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House of Lords

Thursday, 29 November 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Death of a Member

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, it is with great regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Allen of Abbeydale on 27 November. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to his family and friends.

Economy: International Competitiveness

11.07 am

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office & Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Jones of Birmingham): My Lords, the UK continues to perform well on a wide variety of measures of competitiveness. Recent data suggest improvements in productivity performance over the economic cycle and in relation to key international competitors such as France and Germany. Nevertheless, the Government are committed to achieving continued long-term improvements in UK competitiveness through raising long-term productivity. The recent CSR illustrates this with policies aimed at improving performance through the key drivers of productivity, which include increased investment in higher education and skills, continued development of a world-class science base and simplifications to the tax system. This is underpinned by the Government’s commitment to maintaining macroeconomic stability, which provides firms and individuals with the certainty needed to invest for our future.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reassuring and optimistic reply. Is he aware that the reasons given by the World Economic Forum and others for Britain’s falling competitiveness include the heavy burden of complex taxes and red tape? They also rate Britain fairly low in the economic stability league—46th position among 131 countries—because of persistently high government borrowing and low levels of household saving. Should not these weaknesses be firmly addressed by the Government to avoid the lower growth anticipated for next year being even lower than expected?

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Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is right to assess simplification of the tax system and lessening the regulatory burden as key to enhancing productivity. Only yesterday we had the Second Reading of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill and, in the Pre-Budget Report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched the simplification of the tax system. I would caution against league tables. I can show that the league table to which the noble Lord referred, which says that the UK is coming down, also shows that, for employing workers, Germany is 137th in the world while Georgia is fourth.

Lord Bilimoria: My Lords, the Minister has talked about the fall in competitiveness. Yesterday we heard that some countries have more presence worldwide in diplomatic posts than Britain does and the Minister said that we are snapping at their heels. What is happening? Are we reduced from top dog to whippersnappers? Are we running behind when we should be running ahead? Can the Minister reassure us that things are actually not that bad?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that I have never snapped at anyone’s heels in my life. We spend every day at UK Trade & Investment getting round 137 countries, making sure that British companies, or overseas companies using Britain as the launch pad for global competitiveness, have the strength of the Union Jack behind them. That is key; business is the presence that can make the difference. Productivity comes in many different ways—for example, through investment in skills and higher education. Businesses around the world will succeed in the 21st century only if we cluster around knowledge—and our universities are among the best in the world.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I have no idea what the World Economic Forum is but, judging from what it appears to have said, it talks a load of nonsense. The notion that the British economy is not one of the most stable in the world is ridiculous; we are one of the most stable and successful economies in the world and what that organisation needs is a lesson in economics. The last time I looked at the figures for the service industries, Britain was among the most productive and efficient economies in the world, if not the most productive and efficient—and that includes financial services despite the fiasco of Northern Rock. Is it not the case that a large part of the problem for the production industries is an overvalued pound sterling, which is due to an excessively restrictive monetary policy?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for showing how important world macroeconomic stability is. Our service economy, to which he referred, is one of the reasons why we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the developed world—5.4 per cent compared with 8.1 per cent in France and 8.7 per cent in Germany; indeed, it is nearly 5 per cent in America. That is because of our diverse economy.

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Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, when the Minister has finished waving his flag, could he find time to read a rather perceptive article in today’s Herald Tribune? It points out that our businessmen and government support are, compared to those of France and Germany, rather slow in China. We are lagging behind because we do not spend enough time in the big cities other than Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong.

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising this point. I was in China only last week visiting cities such as Wuhan which are not Beijing or Shanghai. We are always berated for our trade with China being about a third of that of France, but every Airbus that is sold to China is booked as a 100 per cent export from France whereas 60 per cent of it comes from the United Kingdom. We book our 60 per cent as an export to France; France books its Airbus as a 100 per cent export to China. If you look behind the figures, you will find that we export more to China than people realise.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, is the Minister prepared to accept that if he gave an honest answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, he would say that there is not a lot that the Government can do? Is not his problem that the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, put himself at the head of a drive to improve Britain’s productivity and that drive has so far not proved very successful?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I think that in his observation about league tables the noble Lord meant that we should not always take them as gospel. Ahead of us in the current one are Iceland, Denmark and Singapore. Of the major economies, only the United States is substantially ahead of us. France is below us, Germany is on a par and Japan is just ahead of us. There are many different ways of calculating these league tables. If we keep concentrating on universities and skills, on simplification of tax and on better regulation, we will succeed.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I wonder—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we are into the ninth minute. It is time to move on.

Health: Obesity

11.15 am

Lord Addington asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, tackling obesity is a cross-government responsibility led by the Department of Health. Childhood obesity is the joint responsibility of the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as

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signalled by the new public service agreement to improve the health and well-being of children and young people. The Secretary of State for Health is developing a comprehensive cross-government strategy on obesity, facilitated by a cross-governmental ministerial group.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is there any plan to give absolute authority to the Department of Health to ensure that things like recreational physical activity are made more readily available in any new planning? If not, why not? We have just heard that obesity is apparently a greater threat to us than global warming.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Secretary of State for Health is taking the lead. The Foresight report provided us with a catalyst and there is absolute determination that our cross-departmental work will bring forward results. The strategy will be available in the very near future and I am confident that the Secretary of State for Health will be determined in his leadership.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I speak as a member of the All-Party Group on Obesity. Why is it that in central London you can hardly find a thinly-sliced or medium-sliced loaf of bread to buy, and any sandwich you buy in any supermarket is now made with thick bread? While the House of Lords continues to use medium-sliced—and very nice—bread in its sandwiches, even the House of Commons has moved to thick bread. Surely at a time when we want to reduce people’s consumption, there should be more pressure from the Food Standards Agency, or one of the many departments the Minister speaks about, to take us back to normal-sized bread instead of these super-sized sandwiches.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is an interesting and important point, but it is not really a matter for the Government. We would be accused of being a nanny state if the Government started to pronounce on these issues.

