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House of Lords

Tuesday, 10 October 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.


Lord Dear

Sir Geoffrey James Dear, Knight, having been created Baron Dear, of Willersey in the County of Gloucestershire, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Armstrong of Ilminster and the Lord Dholakia.


Baroness Meacher

Molly Christine Meacher (the Lady Layard), having been created Baroness Meacher, of Spitalfields in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, for life—Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington and the Baroness Shephard of Northwold, and made the solemn affirmation.


2.48 pm

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we extended the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act in December 2005 to cover 250,000 more people, but we have advised the chair of the Disability Rights Commission that, as part of the discrimination law review, we will be considering the commission’s recommendations on the definition of disability. In addition, the cross-government review of independent living is considering whether any changes to legislation are required to support independent living.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, that is progress. I appreciate my noble friend’s reply, but does he agree that the current definition of disability is outdated and restrictive and that, as a consequence, many thousands of disabled people are denied the protection of disability law? Those are in addition to the 250,000 whom he just mentioned. So it is a vast problem. How soon can we have a new definition that is comprehensive and based on the social model of disability?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I suspect that my noble friend is referring to the 1948 definition in the National Assistance Act. There is no question that the definition is rather out of date; that has been confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit

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report. However, local authorities provide community care services based on individual needs and local criteria, rather than simply on a statutory definition in the 1948 Act. We will take this forward as part of the independent living review. Equally, the work of the Disability Rights Commission and its recommendations for disability legislation will be considered in the review.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, does the Minister accept that insufficient weight is given to people with fluctuating conditions? Given the Government’s objective of encouraging as many people as possible off incapacity benefit and into work, how do they intend to achieve it for those suffering from, for example, bipolar disorder or ME?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Disability Discrimination Act states that, if an impairment has had a substantial adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities but that effect ceases, the substantial effect is treated as continuing if it is likely to occur. Under the legislation, fluctuating conditions are covered. I accept that it is an important question, which will often depend on the way in which a medical doctor would interpret that fluctuating condition. It is certainly a matter that we need to keep under review and is important for getting more people off incapacity benefit. The noble Lord is right.

Lord Addington: My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that, if there are legal problems about moving towards a more social model or definition of disability, the Government will let us know those problems in plenty of time so that we can have this debate in a more open and coherent manner?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is referring to the work of the Disability Rights Commission. A report has just been produced suggesting a change in definition. We will, of course, give it every consideration. It is fair to say that the Disability Rights Commission recognises that there are some important challenges that will have to be met. Although there was consensus on reaching a change in definition, I do not believe that there was consensus on what that definition should be. Clearly, there is a risk that the wider the definition, the more it may dissipate the effort. These are important matters that will need to be considered.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. What is being done to get some uniformity in the decisions from the Benefits Agency Medical Service’s doctors? The noble Lord knows very well from correspondence that we have had on frequent occasions that many of those cases go to appeal and are won. It seems to be grossly unfair that people, many of whom are seriously ill, should suffer the stress of preparing a case for appeal when they will win anyway.

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, on the medical service, clearly we want to ensure that there is consistency where appeals take place. Sometimes, appeals are won because new information comes to light. It is important that we get as much information as possible to the original decision maker. We are undertaking extensive reviews of the service in the context of our welfare reform agenda and the legislation before Parliament. I very much take the point raised by the noble Countess.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ashley for raising the crucially important issue of definition, which has now been emphasised again by the disquieting experiences of cancer patients seeking time off work for medical appointments. Can we be assured that, in moving forward on this issue, Ministers will take fully into account the provisions now agreed for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the obligations they will impose?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right: the 2005 amendments extended the remit of the Disability Discrimination Act to include many more patients with cancer. Clearly, an issue has been raised recently about the extent to which employers and service providers are aware of the new provisions. We have done a lot to bring this to the attention of such organisations, but more needs to be done.

