5 Feb 2003 : Column 195

House of Lords

Wednesday, 5th February 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle

John Martin, Lord Bishop of Newcastle—Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of London and the Lord Bishop of St. Albans.

Supermarkets: Competition

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have taken sufficient action to protect both consumer and supplier interests, given the further likely consolidation of the supermarket sector.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the current legislation enables the competition authorities to protect both consumer and supplier interests. As far as any imminent further consolidation is concerned, the Office of Fair Trading investigates and then advises Ministers whether any proposed merger raises competition concerns that would merit examination by the Competition Commission. Until the Enterprise Act provisions come into force, Ministers are accepting the advice of the OFT on whether to refer a case to the Competition Commission in all but exceptional circumstances. There have been no exceptional circumstances since the policy was announced more than two years ago.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. But does he accept that the Enterprise Act, when it comes into force, will still not answer all the concerns of British farmers and growers? Will the Government now take on board the recommendations of the Curry commission that the code of practice should be much strengthened so that it can address those concerns? As a great Francophile, will the noble Lord accept that the retail sector in towns and villages is much more vibrant in France? Does he think that the reason for that greater vibrancy is that French local authorities have, for some years, been empowered to refuse planning permission to superstores of over 1000 square metres? Does he further accept—

Noble Lords: Oh!

5 Feb 2003 : Column 196

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am sure that the House will be interested to hear that the Competition Commission reflected that the lack of planning safeguards was an issue.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know whether being called a Francophile is accusation or praise, in view of yesterday's meetings in Le Touquet.

I am aware of the additional planning controls that are available in France, but I am not sure that such planning issues arise from the potential consolidation of the supermarket sector. They happen whether there are four, six or 10 major groups.

We have agreed, following publication of the strategy on sustainable farming and food, that there should be review of the code of practice. We expect that review to take place at six-monthly intervals.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the ambitions of supermarkets to dispense prescriptions may have a seriously adverse effect on local pharmacies, to the detriment of the sick, in general, and the elderly sick, in particular, who find it difficult to get to out-of-town supermarkets?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that question does not arise from the potential merger of supermarkets. Supermarkets could have ambitions to incorporate pharmacies, whether there are four, six or 10 major groups in the country. It is a controversial question. I understand the concerns that my noble friend Lord Borrie expresses, but it is not for me to answer them in the context of this Question.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, in view of the increasing use by UK supermarkets of global supply chains, do the Government remain satisfied that meat produced overseas and sold in UK supermarkets is raised according to standards of animal welfare comparable to those imposed on British farmers and producers?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, this is becoming difficult. The Question was about mergers, the likely consolidation of the supermarket sector. It is difficult to discern where the noble Lord's question comes from.

Medical Reservists: NHS Responsibilities

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What career protection they will provide for general medical practitioners, hospital doctors and consultants called up as reservists for the Defence Medical Services and how they will provide medical cover for the resulting National Health Service vacancies.

5 Feb 2003 : Column 197

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 provides protection of employment for all reservists. In the NHS, employees, including consultants, and independent contractors, such as GPs, have entitlement, under contractual arrangements, to employment protection. Where temporary vacancies arise in the NHS as a consequence of call-up, responsibility for filling them lies with local NHS trusts and primary care trusts.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister and would also like to pass on birthday greetings to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal today.

I declare an interest in that I have a family member who may be affected. How will salary be paid to such practitioners—by the National Health Service or by the forces? If reservists are paid less by the forces than by the National Health Service, will there be a top-up? Will pensions be protected, so that there will be no loss of continuity for the National Health Service employee?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, if the reservist's military salary is less than his or her remuneration package at work, he or she can claim additional financial assistance from the Armed Forces. Reservists can elect to remain with the NHS pension scheme or opt for the Armed Forces pension scheme benefits. If the reservist opts for the Armed Forces pension scheme benefits, any employee contribution must continue to be paid from the reservist's military salary.

Employers are entitled to receive an award made up of three elements: one initial replacement cost, ongoing administration costs and the cost of essential retraining on demobilisation.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, more than 10 years ago, I received a letter from the Oxford health authority thanking me for my honorary clinical services but saying that, as I had reached the age of 70, I could visit the hospital for social reasons but not to use clinical facilities. Under NHS rules, hospital doctors are required to retire at 65 but may continue on short-term contracts until they are 70. GPs retire at 70. Would it not be wise to suspend those rules so that doctors who are able and willing to serve the NHS beyond the statutory retiring age can do so in the present potential emergency?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with that suggestion. We must avoid arbitrary age limits in the National Health Service and, indeed, elsewhere. I shall not mention Lords reform in that context. The department is considering such matters not only for doctors but for all people employed in the NHS.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, is it not the case that the number of doctors required in the Gulf is

5 Feb 2003 : Column 198

equivalent to two thirds of the number of current vacancies for doctors in the NHS? What evaluation has the Department of Health made of the effect of the possible loss of those doctors on the health service? What impact will that have on patients?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my understanding is that some 350 medical reservists have been sent call-up papers. Not all of those reservists work in the National Health Service; the term "medical reservist" covers other health professions and can also cover technicians.

The call-up of medical reservists may have an impact on individual NHS organisations, but I suggest that, as regards medical reservists, that impact will be fairly limited. Of course, we expect the NHS to do whatever is necessary to fill the gaps, but we are also determined that the NHS will play its part. Supporting medical reservists, when they are called up, is part of the responsibility of the National Health Service.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, have any reservists yet been called up for service in medical units because of the present situation in Iraq? The noble Lord will recall that reservists were the first to be called up, and were needed, in a similar situation several years ago. Have the present plans benefited from that past experience?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the answer must be yes. Clearly, reservists have been called out from time to time when our forces have been in action. As I said, 350 medical reservists have been sent call-up papers. That includes, doctors, nurses, other health professionals and associated support staff.

Norwich Prison

2.50 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their response to the Chief Inspector's report on Norwich prison, published in January.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the report praised the work with young adults and on resettlement, but was critical in several areas. In some key areas the inspectorate found that procedures were in place but not being followed through. I am assured that progress has been made since September 2002. The Chief Inspector's recommendations will form an action plan which is being finalised. My honourable friend the Prisons Minister has asked to receive regular updates on progress.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page