per year for the past 10 years. However, if I am not correct about that I shall most definitely write to the noble Lord.

Lord Hacking: My Lords, but I am asking what is the basis for that assertion.

Housing Bill

8.15 p.m.

House again in Committee on Schedule 1.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 46:

Page 128, line 42, at end insert--
("( ) Proceedings for an offence under sub-paragraph (1) may be brought only by or with the consent of the Corporation or the Director of Public Prosecutions.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, shall speak also to government Amendments Nos. 119, 122, 126, 130, 131 and 171 and also to Amendments Nos. 46A, 46B, 119A, 119B, 126A, 126B, 130A, 130B, 179A and 179B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel.

All these amendments concern proceedings for offences. The amendments we are proposing bring Clauses 31, 33, 35, 37 and 38 and paragraph 26 of Schedule 1 and paragraph 4 of Schedule 2 into line with provisions in Schedule 1--paragraphs 19, 23 and 24--whereby proceedings for offences may be brought only by or with the consent of the corporation or the Director of Public Prosecutions. They also bring them into line with current powers, under which the corporation brings proceedings from time to time.

There is no justification for different provisions in the Bill for what are in essence similar offences with similar penalties. The amendments we have proposed remove that discrepancy.

The effect of the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would be, among other things, that the corporation could not bring proceedings in certain cases without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. This does not seem to us to be sensible. The issues on which proceedings may be brought are not generally matters of wide public interest; they are relevant to the corporation's regulation of social landlords. They are the result of non-compliance with requirements of the corporation; for example, failure by an association to supply information on its accounts. These are important matters for regulation, but do not warrant the routine involvement and additional bureaucracy of the DPP.

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I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has to say on his amendments, having heard our reasons for tabling our amendments.

Lord Williams of Elvel moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 46, Amendment No. 46A:

line 3, leave out ("by or").

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if, in moving this amendment, I speak to the amendments as they are on the groupings list.

I have a certain worry about this, as I explained to the Minister in earlier conversations. After all, we are dealing with criminal offences and with a number of criminal offences which up to now the corporation has been in charge of. But given its new powers, I wonder whether it is right that criminal prosecutions which involve penalties of a criminal nature should be brought by the corporation and not the DPP or the Crown Prosecution Service.

I am concerned, not on behalf of myself or my wife but on behalf of others, that there may be occasions when, for one reason or another, compliance with, say, the accounting requirements in paragraph 19 of the schedule may not be achieved by anything other than a casual approach--I do not say "negligence" because that is a legal term--simply because people do not understand what is required. The problem that I have is that "every responsible person" (to use the expression in paragraph 19) who is directly concerned may be open to prosecution by the corporation.

As I understand it--and the Minister may wish to correct me if I am wrong--all the offences which the corporation can proceed against are appealable. If they are appealable, then they must be appealable on a reasonable basis, without having the corporation exercising its muscle in the first place. As a probe, more than trying to amend the Bill, I am really asking the Government whether they have thought the matter through. In other words, should the corporation be allowed to bring criminal proceedings against individuals who may for one reason or another be unwitting? Is that right and proper in our law? I beg to move.

Lord Monkswell: I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Williams. I believe that we need to think in terms of the wider perspective and also bear in mind the experience of recent years. One can see very clearly the difficulties which arose when Customs and Excise had the ability to prosecute independently of the Crown Prosecution Service; indeed, that culminated in the investigation and the report of Lord Justice Scott.

I am not saying that that sort of thing is likely to happen. However, it raises the issue of the test of public policy which is quite important when prosecutions are involved. Two sets of standards may apply: one that the Housing Corporation would apply in terms of its prosecuting endeavours and one which the DPP would follow. As my noble friend suggested, we are talking

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about criminal offences and the criminal justice system. Therefore, it is quite important that common standards of prosecution should apply throughout the land.

One of the improvements that would result from the Government's acceptance of my noble friend's amendment is that we could rest assured that common standards would be applicable throughout the criminal justice system which might not obtain if the Bill is left in its present form, as proposed by the Government.

Lord Lucas: I understand the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Monkswell. However, they should bear in mind the fact that we are discussing effectively routine matters of regulation. One hopes that the powers will not be used frequently, but they apply to relatively minor matters and would enable the corporation to enforce on social landlords the retention of information in the form in which it is supposed to be kept.

I appreciate that we are talking about criminal matters and, of course, they will be tried in a criminal court. It is not as if the corporation will be acting in any judicial capacity; it will merely be the prosecuting party. The Director of Public Prosecutions is, shall we say, strongly of the view that he would rather not have his staff burdened with such relatively small matters if they can be handled reasonably by the corporation.

Lord Williams of Elvel: Before the Minister continues, can he tell the Committee what would happen in the following situation? For the purpose, I have in mind paragraph 19 of the schedule. Let us say, for example, that a social landlord is not conforming with the accounting procedure, and so on. It is an offence not to do so. The corporation then brings a case and, according to paragraph 19 of the schedule, certain criminal penalties apply to such an offence; namely,

    "a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale".
In that case the corporation is a prosecuting authority, as the Minister rightly said. However, is there any other case involving, say, Oftel, Ofgas or Ofwat, where an organisation is a prosecuting authority and can act as such as opposed to referring a criminal offence to the DPP? I would be grateful for an answer to that question because, if such a precedent exists, it would solve many of our problems.

Lord Lucas: I am not aware of any precedent. However, I shall certainly carry out some research into the matter and, whether or not I am successful, I shall write to the noble Lord. I am sure that the noble Lord realises that the regulatory authorities such as Ofgas, Oftel and Ofwat are generally dealing with very large companies and that, therefore, different means of control are perhaps appropriate for them rather than for several thousand, mostly small, social landlords.

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