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House of Lords

Monday, 18 June 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Royal Assent

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

International Tribunals (Sierra Leone) Act 2007,

Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Act 2007.

Railways: Ticket Refunds

2.37 pm

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the National Rail Conditions of Carriage allow an administrative fee to be charged when a ticket is refunded. The cost is normally £10. It makes no difference whether the ticket was bought at a booking office, by phone or on the internet. No administrative fee is charged when trains are delayed or cancelled and the passenger decides not to travel on their outward journey as a consequence.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. I am sure he is aware that most booking offices will refund tickets if they are returned pretty quickly and were bought at the same station. Is it not a bit odd that you do not have to pay a fee for a refund at a booking office, but you do on the web when the cost of transaction on the web must be very small compared with the cost of running a booking office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my understanding is that it is a discretionary charge, but that a charge is made and it makes little difference whether you bought a ticket at a booking office, by phone or over the internet. I also understand that the charge has remained £10 for at least the past decade, if not longer, so it is a very small administrative fee. However, it is down to the train operator.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, will the Minister reflect on the fact that although some train operators are paying the Government a premium, they are all heavily subsidised through the money the Government give Network Rail? Is it not about time that some of these train companies took account of the views of the public instead of hiding behind regulations of that sort?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a matter for the train companies, not for the Government. During the time in which we have been in government, increases in regulated fares have been limited and in real terms they are lower than they used to be. The fares system is very varied, as we well understand, but there are plans to simplify it in response to public opinion.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the Minister said that the charge was “discretionary”. Will he explain exactly what that means? Do I have the discretion of not paying it if I am in that position?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it would be quite nice, would it not, if we could all not pay discretionary charges? It is very much down to how

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the train operating companies operate the scheme. It is called a discretionary charge. My understanding is that it is an administrative fee.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, is it not the case that 11 train operating companies do not charge £10, but £5 for a refund? Is that not in marked contrast with the practice exercised by airlines—for example, British Airways charges £30 to refund a non-flexible ticket which is cancelled, and airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair have no refund arrangement?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that has been my experience in these matters.

EU Committee: Scrutiny Reserve

2.40 pm

Lord Lucas asked the Leader of the House:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, no. The scrutiny reserve exercises an important discipline on the Government, which they do not override lightly. Whenever the Government override the scrutiny, the responsible Minister accounts for it to the committee and the House, as required by the scrutiny reserve resolution. The Government continue to work with the European Union Committee to improve the management of the scrutiny process to minimise the risk of an override.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, does not a 7 per cent rate of over-ride perhaps indicate that we are not being as effective as we might be, or that the Government are not being as co-operative as they might be, in making sure that we give proper scrutiny to European legislation? If that is not so and these over-rides are justified, might we ask committee chairmen to say so in their reports, rather than leaving us to speculate that we are falling down on the job?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my understanding is that the rate of over-rides in this House is about 6 per cent. It is not always possible to synchronise the Westminster and Brussels timetables, particularly where you have fast-moving instruments. I understand from being briefed on the Question that 25 per cent of recent over-rides have been in the area of common foreign and security policy and that 20 per cent occurred during the parliamentary Recess. The Government are in constant discussion with the chairs of the European Union Committee and its sub-committees, because it is important that the process works not only for Parliament but also for the Government.

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Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that every time the Government sign up to something in Brussels while it is still under scrutiny by a Select Committee, they are asserting that it is more important to stick to a timetable set in Brussels than to honour their undertakings to this House? That is what we are really talking about. Of the 22 over-rides that took place when Britain had the presidency and some control over the agenda, how many related to matters that were urgent and brooked no delay? If they were not urgent, why did Britain proceed with them?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am pleased to report to the House that the European Union Committee and the Government see this as a joint responsibility. For example, the committee has acknowledged that it has a responsibility to help to prevent unnecessary over-rides in the way in which it manages its work. It has also accepted that there have been difficulties when Parliament is in recess. Noble Lords will know that in this House the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, does a sift during the Recess precisely to prevent that kind of thing happening. So it is a joint responsibility between the committee and the Government; it is not a one-way street.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I think that I heard my name mentioned a moment ago. Does the noble Baroness agree that, since the Cabinet Office decided about two and a half years ago to publish which department was responsible for each over-ride, the figures show that the so-called naming and shaming has occasioned a downward trend in the number of over-rides, which is very satisfactory? Does she accept that there are occasions when it is perfectly understandable why there should be an over-ride, because individual Council formations have a habit of changing their programmes and timetables and sometimes it is not possible to meet them? Does she further agree that the fact that the European Union Committee publishes in its annual report a full list of the over-rides and the reason for them has made the whole system much more transparent?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, that the system is much more transparent and that there is greater accountability. I think that the publication of individual departments helps the process. It also helps that individual departments plan more appropriately than they have in the past. However, I also agree with the noble Lord that there are occasions when over-rides will happen.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, would it not be helpful if we in this country—Parliament and government—adopted the Danish system, which mandates Ministers before they come to decisions rather than agreeing or disagreeing with them after the decisions have been made?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think that we all accept that, in negotiations, it is important that Ministers have a degree of flexibility.

