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Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the noble Earl makes an important point. Is he speaking from the Front Bench of the Liberal Democrat Party, or is he speaking for the Liberal Democrat Party in general?
Earl Russell: My Lords, I am speaking from the Front Bench in words which I agreed this morning with my Chief Whip. They are guarded words but they are intended seriously, and I hope that that point is clear to the House.
The Minister will say a great deal against the courts. She might take account of some of the points made on the other side of the argument. The Government have poured money into the CSA. By contrast they did nothing to improve the funding of the courts. They did nothing to improve the staffing of the courts. They did nothing to improve their enforcement powers. They did nothing to co-operate with them to make sure that their warrants received priority. The Government accuse the courts of inconsistency. In many cases what the Minister calls "inconsistency" I call "consistency" because it takes account of the facts of the case.
If there is a problem with other cases, the Government have the power to issue guidelines. I had a stab at that during Report stage of the Bill in 1995. However, when the Government come to giving figures for the cost of going back to the courts, I cannot help suspecting that those figures come from the same stable as the figures which we heard regarding the cost of the freepost in the London mayoral elections. I have much more to say, but I shall not take up more of the House's time now; we shall hear it later.
Lord Rix: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, noted, this Bill is rather like the excellent finger buffet one is served at a reception in the Cholmondeley Room: rich in variety but with at least one canape or cheese dip which one does not much like. I have my favourite in this strangely assorted mixed salad of a Bill which, beginning with "Child
Noble Lords with good memories will recall our welfare reform debates on SERPS last year. In those debates, we sought to do justice to widows and widowers who were threatened with a 50 per cent cut in their inherited earnings-related pensions rights as a result of a 1986 change which remained one of the Department of Social Security's best kept secrets for most of the next 13 years.
I am most happy to give credit to the Government for seeking an honourable way out of this mess (not of their own making) and acknowledge that the other place accepted the spirit, if not quite the structure, of my multiple choice amendment on SERPS. As a result, as we have already heard, on 15th March Ministers announced how they proposed to use the powers accorded to them by the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act and to offer compensation to those who could show that their spouse had lost out through their following duff advice when accurate advice would have enabled them to make wiser pension choices. Those who received no advice at all--the vast majority--appeared to be excluded.
So now we have Clause 38--one of those beautifully crafted texts which takes a complicated message and makes it totally incomprehensible. As far as I can see, it still ties recompense to tangible evidence of loss. And there's the rub. I should like to see greater certainties written into the Bill for the benefit of those whose age makes it clear that they have lost out or whose disability prevents them arguing their case without requiring them to prove chapter and verse what they knew and what they could and would have done had they known differently. It seems to me unreasonable to insist that the victim of a robbery should provide evidence as to what he could and would have done had he known he was going to be robbed.
My amendment will be reasonably short, to the point and, it is hoped, clear even to the Benefits Agency. However, I gather that we are soon to have our own--our very own!--pensions branch which can start life without a single blot on its escutcheon if the SERPS scandal is but a thing of the past. The Government, too, deserve much credit for having started to muck out the Augean stable. Let us hope that straightforward guidance on the face of the Bill will enable them to complete their Herculean task with speed, efficiency and, dare I say it, generosity.
Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I welcome the Bill for its attempt to tackle poverty for both young and old. I endorse its redistributive principles in helping the poorest citizens and its aim to put into place systems which actually work. Anyone who has had dealings with the CSA over past years knows about its complexities and its tendency to get sums wrong more often than it gets them right. Not only will the new proposals in the Bill simplify matters, but they will enable more than a million children to benefit, many of them for the first time.
So far as concerns pensions, the aim of the Bill is to ensure that everyone who has put in a full working life will receive a decent pension above benefit levels. It is especially important for me that a full-time working life now includes a full caring life. It is on that aspect of the Bill that I want to concentrate.
I warmly welcome the development of the state second pension as an important step forward for carers. For the first time, carers who are in receipt of invalid care allowance will be given more than just protection of their basic state pension; they will also be given a credit into the second-tier pension. Arguably, that is the most positive and significant change to carers' income since the invalid care allowance was introduced in 1976. The last positive change introduced to ICA was in 1993, when the earnings limit on the benefit was raised to £50 a week.
