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House of Lords

Wednesday, 16th July 2003.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Speech and Language Therapists

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they propose to take to improve the situation of those speech and language therapists who will suffer financially from the implementation of the Agenda for Change.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, we recognise the valuable contribution of speech and language therapists. That is why, for five years in succession, they have received pay increases in excess of the rate of inflation. Agenda for Change provides an opportunity for further recognition and development of their skills within a common framework which includes local flexibility where recruitment and retention is difficult. Amicus MSF, which represents speech and language therapists, is among the unions that have collectively agreed to moving to test Agenda for Change in 12 early implementer sites. It will identify any particular problems emerging for staff.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I should first declare an interest. After I suffered a stroke, very few people could understand me; now, fortunately, there are one or two who can. The speech therapists with whom I have spoken are gravely dissatisfied with the present position. Does my noble friend realise that there is a real link between those who experience a terrible loss of communication and the outside world? Does he also realise that those people are helped enormously by speech therapists, as I have been? Finally, does he perceive that they see the pay currently being offered as a deterioration in their present position? I hope that he and others in his department will communicate with them and understand their terrible sense of privation.

Lord Warner: My Lords, nobody who has heard my noble friend speak in this House on many occasions can doubt the highly valuable contribution that speech and language therapists have made to his recovery. We are all grateful for that.

I recognise the concerns that my noble friend is voicing. I certainly know from my personal experience that the transition from one pay system to a new one can be difficult because of uncertainty of one kind or another. However, I reassure him that a lot of protection is being built into the Agenda for Change process, which can last up to 2011 where there are problems. I emphasise again that we are trying out

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these changes, with the agreement of all the unions involved, in 12 early implementer sites. Amicus MSF has made it very clear to all its members including speech and language therapists that if things do not work out quite as it expects, if there are problems or it wants further confirmation from its membership, there will be a ballot in 2004 when its membership can actually exercise their voice before any national roll-out of these changes.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the Minister was right to recognise the concerns of the speech and language therapists. Of course there are concerns, particularly about the job evaluation exercise carried out for the purposes of Agenda for Change. Does he recognise that, currently, the profiles for the job evaluation exercise do not include any equivalents of bands 3, 4 and 5 for the speech therapists, which means that there is a swathe between 30,000 and 60,000 which is not covered? For younger speech and language therapists, that looks as though they will not be able to earn those types of figures, to which they would have been entitled in the past. Will the Minister correct that and put on the record that that is not the intention of the Agenda for Change exercise?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the purpose of the Agenda for Change exercise is not to do people down but to improve flexibility, to enable people to build better careers, to provide a stable employment basis and to provide a degree of local flexibility which I am sure the noble Lord would agree is often necessary in terms of high-cost areas and recruitment and retention. We know that there may be some problems. That is why, with the agreement of all the unions, we are having these 12 early implementer sites prior to going for national roll-out—so that we can actually debug the system, so to speak, and find out where there are problems before we go into a wider area. We also know that, in particular jobs, there may be a need for local job evaluation to tackle some of the sorts of problems that the noble Lord identifies. There is no reason why that should not be tested in the early implementer sites.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that these specialists have an important role in helping people with paralysing illnesses to communicate and in leading them into alternative ways of expressing themselves?

Lord Warner: My Lords, that is why we wish to make a success of the transition for speech and language therapists in Agenda for Change.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister has taken into account in these changes the unique position of speech and language therapists, not only in helping those who suffer from otherwise crippling illnesses but also in the education of very early speech difficulties in children. That seems to me one of the most important things that they have to do. Language deprivation and language disability in children, whether it comes from a physical disability or

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from a very non-communicating background, is one of the real inhibitors for children trying to succeed in the educational system. I believe that these professionals are unique in the range of their abilities and should be treated perhaps in a rather special way for that reason.

Lord Warner: My Lords, we fully appreciate the concerns. We recognise the special circumstances of speech and language therapists, particularly in relation to children where there is often a need for early diagnosis and help so that their development is not impaired. We are well aware of those problems and we are taking them into account.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, for some years I was president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. We always got honeyed words from successive governments. We always elicited sympathy and the promise of action in the future but very little action was actually taken. If the Minister could translate what he said at the Dispatch Box today into immediate action, that would be the best thing he could do for speech and language therapists.

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am well aware of the major contribution my noble friend has made in this area. I can reassure him; answers have been given earlier that recruitment of speech and language therapists has improved in the NHS over the past five or six years. That is why we do not want to make mistakes; that is why we are trying to test out the new changes in the 12 implementer sites.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, will the Minister give a guarantee that these people will not suffer any reduction in their earnings? They are extremely valuable and they are a scarce resource in the NHS.

Lord Warner: My Lords, there need be no losers under Agenda for Change, although it is publicly recognised that some staff may not gain. There are a number of mechanisms built into the agreement that will operate to ensure that staff are covered in the short and longer term. Those include protection until 2011 for staff on national roll-out.

Marine Environment

2.44 p.m.

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

    What progress they have made in protecting the marine environment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, we are making progress on the marine environment. Internationally, we are working to follow up commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to tackle

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pollution and to protect marine biodiversity. At home, we are pursuing the policies set out in our first Marine Stewardship report published last year.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. In terms of our domestic waters, does the Minister agree that it is a great pity that not only have we had policy statements and talking shops from the Government and no legislation, but also, according to the British Geological Survey's report for the World Health Organisation, we are still firing depleted uranium penetrators into UK waters? Perhaps, when Ministers are enjoying swimming in the sea this summer, they might reflect that it is supposed to be an ecosystem and not a dustbin.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Baroness will concede that there have been significant improvements in the quality of water along much of our coast. The dumping—if such it were—to which she refers, took place some considerable time ago. We are therefore talking about remedial measures in that as in many other areas. The degree to which we are polluting the sea nowadays has greatly reduced, but it needs to reduce further in terms of off-shore pollution and pollution from shipping.

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