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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, does the Minister agree that prompt responses from the Government to the European Union Select Committee of the House of Lords would assist in reducing the number of over-rides? Is she aware that the committee has recently experienced long delays in replies to this correspondence?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I was not aware that there was a significant issue with respect to responding to correspondence from the EU Select Committee. I am happy to look at that in detail and report back to the House.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House when the scrutiny committees of either House have made any difference to the relentless progress of European integration over the past 30 years? Will she confirm that the scrutiny committees can only do just that: they can scrutinise, debate and report but, after a matter may have been debated, the reserve is automatically lifted? Dare I ask her what the point is of the whole exercise?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think that Members of this House would agree that the point of the whole exercise is that Parliament has an important and valuable role to play in this process. We all know that the decision taken by the people of this country when they agreed through a referendum our membership of the European Community is not one with which the noble Lord concurs.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, can the Leader of the House confirm that in one of the areas to which she referred where there are rather a lot of over-rides—that of common foreign and security policy—there have recently been improvements in the scrutiny procedures, with new instructions circulated in the Ministry of Defence? Does she agree that it would be wise to consider that again after a year or so to see whether it is reducing the number of over-rides?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am very happy to agree with that proposal. We should look at all ways of continuing to improve the scrutiny process. Where appropriate, we should review those mechanisms because, as I said in answer to an earlier question, this is about a partnership between the European Union Committee and the Government.

Lord McNally: My Lords, can the Leader of the House confirm that there is a great deal of public confidence in the scrutiny procedures, not least as carried out by this House? Does she agree that, in dealing with questions of Europe, Parliament is the best forum for examining and judging those issues?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, of course Parliament is a very important forum for examining these issues. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that the European Union Committee not only has an extremely valuable role to play but is extraordinarily well respected, not only in this House but elsewhere, because of the way in which it carries out that role.

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Lord Dubs: My Lords, although I am sure that my noble friend cannot possibly have the figures in the papers in front of her, will she confirm that, in general terms, the influence of the European Union Committee and sub-committees has been significant and that, more often than not, the Government have accepted the bulk of the various committees’ recommendations, which in turn have influenced the way in which the Government negotiate in Brussels?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I confirm that the committee has a great deal of influence. The Government always look very carefully at its proposals and recommendations because of the experience and expertise of its members.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, how do we compare with other member states?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I have absolutely no idea from the figures in front of me, but given how we conduct our business in the European Union I expect that we are doing very well.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that the referendum held in the 1970s was on our remaining in a common market of some six countries, which is totally different from the European Union as it is today?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the European Union of today, which is a union of 27 countries rather than six, is of course very different, but the benefits of membership of the European Union are understood by the vast majority of people in this country.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, as the Minister was good enough to mention the referendum of 1975, when, as my noble friend said, the British people voted to stay in what they were assured was a common market, will she say whether we gain any small light of hope that the Government may be contemplating a referendum on what is about to be signed up to next weekend and at the subsequent intergovernmental conference?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord should know better than to read into what I say today what I will be saying specifically in response to questions on the Statement that I shall repeat next week; I have no doubt that he will be here then. The Government’s position on the constitutional treaty is absolutely clear. We are in the midst of negotiations, and I know that the noble Lord would not expect me to pre-empt their outcome in any way.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Regulations

2.52 pm

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, since 2001, the department has introduced 846 statutory instruments, which includes those introduced by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food up to June 2001.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. However, in response to a Question for Written Answer I was told that there have been some 750 general and local statutory instruments since 2001. Is he not concerned that the department does not have a central base so that it can tell how many of those statutory instruments were revoked, how many were new, and how many were just abandoned? Is it simply because, as I understand it, the different technologies do not talk to each other? I presume that the information was held manually in the past.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall look again at the Question for Written Answer. I did not realise that there had been a problem. There is no difficulty finding the answer. Some of the 846 statutory instruments are general operating instruments governing things such as fees. Some actually abolish dozens of statutory instruments. For example, the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2005 abolished and repealed 49 separate statutory instruments. There is no difficulty getting the information.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, do the Government intend to revoke the regulation governing the protection of badgers?

Lord Rooker: No, my Lords. The Government are not giving a detailed response today. We issued a Written Statement following the report of the independent scientific group this morning, and we will consider the matter in due course.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, is the Minister confident that the amount of information passed to farmers is sufficient, especially for those who are not online and therefore have difficulty in understanding some of the regulations?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I know and fully accept that the regulations can get complicated. Farmers who are online gain from the whole-farm approach. Based on the current uptake, farmers will save £3 million by 2009-10. We are trying to simplify statutory instruments and a simplification programme is under way to look at 130 aspects. The Environmental Permitting Programme will replace 40 statutory instruments on waste with a single instrument which will be one-third of the length of the 40.

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, the issue is not just the plethora of new rules but also the fragmentation and duplication of Defra’s administration. I farm in Norfolk. On my way here today, I counted at least 10 Defra offices with which we in Norfolk have to deal. Heaven help you if there is a marginal difference

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between your calculation of a field size and Defra’s. It will hold up your entire payment for months until it is resolved. With this fragmentation, getting a response out of Defra is like dealing with the Tower of Babel. Is it not high time that farmers had one point of contact with Defra in order to deal with all aspects of a farm’s activities? There then might be a chance of it becoming fit for purpose.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I reject that. I was at the headquarters of the Rural Payments Agency in Reading this morning looking at exactly what happens in the service that is given to farmers. It is true that the culture is different. In the past, farmers went to Defra offices where Defra staff filled in their forms for them, which is where part of the cultural change comes about. I do not know about the 10 Defra offices. I invite the House, as I invite everyone who is either on the farm or in the office, to tell me of an order or a regulation that we should not do, we do not need to do or are not legally required to do and we will see whether we can get it abolished. No one ever comes back with a positive proposal.

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