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House of Lords

Monday, 23 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 Peterborough.

Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: John Richard, Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds—Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Peterborough and the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Migrant Workers: Romania and Bulgaria

2.41 pm

Baroness Rawlings asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government welcome the European Commission’s recommendation that Romania and Bulgaria should join the European Union on 1 January 2007. The approach to labour market access for the new member states will be gradual. We will provide details to Parliament by the end of October of the transitional controls that will be put in place.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. In light of the leaks in today’s Financial Times and the forthcoming Bulgarian elections, what discussions have Her Majesty's Government had with the Romanian and Bulgarian authorities with regard to the potential restrictions to prevent abuse on the right to employment in the UK?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot comment on speculation that there may be in the press. As I said in my Answer, we hope to answer this very shortly. Indeed, if the noble Baroness had waited with her Question just a day or so, I might have been able to give her a much fuller Answer.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend will recall that the Government made a spectacular underestimate at the time of the last accession. Bulgaria and Romania are poorer than the countries that joined at that time, and there is the Moldovan question. Can my noble friend give some idea of the Government’s estimate of the number of Moldovan citizens who have Romanian passports?

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Some estimates say that there are between 300,000 and 600,000 of them. Presumably, the Government and the European Union have some estimate of how many Moldovans have Romanian passports.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there are no confirmed estimates. It is really a matter for the Government themselves to determine that figure. We know that appropriate measures have been put in place, and the question of how Moldovans may avail themselves of the appropriate citizenship has been a matter of debate for some time.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, if nationals of Bulgaria and Romania are allowed to reside here on the same basis as A8 workers, they would not have a right to be here if they were unemployed or seeking work. As, in the last quarter, we have reached the highest number of people employed and hours worked since records began in 1971 and A8 nationals have made a significant contribution to the UK’s economic success over the past two years, should not we build on that experience and admit workers from Bulgaria and Romania on the same basis as A8 nationals?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right about the contribution made by A8 nationals. I agree with him on that, but there are certain transitional issues to which the Government have given anxious consideration, and those considerations will be clarified once we publish how we are going to ensure that this gradual introduction is managed in a way that takes advantage of the opportunities of having new employees available to us and safeguards the best interests of the people of this country.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, will the rights of migrant workers from Moldova be extended to Transnistria, which, while still Russian-occupied, is technically still part of Moldova?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the issue is really whether the Moldovan national is also a national or citizen of Romania. That will determine whether they have access, not their Moldovan nationality or citizenship.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, when does the noble Baroness think that a satisfactory Answer could be given to this Question after this “anxious consideration” by the Government?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are intending to publish, as I said, at the end of October. The publication of the Government’s position is imminent.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, have the Government received any communication from the Race Relations Board or elsewhere expressing concern that an influx of people from Romania and Bulgaria might lead to an influx of white racists?

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord is referring to the Commission for Racial Equality, as we no longer have a race relations board to the best of my knowledge and belief. I know of no such assertion having been made, but of course I will check, and if I am wrong on that I will write to the noble Lord.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, have the Government learnt any lessons from the Polish accession experience that are relevant to Romania and Bulgaria?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have learnt a great deal. The Polish nationals who have come to this country have benefited us greatly, as many nationals will know. They have been only an asset.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, is not the real challenge to have all other member states of the European Union give full rights to Romania and Bulgaria on accession? That is an opportunity, as well as a potential problem, for all those states. Would that then not give those citizens the true rights of freedom that they should have as European citizens?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it is right to say that only four states welcomed the A8 in the way that we did and that that may have been an issue, but we have taken all those factors into account. We hope to put forward a scheme that will be welcoming but will also take advantage of some of what we have learnt from the accession of the other eight countries.

Common Agricultural Policy: Single Farm Payment

2.47 pm

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I take this further opportunity to apologise on behalf of the Government for the delay in payments to farmers earlier this year. The situation as at 17 October is that 114,037 claimants, which amounted to 97.91 per cent, had received a total of £1.51 billion, which is 99.7 per cent of the total money. That was the money paid in full or partial payments.

