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Lord Ezra: My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that the difficulties in the Passport Agency arose as a result of a combination of the introduction of a new IT system and changes in procedure? If so, has that kind of problem arisen in other parts of the public sector? What are the Government doing to avoid a recurrence?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. As the National Audit Office accepted when producing a report on the problems experienced by customers, I can confirm that there were difficulties, particularly with the
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it goes without saying that we wish to achieve lasting improvements. The Home Office would not have taken the view that the 300 extra staff were necessary if that were not the case. We are seeking to improve the quality of service and to make it world-class in the future.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, given that the passport is just a form of identification, of which there are many others, does the Minister agree that this would be a good moment to start thinking about having one single identification number which would cover the National Health Service, national insurance, tax, driving licence and passport? Does he further agree that once that were done, it would make it easier to ensure to whom a passport is issued? It might reduce the number of problems and help to avoid the kind of shambles that we had during the summer.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord has made a useful and important suggestion to the debate about forms of identification. If he comes forward with many more smart ideas such as that, I am sure that he will find himself a candidate for the mayoralty.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, what makes the Minister so confident that next year will be all right, given the Home Office's over-confidence until a very late stage earlier this year and given that that confidence is not widely shared, partly because we have not yet seen the business plan for the Passport Agency for this year--1999-2000? Has the Minister yet seen the business plan for the Passport Agency for this year?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have yet to see the business plan for next year and, indeed, for the current year. However, we are confident that arrangements are now secured and in place to ensure that we have a high quality of service and standards. I
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that one of the reasons for the problems last year was the fact that new rules were introduced which required that all children should have their own passports? I presume that that is not a factor which will recur in future.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is indeed the case that new rules were introduced and they are most beneficial. We have now received a guarantee that those rules are operational and working effectively and that the standards which, I believe, we have all rightly come to expect from the passport office will continue to rise in the future.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not aware that that is the case, but I am sure that if there are important and pressing reasons for people to have passports then officials who examine applications will take that carefully into consideration.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the European Commission has just published proposals for the reform of the flax and hemp regime and detailed discussions get under way this week in Brussels. UK representatives will be pressing for an outcome which takes account of UK interests and views about CAP reform.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he understand that my interest arises out of a recent visit to St Helena where I discovered that some time ago the flax industry, which was the mainstay of the economy, had completely collapsed because of the lack of any market or use for the product? Against that background, does not one learn with disgust that vast sums of money are being shelled out to farms in Europe to grow unwanted flax which is never processed because it is grown only for the subsidy; and that recently a small fortune was paid to the Spanish estates of the official then managing the
Lord Carter: My Lords, it is true that there has been serious abuse of the regime in Spain. However, the cost of the regime is high. There is a substantial flat rate per hectare on flax and hemp, and the initial proposals from the European Commission are intended to reduce substantially the budgetary costs. But the matter of fraud is certainly well known and is one reason for the changes proposed by the Commission.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, does the noble Lord recognise that those problems occur not just in Spain but in the United Kingdom as well? Does he recall that two years ago 40 acres of precious grassland were ploughed up on a hill called Mount Harry in Sussex in order to turn beautiful grass into flax--a crop for which there is no market at all and which is impossible to grow because of the chalk and the flint? Surely that deserves rather more robust and quicker action by the Government than we have heard today. The scandal has been known now for some years and it gives the CAP system a bad name.
Lord Carter: My Lords, it is true that before the general election and the change of government there were a few well publicised cases of sensitive land being ploughed to grow flax. However, that happened because the land on which the crop was grown was not restricted. With the co-operation of the industry, MAFF has now introduced a voluntary protocol which excludes growing on sensitive land. I am advised that that has been 100 per cent successful in preventing a recurrence of the problem.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, is there anything particularly surprising about all this? It is the main reason the European Commission exists. People's jobs are at stake in the Commission; they have children and school fees to meet like other people. The Commission, for example, pays massive subsidies to encourage the countries within the European Union to grow tobacco, while at the same time employing large numbers of other people at considerable cost to work their whatsits off trying to persuade people not to smoke the subsidised tobacco. Why pick on flax? It is the nature of the beast.
Lord Carter: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will be delighted to learn that the proposals from the Commission initially would reduce the area aid and the payment for flax from £535 per hectare to the rate for linseed, which is £467 per hectare, and subsequently to the rate for cereals of £241 per hectare. Therefore, obviously some school fees will not be paid.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, is the Minister aware that much research is taking place into the increased use of flax; for example, the wadding inside cars that have to be recycled is now made out of flax because it is much easier to recycle than if other substances are used?
Lord Carter: My Lords, that is very true. In fact, when I was briefed on this subject I was surprised to learn of the uses of linseed and, indeed, hemp. Obviously, I exclude the use of hemp for cannabis. Apparently, they are used for car panels, insulation, geo-textiles for land stabilisation and construction boards. I understand that hemp straw is particularly good for horse bedding.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, flax grows extremely well in Scotland and a great many farmers would be grateful to have an advantageous regime to enable them to grow it to a larger extent. Will the Government ensure that the Scottish Executive is represented in the current discussions about the regime, which the noble Lord mentioned?
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