Therefore, why is the state second pension so important to carers? It is because many of them give up paid work in order to care. In 1996, the Carers National Association found in a survey that 50 per cent of carers had given up paid work in order to take
The new provisions could start as early as 2002. Carers who receive ICA, have an underlying entitlement to ICA or receive home responsibilities protection will be credited into the scheme as if they were earning £9,500 a year. There are several reasons why that represents a great step forward for carers. First, a carer who receives ICA at £40.40--it is the lowest of all the benefits--for 52 weeks receives the sum of approximately £2,070 for a minimum of 1,820 hours' care per annum. I ask noble Lords to think about that sum. Crediting carers as though they earned £9,500 per year values that care at over three-and-a-half times the level of the invalid care allowance. The lower earnings threshold of £9,500 of the state second pension compares very favourably with the earnings that carers forgo. A survey by Caring Costs in 1996 found that the average wage given up by carers in order to care was £9,000 per annum. Unlike ICA, which rises in line with prices, the state second pension will rise in line with earnings year on year.
In order to receive one year's credit, a carer must be receiving ICA throughout the year. That is defined neither in the legislation nor in the Explanatory Notes, but discussion in Committee and on Report in the other place suggested that it meant 52 weeks in a year, although that has never been stated. Low earners who earn above the lower earnings limit would be credited in at the same level. That means that as long as carers earn over the lower earnings limit or receive ICA throughout the year, they will receive credits for the state second pension.
But there are a couple of potential problems in relation to that entitlement to which I want to draw the Minister's attention. The contribution condition requiring ICA throughout the year may result in two particular groups of carers being excluded from receipt of that important new pension. They would be carers who have lost ICA because the person they care for has had one or more periods in hospital or respite care which in total amount to more than 28 days in six months.
I give your Lordships an example. A mother cares for her son who has severe learning difficulties and physical disabilities. He goes into residential care every few weeks. Because of the linking rules, she becomes disentitled to ICA after her son has had a total of 28 days in respite care. She cannot work because she is exhausted and because the residential care is not a regular feature but only occasional and her son needs 24-hour care when he comes home. She does not have a full year's contribution and loses out on another year's pension. The mother cannot see the situation changing unless the son goes permanently into residential care and she does not want that to happen. So for the years for which she is caring for her son she will have no additional pension.
The second group of people who may miss out are those who have lost ICA because they have earned over the £50 per week earnings limit in one or more weeks but whose earnings over a year do not reach the lower earnings limit for national insurance contributions. For example, Tom has a part-time job in a small workshop near his home in between caring for his mother. It has been a very good year and the boss wants to reward him with a Christmas bonus. The Benefits Agency takes into account Tom's bonus over the following month. His bonus, which is only £20, takes him over the earnings limit for the ICA so he loses a full month of ICA. He does not earn enough to pay national insurance and because he does not have a full year of ICA he loses out on another year's pension contributions.
Those problems seem to me to be out of step with two of the Government's key strategies in relation to carers: first, their stated aim of ensuring that carers have greater access to breaks under the carers grant. That was a new grant of £50 million introduced under the National Carers Strategy to local authorities to provide additional breaks for carers. It has been welcomed by carers and is very well used. The other part of the Government's strategy is to ensure that carers maximise work opportunities, recognising that paid work for carers is not only important financially but also socially and emotionally.
A solution to those problems could be found by relaxing the entitlement condition of receipt of ICA to, for example, 26 weeks or more in a year--I imagine that that could be done through a regulation-making power--or by making other measures more generous; namely, home responsibilities protection. I understand that the Government are considering that and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm the relationship between HRP and the new scheme in her reply.
I cannot miss the opportunity to bring two further issues to your Lordships' attention if the financial disadvantage of carers is to be addressed. These really need to be looked at. The first is the issue of back-dating and the second is helping carers over retiring age.
Carers will begin to build up credits towards the state second pension only from 2002, leaving many carers--hundreds of thousands perhaps--who have been caring since 1978 without credits towards an additional pension. That may leave many current and former carers facing poverty in retirement. I know that the issue of back-dating was discussed at length in another place but the Minister could give no guarantees about back-dating. In fact, he said that the administrative barriers prevented it.