Approximately 2,400 claimants have yet to receive a payment. Most of those have claims valued below €1,000—around £680. That figure includes 58 outstanding Priority 1 claimants who are due a payment of over €1,000, including complex cases such as probate, liquidation and business partnership disputes.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept the finding of the National Audit Office report that the delayed English single farm payment system has cost farmers between £18 million and £22 million in interest and arrangement fees on additional bank lending, to say nothing of the

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human misery and the suicides that have followed? What do the Government intend to do to avoid a 2006 fiasco, when the chief executive’s estimate is that it will take 18 months to two years to get the system up and running properly?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the chief executive has said nothing different from what I have said in the House on more than one occasion. We are speaking from the same evidence. That is why we draw the same conclusion, which is to warn people that the 2006 scheme started before May this year when the forms were sent out. The 2007 forms will be signed off within a month or a few weeks’ time. It will be 2008 before substantial changes can be made to the system. In any event, making substantial changes to the system year on year is a recipe for disaster.

I warn farmers and everybody else that the payments year we are entering—the window starts 1 December this year—will be as difficult as the previous year, not least because the first year has an effect on the second year. This year’s difficulties relating to mapping and other issues relating to the 2 million-odd fields in this country on which payments will be made will have a legacy for next year. That is why we are not making any promises about when we will be able to start. We hope to deliver a better system, but hope is not the basis on which I intend to respond to the House.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, has the position of the former chief executive, Mr Johnston McNeill, who was sacked seven months ago, been resolved? It sticks in the craw of hill farmers, to whom £2,000 is a fortune, when they hear of him still getting £114,000 a year, after being sacked last March.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the position of Mr McNeill, who is a civil servant and still on the department’s books, is to be settled by the permanent secretary and the management of the Civil Service. As regards the inquiry, I believe that the Public Accounts Committee will take evidence next Monday from the permanent secretary of the department and the current chief executive on the report that was published last week. Therefore, there is nothing more that I can say about the named individual. Other individuals, including former Ministers and officials, are giving evidence about what has happened.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, what is the estimate of the number of farmers who may go bankrupt because of this disastrous situation?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot give an estimate because I do not have any evidence or figures on that matter. In any event, it would be difficult to tie down farmers’ cash flow to precise cause and effect. We are paying modest interest on delayed payments after 30 June subject to a de minimis. I have no evidence of bankruptcy. Likewise, I have no evidence of suicides, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in her first supplementary.

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Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, did the Minister, like me, hear the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, ascribe suicides to the non-payment of the single farm payment? Does my noble friend have any evidence of that?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I said in answering the previous question, I do not. If there had been such evidence, I am sure that I would have heard about it. I am not saying that people have not suffered illness or distress as a result of this situation. People who were specifically promised that they would receive money on certain dates but have not received that money have suffered terrible turmoil. There is no question that people took on debt. Their suppliers had to be paid, or not as the case may be. There has been massive turmoil.

We have allocated more money to tackle rural stress as farmers asked for help. I am not knocking that in any way. It has been a terrible year. As I say, we apologise for that, and we hope that it will not happen again. Rural Payments Agency staff are working their socks off to ensure that it does not. However, in my present position, I cannot make any promises.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, the Minister has inherited a difficult situation that is not of his making. None the less, the noble Baroness mentioned the additional interest paid by farmers. Some 11 per cent of farmers have had to extend existing loans, 8 per cent of those through not being paid or operating at a loss. The NAO report says that it was a “high risk project”. Matters were underestimated, and the progress reporting was wholly inadequate. Would it not be better temporarily to adopt the payments system operating in Scotland and Wales, which is based on static historic payments, if farmers are not going to be secure in their payments for the next two years?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we cannot do that. The 2006 scheme is already under way. The forms have been sent out. The European Commission has approved the system that we are using. It will also be used in 2007. The noble Lord’s question and the theme that lies behind it—whether we should tear it up and go back to the old historic payments system— is one that I can assure him has been asked in the department.

Nevertheless, we are looking to make the best of this system, which has the potential to be much better than the systems used in the devolved Administrations. However, for various reasons, as highlighted in the National Audit Office report last week, every factor on the risk issues is read, as everyone can see on page 43, with policy changes made late. Eleven schemes into one is good, but under the 11 schemes the money was paid earlier than under the one scheme. However, the potential is a lot greater. I cannot give an assurance on interest payments at the moment, simply because we owe 5,319 farmers top-up payments, and until they are paid we cannot work out the delay in the payments to pay the interest to them.

