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Lord Peston: My Lords, the noble Viscount is right that this is a disgraceful infringement of all that has happened with free trade in the 50 years since the war ended. It is most alarming that the USA, the country which took the lead in that, should be the one that now damages it in this way. Does the so-called EU initiative involve any sanctions against the USA if it proceeds, because as I understand it the USA is not backing down in any way? That means that it will damage some of our companies. Is it not time for us at least to intimate that we might act in a way that could damage one or two of its companies if it proceeds in that way?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the current initiatives about which I was talking include the recent announcement of the WTO dispute settlement panel, a European Community regulation, and joint action designed to counter the extra-territorial application of the legislation. The EC regulation is fairly tough, and I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied. It obliges individuals and companies to inform the European Commission if their financial and economic interests are directly or indirectly affected by the operation of specified pieces of US legislation, which includes the Helms-Burton Act. There are other points to it, but that should reassure the noble Lord that we are doing all that is possible.

Baroness Young: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that now the American elections are behind us there might be an opportunity once again to raise directly with the American Government our very real concern, which is felt in all parts of the House, about the terrible effects that Helms-Burton is having, not just because of its extra-territorial aspects but because of its effects on individuals in Cuba itself?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to tell my noble friend that we shall continue to

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make representations to the US Administration and Congress about the Helms-Burton Act, with the aim of having the Act repealed. In the shorter term, we shall be seeking a renewal of the suspension of the right to bring private cases under Title 3 of the Helms-Burton Act.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there were 10 senators, no less than one tenth of the US Senate, in London two weeks ago? Was the opportunity taken to impress upon them the views of Her Majesty's Government about extra-territoriality and the Helms-Burton Act?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am not sure whether that opportunity was taken. The last time I answered the noble Lord on this question I am afraid that I said that as I was not sure it was not appropriate to give him an answer. I shall find out. I shall write to the noble Lord and put a copy of the letter in the Library for all other interested noble Lords.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, is it the Government's view that the Helms-Burton Act is or is not lawful under international law?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, we very much hope that the panel will find that the US action is inconsistent with her obligations under international trade rules. The case is complex and that is the very best answer I can give at this time.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the depth of opinion against the approach of the United States by all Latin and Caribbean states, including Mexico and Canada?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, yes, and I am aware of the feeling of this House.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, while I agree with all that has been said this afternoon, have any representations been made to Fidel Castro to improve his human rights record, which might enable us to make considerable progress in abolishing this undesirable Act?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, we are doing our very best to ensure that the Cuban position on human rights, and everything in that order, is done. This country and Europe believe that continuing with trade and relations is the best way to ensure that human rights eventually prevail in Cuba.

Building Society Share Distribution Schemes

3.5 p.m.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will make representations to building societies in the process of converting to banks regarding free share issues in respect of accounts

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    where the first name on the account is acting for a person whose medical condition prevents them from acting for themselves.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, although under building society schemes account holders who are first-named generally receive shares from a distribution, those who manage accounts on behalf of others are accountable to them for the distribution which they receive. Societies and their members decide, and vote on, the distribution scheme which is adopted, and they decide on who benefits from it. The Building Societies Act gives them a degree of discretion in the form which schemes can take.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that he has not answered my Question, in the sense that I am asking whether the Government have made any representations on this matter to the building societies? Is he further aware that I am grateful to Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Disabled, Angela Knight, the Treasury Minister in another place, and Tom Clarke, the Shadow Minister for the Disabled, for the representations they have made, as this matter relates almost entirely to people suffering from mental illness or mental handicap, or who have learning difficulties, where the first name on the account is usually the charge nurse in the establishment where these people reside? There are cases where one charge nurse is the first name on upwards of 30 accounts. The building societies are saying that they can have only one allocation of shares. Does the Minister accept that this is neither a political nor a financial matter, but a moral matter? It is wholly wrong of the Alliance and Leicester and the Halifax Building Societies to treat these unfortunate people in this immoral way.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about my honourable friend Mr. Alistair Burt, who has indeed met building society representatives on this issue. The issue is a bit more complex than at first appears. Many other accounts are held jointly with first names and subsequent names; for example, husband and wife, father and child, and grandfather and grandchild. Indeed it may be even the local club secretary and the club. The existing Building Societies Act allows societies to devise a variety of schemes involving, for instance, making a payout to each member, a payout for each account, and a payout for each name on an account, through the first-named account member. It is for the building societies themselves to decide which scheme they feel is most appropriate, and, of course, for the building society members to decide.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, have any discussions been held by any government departments with the Court of Protection on this matter?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am aware, as I said, that disability unit officials have talked to the building societies, as has my honourable friend

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Mr. Alistair Burt. I cannot answer the question that the noble Lord asked. Perhaps I may add that ultimately of course whether or not this is discrimination under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act will be a matter for the courts to judge.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director of the Woolwich. Is my noble friend aware of the great concern felt at the moment by building societies which have already declared that they intend to convert? This is one of the many problems that they should consider. They are concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the law and their future after conversion. It is having an inhibiting effect. I am sure that he will have seen that in the financial press.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend has said. My understanding is that all the converting societies have taken advice from learned counsel. They have been advised that what they are doing is not against the law. But, as I said a moment ago, that will of course ultimately have to be tested in the courts. As I think I said, my honourable friend Mr. Burt is concerned about this matter. One of the problems is that many of these processes started before this week, which is when the Disability Discrimination Act has, at least in part, come into effect.

Lord Rix: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that meaningful talks are taking place between the building societies concerned and a number of voluntary organisations, including MENCAP, with the view to sorting out the problem? Will he also confirm that he will encourage a solution to be found?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am pleased to hear that talks are taking place between the building societies and the organisations representing mentally handicapped and mentally ill people. As I have indicated, my honourable friend has also had discussions with them. I do not believe that the building societies can be in too much doubt about the feelings of many people on this issue.

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