On the UN convention, I pay tribute to my noble friend and other noble Lords who took part in a debate in your Lordships’ House a few years ago. Great progress has been made. There is now an agreed text. It is subject to some technical work but, as far as I am advised—this will have to be checked carefully by each government department—we do not believe that any legislation in operation in this country is incompatible with the text that has now been agreed.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, does the Minister expect the new definition to cover dyslexia, which affects about 11 per cent of the population? Without certain support at school and later on in the workplace—IT support, for instance—people with dyslexia can never usually reach their true potential in life.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we do not have a new definition, so it is difficult to give the noble Lord a hard and fast answer. Essentially, the DRC wants to move from a definition that protects a group of disabled people and protects anyone who experiences discrimination on the grounds of impairment. One of the problems that the DRC recognises is that, if impairment is the judgment to be made, it also wishes to exclude a limited number of trivial conditions from that definition. That shows some of the problems there will always be in coming to a new definition. The key test at the moment is that the Act defines a disabled person as a person with physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. That is the basis for a more extensive description of those people who are covered.

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Waste and Recycling Industry: Accidents and Deaths

2.57 pm

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, in 2001-02, the rate of injury in the industry was four times the national average. In meeting its target to reduce the rate by 25 per cent by 2010, the Health and Safety Executive is delivering a programme of inspection, enforcement, communication and research to help this growing industry operate more safely.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Given the centrality of the waste and recycling industries and the need to meet important government environmental targets and given that the fatality rate is 10 times above the national average while the non-fatal rate is four times that, what more can my noble friend do to build on the 2004 HSE report concerning this industry to reduce that unacceptably high number of accidents?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right to suggest that this is a growing industry. Certainly the baseline figures for 2001-02 show that the waste industry has very high, unacceptable accident rates. As I said in my Answer, the executive has set a target for reducing those rates through a combination of encouragement and advice to the industry, alongside a proactive campaign of inspection and enforcement. Although I do not have official figures in relation to the baseline figure, work by the Environmental Services Association suggests that accident rates have reduced. That does not give room for complacency—we need to build on it—but it looks as though we are now moving in the right direction.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, in what aspect of the industry’s operations do those accidents most particularly occur?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, a particular concern is the number of fatal accidents that occur in scrap yards. Major accidents have also been caused during household collections when operatives cross pavements and streets. With scrap yards, one is often dealing with fairly small businesses. The trade association, working with the HSE, is developing a passport to encourage staff to be trained. We need to do more of that. There is also a big need to train vehicle operatives to try to reduce the number of such incidents.

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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the BOMEL report found that where a team was dealing with the complex area of waste—separation, and so on, means that it is becoming increasingly complex—the rate of accidents fell when there was a competent and experienced team leader. Will the Minister ensure that one of the criteria for inspection is that teams contain an adequately trained and competent team leader?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is an important consideration. The targeted action that the HSE is developing is focused on local authorities as one sector that has a big role to play. There is an existing duty in law for all staff to undergo training, but the structure of the industry is such that it could be very brief and inadequate. Alongside regulation enforcement, we need to do everything we can to encourage the industry to ensure that team leaders and operatives are properly trained and risk-assessed.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, given that the waste and recycling industry is ever-increasing and will undoubtedly employ more and more people in the future, how confident is my noble friend that the Health and Safety Executive will succeed in reducing the figure by 25 per cent by its target date of 2010?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right: the sector is growing, and government policy encourages that. I have one estimate that employment in the sector may grow by 80 per cent between 2004 and 2014. Clearly, while the growth is very encouraging, we have to ensure that it is not at the expense of health and safety.

