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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18 December 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

EU: UK Membership

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, membership of the European Union is central to the pursuit of stability, growth and employment in the UK. Membership of the EU provides significant benefits for UK business and employment. Britain’s trade with the European Union has grown from just over 40 per cent of our total trade in 1973 when we joined to around 55 per cent today.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, although it does not go quite as far as the Lord President did on 5 December when she admitted that the jobs depend on our trade with the European Union rather than on our membership of it. I ask the Minister to come one easy step further and agree that none of those jobs would be lost, and indeed that millions more would be created, if we were to escape from the EU’s regulatory regime, which Commissioner Verheugen himself has said costs some 6 per cent of GDP annually. Does he also agree that if we spent on our services the many billions of pounds that we send to Brussels, that would also create a lot more jobs in this country?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is seductive, but it is not a simple step further. I would add that the single market, which is a product of Brussels, boosted the EU GDP by €225 billion in 2006 alone, and we were major beneficiaries of that.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, has the Minister made an assessment of the increased bureaucracy that would be involved in our country negotiating with the remaining 26 European Union countries, or indeed of the disadvantageous position that this country would have in negotiating with the remaining EU 26?

Lord Malloch-Brown: Fortunately, my Lords, I have not had to make such an assessment, because membership of the European Union is firm and therefore this contingency plan has been unnecessary, but I completely affirm the sentiment of the question.

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We would create a huge bureaucracy. Beside Whitehall, there would be the Pearson bureaucracy for managing bilateral relations with all these countries.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords—

Lord Fowler: My Lords, that was UKIP. This is Conservative.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I am aware of that. I simply was working out who got there quicker.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I think that I did. Does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is not being in the least seductive to most of us? Is not one of the major points of the Union that together the countries of Europe can do more than any one nation by itself? Should we not be more concerned about how we can increase United Kingdom influence rather than the battier concepts of the United Kingdom Independence Party?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I stand corrected; the noble Lord was not seductive. Last week, the meeting of European leaders took a critical step away from internal institutional architectural matters to precisely those issues on which Europe works together, as we did at Bali on climate change and on securing for Europe a bigger stake in the global economy. It is those big issues on which Europe can help us to deliver, which the UK alone would never be able to do.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a certain contradiction when the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, rubbishes any figures that the Government give for benefits from EU membership, but then asks for a confirmation of benefits from leaving the EU? You cannot have both at the same time. Will the Minister correct the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, in his belief that we would escape from the regulatory reach of Brussels if we had a free trade area agreement? Perhaps he might like to visit Norway and ask why it applies all EU internal market legislation.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is of course correct that there is no wonderful golden place on the hill where we escape the bureaucracy of international trade. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, as has often been said. We are all much too selective in wanting statistics to support our own side of the argument and not the other. I would suggest to the noble Lord that we look at the statistics to see that they benefit membership of Europe.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom tends to have a visible trade deficit with other leading EU countries, but that that is more than adequately made up by substantial surpluses on the invisible and services account? Is not the key to this what the Minister said just now? It is

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the two-way trade that counts. Literally millions of jobs in this country are dependent on our full-hearted membership of the EU. So, although the Minister is not responsible and does not want now to be seduced by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, can he explain to the House why the noble Lord is so worried about Europe and our membership, a bit like the Prime Minister was in his pathetic Statement yesterday?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we believe that 3 million jobs in the UK are linked directly and indirectly to the export of goods and services to the EU. There is a massive inward investment into the UK from the European Union. I certainly am not ashamed, nor is my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, of asserting the very real benefits of Europe to this country.

