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House of Lords

Tuesday, 20 November 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Disabled People: Legislation

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, my department undertakes regular research on how employers, service providers and others are responding to their duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In the past year, we have published a research report on organisations’ responses to the Act as well as a compliance audit of the disability equality duty, which shows that organisations and public bodies are responding positively to their duties.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response. Does he recall the Second Reading debate on my Bill on independent living for disabled people? His colleague, the Minister in that debate, said that she welcomed the principles of the Bill, which was warmly applauded by disabled people. They were delighted that it had such a good welcome from the Government.

Shortly after that, however, the Bill went from this House to the Commons, where the Government did not lift one finger to back it despite what had been said by the Minister’s colleague in this House, so the Bill was lost. After all that effort, all those details and all the trouble taken by disabled people, MPs and Peers, the Bill fell. I am not saying that the Government killed the Bill, but they let it die through neglect. It was neglected because there was no government support for it, despite the apparent unanimity in this House.

If the Government will do that with Bills of this kind, there are real problems. The important thing to recognise now is that if that Bill comes back—as it will, because I am bringing it back in 10 days—the Government should be careful about what they say and do about principles.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for the tireless and passionate way in which he continues to campaign for disabled people. He will be aware that the Government are fully committed to improving the lives of disabled people. We have introduced a comprehensive package of civil rights for disabled people, and are promoting more independent living through, for example, piloting individual budgets.

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The Government support the principles underpinning the Bill to which my noble friend refers, but are concerned that the implementation of all the measures, especially at the pace proposed, would have major cost implications. It would also overlap, to some extent, with what is already under way. My noble friend may be aware that the Office for Disability Issues is about to publish a cross-government independent living strategy at the turn of the year.

Lord Rix: My Lords, have the Government assessed the number of people with a learning disability who are being denied services by their local authority simply because the local authority has changed the eligibility criteria? If they have not made an assessment, are they, in the jargon of the day, minded so to do?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Government are always minded to review all aspects of their policy. In relation to individuals with learning disabilities, the “Supporting People Programme” has, since its inception, spent something like £8.3 billion supporting a number of people with learning disabilities. So far as local government is concerned, I remind the House that government funding has increased by £28.4 million—39 per cent in real terms—since 1997. The Government have now delivered an above-inflation grant increase to local authorities for 10 successive years, so they have been resourced to address these issues.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government’s laudable promise that family carers of those with severe intellectual impairment should be placed at the heart of decision-making is not yet being met at local level? At government level, the Government are making all the right noises, as did the previous Government, but at local level it is still not happening. Is there anything the Government can do to encourage that?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am sure there are still challenges to be met to make sure that disabled people face no discrimination or disadvantage. We are addressing the barriers they face in a number of ways in relation to transport, housing and schooling, and it is clear that we must continue to do that and more.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the leader of another place said in July that the Government intend to publish a draft single equality Bill in the 2007-08 Session of Parliament. Given the proposed abolition of the disability equality duty and the fact that no mention of it was included in the gracious Speech, what is going on?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we remain committed to our manifesto commitment to introduce an equality Act during this Parliament. The noble Lord will be aware that not long ago we issued a consultation paper and are reflecting on the responses. We will formally respond in due course. The commitment was not for there to be an equality Bill in the Queen's Speech this November, but we remain committed to that endeavour.

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Lord Addington: My Lords, the Minister seems to have agreed that there is an aspiration to meet much of what was in the original Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and that most of what was in that Bill is best practice. He then said that it is too expensive to do it all of a sudden. Can he give us some sort of timescale for when the Government expect to do it or at least a time when we will have a timescale?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the independent living review which is due to report within a few weeks, but, to illustrate the issues that we are addressing and the barriers we are focusing on at the moment, I say that more funding is going into advocacy services, and I have talked about the “Supporting People Programme”. So far as housing is concerned, we have abolished means-testing of disabled facilities grants for families with disabled children, and funding has been increased from £57 million in 1997 to £127 million in the current year. In relation to transport, concessionary fares have been extended. There is a lot going on, so we are not formally awaiting the outcome of that review, but it will set down the path for the next five years.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, has the disability audit given information on the number of—

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. I regret to say that my experience of being a disabled person now in London is that hotels, clubs and various other places are not meeting the requirements to which he referred. Will the Minister urge his staff to take a much closer look at the facilities for disabled people in public places, which are not working terribly well?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I acknowledge the noble Lord’s experience and I am sorry that he is still suffering the challenges he has outlined. Research increasingly shows that employers, companies and public services are aware of their responsibilities, but there is clearly a considerable way to go.

Children: Criminal Responsibility

2.45 pm

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

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, there are currently no plans to review the effect of the changes to the criminal responsibility rules introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, is the Minister—

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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, although it is very disappointing. Does he think that there is any correlation between the fact that in this country we have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in western Europe and the fact that a higher number of children in prison than in all those other countries put together? Will he undertake a study of how those other western European countries deal with offending behaviour among their child populations?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is very difficult to make crude comparisons between different countries with different systems. I accept that we should look constantly at the experience of other countries to see what we can learn from them. Equally, I hope that other countries will look at the experience of the UK. The overall philosophy adopted is that early intervention allows for action to be taken to prevent reoffending in the future. It is very important that action to prevent reoffending is seen as a major priority.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for interrupting her supplementary question; I am sorry to have done so. I am afraid it was over enthusiasm.

