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House of Lords

Monday, 23 July 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Sheffield.

Death of a Member

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, it is with regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle on 18 July. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to his family and friends.

Prisoners: Voting Rights

2.36 pm

The Lord Bishop of Worcester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government are considering how to take forward the implementation of the Hirst judgment in light of the first-stage consultation on this issue. The results of that stage will be published with the second consultation document, which will look at the practical issues of any possible enfranchisement of convicted prisoners.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I notice that he did not give a timetable, so perhaps he will be able to enlarge a little in that respect. While I recognise that he has inherited this policy, does he agree that a consultation which excludes general enfranchisement and includes blanket disfranchisement—the former is the option most often chosen by other countries; the latter has been declared unlawful—and on which there has been quite a long delay, might send a signal to those whom we would least like to receive it that we take time over obedience to the law and choose what we want to follow and what we do not?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand that the right reverend Prelate is shortly to retire from your Lordships’ House, and I am sure that all noble Lords join me in thanking him for his tremendous contribution to this House. However, for once I do not really agree with him. The consultative paper setting out a number of options was sent out towards the end of last year. I do not think it unreasonable not to include a general enfranchisement of all prisoners. The options that have been put forward are perfectly reasonable for discussion, and Ministers are considering the outcome of the consultation on them.

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Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this disfranchisement dates back to the Forfeiture Act 1870? Given this Government’s relentless thirst for change, most of which I welcome, is it not rather bizarre that British citizens registered as overseas electors who are in foreign jails are entitled to vote while their mates over here cannot do so? What about a bit of change there?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right to suggest that the current position of convicted prisoners in this country goes back many years. He is also right to point out certain inconsistencies. However, giving enfranchisement to convicted prisoners still serving sentences in this country is a complex issue and we will come to a conclusion on it only after very careful consideration.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, do the Government support this issue or not? I was not clear on that from the Minister’s answer. Does he not agree that there are more important issues surrounding voting? It must be important to restore integrity to our voting system, particularly following the recent disasters of postal voting.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is a little wide of the question of where the Government stand in relation to whether serving prisoners should receive voting rights. Until now, the Government have always considered that the right to vote is part of a social contract between individuals and the state. The loss of the right to vote, reflected in the current law, was thought by the Government to be a proper and proportionate punishment for breaches of that social contract which resulted in people’s imprisonment. But we have received a judgment from the European Court and it is right that we consider its implications; that is why there is a consultation. I can assure noble Lords that the Government will not come to a decision without very careful thought indeed.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, is it not right that the Government lost in the European Court of Human Rights, where it was found that blanket disfranchisement was clearly against Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the convention? Has not the Court of Session in Scotland followed that judgment? Surely the answer is an immediate remedial order by the fast-track procedure. At the moment we are in line with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lichtenstein and Moldova, among others, in denying rights to vote to prisoners.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, a considerable number of countries in the Council of Europe certainly take the same view as this country has always taken. I do not think an immediate remedial order is the right way forward. The Government made it clear that we would have a two-stage consultation process. We are looking at the conclusions of the first stage of consultation, and this will be followed by a further consultation. I do not think haste is required; very careful thought is needed.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, when they come to their conclusion, will the Government bear in mind that the aim of end-to-end offender management is rehabilitation? Surely one of the most important ways in which this can be stressed is that offenders retain citizenship—which they will be expected to use in a constructive way in future—while in prison.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is certainly one way of looking at it. I also suggest that many people think there is an issue of rights and responsibilities and that, in this case, rights have to be earned.

Baroness Golding: My Lords, what progress has been made to enable people who are admitted to hospital close to a polling date to have their voting rights?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, an emergency proxy system has been introduced recently whereby, up to 24 hours before the election, a person in that situation would be entitled to a proxy vote after making an application, or an application being made on their behalf, to the electoral registration officer. There has been some movement there.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords—

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords—

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

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, can the Minister explain why he thinks it is not unreasonable to exclude the option of general enfranchisement when it is already being operated, evidently successfully, in 18 Council of Europe countries and is being extended as we speak to others, including Ireland?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Very simply, my Lords, the Government do not support the general enfranchisement of all prisoners. There seems little point in engaging in consultation on it.

