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Lord Bassam of Brighton : My Lords, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.

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Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 1.29 to 2 p.m. for Judicial Business and to 3 p.m. for Public Business.]

Government Disputes: Resolution Procedures

Lord Hurd of Westwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made on the referral of government disputes to mediation or arbitration since the report of the Lord Chancellor's Department in July 2002.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, our department issued a report on the effectiveness of the pledge in July 2002 which said that, in the financial year April 2001 to March 2002, alternative dispute resolution methods had been used or attempted in 49 cases. I am pleased to report that, on the material collected by my department, so far in this financial year that figure has increased to 255. Progress on this scale clearly demonstrates that the pledge marks a major step on the road away from a culture of litigation towards a culture of settlement. The next full report is due to be issued in May 2003.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that rather encouraging reply and declare an interest as chairman of CEDR which is a charity active in encouraging mediation. Has she seen the professional actuary's report, which had a good deal of publicity just before Christmas, which suggested that the compensation culture in this country is now costing the country 10 billion a year with a particular burden on the National Health Service and 35 per cent of that—more than a third—goes not in compensation at all but in lawyers' fees and administrative expenses? Given that rather frightening prospect, can the noble Baroness and her noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor bring their strong persuasive pressures even more to bear in the public sector, particularly on the Ministry of Defence and the National Health Service, to find ingenious ways of settling disputes before they get bogged down in long, expensive and bad-tempered litigation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I entirely take on board what the noble Lord said. I reassure him that we are doing everything within our power to make sure that the benefits of mediation are properly highlighted. I have some success stories which I hope will salve the noble Lord's troubled spirit. For example, last year the Home Office resolved a complex

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and long running dispute involving a non-departmental government body with a two-day mediation, with a saving to the Home Office of about half a million pounds. The Ministry of Defence reached an agreement over the claims for the Kenyan tribes people bereaved or injured by British Army explosives left on their land. That issue had been in dispute for two years but, following a two-day mediation in London, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay a 4.5 million settlement. The benefits are very clear and are well understood. The Government are doing everything they can to make sure that all departments take good advantage of this opportunity.

Lord Henley: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Hurd I also declare an interest as regards CEDR, the body of which he is chairman, although my relationship with that body is not quite so eminent as his. Although I welcome what the noble Baroness said about the growth in government sponsored mediation, does she not agree that further growth in that regard would result in considerable savings to the Exchequer in terms of the costs of litigation? I refer to government departments in general but in particular to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which I imagine is very cash-strapped at the moment.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his final comment and his concern in regard to our resources. I accept absolutely that there are benefits to be gained from mediation. The Treasury Solicitor's Department estimated that overall savings of 2½ million were gained through the use of alternative dispute resolution in the very first year of operation in relation to the 49 cases that were attempted or undertaken. There are real benefits to be gained as a result of this initiative; we certainly seek to reap those benefits.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the report to which the Question refers mentions also the use of mediation by the National Health Service litigation authority. It mentions that as at the end of April 2002, 77 offers for mediation had been accepted. Does the noble Baroness agree that that is a particularly important field for mediation and can she report any further progress in that regard?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am happy to say that the noble Lord is quite right in terms of the take-up by the Department of Health. I understand that work is progressing well and that there is a full understanding of the benefits of using mediation wherever possible where the parties will engage in it. I understand that there is an ongoing review on how mediation can better be used.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, the Government will be aware that in November 2002 Nabarron Nathanson published ADR and Local Government, the findings of a research study into the use of alternative resolution and mediation within local government. The implication of the report is that there is a clear lack

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of mediation training and a pressing need for accredited mediators within local government. Can the Minister tell us what the Government can do to encourage local government to address and rectify that problem?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, one of the things that we can do is to raise the issue, as we have done, right across the sector. Noble Lords will know that we have said that we shall attempt to make sure that there is such a provision in all our contracts. Good practice is being shared. Obviously we hope that local authorities will seek to take advantage of alternative dispute mechanisms in order to reduce the cost to themselves.

Digital Hearing Aids

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What arrangements there are, and what finance will be made available, for the roll-out across the country of the programme to introduce digital hearing aids for National Health Service patients.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, 94 million has now been made available to ensure that a modernised service providing digital hearing aids will be available from all NHS hearing aids services in England by 2005. All services not yet involved in the project are now being invited to apply for modernisation in 2003–04 or 2004–05.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I declare an interest as a digital hearing aid user. I thank the Minister for that reply which will greatly encourage the largest, and, until now, among the most neglected and excluded, groups of disabled people in the country. Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to ensure that the roll-out of the programme will be sustained well beyond the three-year period? Will he assure the House that after that period eligibility will not, as so often, depend on one's postcode? Will the pilots conducted in Shrewsbury and Leeds, whereby private hearing aid dispensers worked in partnership with NHS audiology departments, be part of the three-year roll-out programme across England?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the pilots are not yet completed although preliminary results suggest that involving the private sector can be worth while. We shall need to evaluate the pilots before deciding how to take forward the policy. At the end of the roll-out period we expect those services to be appropriately funded by primary care trusts. I fully expect the services to be continued. I certainly accept that, traditionally, this has not been a good area of NHS provision in terms of service and quality. However, I

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believe that the advances made in the past two years, and those which will be made over the next three years, are significant.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the Minister's announcement is welcome news. However, we should be clear that congratulations are due to the RNID which has fought a sustained campaign over a number of years to persuade the Government of the benefits of digital hearing aids. It took a long time to persuade the Government of the merits of the case. Has the Minister taken into account the need to apply the lessons that have been learnt in this area over the past few years to other areas of the NHS as regards introducing modern equipment?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is as churlish as ever with regard to what I consider has been an extremely positive announcement and development. I certainly pay tribute to the RNID. Not only has it been a very effective campaigning organisation, but it has also teamed up with the National Health Service procurement agency to negotiate much lower cost digital hearing aids. I give all credit to the RNID for that. More generally, I believe that this service signals a really significant improvement in provision for those with hearing loss. We have received tremendous support for that.

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