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House of Lords

Wednesday, 17 January 2007.

The House met at three o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Lord Browne-Wilkinson—took the Oath.

EU: Civil Protection Mechanism

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his seat in his usual place. In 2001 the United Kingdom supported the adoption of a council decision establishing the EU civil protection mechanism. The mechanism has Article 308 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community as its legal base. The mechanism provides a means for member states to prepare for and to offer mutual assistance and assistance to third countries in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s words. As Article 308 allows the European Union to act only in the course of the operation of the Common Market, how can it be used to pass this new power to Brussels? It is a new power to Brussels because it now includes acts of terrorism and man-made disasters. Secondly, is it true that the Government were isolated in their objection to this proposal but mistakenly thought that under the treaties an abstention counts as a veto, which of course they were too frightened to cast, and so they voted for the wretched thing? Finally, can the Government give your Lordships’ House a list of all other powers which have been passed to Brussels under Article 308?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, first, I do not recognise it as an entirely new power. It has been there for years. I also take issue with the disparaging comment the noble Lord appeared to make about the value of Article 308, which enables the European Union to make aid and assistance available to those who undoubtedly need it when there is a man-made or natural disaster. Those are surely extreme circumstances, and it seems entirely right that we act within the remit of Article 308 to provide such assistance.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Government for wisely not going to the wire on this matter despite the slight geographical inconsistency in Article 308. All the other countries in effect wanted the new

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mark 2 text of the civil protection mechanism to be agreed, and the Government went along with that, putting in a file note. Does the Minister, like me, think it bizarre for the apparent leader of UKIP in the House of Lords to be so obsessed with this one matter when we know that UKIP officially wants us to withdraw from the European Union, despite the fact that so many countries still want to join as of this very moment?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, would I want to describe UKIP as “bizarre”? It is very tempting. We have acted entirely properly in this situation, as I have explained. Article 308 has the virtue of enabling us with a legal base to provide the sort of care and assistance that we should extend in situations where there is a humanitarian need. If we look at it in that light, it explains our position vis- -vis the European Union.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does Article 308—

A noble Lord: UKIP!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: No, I am not UKIP; I am independent Labour; and not independent new Labour, either. If Article 308 is designed to deal with matters Common Market, how can it be used for matters that are clearly nothing to do with the Common Market? What other measures are taken under this article, and are they in fact legal?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, clearly it is in the interests of the EU to ensure that, from time to time, aid is provided to countries outside the European Union that have need of humanitarian aid and recovery for a period, perhaps when their economy and infrastructure have been fundamentally blighted. That is why the EU uses Article 308 as the legal base for such humanitarian aid and assistance.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, after hearing from independent Labour, perhaps we can have a say. We, with our European neighbours, strongly favour humanitarian work; it seems thoroughly desirable. Nevertheless, the European Scrutiny Committee in another place went into the matter in great detail and had to point out to Ministers that abstaining on this measure would not veto it. Ministers thought that it would veto it and they put documents to the committee, which I have in my hand, showing exactly what Ministers thought. Subsequently, they had to be corrected. My simple plea is for Ministers to be a little more careful in following and understanding the procedures in the Community so that we do not get dragged into things that we do not want to do and that we take a proper lead in things that we want to do.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I take from the noble Lord’s question the fact that he supports Article 308 and that he is delighted that the UK Government have done this. However, I take issue

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with the noble Lord on the actions of certain Ministers. I am sure that Ministers at all times attempt to act entirely properly and within the procedures and processes of another place.

Lord Monson: My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that Article 308 allows the EU to act only,

Does he agree that the civil protection mechanism, however worthy and desirable, has nothing whatever to do with the Common Market?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: No, my Lords, I do not entirely agree with that for the very reasons that I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, the independent Labour Member of your Lordships' House. Clearly, it is in the EU's interest to ensure that we assist those with whom we have trading relations in the operation of their markets and their ability to trade. For that reason, we provide such humanitarian aid and assistance as we can to ensure that those countries get back on their feet and operate in the wider world.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Article 308 is a perfectly sensible mechanism for the Community to agree on the things on which it wants to agree? If I were to criticise the Government, I would criticise them for their reluctance in relation to this application of Article 308. However, they came to the right conclusion in the end. In this Question, are we not just seeing the same old Lord Pearson of Rannoch: new party but same old arguments?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as ever, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, speaks with infinite wisdom.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we must move on. We are well into the eighth minute.

Housing: Affordable Homes

3.15 pm

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the latest estimate, for 2003-04 to 2005-06, is that the average number of

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couples with one or more children under the age of five who were living with relatives was about 35,000. The equivalent estimate for single parents with children under five is about 65,000, making a combined figure of about 100,000. We do not have any information on how many of those families might be waiting to buy an affordable home.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for those figures, which are extraordinarily disappointing. Does she agree that, for a young couple with their first baby, to have to face the prospect of spending two or three years with mother-in-law before they can get a home of their own is not a good recipe for the future of that family? Does she further agree that the target for any Government who care about the nation’s children must be to try in some way or another to offer young couples with their first baby access to affordable accommodation within, I suggest, seven days of the baby being born?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we certainly want the best start for all children and all families. Ninety per cent of these families have one child. We have found that 23 per cent of those who access our low-cost house programmes are families with children, so we are reaching them. However, this issue is about adopting a variety of strategies. It must be about building more homes, which is why we have pledged to build 200,000 extra homes a year to meet growing demand. It is about bringing into home ownership people who cannot afford market prices. We aim to bring in 120,000 such people by 2010. It is about improving and modernising our council stock. It is also about developing a whole range of low-cost housing options for such families.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I know very well from my work with CAFCASS, in which I declare an interest, that overcrowding often leads to relationship breakdown and separation. Can we hear more from the Minister about what the Government are doing about overcrowding, particularly in relation to what I believe are higher figures on overcrowding for black and minority ethnic families?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, that is a very important question. Compared with a national average for overcrowding of 2.7 per cent of households and 6.5 per cent of households in London, 23 per cent of such households are classified as being overcrowded. We need to do something to improve the statutory standard for overcrowding, which has not been changed since 1935. The area with the most acute problems is London, which is where we are concentrating effort. We have put £19 million into 24 pilot schemes run by the London boroughs to tackle overcrowding. We are working out with the Mayor where the problems are concentrated. We will publish a summary of responses to the consultation document which we issued in July, which will look across the issues, particularly in relation to BME populations, which comprise 23 per cent—one

