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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the Minister is always helpful, although she was unable to give a very helpful reply today. Is she aware that although I disagree with euthanasia, I believe that the time has come to think more sympathetically about the request made by my noble friend?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend who has raised this issue on several previous occasions in your Lordships' House. I believe that we have had helpful discussions about it.

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We recognise that there are differing views about the range of responses which should be available to people at different stages of their life. Wherever possible patients should have some choice in their treatments and care. But the law does not permit euthanasia, and only requires that sometimes the level of medication necessary to control the overall symptoms in a patient may shorten life. It is a matter that we have discussed previously in your Lordships' House; it has the rather interesting title of the double effect. However, that is not an issue connected with voluntary euthanasia.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that a new organisation has been set up in the past year to seek to help farmers who perhaps intend taking their own lives? I must declare an interest as a patron. If anyone wishes to have further details perhaps they will get in touch with me. I shall see them on their way!

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I must say the number of Members of this House who seem inclined to use a rather forward-looking description of their activities is rather intriguing. The noble Baroness will probably be aware, since she takes an interest in the subject, that the Department of Health has commissioned Professor Keith Hawton specifically to carry out research in the area of suicide among farmers. It is a matter that is of concern to us.

Lord Mishcon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware--as I am sure she is--that very recently this House set up a Select Committee to deal with medical ethics and the matters just referred to? Is she further aware that it had a most noble, learned and experienced membership?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing that out. I was indeed a member of the committee.

National Bus Company: Pension Fund

3.3 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to implement the ruling of the Pensions Ombudsman in September 1996 regarding the distribution of the surplus of the Bus Employees Superannuation Trust to employees of the privatised National Bus Company.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Pensions Ombudsman's determination required the pension fund trustees to seek recovery of the surplus paid to the Department of Transport in 1990. The previous government offered, in November 1996, to fund an action to put these complex matters before the courts. The trustees accepted that offer. A writ has now been served and the statement of claim is expected shortly.

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We are studying the legal and other background to the issue and will take legal advice on the claim when it is received before deciding the best way forward.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the rather thoughtful note in her final sentence. Is she aware that the Government, when in Opposition, felt strongly that the pensioners of the former National Bus Company--to use the words of the then Shadow Minister, now the Minister-- were the victims of a squalid debacle? Would it not be wiser for the new Government, as my noble friend Lord Russell suggested in a debate on pensions the other day, to make a new start in this matter? Will they accept the view of the Pensions Ombudsman, call off the legal action--which will cost a good deal of taxpayers' money--and enable those pensioners to enjoy the surplus to which they are entitled while they are still alive?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, and felt very strongly by the pensioners. In Opposition, we acknowledged those strong concerns. We are well aware that they are equally deeply felt at the moment. No commitment was made in terms of repayment of the surplus. The ruling of the Pensions Ombudsman related to the trustees themselves. This is a complicated issue. It has a long history and involves decisions taken under the previous government. We have to consider all the aspects carefully and take proper legal advice before coming to a view on how to deal with the problem that we have inherited.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the issue relate to who owns the surplus? If so, some clear legal ruling on it is long overdue.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the Pensions Ombudsman's direction was to the trustees to seek repayment of the surplus that had been paid over to the Government. We need to consider carefully, in the light of the writ that has been issued and served and the statement of claim, what the Government's response should be.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, this is a much delayed process. Will the collapse of the Stock Market have any detrimental effect on the entitlement of the pensioners concerned?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am always extremely nervous of making any comment on the ramifications of the Stock Market. The issue relates to the sum of money that was repaid to the Government. That should not be affected by anything that is happening in the Stock Market at present.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I welcome her more cautious approach to this issue than her party showed when in Opposition. Is not the problem that the ruling of Dr. Julian-Farrand flies in the face of the agreement made in 1986 indicating that after certain accrued

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benefits had been paid to members of the pension fund, and the pension fund was inflated by more than the RPI, if there was any deficit the Government would make that up and any surplus would go to the Government? Surely it is those two aspects of this bargain that are important and appear to have been ignored by the Pensions Ombudsman.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I should not wish to suggest that those arguments, which have been advanced by the noble Lord in the past, were ignored by the Pensions Ombudsman. He came to a decision and made his ruling in full knowledge of the agreement that was made on the terms that the noble Lord described. The issue now is what the appropriate government response to that ruling should be. It is not at all unusual for the Pensions Ombudsman's decisions, because of their technical and complex nature, to be referred to the courts for clarification. That is one of the options to be considered.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I am grateful for the careful language that the Minister uses. I should not wish to use any exaggerated language. However, in the case of the new Government, there is a certain question of honour involved. Does the Minister agree that, on examination, this is a rather unhappy story? When the privatisation took place and decisions were taken about the pension fund, the trustees who were appointed and who took the decision to hand the surplus over to the Treasury were government officials. Is the Minister aware that the lawyers dealing with the matter were on both sides of the case? It is an unhappy case and given the view that the Government took when in Opposition, they would be well advised to make a fresh start.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand the points that the noble Lord raises--although I must point out that the trustees who came to the arrangement described by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, were the original trustees of the pension fund. The strong feelings on that aspect are understood. As a new Government we are undertaking the responsibility of examining the issue--which is complex and involves a large sum of money--properly and in the round before taking a decision.

Low Pay Commission: Consultations

3.7 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What forms of consultation the Low Pay Commission has undertaken and what plans it has in connection with the consultations.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis): My Lords, the Low Pay Commission has invited a large number of organisations and individuals to submit written evidence

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to it. It is also taking oral evidence. Last week it visited Scotland to hear evidence there and it will be visiting Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England. Evidence gathered will be used during the formulation of the commission's recommendations to government about the statutory national minimum wage.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is a cause of widespread satisfaction that the Government have entrusted the role of providing advice to an independent body? Will he give an assurance that there will be no change in that principle for the rest of the investigation? I am grateful for my noble friend's remarks on consultation. However, will he say whether there have been any problems with the forms of consultation that have taken place so far? Is he aware--I am sure he is--that there is often disagreement on what constitutes real consultation?

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