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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I will. I was going to threaten the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, with the European Court of Justice and a few other remarkable things, but in his greater wisdom he has backed away from the nuclear deterrent.
In support of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I am as confident as I could beand I do not say this lightlythat if the previous government were on these Benches they would be bringing forward these regulations. I ask your Lordships to think about that, given the independence of the HSE and its impeccable academic research and the wide-ranging responsibilities of the Health and Safety Commission and the degree of consultation. I would challenge any noble Lord opposite who has held Front Bench responsibility to say that if they were sitting here, they would not be bringing forward these regulations today. I know that they would do so.
It is not often that we debate issues that directly impact on the lives of individuals. If we do nothing, then the clock ticks for every week that the regulations are delayed. One worker dies. We can make a difference today by supporting the regulations, rejecting the siren calls to annul or to have a scientific committee of inquiry, given that we have a major Europe-wide review due as well as the input of the Chief Scientific Adviser, and my assurances that I am happy to come back to the House with our review in a year's time.
I hope that your Lordships will agree that I have done my best to meet the legitimate concerns about the developing state of scientific knowledge, but in turn I hope that none of your Lordships is willing to play Russian roulette with the lives of maintenance workers, the consequences of which will possibly not be manifest until 30 to 35 years' time, or even longer. Many of us will not be there to see it, but those workers and their children will pay the bill of our neglect today.
The Minister said that she would keep the regulations under review and come back. That is a sensible view to take. I take slight exception to what the noble Lord, Lord Walker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, said. The idea that one would pass by on the other side when someone is suffering and be accused of not caring is not true. It is impossible to emphasise that more strongly.
Baroness Noakes had given notice of her intention to move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to refer to an independent scientific inquiry, with full access to government papers and with powers to take evidence from Ministers and officials, the scientific evidence pertaining to white asbestos underlying the regulations laid before the House on 31st October (S.I. 2002/2675) and to invite the inquiry to report on the degree of risk to public health from white asbestos and the costs of implementing the regulations and to advise whether the risk justifies the likely costs of implementation; and asks Her Majesty's Government to give an undertaking that they will review the regulations in the light of the findings of the inquiry and report to Parliament not later than one year after the coming into force of the regulations.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Onslow: this has been an excellent debate. There has not always been agreement in all parts of the House, but the debate has demonstrated the strength of the accumulated wisdom that resides here. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, whose interesting and expert speech illuminated the subject for many of us.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th November be approved [40th Report, Session 200102, from the Joint Committee].
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this proposal will make it possible for the UK Patent Office to contract out some of its search and examination work. Contracting out serves two purposes: first, it will take forward the process of international co-operation in which the Patent Office is playing a leading role; and, secondly, it will help the Patent Office improve turnaround times. I shall come in a moment to the draft order, but I should like first to set out the context, particularly the international context, which has led us to bring this measure forward.
International co-operation already plays a large part in the international patent scene. Applicants seeking protection across the world can make a single application to the World Intellectual Property Organisation in Geneva, which will eventually evolve into national patents in as many as 179 countries. Alternatively, the European Patent Convention allows a single application to be made to the European Patent Office, resulting in European patents effective in up to 30 European countries. This co-operation is taken forward by a continuous process of harmonisation of the patent laws in different countries. Increased harmonisation makes it easier, cheaper and quicker to obtain patent protection across the world. In a recent development, many patent offices are now beginning to consider work sharing. Currently, work is repeated over and over again in different patent offices as applicants prosecute their applications in different countries. Work sharing would help reduce this duplication.
The UK Patent Office is widely recognised as a strong performer. It has been improving efficiency on a number of measures since it became an agency 15 years ago, and it delivers a high level of service to its customers. It has recently been awarded the Charter Mark for the fourth consecutive time. It introduced a fast-track search and examination procedure some years ago which is used by 20 per cent of applicants. It issues search reports quicker than most others in Europe and the world. However, its input has been steadily increasing, which puts a strain on resources, and it recognises that it must do better to meet the needs of its customers, in particular by reducing turnaround times.