It is vital that carers over the age 65 are given more financial support to meet the costs of caring and that those who have been left in poverty in retirement because of a lifetime of caring should also be given additional financial support. Ideally, I should like to see the state second pension back-dated to 1978. If that is not possible, it may be possible to introduce short-term measures; for example, allowing carers over
Finally, I remind the Minister of one of our earlier debates on welfare reform when she stated that the Government would be undertaking a review of the invalid care allowance. She said that it was not possible to give a timetable at that stage but that carers' organisations would certainly be consulted. I should welcome any further information about a timetable for the review and would like to know whether the issue of financial support for older carers will be considered in the review.
Lord Windlesham: My Lords, every so often in a Bill unconnected with the penal system a proposal is slipped in without any real consideration as to whether or not it conforms with the principles of justice. That is because the context is different.
Buried in the 148 pages of the omnibus Bill which we are considering today is a prime example. It is to be found in the proposals contained in Part III, giving powers to the Secretary of State to withdraw or reduce benefit when a person subject to a community sentence fails to comply with its terms.
The fundamental objection to that proposal is that it is nothing whatever to do with the Secretary of State for Social Security or, indeed, any other Minister. Probation is the result of a judicial process. Probation orders and community service orders are orders of the court. Some of your Lordships--I see the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in his place opposite--will remember Baroness Wootton of Abinger. Community service orders owe more to her than to any other single person. What she would be saying today were she here to take part in this debate defies imagination.
Both orders were introduced by statute after long and thorough consideration. Their purpose and operation was quite clear. It is simply wrong that they should now be hijacked by any Minister to make his own unrelated policies more effective. There may be a case for making those policies more effective, but not by this means.
The prospect that these clauses, should they be enacted, may be an early casualty under the obligations assumed by the Government and by Parliament in incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law does not warrant their acceptance now.
That the effect will be discriminatory cannot be denied. Let us assume that two offenders subject to probation or community service orders are returned to court as a result of failure to comply with the conditions of the orders. Typically, the reasons will be missing an appointment with a probation officer or
As if that were not enough, having invaded territory that more properly belongs to the Home Office, the Secretary of State for Social Security and his advisers have devised a remarkable administrative procedure by which the penalty actually precedes the trial. As soon as a benefit office is notified by the Probation Service that an offender has been referred to the court for breaching the conditions of a community sentence, the specified social security benefits will be withdrawn or reduced. It must be wholly wrong for benefit to be withdrawn or reduced before the court has found that the alleged breach of the order is proven. The fact that arrears will be repaid later, if the court finds that no breach has taken place, must be scant consolation.
We have to keep in mind the characteristics of the constituency at which these new provisions are aimed. Many will be persistent offenders who have been before the courts previously, often many times before. Some will be in work, but most will not be, whether because of lack of job opportunities or their own motivation. A high proportion will be male. As black males typically have a higher unemployment rate than white males, they are likely to be over-represented in the group of offenders most liable to incur withdrawal of benefit. There will often be dependants who will suffer from loss of benefit, leading to greater family impoverishment, possibly providing an incentive for still further offending pending a court appearance.
Something that is hard to get into the minds of those with little knowledge of the working of the penal system is that a large bulk of offending is opportunistic; it is not planned in advance. So the idea of sending "a clear message", as the Secretary of State described it at Second Reading in the House of Commons, to such a disparate an audience is far-fetched in the extreme.
It is also worth noting the Secretary of State's response to an intervention from a Back-Bencher in the same debate. When asked whether removing benefits would encourage rehabilitation or would lead to further offending as circumstances became more difficult, Mr Darling's reply hardly corresponded with his Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State's later denial in Standing Committee that the forfeiture of benefit was not a punishment. She argued, using a phrase that is surely worthy of "Yes Minister", that it was not a punishment; it was "an additional benefit conditionality". If conditionality is to be the lifebelt to which the Government now intend to cling, there was certainly no hint of it in the Secretary of State's Second Reading speech.
