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House of Lords

Tuesday, 5 December 2006.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Message from the Queen

Earl Peel: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen, signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:

Energy: Gas Safety

2.37 pm

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, it is vital that the public are made aware of the dangers of CO poisoning. On 27 November, I called a meeting with senior figures in the gas industry. They have made a commitment to new action on gas safety campaigns, with efforts to be co-ordinated by Corgi. I will lead a ministerial group and the Government will take a keen interest in the outcome and improved gas safety.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Given the recent near tragedy in Gateshead of a classroom of schoolchildren being poisoned by carbon monoxide gas, and the need for the gas industry to give clear and consistent advice on gas safety, will my noble friend press the six major gas energy suppliers to ensure that they give that clear and consistent message and that they help Corgi, as the energy’s watchdog, to pursue its excellent campaigns, which have seen a decline in the number of deaths from 50 to 18 in recent years?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the latest figures show a further reduction to 16 deaths—but that is 16 too many. The figures also show around 200 serious injuries. My noble friend referred to the Gateshead incident, into which investigation is continuing, although, clearly, we were all very concerned to hear of it. There is no question but that we need to encourage greater awareness of CO poisoning risks and that the industry has a major role to play. I will certainly take his words to heart on that matter.

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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, will the Minister press the gas board, or whomever else he is speaking to in these energy authorities, to instruct people to have some type of monitor? My family gave me a carbon monoxide monitor, which seems fine, and they tell me that a less expensive variety is available. However, the danger with all these monitors is that, if they expire and people do not know that they are no longer functioning, they are almost worse than if people did not have them. Will he be sure to cover that point?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, the noble Baroness is right: audible CO detectors have a very valuable role to play. If they meet the British standard, they will function effectively. I understand that, if the battery runs out, a noise makes it clear to the owners that the detector is no longer running. The noble Baroness is certainly right: part of the awareness campaign is about encouraging people to invest in such detectors.

Lord Addington: My Lords, have the Government undertaken any specific activities in respect of students moving into new houses or others who live in houses that will change occupation quickly, to ensure that those users are informed about what is going on? If there is a lack of funds, would not the gas suppliers be excellent bodies to fill that hole?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly agree that the gas industry as a whole is very well financially resourced. I am sure that it is able to invest in CO awareness campaigns providing the information that the noble Lord mentioned. It is worth making the point that the regulations were extended in 1994 to place requirements on landlords to maintain gas appliances in properties available to rent, which provides some protection in the case of students. On the more general issue, the Health and Safety Executive is conducting a review of gas safety, and I will ensure that that comment is passed to those conducting the review.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, I declare an interest: my pilot light went out. I know that we are talking about an extremely serious situation here, but my pilot light went out. When the light was put back on, the company said that we should have a monitor, such as the one to which the noble Baroness referred, to ensure that the house was safe. However, that cost £60 plus. Of course, I borrowed the money off my good friend Lord Davies of Coity, but other people cannot do that. Are the Government concerned about people in our society who would find that cost hard to bear?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am most sorry to hear about my noble friend’s pilot light; I am sure that we all express our concern for him. However, the action that he took was quite right. It was right to call in a qualified operator to look at it, and the operator was certainly right to encourage him to invest in a CO detection alarm. I do not think that £60 is the current rate; I think that the alarms can be