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quarter—of those households. We will look at a regulatory impact statement, which addresses those problems in particular.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, is the Minister concerned that the situation that we are discussing has a very bad effect on the early years of a child’s education, yet only about one-fifth of families with children under four who are in temporary accommodation access Sure Start services? Does she agree that until we have enough outreach workers to get the information about the benefits of Sure Start to some of the hardest-to-reach families, we will never crack that 20 per cent figure?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, there is a wealth of evidence, not least that which has been commissioned by the department, about the impact of overcrowding on health—it can lead to respiratory conditions, for example. It has an impact also on education—children do not have enough space to do homework and suffer too much distraction from siblings and so on. Sure Start is the obvious vehicle. The expansion of Sure Start, combined with its smarter marketing, is the key to breaking these vicious cycles of deprivation.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although it is very hard for these people to live with relatives, temporary accommodation can be very much worse? Does she have a breakdown of the figures? Will she confirm that all kinds of schemes are being considered to make it easier for people initially to rent a home and then move on to buying one?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, reluctantly, I do not entirely agree with the noble Baroness, because I think that temporary accommodation has improved a lot in recent years. There are two good things to say about it: first, the numbers in temporary accommodation are falling significantly and consistently. We now have about 93,000 people living in that kind of accommodation. That is still too many, but 92 per cent of them are living in self-contained accommodation and have their own front door and cooking facilities.

The second point that the noble Baroness raises is really important. Putting low-cost home ownership within reach of, for example, families in London with incomes of less than £35,000 or of those outside London with less than £30,000, is a very important step. A recent report on shared equity suggests that by 2010 we will be able to get about 160,000 into such accommodation, using the private sector more effectively than we have done.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, in view of the terrible figures that the Minister has just quoted of people still living in overcrowded and temporary accommodation, will she say how she believes the newly created agency, made up of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation, is likely to have any impact on this problem?

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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, first, may I say how delighted I am that the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, is going to chair that new agency? There could be nobody better to do that, and I am delighted that she is on our side. Bringing together English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation, as recommended by the Barker report, will result in provision for land supply, more intelligent planning of land and more intelligent and proper targeting for housing. That goes along with the new PPS on housing, which means that we can be much more intelligent about how we assess housing needs and plan for it, which can only be a good thing.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one difficulty facing young couples in seeking accommodation in the private rented sector is knowing whether they can afford the property on offer to rent? Does she agree that the Government’s proposals for rent allowances should go a long way to taking some of those difficulties out of the system, thus ensuring that young couples can get speedier access to decent homes?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, the rented sector and rent arrangements have been extremely complicated; nobody knows that better than my noble friend. Rent allowances are definitely a step in the right direction.

Universities: Visa Fees

3.22 pm

Lord Hannay of Chiswick asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the recent charging consultation document reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to attract genuine students to the United Kingdom. Students make a valuable contribution to our economic growth and cultural enrichment. We are currently working on options, based on research nearly complete, that will set fees at a level to meet the Government’s wider objectives, including the costs of running operations and maintaining services. Central to any decision will be the consideration of the market research on price. The final decisions have not yet been taken.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, I draw his attention to the fact that he did not answer either parts of the Question on the Order Paper. The first related to an impact assessment. Does he recognise that on the last occasion when visa fees were raised for students, there was no impact assessment? He has not today given any undertaking that there will be one

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on this occasion, nor has he answered the question whether the Government are considering waiving visa fees for students in higher education. Does he not think that that is a rather feckless attitude to take towards what is a huge asset to the United Kingdom, which we are holding on to with difficulty in competition with countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States? We are losing market share. We need to take account of those points.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we do not intend to waive the fees because the arrangements made with the Treasury are clear. We have to cover costs; those are the Treasury regulations in this matter, as I said to the noble Lord in an Answer more or less a year ago. The research to which I referred will be the most exhaustive piece of market research that will have been undertaken on pricing in this area. It will cover matters of impact and I promise that it will be made available in full to everybody who wishes to see it.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, we in the UK higher education sector are disadvantaged by the very slow and difficult processing of student visas, which means that we lose out on many students. Do Her Majesty's Government have a strategy that will make us competitive with other countries, such as there is in the United States, which now guarantees rapid processing of visa applications, including next-day interviews? I declare an interest as chairman of King’s College council.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the overall performance of the service in issuing visas has improved enormously. Independent reports show that we are now probably the fastest country in the world in issuing visas. There are difficulties in that; if we are to have secure borders, we must have a system in which we can root out forged documents and forged education certificates, which—as I think everyone running universities now knows—constitute a serious risk to our border control. But we are meeting targets in almost all cases.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the costs as allocated include an allowance for the costs of appeals? That is one reason why the costs of renewing a visa in this country turn out to be so much higher than the estimated costs for introducing the identity card, which some of us feel is quite extraordinary. Will he also confirm that this represents a Home Office policy that goes against the policy of the education department and the Foreign Office of encouraging more student exchange and, in particular, of encouraging more students from developing countries to come to this country?

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