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Lord Berkeley: My Lords, in asking my question, I declare an interest as chairman of the Piggyback Consortium and the Railfreight Group. My noble friend the Minister suggested that some Government grant might be available for the "piggyback" upgrade. If the grant were sufficient to cover the majority, or the whole, cost of the upgrade and Railtrack still failed to implement it, what action could the Government take? Would he recommend any further legislation in the absence of any pressure that the Government might put on Railtrack?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in terms of future legislation, much will depend on the way in which this House deals with an announcement to be made later today and whether we are able to introduce in this Session the legislation for a strategic rail authority, which would deal with much of this issue.

As far as the current position is concerned, Railtrack investment is regulated by the Rail Regulator in line with the network licence, which specifically obliges Railtrack to maintain, renew and develop the rail network in a way which meets the reasonable requirements of train operators and others. The question of whether a body having paid for the whole of an investment constitutes a reasonable requirement and failure by Railtrack to respond to that therefore constitutes a breach of that condition is a moot point. It will be a matter in the first instance for the Rail

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Regulator. I therefore believe that it is important that we move on to new legislation to deal with this situation and set up the strategic rail authority.

Lord Newby: My Lords, in view of the level of profits which Railtrack is declaring, is the Minister satisfied with the level of investment currently being undertaken by Railtrack?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not entirely satisfied with the amount of investment and we are discussing in detail with Railtrack a number of investment proposals particularly geared at dealing with the pinch points and the lack of capacity on certain of our strategic routes. That includes the capacity for rail freight.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that unless investment in freight facilities on this line is produced rapidly there is a great danger that freight will suffer as much as passengers do at present?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes. However, capacity on the railways is available for both freight and passengers. The west coast main line, on which some noble Lords will have experienced some difficulty, is also one where we wish to increase freight capacity. The two do not necessarily move in parallel; there is a degree of competition. At present Railtrack is unable to meet all of those requirements. The strategic rail authority will be a major tool that is available to the Government to achieve those ends.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, if there is a rationing of capacity between freight and passengers on the west coast main line or any other line, which would the Government rather see: more rail freight or more passengers carried?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we should like to develop the track in a strategic way that meets both objectives.

Police Stations: Lay Visiting

2.50 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have in mind any change to the system for lay visiting to police stations to satisfy the public that those in custody are being treated fairly.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, lay visiting is a fine example of community involvement in local policing. There are no proposals to change the important independent role that lay visitors play as part of the range of safeguards and protections for people in police custody. I would like to take this opportunity to wish the National Association for

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Lay Visiting every success. Its inaugural National Lay Visiting Awareness Day was launched this morning by my colleague Kate Hoey.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Is he aware that from time to time there are press reports which are critical of both police stations and police officers in the course of their duty? Is my noble friend satisfied that the present system cannot be improved by providing national coverage to ensure that a fine service is available uniformly across the country? In particular, is he satisfied that there is a uniform standard of achievement before someone is qualified to be a lay visitor?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point about uniformity and the achievement of national standards. Last month an admirable Home Office research study entitled Lay Visiting to Police Stations was published. That is out for consultation with everyone who wishes to be involved, not least the national association that does such admirably good work.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, can the Minister do his best to ensure that with the increasing public awareness to which he has just referred the public will get the whole picture following reports of lay visitors, including the great deal that our police have to put up with from aggressive and violent people, drunks and drug-addicts in order that the rest of us should be protected?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I sympathise with the police in having to deal with aggressive behaviour. I believe that lay visitors are an extremely important public safeguard not only for those in police custody but for the honourable, honest policemen in our society who are in the overwhelming majority.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, speaking as the mother of someone who was a lay visitor for many years in her twenties, can the Minister tell the House the minimum age at which someone can become a lay visitor and if there is any age ceiling? Further, is there a time limit? As I understood it, a person could serve for only a fixed number of years.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not have those details but I shall research them. Certainly they will be part of the consultative process. I believe--I do not know--that 18 is the youngest age. I do not know whether there is a retirement age, although I am informed that that is becoming the vogue in various quarters. I shall research the matter and answer fully the question posed by the noble Baroness and place a copy in the Library.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that there is no shortage in any of the areas covered by the lay visiting scheme? I understand that there is a geographical spread. Inevitably, some

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areas will be well supported and others not. I am sure that those outside the House will be enormously grateful for the kind words that have been said about the system. Can special attention be paid to making clear to those outside the House that the purpose of the lay visitor is to reassure the public as much as to make sure that the police and Home Office do their job?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my noble friend is right. One tends to have greater coverage in built-up urban areas. Rural areas are less well served which is probably an obvious consequence of the fact that police stations tend to be much more remotely situated in such areas. That is certainly an aspect that is contained in the Home Office research study which was published in December 1998 and will undoubtedly be part of the discussions that will take place in the next month or two.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, is there any information to indicate that where there is a lay visiting scheme in police stations those stations are run differently from or better than those where there is no such scheme?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not believe that that kind of specific conclusion can be drawn. The importance of the scheme is that it is voluntary and entirely separate from the Police Service and Home Office. Its key characteristic is that police officers and police stations do not know when visits are likely to occur. I do not believe it can be said scientifically that where a scheme works well the police station is necessarily run better. It is a very important safeguard for the public and police alike.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that an adequate number of persons belonging to ethnic minorities are appointed as lay visitors, particularly in those areas where the population predominantly comprises minorities?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am not. That is an aspect which will be discussed in the next month or two following the publication of the report. It is very important that there should be full representation by ethnic minority, religious background and gender for those who undertake this important work.

Child Abuse

2.56 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What means they are using or planning to increase the number of prosecutions for abusing and exploiting children under 18; and when they expect to publish a national plan concerning child abuse.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Government are committed to do everything they possibly can to deal with those who sexually abuse and/or exploit children. There are a number of

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initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will be aware from his particular interest in this matter that recently the Government issued draft guidance on children involved in prostitution. We are implementing additional measures to assist child witnesses to give evidence in court. We are developing the details of the national plan and will be consulting interested organisations within the next few months.

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