My noble friend asks how confident I am that we will meet the target. I will resist saying that I am very confident, but I am satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive sees this as a priority. The signals from the Environmental Services Association show that the issue is beginning to be gripped, but we cannot be complacent. With so many new people coming in to the sector, it is very important that we get training up to scratch.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the House will rightly have been horrified at the figures given by the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. Is there a difference in the rate of fatal and serious accidents in this sector between local authority direct labour organisations and the private sector? Furthermore, what is the Minister’s response to UNISON’s claims that the HSE is moving its efforts towards more advice and less enforcement?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am not aware of a split in the statistics, but I will see if there are any and let the noble Lord know. On the HSE’s approach to enforcement, figures have shown that inspections and enforcement actions have reduced in the past year or so. The key is whether the strategy of the HSE—a combination of working with industry, encouraging it to improve its health and safety record and using inspection and enforcement as the big stick

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alongside the carrot of encouragement—in the end produces a better performance. The signals are that it does; the construction industry is probably the best example of where this has worked. Over the past five years, there has been a 25 per cent reduction in fatal accidents, partly as a result of targeted enforcement and partly because the industry has worked closely with the HSE. We would like to see the same happen with the waste sector.

Comprehensive Spending Review

3.05 pm

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will cover public expenditure in all regions of the UK. Allocations to the individual regions of England will be determined by the relevant spending departments in the normal way. The devolved Administrations will be funded in accordance with the updated statement of funding policy, the latest edition of which was published by the Treasury in July 2004.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I had hoped that my noble friend’s Answer would include the fact that a certain formula that allocates expenditure in Scotland is grossly unfair. It is bound to be, because it is not based on need. Is he aware that our right honourable friend Gordon Brown recently laid emphasis on the need for fairness? How can a policy of allocating expenditure to Scotland that is far in excess of what is needed in other parts of the UK be fair? Will the Minister therefore assure me that the comprehensive review to which he referred will include a review of the formula?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I should make it clear that the Government have no plans to review the Barnett formula. The funding arrangements were set out in the latest statement of funding policy, which, as I said, was published in July 2004. That remains the Government’s policy. Spending in the devolved Administrations is not derived just from the Barnett formula; there are other components to it, including the annually managed expenditure and locally financed local government expenditure. The differences between the regions and the devolved Administrations have as much to do with the starting baseline and the annual managed expenditure as they have with the application of the Barnett formula. Perhaps I may gently remind my noble friend that, in his evidence to the Select Committee in November 1997, he said:

Noble Lords: Oh!

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, he continued:

To be fair to him, he also said:

Lord Lang of Monkton: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, that his formula, which had the objective of creating convergence in expenditure, has failed dismally in that objective. I am sure that he will agree that it was intended to last for only a short time. Will the Minister confirm that whatever assessment of expenditure takes place, taking account of the needs of the different parts of the United Kingdom, will be based on an impartially conducted and objective needs-assessment review?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Comprehensive Spending Review is a fundamental review of public expenditure across the board, based on zero-based budgeting by departments, and it looks objectively at what services need to be delivered and how they are to be funded. That is a thorough-going review of public expenditure. If one looks at what has happened to expenditure in the devolved Administrations and England in the six years to March 2006, one will see that identifiable expenditure, which is the bulk of public expenditure, has increased faster in England than it has in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Lord Peston: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us are extremely puzzled by the Treasury’s persistence with its approach to this matter? Surely the analysis of the regional impact of public expenditure must be based on serious economic analysis and research. It is matter not just of needs, although that is important; it is also a question of where that expenditure can take place most effectively. The Barnett formula simply does not meet either of those criteria, and it never has. Is it not up to the Government to take the criticisms more seriously and offer us a more fundamental approach to regional expenditure?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I say again that the application of the Barnett formula, which looks just at year-to-year changes from the base, is a small part of total public expenditure. The Government are committed to improving prosperity in public services in all regions. Their regional policy was set out in the SR 2004 White Paper. The Government have established a PSA target to make sustainable improvement in the economic performance of all English regions and, over the long term, to reduce the persistent gap in growth rates between the regions. That is an objective approach to regional policy.

Lord Newby: My Lords, if the Barnett formula applies only to certain aspects of the public expenditure and is therefore not absolutely central—some of us would question that—why are the Government not prepared even to review it?

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