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House of Lords

Thursday, 19 July 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

Introduction: Lord Darzi of Denham

Lord Darzi of Denham—Sir Ara Warkes Darzi, Knight, having been created Baron Darzi of Denham, of Gerrards Cross in the County of Buckinghamshire, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and the Lord Gavron.

Royal Assent

11.13 am

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:

Rating (Empty Properties) Act,

Appropriation (No. 2) Act,

Finance Act,

Mental Health Act,

Concessionary Bus Travel Act,

Vehicle Registration Marks Act,

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act,

Parliament (Joint Departments) Act,

Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act,

Whitehaven Harbour Act,

London Local Authorities Act.


Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Government recognise the important contribution of bees as pollinators and the threat posed by pests and pathogens. The bee health programme is led in England and Wales by the National Bee Unit, which monitors bee colonies and investigates pests and disease and cases involving significant losses. The department is currently preparing a draft strategy for bee health and will be consulting stakeholders on the future aims and priorities for the programme.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for pointing out that we get much more from bees than simply honey;

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their contribution to pollinating everything from apples to beans is extremely important. How does Defra intend to co-ordinate the funding between itself, BBSRC and the academic institutions that are undertaking research? Does the Minister agree that the threats to bees from Varroa, foul brood and perhaps the small hive beetle from the Continent are unprecedented and might result in the sort of colony collapse that happened in America, where the bee population was halved? Is he confident that the funding for inspections and research is adequate in the face of those threats?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that there are threats. The funding has remained the same in the United Kingdom; it is about £1.7 million, excluding funding for research. The same applies for the devolved Administrations. The funding is always under review. We are working, as I have said, on the strategy. An enormous amount of research is going on in the country, not just at the Central Science Laboratory where the National Bee Unit is based but in other academic institutions, as she said. It is true that serious efforts are being put into contingency planning for the Tropilaelaps—I have been practising that word but I still cannot say it—small hive beetle and the European foul brood, which is another disease. We are working on this with the industry because it is important. However, there is no connection between this and what has been happening in the United States. Even the United States does not know why so many colonies have collapsed, although obviously it is looking at this. Our scientists are in very close contact with United States scientists.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is considerable ignorance about the benefits that bees bring, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said? Does he accept that there is an increasing need for people to understand and perhaps to get involved in beekeeping? A number of people now recognise that keeping bees privately is beneficial not only as a hobby but as a public service. What are the Government doing to promote education about beekeeping and to encourage people to get involved in it?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we know that there are 44,000 beekeepers, who are looking after some 274,000 colonies. Of those beekeepers, only 300 are commercial; they look after 40,000 colonies. The number is vast. If anyone wants an excellent example, they should look at the Guardian today, although it has nothing to do with this Question, and see what 14 year-old Philip Schilds is doing in Hackney. He regularly climbs up on to the roof to generate 500 pounds of honey for Hackney Rooftop Honey. With his eight hives, he is looking after a considerable number of bees. His food production is a tribute to youngsters. Honey from urban areas tastes better because the bees get a better variety of flowers than they do from the monotone in the countryside. My noble friend is right. Defra inspections are free, as are the training programmes. They might not always be free but they are currently. This is a public good because of the importance of bees to food production.

