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House of Lords

Tuesday, 11th May 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

The Duke of Richmond, Lennox and Gordon --Took the Oath.

Individual Savings Accounts

Lord Newby asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are content with the level of interest shown in ISAs (individual savings accounts) by both providers and individual investors.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government believe that individual savings accounts have got off to a flying start. Very nearly 400 firms have been approved by the Inland Revenue to act as ISA managers. Many firms have been surprised by the high level of interest shown by savers, with one bank reporting a quarter of a million ISAs taken out in the first week. The Government look forward to many more savers being introduced to the benefits of tax-free savings with ISAs in the future.

Lord Newby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am glad that I am not flying with the Government. Given the reluctance of the supermarkets to operate cash ISAs, which were the new feature of the ISAs aimed at small savers, will the Government consider taking further action to make ISAs more attractive to the small savers to whom they were designed to appeal?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is not true that supermarkets have stayed away from ISAs. Safeway, the Co-op and Tesco are acting as ISA managers. It is far too early to say how many small savers have taken up ISAs, but we are confident that the accounts will extend the range of saving among those too many people who have little or no savings.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister believe that it is necessary to take action about constant reports in the Sunday newspapers that putting a small amount of money into one type of ISA precludes one from putting a larger amount into any other? Although I cannot remember the precise details, I believe that if one puts a small amount of money into a cash ISA, the amount one is able to put into another type is limited. Many people have written to the Sunday newspapers to complain that they were not told that opening one type of ISA limited their access to another. If that is the case, should there not be an obligation on the organisation accepting the small amount of cash to explain the effect of that on other ISAs?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, ISAs are designed to be flexible. There is a choice between the

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maxi ISA, which is for those who want to put everything with a single ISA manager, and the mini ISA, which allows an individual to have up to three ISA managers. I do not know to which Sunday newspaper reports the noble Baroness refers, but it is not true that if one puts a small amount of money into one ISA one cannot put money into other ISAs. That is made clear in the documentation produced by the Inland Revenue.

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, why have ISAs been made so complicated when the regime they replaced, PEPs, was straightforward?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not believe that that is the case. They are flexible in the sense that there are a number of different options for stocks and shares, life assurance and cash ISAs. However, the relevant options for individual savers are straightforward and simple. I never really understood PEPs and TESSAs, but I found the ISA document fairly easy to understand.

Lord Christopher: My Lords, although I do not want to undermine the Minister's response, I believe that there is a strong case for wider public education. The scheme is immensely complicated and many fund managers find difficulty in explaining it. I believe that we shall not attract small savers until they see some link between the ISA and their savings for retirement. Will the Minister consider that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we are always open to consider variations and developments in any financial product. However, perhaps I may remind your Lordships and my noble friend where we are starting from: half the people in this country have savings of less than £200 and a quarter have no savings at all. It is that new market for savings that we wish to open up with ISAs.

Nut Allergies

2.42 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to prevent unnecessary deaths of people suffering from nut allergies.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Government recognise the serious nature of nut allergies and we have taken action on a number of fronts, including the provision of guidance to patients and to GPs and other health professionals. We shall continue to work with the health professions, the Anaphylaxis Campaign and all others with an interest to increase awareness and understanding of nut allergies, their prevention and treatment.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, those steps are welcome. Allergies of all kinds, and nut allergies in particular, are common and have serious effects on nearly 1 million people. Does my noble friend agree that

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every death from a nut allergy is unnecessary and avoidable as customers are entitled to know what they are eating but they do not; that nut allergy clinics should be in every region but they are not; and that GPs should be aware of the problems of nut allergies but they are not? Can the Government intensify their efforts to make speedy progress on a matter which affects the health, and in some cases the lives, of many people?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's question. He raises an important set of issues in relation to properly treating this problem. I very much agree that we need to continue to raise awareness among general practitioners about the advice to be given to patients who may be suffering from allergies. We need to look carefully at the provision of allergy clinics and certainly need to ensure that food labelling is strengthened so that the public are aware of what is contained in the food they purchase.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, much more advice from the department needs to be given in educating caterers and restaurateurs about the dangers of food contamination. Is not improvement of labelling in order to ensure that nuts are not contained within products urgently needed to avoid the kind of fatalities we have seen in recent weeks?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that catering awareness is very important. It is worth pointing out that in November 1997 MAFF undertook a catering awareness campaign aimed precisely at the point he mentions; that is, raising the awareness among caterers of severe allergies, and 200,000 information packs were sent out. I believe that that has had a beneficial effect.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that prevention is better than cure and that the labelling of products is important? It is all very well advising doctors and specialists on how to treat the problem, but the public want to see labelling more clearly defined that nuts are contained within a product.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords. I agree with the noble Viscount. That is why we are committed to ensuring that food labelling provides information needed by sufferers. Much of the legislation regarding this matter is harmonised at EU level. The UK has recently managed to task, under the EU Scientific Co-operation Scheme, to provide a better basis for amendment to legislation. My understanding is that the EC is now in the process of drafting a proposal following that work.

Lord Onslow of Woking: My Lords, no doubt the Minister will recall that last August the Government's Chief Medical Officer again advised GPs that anybody suspected of suffering from peanut allergy should be referred to an allergy clinic. Is he aware, however, that there is a severe shortage of allergy clinics around the country and a severe shortage of trained staff? Although

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bodies such as the Anaphylaxis Campaign can do a great deal to help the Government by raising public awareness, the Government have to help the public by putting in some money.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Lord that the Anaphylaxis Campaign has done sterling work in this area, and I should like to pay tribute to it. As regards the number of allergy clinics in the country, the estimate is that there are well over 100 in England, and up to 120 or so in the UK overall, but their provision is patchy. In particular, areas in the north and the south-west lack clinics as compared to other parts of the country. Because issues concerning the provision of appropriate treatment are raising some concerns, officials from the Department of Health will be meeting professional and patient interest groups later this week to discuss future provision of services and to pick up many of the points made by the noble Lord.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that the introduction of the word "estimated" into his statement about the number of allergy clinics in the country sends a little shiver of doubt down one's spine as to the level of the Government's commitment to this issue? Should there not be an accurate register of places where these swiftly life-threatening incidences can be advised upon and coped with?

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