Health: Tuberculosis

2.45 pm

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Department of Health recommends that TB services follow the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guideline on the prevention, treatment and control of tuberculosis. It contains specific guidance on the follow-up

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of new entrants. The advice is also emphasised in the toolkit recently published by the department to help NHS trusts plan, procure and deliver TB services relevant to the local demography and incidence of TB.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Having had TB in my teens, I know how infectious it is. Does she agree with me that everyone coming into this country for more than six months, specifically from the 22 burden countries that suffer very much from the disease, should be tested?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we currently have a pilot project with the seven countries in which TB is most prevalent, in which we test people before they receive their visas to come to the UK. That scheme is now being evaluated, and we will probably roll it out to more countries such as China and India on the basis of that evaluation.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the case of the American gentleman who recently travelled to Europe knowing that he had TB. Does that not assist the case of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, that, although TB has a higher incidence in some countries, it happens in most? How soon will that pilot project be rolled out and on what basis will it be extended to different countries, such as the USA?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the project is being evaluated. I do not know the timescale of the rollout, but I will inform noble Lords. It is true that tuberculosis is an infectious disease, but it is not very infectious. The incidence of TB in this country is grossly exaggerated in the press from time to time. I understand that at the beginning of this century there were about 100,000 people in this country with TB. That figure now stands at somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware—well, she is obviously not aware—that her statement about TB not being highly infectious is quite wrong? When I was a chairman of a local public health body, we had one contact who infected 40 people within one week. It is a highly infectious condition. Does she not think that, although you can do a certain amount in terms of immigration, it is very important to see that children are immunised against TB and protected in that way?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I respect the views expressed by noble Lords. However, I have been informed by the Department of Health that TB is quite difficult to catch and usually requires prolonged or repeated contact with a person with infectious TB, such as living in the same household. It is important that children who are going to be subjected to contact with people with TB are immunised, and for that very reason the Government now have a targeted approach to immunisation. All new-born babies who are living in areas where TB is prevalent will now be immunised.

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Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, has the apparent shortage of vaccine of about a year ago now been overcome? Is there plenty of vaccine available?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I was not aware that there had been a shortage of vaccine. I understand by that that now there is no such shortage. If that is not the case, I will inform noble Lords.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that many incidents of virulent TB are coming into our prisons with foreign national prisoners. Is she satisfied that all primary care trusts are enabling all prisons that receive such prisoners to carry out the necessary tests on arrival and subsequent treatment?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is something PCTs are working hard on with the Prison Service. The Government are considering extending the screening of target groups, and that may be something prisons and PCTs will be contemplating.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, does the Minister agree that poor housing, in particular overcrowding, is a huge contributory factor in catching TB? What do the Government intend to do about this, particularly in the immigrant and asylum-seeker communities?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, TB is prevalent in areas of poor housing and homelessness. I am sure that the Statement later today by my honourable friend Yvette Cooper will have a bearing on this.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain how, in one breath, she talks about analysing a review and, in the next, about rollout to further countries before the review’s analysis is complete? Can she explain the logic of that?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I will check Hansard, but I hope that I said that the rollout would be on the basis of the evaluation. First, we want to evaluate the pilot projects; thereafter, provided that the evaluation shows that the schemes should be rolled out, we will seek to do so.

Census: Carers

2.51 pm

Baroness Pitkeathley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Office for National Statistics is still considering the inclusion of a question on carers in the 2011 census. The ONS recognises the importance of the topic and the value of the data. The question’s inclusion is dependent on space available on the questionnaire and the user requirement for competing questions. The final decision on the content of the 2011 census will ultimately be for Parliament to make.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for what I think was a hopeful Answer. Does he agree that the data provided by the 2001 census have

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been invaluable in gaining better recognition for carers? Does he also agree that at a time when the Government are trying to plan 10 years ahead for carers, with the review of the national strategy and so on, it is particularly important to have continuity and fullness of data, especially when we think about hard-to-reach groups, such as young carers and those from black and minority-ethnic communities?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend; I merely bring to the attention of the House the fact that the question on carers is competing for inclusion against questions on second residence, citizenship, year of entry, qualifications, industry, income and language. They are all important questions, too, but my noble friend is right that the Government are developing their policy on carers and that the best possible information is required to that end.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, with an ageing population, is it not essential that questions on carers be on the census form?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an important factor. It is because of the ageing population and the increased numbers of carers that the question was included on the 2001 census. However, there are many competing demands for the important document that the census represents; decisions are still to be taken on the final nature of the question sheet, which is put before Parliament.

Lord Newby: My Lords, in response to a Parliamentary Question in another place last week, the National Statistician said that one of the principal determinants of which and how many questions would be asked in the census was cost. Can the Minister assure the House that questions on carers will not be excluded from the next census on the basis of cost constraints?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the census is subject to an evaluation of cost-benefit analysis, like any other aspect of government. In fact, if a fourth page had to be introduced into the census, the rise in costs would be significant. There are many competing demands for the places on the three pages already identified. We cannot pretend that this issue does not have a cost dimension—it has. Nevertheless, as I said, the final decision on priorities rests with Parliament.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the very welcome improvement in the pension rights for carers that the Labour Government have introduced in the current Pensions Bill was based on information from the 2001 census data? I doubt whether, without it, we could have been so sure of our facts and the costs, and the improvement might not have happened. Will my noble friend take the opinion of the House and do his best to ensure that this question has the priority that it rightly deserves?

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