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Lord Hooson: My Lords, does the Minister agree that experience has taught us that the less interference there is from London in the affairs of Cardiff as regards the Welsh Assembly and its leadership, the better--and that goes for the Government and everyone else? Does she also agree that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, might benefit and have a more joyous St David's Day if he reminded himself of the outstanding contribution of his noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach in a debate in the Welsh Assembly a fortnight ago? He suggested that the Welsh Assembly was doing extremely well--and coming from the former chairman of the think-tank of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, that ought to be compulsory reading for all Conservative supporters in Wales.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, was right in much of what he said. My recollection is that I complimented both the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Roberts, on their contributions to the debate to which he referred. Perhaps I may gently suggest that at the beginning of

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that debate one of his noble friends sought to pass judgment on decisions and matters that are better left to the Assembly.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I am delighted to see that, like so many other noble Lords, she is florally celebrating the day of our patron saint? Does she recall that yesterday the Secretary of State for Wales, at a luncheon in his honour, said that the test for a devolved assembly was whether it brought benefit to the people it was meant to serve? Is there any evidence that that is happening in Wales?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Yes, my Lords, I believe that there is. The Assembly has, for example, issued a draft document for consultation, Better Wales, and the budget agreed by all parties for next year includes additional spending on health and education. Policy is being developed by the Assembly on matters such as the serious issues arising from the Waterhouse report, with consideration of its recommendations, including that relating to a children's commissioner for Wales.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, will the Minister recognise that the turn-out for the elections to the Welsh Assembly was abysmally low and that, now, to assert political control there is the equivalent of walking on eggs? Does she not agree that so many of these difficulties are due to the alien voting system that was introduced? Is it not time that we returned to a first-past-the-post system, which would result in overall political control, because that body could do much and be so beneficial to the future life of Wales?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, in achieving devolution in Wales, as in Scotland and, of course, Northern Ireland, which we hope will return as quickly as possible, the Government have sought to ensure that matters are devolved to all three countries in a context which will encourage a consensus approach towards the development of policy. I share my noble friend's concern about the low turn-out. I can assure him that I was there on the doorstep, doing my best to ensure that the turn-out was as high as possible.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Welsh have only an Assembly while the Scots have a Parliament?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is, I know, fully aware that the histories of Scotland and Wales are different. Their legislative histories are different, with separate Scottish legislation as opposed to the relationship between Welsh legislation and that of Westminster. Perhaps I may hope that the noble

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Baroness is signalling that the Conservative Party now not only fully supports devolution but wishes to enhance it in Wales.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, I wonder whether on St David's Day the noble Baroness will announce to the people of Wales that on every St David's Day from now on we shall have a national holiday.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I shall have to check whether a national holiday for Wales is a matter that has been devolved to the Assembly. I shall write to the noble Lord. However, I am quite sure that people will feel that it is a holiday on Saturday when, we all hope, Wales will be successful.

Alcohol: Under-age Purchasers

2.52 p.m.

Lord Hoyle asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many off-licences and supermarkets have been prosecuted over the last three years for selling alcoholic drinks to minors.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the information available on prosecutions does not distinguish between off-licensed and on-licensed premises. However, the total number of defendants prosecuted in magistrates' courts in England and Wales was 251 in 1996, 214 in 1997 and 310 in 1998. I am placing in the Library of the House a table which summarises the information available for this period about offenders cautioned, defendants prosecuted and offenders convicted for under-age sales.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. However, can he say when there will be a change to the loophole in the law which makes it extremely difficult to prosecute supermarkets and licensed premises? I remind him that in June 1998, following the death of a teenager who bought intoxicating drinks from an off-licence, the Home Office promised urgent action. Why are we still waiting? And, in relation to the statistics that he mentioned earlier, can he arrange that in future those are separated so that we can see the numbers of convictions, prosecutions and cautions involving supermarkets and off-licences?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question. He is quite right: we said that we would look at that loophole. I believe that your Lordships will want to support the Private Member's Bill advanced by Paul Truswell in another place which addresses the loophole issue. It means that all staff in licensed premises could face prosecution if it is found that the person purchasing or attempting to purchase is under age. As for the statistics, I believe that it would be most useful if they were separated between on-licensed and off-licensed premises. We are

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looking carefully at that matter. I shall certainly put additional pressure on our officials to take a closer interest in the matter.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very difficult to tell someone's age simply by looking at them? Does he also agree that the problem of under-age sales extends beyond alcohol and applies also to lottery tickets and tobacco? In other countries, which I shall not name as I seem to quote so regularly the antipodean place I come from, it is possible to obtain a card which proves that one is aged 18 or over. Such cards are most valuable and are used routinely in pubs and bars. Here, I understand, the cards are available on a voluntary basis but are expensive for people to obtain. Will the Government consider making these voluntary identity proofs of age available at a more reasonable cost for youngsters over the age of 18?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for her question. I believe that it must be the case that antipodean Baronesses retain their youthfulness much longer than most others, but that would be idle flattery! I believe that the noble Baroness makes an important point about cards being a useful guide to people's ages. The Department for Education and Employment is considering a proposal in relation to a youth card. I believe that that is important in this respect and in relation to the wider question of age-related sales, which the noble Baroness addresses. We are looking at ways of introducing and extending such a system on a voluntary basis. I believe that to be a most valuable initiative.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, the noble Lord has informed your Lordships of the number of prosecutions. What is the number of convictions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. We managed to anticipate that one! Sadly, we do not always get it right in the Home Office. In 1996 there were 119 convictions; in 1997, 125; and in 1998--the first full year of the Labour Government--157.

Exchange Rate: Monetary Policy Committee Discussions

2.57 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had talks with the Governor of the Bank of England or with members of the Monetary Policy Committee about policy on Bank of England intervention in the markets to reduce the current high level of sterling.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Chancellor and the Governor meet regularly and

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discuss a wide range of issues. The best contribution that the Government can make to exchange rate stability, consistent with their objective of a stable and competitive pound over the medium term, is to maintain sound public finances and low inflation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, has the Minister told me that the Chancellor has discussed the exchange rate with the Governor or with the Monetary Policy Committee? Perhaps he can tell me the answer to that when he returns to the Dispatch Box. No doubt the noble Lord has read the latest set of minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Is he aware of how seriously that committee was considering the exchange rate at that time? Can he help me by telling me exactly what the Monetary Policy Committee could do to depress the exchange rate, which yesterday was described by Eddie George, the Governor, as "unsustainably strong"? At the risk of tempting the Minister, perhaps he can tell me whether he agrees with the Governor of the Bank of England about that.

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