Should this misguided measure become law, I suggest that the outcome may be the opposite of what the Government intend. On this side of the House there will be little disagreement that community sentences should be rigorously enforced and that probation officers should be resolute in returning offenders to court for persistent non-compliance. However, if probation officers know there is a possibility of unjust results, there must be a temptation, to put it no higher--and certainly not to approve of giving way to such a temptation--not to record failure to comply so as to avoid these consequences. That observation is not mine. It comes as a warning from the National Association of Probation Officers. Whether we like it or not, we would be unwise to disregard the forecast that,
I repeat, this is a misguided measure. For the reasons explained at the start of my speech, it is wrong in principle. It is certain to have harmful consequences, and is unlikely to produce the results the Government intend.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, we have another complex Bill on these matters, which my noble friend the Minister introduced this afternoon with a skill and clarity we have come to expect from her. She will not be surprised to hear from me that there are aspects of it, particularly relating to pensions, which cause me some anxiety.
Other parts of the Bill seem to offer some improvement on what we have had before, particularly those sections relating to child support with the emphasis on more money going to the support of children. If my reading of that part of the Bill is correct, no pressure can in future be applied to women to make them divulge the father of a child, particularly if there is concern about violence. That is very much to be welcomed.
Another section would appear to indicate that imprisonment is ultimately envisaged for parents who fail to pay up. Then there is the driving licence disqualification, also to be used as a form of punishment. Reference has already been made to that by my noble friend Lord Stoddart and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins.
I too wonder about the effect of those measures as possible deterrents, particularly in cases where a second family is involved and the parent concerned may be experiencing genuine difficulty in meeting his commitments. These are complicated matters, and the degree to which legislation can deal with them is doubtful. Perhaps my noble friend will explain government thinking in that regard.
My main concern is with the section dealing with pensions. It is not possible to consider this section of the Bill without referring back to the Welfare and Pensions Bill, now an Act, considered in this House last year. Indeed, both pieces of legislation are envisaged in the Government's comprehensive paper, (CM 4179) Partnership in Pensions.
My noble friend will be aware of my commitment to the basic pensions structure known as the "Castle Plan", for ever associated with the name of my noble friend Lady Castle. Partnership in Pensions significantly departs from the concept on which that plan was based. I am fully aware of the Government's criticisms of SERPS; that it did little for the low paid, although the original concept certainly would have done. If the basic pension had been increased in line with the wages index, a single pensioner would now be receiving around £94 per week and on top of that some SERPS entitlement. That would have lifted many people entirely out of poverty.
However, we have moved on from there; the previous government destroyed that package. What we are now presented with in the Bill is the second-tier state pension. We are told that it will be much more generous than the present SERPS. The low paid will receive pensions as though they had been earning £9,500 a year, even had they not been doing so. The Government have decided to target provision towards the low paid in an attempt to alleviate poverty among pensioners.
However, it is clear from the government publication to which I referred that the second-tier state pension is regarded as a transitional provision only. Ultimately, there will be a flat-rate pension for the very poor. Everyone else will be encouraged on to stakeholder pensions; in other words, on to the private sector. We are seeing here a withdrawal of the state from pension provision for all except the very poorest--and that is where I have a fundamental disagreement with the Government. I am a supporter of the principle of social insurance. What the Government are proposing departs from that principle. A system which is targeted at the poorest, ultimately, is poor law provision. Targeting means means-testing. That is never likely to be popular; certainly not with the present generation of pensioners.
I know that the Government have introduced the minimum income guarantee to be paid through income support. I am glad that they intend to take steps to ensure that there is a take-up by all those entitled to claim it. It is now to be worth £78 for a single pensioner and £121 for a couple. Moreover, the MIG will rise in line with the wages index instead of the retail
No doubt my noble friend will again tell me that many pensioners are now rich. Indeed, that was repeated in the statement issued by the DSS regarding its campaign on the MIG take-up. We are told that during the past 40 years pensioner incomes have risen faster than earnings. I have yet to meet a rich pensioner. Last week, I went to talk to the pensioner section of my union. Like many unions, we now allow pensioner members to retain membership at a reduced rate. They have their own organisation within it, and I met the London group last week. The meeting was well attended, but they were unanimous in their plea that the earnings link be reapplied to the basic pension. They were not really poor; most had occupational pensions, but not pensions which could be described as "generous". The basic state pension was a significant part of their income.
