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20 Jun 2007 : Column 216

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, in the opinion of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, what difference would it have made to the prosecution if the proposed offence of corporate manslaughter had been available?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I do not absolutely know. It is possible that, if the Bill had been passed in its present form, there could have been a prosecution for corporate manslaughter. It would have depended on determining tests that were not necessary for this prosecution; namely, whether there was a gross breach of duty and a senior management failing. But it is possible that that offence would have been made out.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, my noble and learned friend appears to suggest that the design of the layout outside Paddington was wrong. As my noble friend Lord Snape said, that was done by British Rail and approved by the Health and Safety Executive. Is not the situation a bit odd, given that after British Rail designed it and it came into operation, it was taken over by Railtrack, after which Network Rail took over responsibility when Railtrack failed? It is a long way from Network Rail accepting all the obligations and liabilities from Railtrack to the company being prosecuted for something that was done two predecessors ago.

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I repeat: the company accepted its responsibility for the liabilities that had been passed to it. It is not so much the design outside Paddington as the fact that the signal was for some reason obscured and not visible. No one really knows why the driver drove through that red light. There had been eight incidents in which attention had been drawn to drivers passing that signal at red. It ought to have been looked at and a new solution found, as it subsequently was when a system was put in place under which, if a driver passed that signal at red, the brakes would automatically come on. Had that system been in place then, this would never have happened.

Universities: Scotland


Lord Baker of Dorking asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the recent Scottish announcement will not affect the position of students from England and Wales, who will continue to pay fees if studying in Scotland. There is no strong evidence of differences in fee regimes either encouraging more English students to study in Scotland or deterring Scottish students

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from studying in England. University applications in England are up 6 per cent on last year to their highest ever rates. The proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups is also up.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, as this may be the last occasion on which the Minister answers education Questions under the ancien regime, may I express the hope, if it does not damn his chances, that he will be there under the new regime? On Scotland, does he not agree that, while Alex Salmond of course has the right to give Scottish students free education at Scottish universities, this freebie is paid for by English taxpayers? Would it not be fairer to reduce the annual grant that is given to Scotland? The cost could be hundreds of millions of pounds, because Alex Salmond also wants to replace loans by grants and to write off student debt. Would it not be more sensible to cut the annual grant that goes to Scotland each year under the discredited Barnett formula? Surely it is unacceptable for the constituents of an English MP to pay for this, when Gordon Brown’s constituents pay exactly nothing.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the warm best wishes of the noble Lord are of course designed to boost my career prospects enormously, and I am very grateful to him. On the Barnett formula, I feel that a conversation is needed across the Chamber. However, I understand from my briefing that there is something called the “Barnett squeeze”. I am not sure whether this is a meeting of rather unpleasant dimensions between the new First Minister in Scotland and my noble friend Lord Barnett, but it has the effect of narrowing the differential between funding in England and funding in Scotland, which may, over a long period, meet the noble Lord’s concerns. However, in respect of the decision taken on university funding, the cost of the change that the Scottish Executive have made will have to be met by the Scottish Executive; it is not met by United Kingdom taxpayers. The Scottish Executive have a block grant; they now have to find offsetting savings from elsewhere to carry through the policy that they have announced.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, makes a strong case for a review of the Barnett formula, for which I have been pressing for a very long time? As my noble friend will understand, I am more than happy for there to be a Mark II, provided that it is based on need. Will he join me in pressing Ministers and others to allow a review to ensure that in future the Barnett formula is based on need?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I simply have to draw my noble friend’s observations to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, under present regulations, all EU students have the right when they attend English universities to interest-free, up-front loans, repayable on an income-contingent basis after they have graduated? Does the same principle apply to Scottish students? Could it be withdrawn?

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Lord Adonis: I believe so, my Lords, but I shall confirm that in writing to the noble Baroness.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, how can the Minister say that there is not a problem for English students when Scottish students will have free higher education in Scotland as a result of this change, as will French students and German students? Students from every other part of the European Union will have free higher education, but English and Welsh students will have to pay up to £2,700 per year in fees. This is simply not fair. The base funding is 20 per cent higher in Scotland than in England, so my noble friend’s point applies. Is this not the moment for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to speak for England and to declare that English students attending Scottish universities will have their fees paid, with the money being deducted from the Scottish block?