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bought for between £20 and £30. However, I take his point that poor people may find that rather difficult. Various schemes are already in place to help such people with gas equipment generally, but my noble friend’s point about CO alarms is important and I will make sure that the Health and Safety Executive looks at it in the context of its current review.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, many years ago, in the days of coal gas, many individuals attempted to commit suicide by putting their head in the gas oven. Nowadays, natural gas contains such a minuscule concentration of carbon monoxide that that is no longer feasible. However, as has been said, it is clear that inadequate ventilation and improperly maintained gas appliances carry the greatest risk. One problem is a delay in diagnosis and recognition of what is happening. Are the public generally aware that carbon monoxide combines with haemoglobin to give a bright red colour and that one of the earliest signs of carbon monoxide poisoning is that the individual is bright red in skin colour?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we think of nothing else in Kings Heath. The noble Lord is quite right that there is an enormous lack of awareness, as has been shown by research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive. That is why it is important that the industry is encouraged to finance some publicity campaigns. It is also right that health professionals need to be aware of the impact of CO poisoning and to be able to identify it. Part of the review process will be about the kind of information that needs to be given to health professionals, too.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, may I press the Minister a little further on carbon monoxide detectors? Would he join me in encouraging the suppliers to ensure that all their customers have such things and to supply them for free, if necessary, which was the point made on the Back Bench behind him?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that sounds like an excellent idea and I would be very happy to put that to the gas companies concerned.

Railways: Sewage Discharge

2.45 pm

Baroness Wilcox asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government’s investment in new rolling stock has seen the withdrawal of hundreds of trains that did not have retention-tank toilets. That leaves about 13 per cent of the fleet with non-retention tank toilets, all of which we expect to be withdrawn or converted by 2020.

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Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I have been asking Questions about this for the past four years. The Government’s gradualist approach is certainly very gradual. My own route home to Cornwall and the high-speed service on the east-coast route between Edinburgh and London—two of the longest routes in the country—are covering trackside workers and nearby properties with a fine mist of effluent. Do Her Majesty’s Government think it acceptable for railway maintenance work to be carried out in an environment that is contaminated by untreated human waste?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, progress is such that, in the past six years, we have seen the figures for trains go down from 36 to 13 per cent; so we are making progress. The problem is that the trains have a long life of 30 to 40 years. Some trains would be extremely expensive to convert, and we cannot replace them immediately. Let me reassure the noble Baroness that the trade unions for trackside workers, which have been aware of this issue for very many decades, do not regard it as a health issue for workers on the track.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of the best tomatoes I have ever seen grow spontaneously at sewage farms? Are they safe to eat?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, none of the train-operating companies with which we have been in contact on this question replied to us on the efficacy of growing tomatoes.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, even caravans have sealed units, so can the Minister say, with 2012 coming nearer and nearer, how overseas visitors will react when they are told that they cannot use the lavatory if the train is in a station?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, visitors from Europe will discover that there are fewer trains in this category in the United Kingdom than in almost any rail system in Europe. We are ahead of other rail systems in making progress in this respect.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, if this Question has been asked for four years, are the Government really treating it seriously or are they simply going through the motions?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I knew I would have to tread carefully with this Question. The Government and previous Administrations have been aware of this issue for decades. The problem is quite straightforward: all new train units with toilets that come on stock have the correct processes in place. We are dealing only with trains that it will take time to phase out, because of their durability.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, in awarding franchises to the rail-operating companies, has not discharging raw sewage been included as a

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criterion in any of the franchises where the train operator would be asked to convert the toilets by attaching containers to the toilet cubicles?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, there is clear and very good news on that front. The rail industry as a whole in 1996 adopted a code of practice that all new rolling stock fitted with a toilet would have to be fitted with a retention tank into which the toilet would discharge.

House of Lords: Reform

2.50 pm

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the Government are seeking a broad consensus on House of Lords reform. The Parliament Acts have been used only five times in the past 60 years. Consideration of their use in this case would be extremely premature.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I take it that consensus will also be sought in your Lordships’ House. Will my noble and learned friend not simply ask leaders of political parties, because they do not necessarily represent their members? Obtaining a consensus among 750 members will be difficult but some leaders of political parties find it difficult to gain a consensus with themselves. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, whom I have heard speak on two separate occasions, is finding it difficult to agree with himself.