Indeed, most occupational pension schemes are devised on the assumption that they are second tier; in other words, they top up the basic state pension. For two-thirds of today's pensioners, the state benefits comprise the majority of their income, yet the DSS statement says that a "minority" of pensioners have missed out in all this wonderful pensioner prosperity. The myth of the well-off pensioner is very much exaggerated. Indeed, I believe that it is very odd and I want to challenge my noble friend on that.
We are told that pensioner incomes have risen faster than the wages index. That cannot, of course, refer to the basic state pension because we know that it has not risen beyond the RPI. I have a great deal of experience of negotiating occupational pension schemes. In general, they do not move beyond the RPI. Indeed, there is a kind of formula that we often utilised in the early 1970s, when they were being negotiated: that the total occupational pension would rise in line with the RPI to a maximum of 5 per cent per annum; if the RPI was less than that, the pensioner would receive the lower figure. Taking those two figures together, it cannot be true that the income of the average pensioner with an occupational pension outstripped the wages index in that period. There was no structure available for that to occur; the argument cannot be justified.
In any event, why should not well-off pensioners receive the same basic state pension? They will have paid more heavily for it and will be taxed on it, which poorer pensioners will not. Allowing the basic pension to decline and increasing means-testing erodes the
A section of the Bill deals with occupational pensions and contains reference to employee trustees. The sections of the Bill, including schedules, seem extremely complex, but there is one aspect that we must explore further in Committee. I do not see why provision could not have been made for 50 per cent of the trustees of a pension scheme to come from the workforce or pensioners. I also believe that since the duties of trustees have become more onerous as a result of successive pieces of legislation, it is vital that they should be suitably trained. Everything possible should be done to encourage the provision of occupational pensions as there is a general view, which I share, that they have been a success in the past 20 years.
The NAPF has expressed some concern lest stakeholder pensions, unless the employer has to contribute, may be used by some employers gradually to withdraw from occupational pension provision on the basis that stakeholder pensions, for which they have to provide access, render occupational provision no longer necessary. Of course, it is cheaper for the employers because they do not have to contribute. I should welcome my noble friend's comments on that point.
In the mean time, I again thank my noble friend for the way in which she has presented the Bill. We shall have a great deal more to say about this (and other issues to which I have not had time to refer) when we are in Committee.
Baroness Strange: My Lords, as Easter is approaching, I shall try to be like an Easter hare, galloping through my speech at great speed so as not unnecessarily to burden your Lordships. As the Minister might guess, I am only following through the amendment moved in another place and putting in a small plea to the Government--or to that part of them currently engaged in the MoD review--not to forget the plight of the 2,650 war widows currently in receipt of the Armed Forces family attributable pension, which they would lose in the event of remarriage.
As your Lordships must be aware by now, both the Goode and the Bett reports recommended that this pension should be for life, regardless of future marital circumstances. This pension, unlike the ordinary war widow's pension, has been contributed to by the husband. If he had retired in the normal course of
The issue was discussed and also voted on in another place on 3rd April and several of the relevant short and pithy speeches mentioned that it had been a cause close to the heart of the late Mr Michael Colvin. We in this House who also knew and loved him and his wife are still shocked and saddened by their deaths. In looking at all my former speeches on this subject and those of my noble friends from all parts of this House, my desk has been even more littered than usual with papers--well over six inches high. I hope your Lordships will not be alarmed. I am not going to reiterate any of them. I had also forgotten that Mr Michael Colvin had written to me on this subject. So, on the last two weekends when I returned home, I have been startled to find a different letter to me from him on the top of the pile. When I am away, letters are tidied into heaps on my desk, but no-one files or arranges them. I cannot help feeling that the emergence of those two letters on this subject, like stones out of a clay soil, has some significance.
I am aware that the question of retention for life of the Armed Forces family attributable pension is even now in the MoD being discussed with the Defence Review. I have not forgotten this issue, nor indeed have your Lordships; nor have the 2,650 war widows concerned, for some of whom it is a pressing personal issue; nor have all the other war widows, nor have our Armed Forces. I hope that the right honourable Secretary of State for Defence and his team will also remember.