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Lord Winston: My Lords, one of the organisms that have been mentioned is the small hive beetle, Aethina, which can be carried into this country. It is not yet a risk, but it has invaded Canada, the United States and Australia, and it destroys large colonies of bees. Will the Minister say whether bees such as queens are still imported into this country, and does Defra regard that as a threat?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we do not allow any bees to be imported from the United States. I do not know about the queens, but I know that some bumble bees are imported from Europe for commercial use. So far, we have not experienced a massive downturn in the hives. In fact, there were reports in the spring that there had been one of the most successful winters ever for the bee population. Counting the bee population is not easy, but the estimates for the United Kingdom are that there are 5 billion bees in the winter and 16 billion in the summer.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, in view of the Minister’s impressive grasp of this important matter, will he undertake not to hive this subject off to another department?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, Defra is on this case.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the first case of resistance to pyrethroid was acknowledged in 2001 in Devon? This has spread extensively across the country. What alternative has been forthcoming and are any approved substances that are not on the recommended list used abroad?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not have a list, but resistance to pyrethroid is a common problem. It is important that where resistance is found beekeepers switch to using non-pyrethroid treatments and adapt the principles of integrated pest management. Field test kits for identifying the resistance have been developed by the National Bee Unit for use by bee inspectors and beekeepers. This public good is done by the unit as part of the Central Science Laboratory of Defra.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, would the Minister’s department consider funding the very exciting research being done at Rothamsted into the development of biological pesticides to control Varroa? That might cost around £660,000 over three years, but it is a drop in the ocean if such control can help to sustain crop pollination in the EU to the tune of about £4 billion a year.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the closure of Rothamsted’s bee unit was a matter for Rothamsted; it was not an issue of Defra funding, although obviously we use the centre for research. Although there is no longer a team working on bee pathology at Rothamsted, apparently a group of researchers still studies bee behaviour, pollination and conservation. In addition, at a recent meeting of the British Beekeepers Association, it became clear to our officials that a vibrant group of researchers in England and Wales is studying different aspects of bees. To the best of my knowledge, we are not short of bee research.

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11.21 am

Baroness Tonge My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, which is about birds as well.

The Question was as follows:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is a key aim of the Government to reduce unintended pregnancy rates, measured by the number of abortions, as featured in both the sexual health and teenage pregnancy strategies. Provision of good quality contraceptive advice and services are essential to achieve this. We will be issuing best practice guidance on reproductive healthcare later this year that is aimed at commissioners and providers and which emphasises the need to develop strong links between abortion and contraceptive services. In addition, primary care trusts will be assessed on access to contraception as part of the Healthcare Commission’s annual healthcheck for 2006-07.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am sorry for the joke. Is she aware that the contraceptive audit done by the Department of Health showed that family planning clinics in the community were closing all over the country and that women are no longer able to access the full range of contraceptive services that they need, even from their GPs? On the basis that an abortion is an unprevented pregnancy, would the Minister please agree with me that it is no coincidence that the closure of clinics has coincided with a rise in the abortion rate?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am sure that there is some coincidence between the lack of access to contraceptive services and the rate of abortions. We are doing our utmost to ensure that that rate goes down and that access to clinics goes up. We are working on ensuring that there is better commissioning at a local level so that more people have access to these vital contraceptive services.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is the Minister aware that abortion can lead to trauma and tragedy for many women, perhaps even years later? Is she, like me, saddened and concerned by the fact that we have now destroyed some 7 million babies? What priority is she putting on her efforts to stop the flow of abortions?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that abortion can cause great trauma and tragedy for women who have them. It is a necessary evil. However, it is not a method of contraception. People turn to it as a last resort. We are doing our utmost to reduce the number of abortions and to increase access to contraceptive services so that fewer people have abortions.

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Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: My Lords, there are 600 abortions every day, which is roughly one every three and a half minutes. With so few babies available to be adopted in the United Kingdom, would it not be more positive for the Minister and the Government to promote a more effective policy on adoption?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, adoption is one area of policy; abortion and contraceptive health are another. We are concerned here with women’s rights over their reproductive health. We are talking about sexual health and reproduction; we should not look at unintended pregnancies as a source of babies for adoption.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, are the Government investigating why one-third of British doctors are now reported to be refusing to refer women for abortions and whether this indicates a change of mood and mind among some younger members of the medical profession about the current legislation on abortion?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is a matter of great concern to the Government that fewer doctors are working in this area and we are looking into the problem. One of the reasons is that it is not seen as a “sexy” area; many other specialities are of greater interest to doctors. We must work to ensure that there are enough doctors available to perform these services.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, for many women there is a need for easy and early access to abortion. One of the problems they face is the long distances they have to travel in order to get an abortion. I appreciate that the legislation rightly lays down that clinics have to be registered, but is there any way in which we can increase the number of venues where abortions can be performed in order to ensure that women get early access to abortion?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, my noble friend is right: early access to abortion is vital for women’s health and for choice. For that reason, we are piloting medical abortions in more community-based settings. These are now being evaluated, clearly taking into consideration safety, accessibility and working, of course, within the law.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, the Minister will be well aware of the gradual reduction in the number of under-18 pregnancies in England but the data for 1998-2005 indicate that the percentage of such pregnancies leading to abortion has increased somewhat; however, the variation is enormous. What guidance is given to the NHS about encouraging those young girls to seek abortion? What is the department doing to address the variation, say, between London’s 59.7 per cent and the north-east’s 38.9 per cent?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I regret that I cannot give chapter and verse in respect of guidance but I will certainly inform noble Lords in