Does my noble and learned friend accept that if he asks around in your Lordships’ House he will find that there is little consensus on a hybrid House, whether 50 per cent or 80 per cent elected? However, there will be a consensus for the status quo with some modest adjustments. If that is the only consensus available, given that the Government have ruled out the use of the Parliament Act, will they accept that consensus?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we will seek consensus everywhere, including in your Lordships’ House. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is busily seeking consensus on his own side in relation to reform of the House of Lords and his views are well known. The consensus must be across Parliament and across parties, and that is what one is seeking. However, seeking a consensus requires effort. Finding a common agreement may involve some people moving their positions.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I have no difficulty agreeing with the premise behind the Question. I cannot find in my mind a more obvious example of a Bill that should not be pushed through under the

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Parliament Act than a Bill to reform a great House of Parliament. Does the noble and learned Lord recall that on 23 November in this House he said:

That was not quite what he said in his initial response when he talked about a broad consensus. If it is a requirement, I reckon that there would need to be a consensus not just between the parties but between the Houses as well.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do recall saying that. It is my position and it remains my position; we need to work for consensus. That may involve people changing their positions; for example, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor confirm or deny that the Prime Minister made an explicit promise to Labour Peers that the Parliament Acts would not be used; and can he explain how he can make that promise when by definition he will not be around to fulfil it? Will he also comment on the fact that when the recent Joint Committee commented on the Parliament Acts it made it clear that they were the bedrock for the relationship between the two Houses; and that the primacy of the Commons is something that that committee, and I presume this House, supports? Will the noble and learned Lord therefore say what he expects the reaction of the public and indeed Members of the other House would be if in due course we turkeys were allowed a veto against Christmas?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not going to comment on what anyone said to our party meeting. The Cunningham committee’s report is excellent. It accurately describes the relationship between the two Houses. If there was any reform in composition, most people would want that template to apply to any reformed House. We must seek consensus. One should not be so depressing as to talk about failure in relation to consensus. We should try to work towards it.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I understood my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to say that it was very unlikely that the Parliament Act would be used in House of Lords reform. However, after reading the newspapers over the weekend, I am given to understand that my right honourable friend in the other place, Jack Straw, has said that it will introduce the novel idea of a preferential vote, which will guarantee some kind of decision in the House of Commons. If that is the case, is it constitutionally correct to apply the Parliament Act?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not think that the use of the Parliament Act could possibly depend upon the precise method of voting in the House of Commons. It is entirely a matter for the other place to decide how it reaches a decision on this issue.

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Lord Waddington: My Lords, what if there is agreement between the two Houses on the proportion of Members of this place to be elected but the Government insist that the method of election shall be a party-list system, which would result in party toadies arriving in this place? Would the Parliament Act be used when there was agreement about composition but disagreement in this place as to the method of election?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it would be awful if toadies came into the House. I very much admire the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who people remember as the Chief Whip in another place. The last thing that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, liked was a toady; he wanted independent-minded Tories to vote on a regular basis. It is marvellous that he admires us so much. I am not going to go into various connotations of what we might or might not agree on; we are looking for consensus on the principles.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, is the upshot of these exchanges that everyone in the Government now agrees there should be no reduction of powers in the House of Lords?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I have made it clear that we regard the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, as an excellent definition both of the current powers and of what the powers of the second House should be. I agree with my noble friend Lord Cunningham that they depend in part on conventions, for which you cannot legislate because they must be flexible.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor define what a consensus on the independent Cross Benches means?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, “consensus” means broad agreement across the parties. We shall certainly speak, as we are doing, to the Cross-Benchers. The Cross-Benchers have a Convenor who, although he does not represent them, is involved in the on going discussions and loyally expresses their views. But from time to time he says that there is not a concluded view among the Cross-Benchers or, indeed, only one view.

Lord Richard: My Lords, having listened to my noble and learned friend, it seems to me that the search for a consensus will begin with a White Paper. Can he confirm that a White Paper is coming on this, and can he tell us when?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the search for consensus has begun; it has taken two steps already. First, there have been the discussions to which I have referred in which the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Strathclyde, are involved. Secondly, the search for consensus has been greatly assisted by the report of my noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling. There will also be a White Paper, and that will come in the New Year.

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