Baroness Castle of Blackburn: It was very kind of Lord Bruce to try to encourage me to my feet. I hope he is not injured by the stumble. It will surprise no one to know that I intend to concentrate my remarks on the state second pension section of this complicated measure. I will make a confession: I have not even read the rest of it. If I live long enough I might get around to it, but the amount of time taken to work one's way through Clauses 30 to 39 showed me that I really would have to devote a large amount of effort and time to reading the whole Bill.
One of the first things that struck me about it is its wording. Incidentally, I wonder whether anybody in this House, has read the whole Bill. If you look at the wording, it reminds me of what Lady Turner was saying about the money purchase schemes putting the risk on the pensioners, because this Bill puts all the risk on the reader: there is not one line that does not refer one back to six other Acts. To do that, I would have to get a library full of books and sit there asking, "What's it mean?" My devoted secretary was reading Clause 30 to me the other day and I said to her, "I don't understand a word of it: read the Explanatory Memorandum". She said, "Oh, that was the Explanatory Memorandum!"
It is a kind of disease of this Government. It reminds me of the philosophy of the woman they admired so much, Lady Thatcher. I once described that philosophy as "Confuse and rule". This process is going on today in all our discussions and all our attempts to get together an integrated and coherent pension scheme. Instead, we have had the "salami solution"--give us one slice one year and another in another year and so on, until we have lost all sense of the interrelationship of one bit to another.
I will give the Minister one particular illustration. It is fashionable to say that we are discussing a second state pension scheme; that they are not abolishing SERPS: they are merely replacing it with something that would be more generous. That is a very important claim, and if it were true we would have to consider it very seriously. But it is by taking the Bill in sections that they are able to disguise what is actually happening.
Lord Higgins, quite rightly, quoted the reference to SERPS in the Government's manifesto. They were not going to abolish it, they said, but retain it for those who wished to take part in it. Now we are told, "We haven't broken a pledge; we have reformed SERPS." I am sorry, but anybody who says that cannot have read the very clear Act I introduced and the even clearer White Paper, describing it in its entirety, which was called rightly Better Pensions.
What we stressed in our Bill was that we were talking not about a basic pension or a second pension but about the components of one income that the pensioner would get on retirement. The Bill said that the income received on retirement consisted of two components: one was the basic state pension and the other was the earnings related one. They were merged into just one income.
Now the Minister, skilfully--I entirely agree with Lady Turner on the skill of the Minister and I sometimes wonder what her conscience is like at night--has been plugging away, taking just one of those components in isolation and saying, "Oh, but look how much more generous we are being". She has repeated again today--I shall have to look at her exact words in Hansard--that so many pensioners will get a second state pension, worth so much, et cetera; but she carefully did not tell us what was happening to the second and basic component: the basic state pension scheme--and that is an integral part of a retired person's income.
What is the good of giving people a little bit more and calling it a "state second pension" while at the same time ignoring the fact that the other component is deliberately being left to wither on the vine? I entirely agree with Lady Turner when she said, first, that she is a great believer in state insurance--I am, too--and, secondly, that she was worried that this Bill was deliberately designed to destroy the state insurance scheme. That is what the Government's persistent refusal to restore the earnings link for the uprating of the basic pension component means.
That is why the major battle remains, and must remain, the demand for the restoration of the earnings link for this important component of the retired person's income. Incidentally, I was waiting eagerly to hear what Earl Russell had to say on the matter. I was very disappointed that he said that he was not going to deal with it but leave it to Lord Goodhart. I was interested, because he refused to back an amendment to restore the earnings link which I and a number of my colleagues, including Lady Turner, pressed on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. He said that he was waiting to see what the state second pension provides. I wanted to know whether he had been satisfied. I am particularly interested because the Liberal Democrats are a little divided on this issue.
In another place a few days ago, rebel Labour MPs moved an amendment to the Bill to restore the earnings link for the basic state pension--that other essential component in a retired person's income. I am glad to say--I do not know whether this House realises it--that no fewer than 31 Liberal Democrat MPs voted with the Labour rebels. I hope that I live to see the day when there are a few real Liberal rebels left in this House; 31 Liberal Democrat MPs! It is true that I heard the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy tell Jonathan Dimbleby on a TV programme on a recent Sunday that he did not support the restoration of the earnings link because it would cost too much. So what has happened to the Liberal Party? It is not the tail wagging the dog, but the body wagging the head. So I await Lord Goodhart's speech--
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