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writing and place a copy in the Library. It is of great concern to the Government that delivery on the ground is unequal; it is patchy throughout the United Kingdom. We are working on the problem in terms of best practice and the provision of guidance. We want to ensure that access is equal in all areas of the United Kingdom.

Lord Patel: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the increasing rate of abortions is the direct result of a failed contraceptive service, including education in schools and the availability of the so-called morning-after pill?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. It is for that reason that we are working on access to contraceptive services and better health and relationship education—those two areas are key to reducing the number of abortions.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, in my days as a health Minister I was made aware of the deep concerns about the psychological and physical effects of abortion, to which my noble friend Lady Knight referred. What consideration is being given to recent research that points to a linkage between abortion and short-term births and breast cancer?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I regret that I do not have that answer. Again, I will make it available to noble Lords and place a copy in the Library. However, I entirely agree that abortions can lead to psychological problems. It is for that reason that they are the last resort for women.

Mariners: Alcohol and Drugs Limits

11.29 am

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the proposed exemption is designed to except from the application of prescribed alcohol limits those non-professional mariners on vessels which, because of their smaller size of under seven metres and lower maximum possible speed of seven knots or less, pose less risk in the water. The parameters for the exemption are designed to achieve this while being a recognised figure based on existing international shipping law.

Lord Berkeley: I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, but is she aware that one of the biggest causes of marine accidents in the leisure industry is people coming home in their boat from the pub after a good drinking session? A lot of people die that way in their dinghies. Does she agree that there is very little difference between being in charge of a boat,

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even if it is only doing seven knots, and being in charge of a car? You can still kill people. Does she not agree that it is illogical to exempt people who are at leisure just because it seems to be all right? They can still cause as many deaths as a professional boatman.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I do not agree with my noble friend on the possibility of small dinghies, canoes, rowing boats and punts, which are the category of vessel we are talking about, posing as much of a safety risk as larger motor-powered vessels over the limit of seven metres and seven knots that we are proposing. While ensuring the safety of the public on all vessels in our waters is a top priority, we are, through consultation, learning the lessons from, for instance, the terrible tragedy of the “Marchioness” and the two most recent accidents in Scotland and the south-west, where people were killed because of alcohol limits being exceeded. To create a balance, the Government have chosen this category to be the exception.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, while such people may pose a smaller risk to larger vessels, is it not the truth that they pose a risk to themselves and the people on board these smaller vessels if they are incapacitated by alcohol or drugs?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, of course they will pose a risk to each other. We still maintain that that risk is a lot less than the limit of seven knots and seven metres. However, there is an offence, which will be put into force once the regulations have commenced, of being impaired in the ability to navigate because of drink or drugs. That offence will be there for both professional and non-professional mariners. It is not as if leisure mariners are completely free of legislation. That impairment offence through drink or drugs will be there.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I wonder if the Minister is aware that the South West Ports Association has written to the Government asking them to include the smaller boats to which she referred within the new law. With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, it is when ships get close to shore and people use dinghies and rowing boats—which the Minister rather dismissed—that the accidents occur. Might the Government not be devoting sufficient resources to the enforcement of several laws relating to boats in connection with people-trafficking, drugs and accidents to people?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I sincerely do not believe that this is a question of resources. The majority of the responses from the assiduous consultation that has gone on with both the leisure boat industry and the safety agencies have led us to believe that we have struck a balance. There is a need for that balance between regulation and overburdening people in their leisure time and ensuring that we have safety on our waters.

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