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House of Lords

Thursday, 19 October 2006.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Disability: UN Convention

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the UK played a full and positive role in the negotiations both in its national capacity and, in 2005, as president of the EU. The UK’s legislation, policies and practices are now being checked against the convention’s obligations with a view to us being in a position to sign and ratify the convention as soon as practicable.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend, and to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for acting in total accord with his pledge, at the presentation ceremony in 10 Downing Street on 5 July 2000, to treat Rehabilitation International’s historic Charter for the New Millennium,

Is my noble friend aware that the widespread hope now is that Britain will act quickly to ratify the convention, and perhaps even—not inappropriately—be the first to do so? Is he further aware of the need to match precept with practice and to do all we can to help the poorer countries to cope?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend was chair of the world planning group of Rehabilitation International and I pay tribute to him for his work. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, who opened a debate in your Lordships’ House on this matter in 2000. The UK Government have always enthusiastically supported the development of a charter, a treaty, and we are checking with all government departments to ensure that current legislation is compatible with the wording of the treaty. Of course, as soon as we can sign it, we will wish to do so. As for international co-operation and help, yes, of course we wish to do everything we can to encourage other nations to ensure that the terms of the treaty are implemented.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the fact that nearer to home people with

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disabilities have found that the system of payment for their travel to work has been changed? There has been quite a glitch which in some cases has meant that people have been hard pushed to find the money to go to work. Is this happening only in government departments or is it a general thing? Has it come from the Minister’s department so that everyone with a disability who travels to work is affected?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is referring to the Access to Work programme. Perhaps I may write to her with more details. It is not exactly covered by the UN treaty, but we are very keen to help disabled people who wish to go back to work to do so. In the past nine years, the proportion of disabled people in work has risen by about 8 per cent; we are keen to see the figure increase and will do everything possible to support that.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we live in a very commercial world? Will he do something about the military services for people who become severely disabled with a long-term condition so that they too will be covered when this becomes law?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the House has debated this matter on a number of occasions. Of course the Government wish to ensure that any soldier injured on active duty is given the best treatment possible, both short term and long term. I pay tribute to the work of Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham; I know it well, and it is doing outstanding work. Wider issues about the charter and the degree to which disability legislation applies to the Armed Forces have been well covered. The Government decided not to cover members of the Armed Forces in disability legislation because all Armed Forces personnel need to be in combat effectively to meet a worldwide liability to deploy. But in answer to the substantive question, it is very important that we provide the right services.

Lord Addington: My Lords, can the Minister assure us that if future increased funding is needed to meet the ongoing aims and objectives of this convention, it will be available, as well as future legislation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there are two points here. With regard to the UK, we are confident that there will not be too many problems with our own domestic legislation as it is at present in relation to the terms of the treaty. Of course, we must go through a detailed process and that is being done at the moment. That debate is better had when we have completed that work. We are very keen to move quickly and we want sign up. Of course, there are issues on which reservations may need to be expressed, but it is best for us to do the detailed work.

As for other countries, the UK’s aid programme has increased enormously and will continue to increase in the next few years. Clearly there will be elements of disability programmes in that aid programme.

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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that children with disabilities who are living away from home have access to advocacy services in accordance with their Article 7 right?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is clearly important, and I have always been a great enthusiast for advocacy services to be made available. The Government have set up the Office for Disability Issues, which is a cross-government approach to encourage independent living and ensure that disabled people receive as much support as they can. The office is very much concerned with that issue.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is there a timetable for the work on the treaty and, if so, what is the expected completion date?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, with regard to the work within the UN, the agreement has been reached and the text is now subject to a technical committee to ensure that the terms of the agreement are consistent with other human rights treaties that the UN has already agreed to. My hope is that that can all be done very quickly, and that the General Assembly can come to a vote on this before the end of the year. It will then be up to individual countries to decide to sign up. When 20 countries have so signed, the treaty comes into force 30 days after the 20th country has signed up.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, how many conventions from the United Nations or the EU have Her Majesty's Government yet to sign up to or ratify?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is a very good question, and I am sure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would be delighted to supply further information. For the record, I am told that there is no definitive list of treaties that are in force for the UK. The FCO’s treaty database, which provides details of all treaties since 1835 to which the UK is or has been a party, has some 14,000 records. Some of those treaties may no longer be in force. The continuing validity of a treaty is considered on a case-by-case basis, as and when circumstances arrive.

Tourism: VisitBritain

11.14 am

Lord Lee of Trafford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government indeed believe that VisitBritain has the necessary financial resources to market the UK effectively overseas. That is demonstrated by the record number of inbound visitors to this country last year.

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Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I hear what the Minister says and I am grateful to him, but does he appreciate that in our largest market, the United States, the very limited resources of VisitBritain mean that we are outspent by 25 countries, including Aruba, Peru and New Zealand? Ireland spends four times as much as we do in America.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord is accurate in his facts, but Britain spends more than other European countries. France, Germany and Italy spend less in the United States than we do. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; that is, in the large numbers of American visitors who come to this country.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, would it not be much more sensible to stop taxpayer funding for this venture altogether? The airline companies, the hotel companies and others in the tourism business are perfectly capable of paying for their own promotional activity. Why should the taxpayer be footing the bill at all?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course a great deal of expenditure is incurred by these private organisations to increase their business. That goes without saying. The Government have a role in co-ordinating activity, however, and recognising where there are opportunities. It would be remiss of the Government, when we are just a few short years away from the Olympic Games, to suggest that we have no interest at all in the huge tourism opportunities that may develop from that year. We recognise that tourism is a very important industry in this country, and a judicious amount of limited government funds is advisable.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that, although this party, the Labour Party, was the first to develop a tourism Act and so co-ordinate all those elements that are needed to promote inward tourism to the United Kingdom, VisitBritain and its predecessors have over a number of years lacked the financial resources with which increased numbers of visitors could be welcomed to these countries, providing jobs and occupations for our people?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, more money can always be spent. That goes without saying. Organisations with a track record of success have the right to make demands and to hope that their budgets will be increased, but all that has to be within a framework of national expenditure. Of course tourism will depend overwhelmingly on private provision, for transport, hotels, facilities and tourist attractions; it is an industry overwhelmingly in private hands to meet the demands of the market. The Government can, however, make judicious use of resources to help. As far as VisitBritain is concerned, we are talking about only £35 million; we are not talking about huge demands on the Exchequer.