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, what progress has been achieved so far by the physical education in schools initiative? What advice is given to schools to stop children being able to abandon PE after the end of year 9?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am pleased to report that 86 per cent of schoolchildren now do at least two hours of quality sport a week. That is one of the results of the programme. I recognise that there is a lot more to be done, and we aim to offer every child and young person the chance of five hours’ sport a week by 2011.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the restriction on advertising foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats are sufficient to achieve what the majority of people in this House and elsewhere would like to be achieved?

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, I am not satisfied. The rules on advertising to children have got a lot better. From January onwards, adverts during television programmes of particular appeal to children under 16 will not be allowed. However, we believe that we must move forward, and we need a ban on all high-fat, salty and sugary foods before the 9 pm watershed.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I accept that obesity is a serious problem, but is my noble friend satisfied that the current measure of obesity, the BMI, is a sufficiently flexible and precise indicator of obesity in relation to health?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there is much discussion about measurements of obesity. We believe that the current BMI measure is the best one we have at the moment, but we are looking at that.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, does the Minister agree that people have always loved to eat junk food, whether it was bread and dripping and iced buns in my day or, nowadays, the dreaded burger? Does she also agree that people who are overweight and heavy but very fit are not necessarily obese?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I thought that would please your Lordships. To go back to my noble friend’s original point, it is terribly important that the Government encourage exercise in all forms.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords. One of the problems is that we are no longer hunter-gatherers. Our lifestyle has changed; the society in which we live has changed; we must change our culture. That must mean more sport, more exercise and looking at our built environment.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister said that various factors may contribute to obesity. In light of the fact that many infants who do not rely on exercise and who do not necessarily eat chips and bread and butter are becoming grossly overweight, will she consider the contribution that the huge number of new chemicals to which we have been exposed during the past 40 years may have made to creating genetic alterations before children are born?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is a very interesting point which I shall take back to the department. We have to prevent young infants becoming obese. It is adults who buy their children’s food. Therefore, we have to target adults as well as young infants.

Earl Howe: My Lords—

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, there have been no Labour speakers on this Question. It should be the Labour side.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, will the strategy that is about to be concluded look at the underutilisation of resources available in gyms in the private sector? Will the Government explore the

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possibility of using those resources for schools, possibly in collaboration with the Youth Justice Board, as a means of getting some young people out of criminality and into exercise and a better life?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, if the strategy was not going to consider that before the noble Lord’s question, I can assure him that it will do so now.


11.22 am

Lord Fowler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Vadera): My Lords, DfID is the world’s second-largest donor in the fight against HIV/AIDS and has pledged to spend £1.5 billion on AIDS-related work in the three years to 2008. It recently made the first long-term commitment, to 2015, of £1 billion to the Global Fund. DfID promotes a comprehensive approach to tackling the epidemic, from prevention to access to treatment, from education to rights to health systems, and we prioritise women, children and other vulnerable groups.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I pay tribute to the Government’s work overseas, but is the Minister aware that the position at home is not so good: that the number of people in the United Kingdom who are diagnosed each year with HIV has more than trebled since 1997; that the number of people living with HIV has reached a record total of 73,000; and that, rather than having the best record in western Europe, we now have one of the worst? Will the Government pledge on World AIDS Day on Saturday that, in renewing the battle against AIDS globally, they will renew it also at home?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for asking us to mark the 20th World AIDS Day on Saturday. Yes, we will look at the new figures on the increasing prevalence of AIDS in the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Department of Health will have something to say about it.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords—

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, there is plenty of time for both contributions.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, will the Minister congratulate the Royal College of Nursing, which last night launched a campaign, Think Positive, aiming to stop discrimination against people with

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HIV and AIDS? Will she encourage the worldwide treatment of HIV and tuberculosis together, as there has been a rise in the incidence of tuberculosis?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, indeed, I congratulate the Royal College of Nursing, particularly because we understand that stigma and discrimination are among the major obstacles to treating HIV and AIDS. I am pleased to announce that DfID will today publish guidance on best practice in dealing with stigma and discrimination for all its staff around the world and for those in the development community who are working on HIV/AIDS.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that treatment of AIDS is much more than just supplying medicine, and that for both prevention and treatment it is essential to focus aid on the proper delivery of health services, particularly in rural areas?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend. We have to be aware of the fact that for every new person put on ARV treatment, there are three or four new infections of HIV/AIDS. Therefore, we have to take a very comprehensive approach to prevention as well as the delivery of HIV/AIDS treatment. DfID’s focus has been very much on the creation of health systems in developing countries, a lot of the funding for which is not specifically earmarked to HIV/AIDS and not in the figures that I mentioned earlier. In particular, we look at the distribution of condoms, the availability of treatment for children and vulnerable groups, and gender issues, so we need to take a comprehensive approach.

Baroness Northover: My Lords—

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords—

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, the Minister will have seen, as I have done, many children with HIV/AIDS. When will we see a significant improvement in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission? Will the Government’s new AIDS strategy, which they are working on at the moment, continue to earmark the treatment and care of children? There seem to be some doubts as to whether that will continue to be the case.

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I am happy to assure the noble Baroness that it is not the case that there will be any backing away from our commitment to children and women. I am conscious of the fact that we could be very effective in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission if we made the effort. Only 11 per cent of women receive treatment in order to prevent transmission to children. Of course, this is one of the major ways in which children get HIV/AIDS; in Africa, 90 per cent of children who have HIV/AIDS get it from mother-to-child transmission.

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