Lord Adonis: No, my Lords. The noble Lord is simply out of sympathy with the concept of devolution—that may be the understatement of the afternoon. The fact is that we have a Scottish Parliament. The Executive, alas, are no longer controlled by own party, but they have a perfect right to take decisions of this kind.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and the chairman of its executive council. Perhaps I may raise a question that is probably even more fundamental than that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. The average student in institutions of higher education in England has expended on him or her about £1,500 more per annum than is expended on the average Welsh student. Given that such funds come overwhelmingly from public sources, is not this a morally indefensible situation?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am not in a position to confirm the figures given by the noble Lord, but I shall certainly seek to do so. However, differences in funding between different parts of the United Kingdom are based on historic decisions.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, is it not the case that top-up fees in English universities went through only as a result of the votes of Labour MPs from Scottish constituencies? Is this not yet another indication that the West Lothian question will need to be addressed?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my understanding is that the leader of the noble Lord’s party now supports our policy, so I assume that, if this decision were to come back to the House of Commons, it would be carried by an overwhelming majority on both sides of the House.

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market: My Lords, is not the Minister entirely missing the point? The point is not about devolution, but about the fact that Scotland gets so much more money per head than England as a result of the Barnett formula. The Scottish Executive are able to do what they have just done because they are getting so much more money from the United Kingdom taxpayer.

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Lord Adonis: My Lords, but the point still holds. They will have to find an offsetting saving from elsewhere. They do not get any additional sum of money from the UK taxpayer as a result of having taken this decision.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, the Minister said that applications to universities in England have gone up by 6 per cent and indicated that they have also gone up from the lower socio-economic groups. Will he give the percentage by which applications from that group has gone up?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I will let the noble Baroness know the precise percentages by socio-economic group, but applications have gone up across all socio-economic groups. Students from poorer families benefit from grants of up to £2,700 a year, which this Government introduced as part of the higher education reforms. They benefit also from bursaries typically of up to £1,000 in universities and colleges, which were made possible by the introduction of the additional fees and the requirement that a substantial proportion of them, running this year at £300 million out a total of £1.35 billion, must be put into the provision of bursaries and other support for poorer students. Therefore, as a result of the changes that we brought about two years ago, there is a better deal for poorer students than there has been since the changes in the student finance regime more than 10 years ago. That is helping to encourage more of them to go on to university.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords—

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords—

Lord Tebbit: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is the turn of this side.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what the position is of students from Northern Ireland attending Scottish universities?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, they, too, pay fees.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister now address himself to the point that was made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth? German students, French students and Estonian students do not have to pay; English students do. Is England not a part of the European Union?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the issue still holds: this is a decision for the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament to take if they wish to have a different policy within the United Kingdom. It is an effect of devolution.

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National Trust (Northern Ireland) Bill

3.30 pm

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to an Unopposed Bill Committee.

Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

3.31 pm

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Noble Lords who were involved in the Greater London Authority Bill late last night will be well aware of the valiant efforts made by my noble friend Lady Andrews to speak through a very difficult cough—which I am afraid has made it impossible for her to address the House today. However, we are very much looking forward to her joining us for the remainder of her Bill. I am looking forward also to the two maiden speeches which we will hear later from the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, and the noble Lord, Lord Mawson.

The Bill is about greater devolution of power to local government and greater local democracy. As such, it reflects a vibrant public debate which has called for a shift in power away from central government and towards local government and the citizen. The Bill is therefore perhaps more radical in the changes it will bring than it may seem—changes not only in the organisation of local government and the work of councils and councillors but in the culture of partnership and the shaping of local services. It is driven essentially by the aspirations and experience of local government itself.

The Bill is essentially pragmatic. It is driven by what changes have worked well and by a two-year conversation with local authorities and partners across England which culminated in the White Paper. The Government have continued to listen intently and that is reflected in the many changes made in the other place which have strengthened local control in different ways. In that respect this Bill is significantly different from every other local government Bill that has come before this House.