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Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, there are few things that could damage the efforts of VisitBritain more than a bed tax, as proposed by the interim report of the Lyons review. Britain already pays the second highest rate of taxes on its tourism industry. Will the Minister take this opportunity to scotch this idea, which would do great damage to the tourism industry in this country?

Lord Davies of Oldham: Tempted though I am, my Lords, I am not going to scotch a report that has not yet been published. The so-called “bed tax” was contained in an interim report as a possible idea. We are awaiting the report, which will be published in the next few weeks. It will then be timely for the Government to make a considered response.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, does the Minister think that the large number of immigrants might have anything to do with being stimulated by the VisitBritain campaign?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my impression is rather that large numbers of immigrants are stimulated by the success of the British economy.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of evidence published this week by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University that shows the negative impact on tourism in this country of low-cost air fares and low-cost air travel, which is taking far more people out of the country than it is bringing in? Does he agree that, before too long, some effort will have to be made—for a number of reasons, including that one—to restrict the use of low-cost air travel?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, low-cost air fares certainly contribute to the tourist deficit, as it were, in terms of the number of Britons who travel abroad as opposed to the number of visitors to this country. The Government are addressing the whole issue of climate change, of which flights and aviation are an important aspect.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning the tourism deficit because, according to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, this Government have done great things in co-ordinating tourism effort and getting more people to visit this country. The fact is that our tourism earnings are in deficit and there is no co-ordination overseas among the various bodies that are trying to promote Britain. VisitBritain is one such body, but how many British organisations in the United States are now promoting tourists to come to Britain? It is not just one.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is not just one, but the noble Baroness is right that a large number of British tourists go abroad. That is a choice of British citizens and a reflection of their resources and earning power. But even in the year of the London bombings we increased incoming tourism by 8 per cent. That is a record of which all the organisations concerned, private and public, can be proud.

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Crime: Rape

11.21 am

Lord Campbell-Savours asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): Yes, my Lords. Earlier this year we published a consultation paper. It sought views on whether to reform four different aspects of the law as it affects rape trials as part of a broader strategy to ensure that perpetrators are effectively prosecuted and that victims receive proper support. We are at an advanced stage in considering responses to the consultation and expect to publish our conclusions shortly.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is not the inevitable consequence of the workings of the law as currently framed that we will carry on imprisoning innocent people such as Warren Blackwell, who was falsely accused by a serial and repeated liar, Shannon Taylor, who has a history of making false accusations and having multiple identities? As a result of her accusations he spent three and a half years in prison following a shabby and inadequate police investigation and was exonerated only when the Criminal Cases Review Commission inquiry cleared him and traced her history. Should not mature accusers who perjure themselves in rape trials be named and prosecuted for perjury?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it is not inevitable that people will be falsely accused. One of the tragedies of rape allegations is that very few of those who suffer this most dreadful crime have the courage to come forward at all. The issues with which we are now dealing will mean that we have a better chance of getting justice for both the perpetrator and the victim.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 2003 the conviction rate for rape was, we were told, 41 per cent, compared with an average of 40 per cent in murder cases? Has there been any increase in the conviction rate since Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force? If not, is that not another example of highly controversial legislation in the criminal field which has either no effect or the opposite effect to that which is intended?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, fewer than 6 per cent of recorded rapes result in a conviction. That is a level of which none of us should feel proud if the allegations have been properly put forward and dealt with. As the noble and learned Lord will be aware, the current legislation has been in place for only a relatively short period. It is too soon to make an accurate evaluation of the impact of our changes.

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Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I welcome the gradual increase in the conviction rate in rape cases, but there is a very slow increase from previous years, and because of variations in how police forces record these cases, the result is that serious perpetrators of violent and sexual offences, many of whom are serial offenders, are seldom brought to justice. What is being done to harmonise good practice among police forces?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have made real improvements. The introduction of the sexual assault referral centres, the coming together of the MARACs approach—which is a multi-agency risk assessment—and the sharing of data between police forces and other criminal justice agencies have meant that we now have a better response than we have had in the past. There is much to do, and I assure the House that all parts of the criminal justice system, including the police, are working very hard indeed on this issue.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that allegations of non-stranger rape are very easy to make, very difficult to prove and even more difficult, in some cases, to refute? Therefore, any changes in the law in this very difficult area of interpersonal relationships should be made with great caution.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend on that. Your Lordships will know that during the passage of the new Sexual Offences Act we looked very carefully and consulted very widely over a period of three years before changing the rules on consent. We thought that it was correct to look at this issue; it is being looked at, and I assure your Lordships that great care is being taken in relation to that matter. We will very shortly be able to share with the House and the public the consequences of our deliberations.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, how much do alcohol and drug abuse contribute to rape?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, evidence suggests that alcohol has become a major factor in facilitating rape and sexual assault. Some studies have shown that in up to 81 per cent of rape and sexual assault cases the victim has been drinking before the assault, and the perpetrators have shown a significant issue in relation to that too. In relation to alcohol, there is also the spiking of drinks.

Lord Waddington: My Lords—

Baroness Gale: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is the turn of the Conservatives.

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