Are the Government considering any plans for the diversion of children who are offenders between the ages of 10 and 12? If so, what are they considering?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for her comment. The Government’s intention is to ensure that custodial sentences should be a last resort. We want to ensure that young people who come within the criminal justice system are dealt with as effectively as possible, with the emphasis on rehabilitation and the prevention of reoffending. In order to reduce the number of children being taken to court for relatively low-level offences, the introduction of youth conditional cautions is provided for in the Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently being debated in another place. We also support other initiatives.

The Lord Bishop of London: My Lords, in the light of that answer, the Minister is obviously aware that in 2005 76 per cent of children given custodial sentences reoffended within 12 months of their release. Does he agree that the other initiatives to which he referred are very urgent indeed in view of these figures?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the figures given by the right reverend Prelate are right and clearly are very serious. It shows that the earlier the intervention, the more likely one is to prevent reoffending. This is why we are looking at a number of areas where early intervention can take place before a young person is taken in front of the full criminal justice system. However, it is also likely, is it not, that the young people who end up in custody are likely to be the most hardened offenders? One has to be very cautious about drawing too many conclusions from the figures.

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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords—

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a public interest in this issue and that we have seen recently that youngsters between 10 and 14 can be guilty of the most horrific offences or “crimes”? It is important that we publicly call them to account. We should perhaps not punish them, but we should certainly treat them as the Minister suggested. Would the public not be outraged if these matters were dealt with behind closed doors?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is right to draw attention to the public’s interest in these matters. I am sure also that young children in the category about which we are speaking understand the difference between naughtiness and action that is seriously wrong. That was the basis of the change in 1998. Equally, as I have said already, we have to ensure that early interventions are focused on the prevention of reoffending.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords—

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Benches.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, have the Government considered the findings of the Scottish Law Commission in 2002 that the criminal justice system as a whole is inappropriate for dealing with young children, that there should be an absolute bar on prosecution of children under the age of 12 and that the vast majority of cases should be dealt with by a welfare-based system of children’s panel hearings which addresses the child’s behaviour with the co-operation of the parents? Is not the use of the criminal courts in England and Wales to deal with 10 year-olds an abuse not even contemplated in the dark ages?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords, I strongly refute that suggestion. I am quite clear that young people even at that age understand the difference between right and wrong. It is appropriate that young people are dealt with in the criminal justice system as they are in this country, but the emphasis is always on rehabilitation and prevention of reoffending. That has to be the first priority.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords—

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, we should move to the next Question, and as it is mine, I am particularly keen to get on to it.

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EU: Reform Treaty

2.53 pm

Lord Elton: My Lords, following the enthusiasm of the Leader of the House, I beg leave to answer, or rather ask, the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, if the noble Lord wishes to answer it, too, that will be fine. The Government will publish a Bill setting out the way in which the treaty will be given effect in UK law. Parliament can vote to amend the Bill, although some of its provisions will be necessary for the UK to ratify the treaty. Parliament cannot unilaterally amend the treaty, which in this case will have 26 other signatories beside the UK.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does it not follow that the function of the debate on the Bill, which cannot alter jot or tittle in the treaty, is to inform the general public about the Bill’s contents? When the public are informed, will they not then be in a position to come to their own conclusion about its desirability by means of a referendum?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord knows very well that the Government do not support a referendum in these circumstances. We are following the long established good practice that the amendment of a treaty of this kind should be handled by your Lordships' House and another place. That is what we intend to do.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the persuasive logic of the noble Lord’s Question is that we should allow plenty of time for debate of the Bill in this Chamber and then, when we have analysed it exhaustively, there should be no need for anybody at that stage to want to amend it?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have no doubt that our debates will be exhaustive, and possibly exhausting, and that noble Lords will want to spend time ensuring that they understand completely what is in the reform treaty and the red lines that the UK Government have been able to achieve.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that the Eurosceptics do not need to worry about this provided there is the substantial discussion referred to earlier on, because 18 plus seven countries have now improved the original text? According to Mr Tony Blair, that was indispensable to this country. They have modernised and shortened it, and have agreed everything that the sovereign member states wanted. They are happy to let the Commission powers be expressed in that way.

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in looking at what has happened to the reform treaty, it is important that we are clear about the difference between the Constitution and the reform treaty. Noble Lords will wish to spend time looking at that. But I am also clear that the role of Parliament is to take the ratification through the necessary process—to spend time debating and discussing it—in order for Parliament to reach its conclusion.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, what would happen if the provisions of the Bill, which the Leader of the House said were essential for the treaty to come into force in the UK, were negatived by Parliament?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the UK would not then have ratified the treaty.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, surely the real challenge is to ensure that there is as much parliamentary involvement as possible, not only over this treaty but in future treaties. Is not one important component of the Bill that there will be a much greater role for national parliaments in respect of European matters?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, indeed, it is interesting to see the proposals coming forward for the UK and parliaments of all the 27 nations to have the opportunity to look at proposals in the context of subsidiarity and be sure that those proposals do not adversely affect the system that we have in place.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords—

Lord Redesdale: My Lords—

Lord Grocott: My Lords, the arithmetic is simple: we have had two Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal speaker, so it is the turn of the Liberals.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, we win on numbers. Will the Leader of the House read the proceedings that took place in this House during the referendum debate on the Maastricht treaty, in which the largest vote ever to take place in this House was overwhelmingly against a referendum? The leadership of the main opposition party led the charge through those Division Lobbies.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, enough said.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, will the Leader of the House at least assure us that any attempt to amend the treaty in the future by the so-called self-amending clause—Clause 33(3)—will be exposed to proper national parliamentary control and not just pushed through without any parliamentary intervention at all?

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