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Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, how many departments are there? Does each department now have a committee headed by an assistant secretary looking at the assets to be disposed of? Does each department then in turn have to register with the Treasury, or whatever, and say, "These are the assets we want to get rid of"? As the noble Lord, Lord Cement-Jones, said, would it not be much better to have a central register and a central group of people to look at all our assets, so that there is no second, third and fourth-time guessing?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has caught up. We published the first National Asset Register in 1997. A revised and improved version was published in 2001 and the new one is expected shortly. The National Asset Register is exactly what the noble Baroness asks for.
In addition, English Heritage has a Government Historic Estates Unit, which produces a biennial conservation report that reports on the state of the heritage assets held by government. Furthermore, there is a great deal of protection for assets through the Museums and Galleries Act, charitable status and so on. We know a great deal more about the heritage assets held by government than we have done in the past.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, there is no need for 30 different committees. The Government set out a strategy and target for the disposal of assets. I am
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sure that, as somebody with experience in business, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, would agree that the operational use of assets is a valuable adjunct to government economic planning, but it does not require any additional bureaucracy.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am a bit surprised. At one point my noble friend seemed to be saying that disposing of financial assets is entirely a matter for departments. Can my noble friend clarify that? Does he mean that the Treasury takes no interest whatever?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, on the use of assets held by government, government departments are not set total targets and they are not told which assets to dispose of. The important point, which my noble friend Lord Barnett will remember from our debates a couple of year ago, is that under this Government operational assets are treated as a capital charge on the departments concerned. Therefore, the depreciation on those assets is counted against those departments' accounts. So there is pressure on departments to dispose of assets which are surplus to the department's requirement. I suggest to the House that that is a very desirable thing.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, is there not an underlying problem that is very relevant to the noble Lord's question? There are large numbers of works of art that are publicly ownedsometimes by central government, sometimes by local government, and sometimes, indeed, by museumsbut are not catalogued. Is it not undesirable that these assets should not be catalogued? That means that, first, they probably will not be looked after; and, secondly, they may be disposed of inappropriately by one means or another. Will the noble Lord encourage the cataloguing of all publicly owned works of art?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is exactly what the National Asset Register does. If the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has any evidence of uncatalogued assets I should be glad to hear it because it is a matter that would concern us. Of course it is important that we should know what our assets are and that those assets should perform financially when necessary. It is also important that they should be disposed of if they are not performing financially. But I emphasise that heritage assets are not counted in that sense; they are not a charge against departments; and departments are not encouraged or forced to dispose of them for financial reasons.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that one of the virtues of the victory that the House of Lords won two years ago was to remind the Treasury in this Administration that candle ends are still important?
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the Minister paints a very rosy picture, but is it not a fact that there is no
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central disposal of heritage assets and the DCMS guidance does not cover assets such as pictures and other works of art?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, I am painting an accurate picture of the situation. There is pressure for the disposal of non-performing assets other than heritage assets. Heritage assets are protected by the fact that they are not a capital charge on the departments that own them. The guidance that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport gives on the proposed disposal of heritage assets is that it should be in accordance with government policies for the protection of those assets. That seems to be a 100 per cent answer to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.
Lord Warner: My Lords, at present there is no confirmed evidence of person-to-person spread of avian influenza in south-east Asia. Guidance for the NHS on the detection, diagnosis and treatment of potential cases of avian flu has been prepared by the Health Protection Agency, in collaboration with the Department of Health, and is published on the HPA's website. Antiviral agents are available within the NHS for the treatment and prevention of infection.
Lord Chan: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but I wish to press him on some further points. First, will he consider further what public health messages should be disseminated to the public through primary care trusts; secondly, what advice should be given to those considering taking holidays in south-east Asia, given the difficulties encountered in the past two weeks in Thailand, Vietnam and China, where there have been regular outbreaks of avian flu, with deaths in the latest outbreak; and, thirdly, what information should travel agents disseminate?
Lord Warner: My Lords, it is the Government's longstanding practice to advise the travel industry on areas where people need to consider their decision to go or to take necessary health precaution before going. I see no need to amend that in the light of the avian flu situation. It is worth bearing in mind that there have been outbreaks of avian flu in Vietnam and Thailand in the past 12 months, with 45 cases in total.
Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further on the arrangements already made, should there be an outbreak of avian flu in this country.
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The United States Government have apparently commissioned 2 million doses of avian flu vaccine, enough for people working in the healthcare industry and laboratory workers. Is the United Kingdom making any such arrangements?
Lord Warner: My Lords, we have a pandemic flu plan, whose revision is under way. The United States has pursued its own policy in this area. Antiviral drugs are very expensive and do not have an indefinite life. Our plans must be proportionate to the risk.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, when the outbreak occurred, there was a temporary ban on the import of wild birds into this country as part of the caged-bird trade. Has that ban, which expired a month or so ago, been renewed? Notwithstanding all the welfare and biodiversity arguments against the capture of wild birds, does the Minister think that the ban should be in place permanently on health grounds?
Lord Warner: My Lords, Defra has published a contingency plan for dealing with avian flu; it is available on its website. I shall look into the noble Baroness's point and write to her, but she may also wish to consult the Defra website.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I was not clear from the Minister's answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, whether the Government have any plans to stockpile the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which remains our only and best avenue to tackle an outbreak of avian influenza.
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