In recent months, the Patents Directorate of the Patent Office has introduced a series of measures to make further improvements in its efficiency, its turnaround times and its customer service. These measures include improved recruitment, retention and training of patent examiners. The office is also working with patent agents to streamline the way applications are drafted and examined. A further measure is the introduction of a "Private Applicants Unit" to deal with applicants who do not employ a patent agent to represent them. The office has been using electronic searching for many years and is now developing electronic filing and processing systems. It is also currently seeking ISO 9001:2000 quality accreditation for the patent granting process.
A medium-term objective for the Patents Directorate is, by these measures, to reduce the number of applications awaiting processing. The intention is to provide a more rapid response than it currently achieves, and in the longer term to provide a response with substantially no delay at all. In that way, the office will not only be better geared to the needs of its customers but will also be better prepared to contribute to wider innovation issues in the future.
That is the background. The message is that the Patent Office operates in an increasingly international arena. It is working hard to improve efficiency and responsiveness to its customers, and is looking forward to increased co-operation with other patent offices in the future in order to provide further customer benefits.
It is within this framework that the present draft order has been introduced under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It is very brief, but it has the effect that the Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks will be able to authorise persons outside the UK Patent Office to carry out the search and examination functions normally carried out by UK patent examiners. The Patent Office is currently discussing contracting out a small number of searches with the Danish Patent and Trade Mark Office, and a small number of searches and examinations with the Netherlands Intellectual Property Office. Such contracts will constitute a further measure, in addition to those I have already mentioned, to help deal with pending work. At the same time, the contracts will initiate some practical co-operative working arrangements between the UK, the Danish and the Netherlands offices which will be a step towards work sharing.
The contracts under consideration would run for two years initially. They would be renewable in one-year tranches if both parties agreed. Any contract must last no longer than 10 years, as is provided in the deregulation Act. The total number of search and examination actions under consideration is less than 5 per cent of the UK input. The contracts give flexibility to increase this number, and this option is open if it is convenient to do so, but it is not intended that the amount of work contracted out should increase to any great extent. The cost to the Patent Office will be the same as the in-house cost and the applicant would pay the same fee. On timing, most of
The work will be done to the same standard as in the UK Office: Danish and Netherlands examiners have worked alongside UK examiners during the past year to train in UK practice and procedures. Work they have done has been assessed in comparison exercises. In any contract, their cases will be included in the Patent Office's existing quality assurance system and the outcome will be fed back in regular management meetings. The Danish and Netherlands offices will be subject to the same confidentiality obligations as the UK Office, and any patent application which has a bearing on national security will not be included in the scheme.
The Patent Office consulted on these proposals earlier this year. The consultation paper was placed on its website and sent to 46 organisations and 77 individuals. In the event, very few responses were received, just five to be exact, to which I shall come. The views expressed were carefully considered in the Patent Office in bringing these proposals forward, and the office made some refinements to its preparations as a result. Now, these responses have also been posted on the Patent Office website along with a discussion of the responses and the decision to continue with the proposals.
Among the responses, there was broad support for contracting out the search function. Respondents recognised the advantages of improved responsiveness and preparing for the future, but stressed the need to safeguard aspects such as quality, cost, security and timeliness. Those matters are of course of great concern to the office, and I have already referred to the measures that will be put in place to safeguard them.
Respondents raised other issues in relation to patent examination. Under the arrangements being discussed, examination would be carried out in the Netherlands office. The issues raised included the Netherlands examiners' competence to operate in accordance with UK law and procedures, and the need for close interaction between the applicant and the examiner during examination. I understand the concern, but these factors should not affect the outcome for the applicant. Contracting examiners have a very good command of general and technical English, they already work under patent law which is aligned across Europe, and have trained in UK procedures. The office will also run a "buddy" system whereby applicants can discuss their case with the buddy UK examiner. The work which the office has done with the Netherlands to satisfy itself about their English language and examination capabilities is positive so far but is nevertheless continuing. It will need a satisfactory outcome for the contract to proceed.
This is a practical move for the Patent Office. It will introduce a useful element of flexibility into its resource planning over the next few years and will involve close working with colleagues in other offices. It will help the office to improve customer service both
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th November be approved [40th Report, Session 200102, from the Joint Committee].(Lord Sainsbury of Turville.)
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