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House of Lords

Tuesday, 1st July 1997.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Lord Kelvedon

The Right Honourable Henry Paul Guinness Channon, having been created Baron Kelvedon, of Ongar in the County of Essex, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Walker of Worcester and the Baroness Rawlings.

Lord Henniker --Took the Oath.

Public Health Laboratory Service

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their plans for the Public Health Laboratory Service.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the status of the Public Health Laboratory Service as a non-departmental public body of the Department of Health. I know that when the previous government were in office the noble Baroness had some concerns that the PHLS might be privatised. I can assure your Lordships that that will not happen under this Government.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reassuring reply. There is a problem of infections which are resistant to antibiotics and which are now occurring all over the world. Does the noble Baroness agree that the PHLS should maintain the highest standards? Can she assure the House that there will be no cutbacks and no fragmentation?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the PHLS and the Government take seriously the whole question of antibiotic resistant infections. Guidelines on the matter were issued to the National Health Service in 1994. We expect that shortly there will be revision of those guidelines. I know that the PHLS is co-operating with our European partners in this area. I hope that means that the highest standards will be maintained both as regards national and international surveillance.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree with me that the PHLS provides one of the finest independent services in the world and is truly the guardian of the nation's health? As 50 per cent. of

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its funding comes directly from the department, can she give an assurance that the PHLS is not robbed to pay for the new food standards agency?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I naturally agree with the noble Baroness as regards the high standard of work of the PHLS. I hope that my previous replies to the noble Baroness have reassured her on that matter. I understand that PHLS expenditure in 1997-98 will be about £115 million, of which just half is funded directly by the Department of Health and the Welsh Office. The rest is made up from independent contracts with the NHS. Of course, we hope that there will be considerable co-operation with the new food standards agency. The implications of the funding are yet to be resolved in detail but I am sure that that will not affect the quality of the PHLS work.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, in view of the importance of epidemiology in the Public Health Laboratory Service, is the noble Baroness happy with the number of epidemiologists already employed and the number being trained for the service?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I believe there are about 3,400 staff working for the PHLS across the network of laboratories and epidemiology centres within the country. Of course it is important that we maintain those high standards, as I hope I conveyed in answer to the two noble Baronesses. High levels of training and high levels of resources for those working within the service are important to maintain the kind of quality of standards we want to see both in the epidemiology and the microbiology services.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, has the Minister any progress report on the worrying situation of the E.coli infection in Scotland which seems to have occurred in a small area?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as your Lordships will know, the James Report was published quite recently. We are still looking at the consultation process which was carried out after the James Report was published. We shall act on that once the consultation has been considered.

Pension Sharing

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Young asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they propose to publish the draft Bill on pension sharing on divorce.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, I think it fitting that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who helped me harry the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is now (in the nicest possible way) harrying me.

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We all want pension sharing. It is fair; it recognises the contribution of both spouses to family income; and it improves pension income in retirement, especially of women. We shall be publishing a draft Bill during the coming parliamentary Session to help make sure that the legislation is sound. Our aim is to do so by the early part of next year so that we can meet our implementation target of April 2000.

Baroness Young: My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply, I also thank her for the letter she sent me on the matter. As she would expect, I am somewhat concerned by her Answer. Is she aware that it had been the intention of the previous Government to publish a Bill this coming November? From her reply, it appears that she will publish only draft legislation. Given the length of time that any legislation takes, can the noble Baroness satisfy us that we shall see pension sharing in force by the year 2000?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I, too, am anxious to see the April 2000 target delivered. However, the noble Baroness will know that the current Government face extreme pressure on the legislative timetable. Almost every department in government has had to lose to subsequent Sessions Bills they would have wished to have seen in the first Session. The Department of Social Security is no different in that respect from other departments.

As Members of the former Government Front Bench will be aware, the Bill is technically very complex and needs the support of the pension industry and lawyers. The Pensions Management Institute has said that getting the legislation right is more important than getting it through quickly.

I have checked on the timetable. Had we taken the Bill through Parliament this Session I doubt whether that would have allowed us to have improved much on the April 2000 target.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, are sufficient resources being employed to ensure that this legislation gets through as quickly as possible? We all have the same objective in mind: to get the legislation through properly as quickly as possible. But I agree with my noble friend Lady Young. I am slightly perturbed by the use of the word "draft". I hope that all resources are put behind this new department.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I, too, share the noble Baroness's concern. I am satisfied that we have sufficient staff for this. I am also satisfied that the draft Bill which will be published early in the new year will for the first time allow us to engage those players--the industry, the legal profession, women's organisations, the British Diplomatic Spouses Association, Fairshares, and the like--to be able to consult on a draft Bill. It is the first time that that has been done in the DSS. We are putting the emphasis on consultation prior to the final Bill going into Parliament rather than spending the time on the implementation

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period thereafter. That is how we are balancing the issue given the pressures on the legislative timetable that I am sure noble Lords will appreciate.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, my noble friend asked the Minister whether there are adequate resources. The Minister replied in terms of staff. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether the delay has anything to do with the cost? Are the Government able to meet that cost in their proposed budgeting, and, if so, roughly what might that cost be?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, there are potential costs to the Government as an employer were people employed by the Government enabled to take their share of pension splitting out of the scheme. That is why we entirely support the previous Administration's proposals--I believe that they were supported by the entire House--that where one is dealing with unfunded schemes, as with the Civil Service and the like, former spouses become scheme members of the existing scheme and may not take their money out.

As for the rest of the additional cost, it is certainly true that there may be implications for tax relief for the Inland Revenue on the level of pension splitting and the headroom between that and tax relief. But clearly that in itself depends on the financial arrangements that will circumscribe the tax relief of pensions over the next 50 years. Against that, there are clear savings which will come from floating up many women--they would otherwise be on income support--from being dependent on benefit in old age.

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