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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness in part. The reference to a grim picture is, in part, what has happened in the countryside. Certainly, many parts of the countryside give cause for optimism. Some of the services and employment possibilities have significantly improved. However, with some services there has been a serious problem.
The issue of affordable housing affects urban, inner city and rural areas, and is a big problem. Having taken on this responsibility in recent days, my noble friend Lord Rooker is now very much "on the case" with regard to both rural and urban housing. The Government have supported the efforts of the Housing Corporation and housing associations to try to increase the amount of affordable housing in many rural areas.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree that the provision of broadband is an important part of the strategy of engaging and connecting particularly the more remote rural areas with the rest of the economy. My colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry are on that case.
Earl Peel: My Lords, the report on access to rural services, which, as the Minister will be aware, is a very real problem in the countryside, states that greater access to cashpoints is the only significant change from last year. Can the Minister tell the House whether he is proud of the progress of his new department in that respect?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am proud of some of the developments in services, particularly in relation to transport. Rural bus services have improved significantly over the past five years in terms of availability. The number of people who live within easy distance of a bus route has increased from one-third to nearly one-half. That results from significant resources being allocated by the Government and my previous department to the bus subsidy and to the rural bus challenge. While some services have improved, I accept the implication that in others there has been a deterioration, which we need to address.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the great problems with rural housing has been the sale of publicly-financed houses which were built to let? Would not it be better to build more houses for letting and to stop such sales?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord gets into very dangerous water by suggesting that the Government should intervene to stop people selling their houses to those who are prepared to pay the going price. However, I recognisethis was alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Millerthat one of the difficulties is that if the only people who can afford the going price are incomers and retired people, the availability of housing for the economically active and particularly the younger element in many rural areas is seriously distorted. That is why we need to address the issue of affordable housing.
Baroness Nicol: My Lords, I welcome the comment from my noble friend that rural transport has been improved. Does the use of postal buses figure in the improvement, or is that being considered for the future?
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is it not a fact that public authorities are building virtually no affordable houses? That is despite the Government making a good profit out of housing. They get £3.1 billion in stamp duty; they no longer give mortgage relief to house buyers; and subsidies have been cut. We need to take a good hard look at public and affordable housing and start building many more thousands of houses than the housing associations are currently providing.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is not the case that there is no building of social housing. As I indicated, the Housing Corporation has engaged, along with the housing associations, in some significant builds. Indeed, it has exceeded its targets for the provision of rural housing in recent years. Nevertheless, there is a quantum problem which will no doubt be addressed in the current spending round in order to ensure that there are adequate resources for social and affordable housing.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government will continue to encourage manufacturers to provide clear and accessible information about their products and to promote good practice through specific guidelines on information for medicines, foods and consumer products. All these guidelines already do, or will when published, include recommendations on the minimum size of text.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. Is he aware that, according to a survey by the RNIB, some 11 million people in this country find it difficult to read medicine labels or information provided by doctors or hospitals; that 3 million people find it impossible to read the labelling on food products and that another 10 million find that difficult; that the problem is exacerbated by small print on coloured backgrounds; and that this has serious safety implications for people who are diabetic, allergy
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the short answer to that is, "Yes". My noble friend is quite right: currently there are some very bad examples, particularly of medicine labelling, which are very difficult for people to understand. Even if they have no visual impairment, the labelling is very difficult to read.
Since the introduction of new guidelines in 1999 the situation has improved. The Medicines Control Agency now has a positive role in vetting the new labels. Many of these new labels are better. If I was allowed to use visual aids in your Lordships' House, I could hold up examples of good practice. Clearly, we need to do better than that. At the moment the Committee on Safety of Medicines is engaged in recommending additional guidance for manufacturers. We hope that those will be introduced later on this year.
Lord Addington: My Lords, can the Minister give us an assurance that the Government are encouraging those involved in labelling to provide back-up in the form of descriptions to those who are selling. If someone simply cannot access the written word, no matter what the type of printing, it will not help.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I think that that brings us to the role of the community pharmacist. I very much agree that that facility ought to be used to give advice to those members of the public who need it. We see the community pharmacist playing an increasingly important role in providing such advice.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, while it is encouraging to hope that the manufacturers and the pharmaceutical companies will recognise their responsibilities in producing readable, larger print labels, if the blind or poorly sighted sectors of the community are affected, is the answer that the use of Braille in some form or another ought to be encouraged? In that way, those who have difficulty reading large print, because they are trained Braille readers may keep out of trouble.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is my understanding that at least one company includes Braille labelling on all its own label range of medicines. My noble friend will be pleased to know that the company is the Co-operative Society.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, has the Minister seen the pieces of plastic that are given out in Denmark, in some cases in chemists' shops? They are about two and a half inches by one inch and are, in effect, a magnifying glass but magnifying plastic. They enable people to see exactly what the ingredients are on
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