Quite simply, we seek to build on success. I begin by celebrating the great improvements that have been made in the quality of our local public services over the past decade. Homelessness is at its lowest since the early 1980s and housing supply has increased by over one-third. Nearly 80 per cent of authorities are now rated good or excellent. We have increased funding by 39 per cent in real terms since 1997, and every local government in England now has a local area agreement providing increased flexibility for local government and partners. These improvements have been achieved by local government but they have been

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largely and deliberately driven from the centre. Now we need to change our approach and give local authorities and partners the freedom and space that they need to shape and make places for the future. That is increasingly seen as the defining role of local government and it is a role that needs to be strengthened. The Bill will make local authorities more powerful and more visible.

Part of the challenge for local government now is to work more strategically and particularly to work closely with health partners to take greater shared responsibility for delivering more coherent services. That is why, throughout the Bill, we address how health fits into the picture. Crucially, we are giving a stronger voice to local people, whether in the ability to create new parish councils, to seek greater help from councillors or to have new rights to be informed, consulted and involved.

I will outline the key themes of the Bill; five key elements will strengthen local government. These are set out variously in Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5. First, authorities in two-tier areas will be enabled to propose a move to simpler structures. This will be matched by promoting better partnership working in the remaining two-tier authorities. Secondly, we shall build on successful models of strong local leadership. Thirdly, we shall remove the power of the Secretary of State for traditional and specific responsibilities, for example in relation to the creation of parishes. Fourthly, we shall create a better, more proportionate way of ensuring and measuring local improvement. Fifthly, we shall create a transparent way of agreeing between central government and local government and its partners a small number of core priorities specific to each locality which cover the social, economic and environmental needs of local areas.

One of the most profound challenges we face is to create greater knowledge and confidence in local government, not least so that improvement is recognised and to make the work of local government immediate and relevant to people. There is no doubt that however effective it may be, the complications of a two-tier system of local government makes this much more difficult.

Eighteen months ago, therefore, we invited councils to tell us what was working and what was not, and what they wanted to improve and change. In a number of areas there is determination to make the two tiers work better. However, in some areas there is a strong feeling that the current system cannot be made to work and that the unitary option makes more sense. We have responded to that. This Bill puts in place a procedure for voluntary structural change. This is not about change for change’s sake; it is about improving accountability and leadership, increasing efficiency and achieving better and more responsive services for communities.

I shall explain the process and the timetable. The timetable is driven by a full recognition that proposals for restructuring can create uncertainty and tensions. That is why we are committed to progressing towards implementation as soon as possible. The invitations for proposals were issued last October. As a result we shall be able to move towards implementation quickly,

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with new unitary authorities up and running by May 2009. We are consulting on 16 proposals for unitary structures. Each of these proposals was judged against strict criteria, including the need to show that there is a broad cross-section of support, affordability and value-for-money services. The Government’s assessment was that there was at least a reasonable likelihood that those proposals, if implemented, would meet the criteria. The consultation closes on 22 June. Decisions will be made at the end of July.

I want to address a related point. In the other place there were concerns about the Secretary of State’s power to direct councils to submit proposals for unitary structures set out in Clause 2. Working with the LGA, we have therefore made amendments in the other place so that now this power can be used only during a narrow window. In addition, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State indicated at Second Reading that we would use this power to deal only with residual areas in order to ensure that a proposal received in response to our invitation and which we are minded to implement, works properly for the whole area concerned. I am pleased to be able to reiterate this commitment publicly today.

Clearer local responsibilities need to be matched with clearer local leadership and clearer accountability. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, recognised the value of strong local leadership and direct elections in his interim report from the Cities Taskforce. Improving local areas has never been more difficult. It seems that we are in agreement that council leaders need the power to take tough decisions and to develop and communicate a clear vision for their area.

While the best leaders can be successful in any system, the evidence shows that executive governance arrangements are most likely to lead and support the strong and accountable leadership that places need. We are confident that the three executive models set out in the Bill will provide this leadership. The three models are an elected mayor, an elected executive and a leader and cabinet executive. The small number of authorities that because of their size have opted to operate alternative arrangements will continue to be able to do so if they choose. Where an authority has a leader and a cabinet executive, executive powers will be vested in the leader, who will be able either to exercise the powers himself or herself or delegate them. We will expect a council’s constitution to continue to explain which functions are to be discharged by the executive. Overview and scrutiny committees will be able to investigate the way in which executive powers are used. Functions that legislation or a council’s constitution require to be discharged by the full council will be unaffected and will continue to be discharged in the usual way.

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