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Lord Plumb: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister has done everything possible to bring some order out of chaos, but does he realise that the 10 schemes listed in the National Audit Office report could be multiplied by more than 1,000 for people who have suffered stress and loss of revenue? Loss of revenue is one thing, but the loss of trust and confidence, both in the Government and in the department, is considerable. Why cannot the English scheme be delivered in the declared time scale when the Germans, who applied exactly the same scheme, paid on the nail within a matter of weeks from the beginning of their scheme? Is the answer therefore to consider an early partial payment for this year to try to restore some confidence in the Government?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not have the details for Germany with me, but as I understand it Germany did have problems. A team from the Rural Payments Agency went to Germany in the summer to discuss some of the common difficulties that we had had. Notwithstanding that, I understand that France and the Republic of Ireland are making advance payments.

The point that the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, asked about is under consideration. No decisions have been made. We asked the Rural Payments Agency in July to assess the position on the scenarios for the payment prospects for 2006 and whether there could be partial payments. Partial payments could be illegal under Common Market rules, or they could be legal, depending on the dates when they are paid and the knowledge that they are paid. These matters are being actively considered, and it will not be too long before Ministers can give directions to the RPA on which route to go down. Obviously, we want to get money to farmers faster and to give them certainty, but we cannot afford to have anything remotely like what happened this year, when dates were given and not delivered. Given the lack of trust, what farmers want is certainty. They may have to wait to get certainty, so that we do not take the risk of again having the catastrophic lack of trust that we had this year, which would be compounded if there was a problem two years running.

NHS: Hospital Chaplaincy

2.58 pm

The Lord Bishop of Worcester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, the Department of Health remains supportive of the guidance issued to NHS trusts in November 2003 about patients’ access to spiritual care, irrespective of their faith or beliefs. NHS trusts are responsible for delivering that care in a way that

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meets the diverse needs of their patients. How they do so is a matter for local decision, particularly as these arrangements now vary considerably. It is not for Ministers to intervene in these local matters.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, though in our locality there is difficulty in believing that the trust, which has been condemned for this decision by virtually every democratic body in the area, is really responsive to local opinion. Is the Minister prepared to look at the mounting evidence that the trust’s decisions are motivated not, as claimed, by the need to get the books to balance but by a more ideological position on chaplaincy that actively subverts the guidelines of the Department of Health? If he finds that evidence—I am happy to supply it to him—compelling, would he then feel it appropriate for the Government to intervene in defence of the holistic concepts that lie at the heart of the health service?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the evidence available to me is somewhat different from that available to the right reverend Prelate. The trust has a substantial funding gap that it has to make good by some £8 million this year and £16 million next year. It has to lose 675 posts, only three of which relate to chaplaincy. From the evidence that I have been given, the trust has good reasons for its decisions. One must bear in mind that the loss of three chaplaincy posts would be the equivalent of losing about four nurses.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that support for the campaign launched by the right reverend Prelate goes way beyond the Church of England and includes many local community groups and the Amicus trade union? Does he not also accept that it would be most unfortunate if the hospital chaplaincy generally, outside Worcestershire, were seen as a soft target by health service trusts anxious to save money?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I do not think that there is any evidence whatever of that, but if the right reverend Prelate wishes to give me such evidence I will certainly look at it. I have seen no evidence that there is some conspiracy to do down the chaplaincy throughout the NHS. The Worcestershire trust is trying to deal with some outstanding financial deficits, which it has to do. All of us want the NHS to balance its books properly; the trust is taking the appropriate action, and Ministers owe it to the trust to support those actions.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister accept that people have spiritual needs and that chaplaincy is an important part of their healthcare because otherwise they might become much more distressed and not benefit from the treatment that they receive? Would the Minister consider another way of dealing with chaplaincies, through other organisations or bodies? If such groups were prepared to support chaplaincies, would the department be prepared to encourage them to continue?

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