Lord Monson: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we were to repeal the 1972 Act, we would still remain members of the European Economic Area and, therefore, would be in the same position as Norway, which, despite, what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, exports more per capita to continental EU countries than the United Kingdom?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord must understand that history is not so easily reversed. We are where we are. We are a very successful member of Europe, gaining enormously from the relationship. I do not think that it can be undone without costs, not just politically, but to economics and trade as well.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that he made a groundbreaking statement in his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, when he said that 3 million jobs in this country depend on our trade with the European Union, not on our membership of it?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, again, let me be clear. The two are not as deeply separated as the noble Lord wishes. Trade comes from the political relationships we enjoy from being inside Europe. Many of those who look to us as a home for financial services and so on because of our access to Europe would take a second look if we were no longer part of the European Union.

The Earl of Liverpool: My Lords, is the Minister not worried that the EU may cause the City’s wholesale markets to migrate elsewhere, causing incalculable damage to the British economy? If not, why not?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we will do nothing deliberately to compromise the competitiveness of the City of London. It is a major part of our economy and we do not want to lose its competitive advantage.

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Disabled People: Taxis

11.15 am

Baroness Chapman asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government remain committed to delivering more accessible taxis. In light of the Government’s better regulation agenda, Ministers are re-evaluating all the options, both regulatory and non-regulatory. We will be announcing our proposals early in the new year. In the mean time, we are encouraging taxi licensing authorities to ensure that local policies take full account of the needs of all taxi users.

Baroness Chapman: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Can the Government guarantee that they will implement the regulations by the Summer Recess? These sections could then be enforceable for taxis that are already licensed to carry wheelchair users.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is not customary to give such a precise timetable although I would dearly love to be able to do so. We will be making an announcement early in the new year which I am sure the noble Baroness will welcome. It will enable further positive steps to be taken towards ensuring that we have a more all embracing taxi service which is accessible to all members of society and, in particular, is fit for purpose for assisting those with a disability.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, given that recently some taxi drivers may well have committed a moral offence, I wonder whether disability awareness ought to become part of the knowledge. Does the Minister agree that free market issues—willing seller/willing buyer—explain why these regulations have not yet been brought into force?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there has been quite a lot of debate and discussion as to whether the best route would be to use regulations or whether more can be achieved through guidance. Over the past 10 years a great deal has been achieved through guidance. Although unfortunate incidents have been much in the media in the last day or two, it is fair to say that taxi drivers are now much more conscious of their obligations to all members of our communities.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, are the Government satisfied with how well the Disability Discrimination Act is being enforced, particularly in relation to complaints about goods, services and premises? These have to be pursued through the costly court system and, as a result, there have been very few successful cases. If they are not satisfied, what do they intend to do about it?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, one can never be entirely satisfied with the way in which discrimination legislation works because we can always do more. That is the right approach to this issue. We keep these matters under review and it is extremely important that we use the DDA to raise standards and public awareness. Now that there is a greater consciousness and awareness, it is important that we ensure that everyone can have access to goods and services, particularly taxi services, which touch on important issues such as mobility.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, does the Minister agree that taxis are now no longer the preserve of the very wealthy but a part of the public transport system? As such, they should be recognised as part of that system and regulated to the same level of accessibility and design as other forms of public transport.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness’s analysis of the importance of taxis as part of a public transport network. Obviously some members of our community are much more dependent upon them for mobility, getting around and enjoying a full and active life. It is extremely important that we get the regulation balance right so that the standards of service provided by taxi services and taxi drivers continue to rise.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, as the Minister said, much has been done on adapting taxis, but does he agree that it is often the attitude of the driver towards disabled people that causes problems? My daughter on one occasion helped a gentleman in a wheelchair in Victoria Street who had been waiting for two hours for a taxi.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, taxi drivers are good people in the main. They do a difficult job and we should be supportive of their efforts. Yes, there are occasional horror stories, which it is only right that we try to tackle. Using legislation is an important way of doing that. I am sure that one of the issues that will be part of the package that we will announce early in the new year will be training, so that we can raise standards and awareness.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, taxis are no longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy; they may nevertheless be out of reach of many disabled people, who often have to exist on low incomes. Does the Minister recognise the value of the excellent London taxicard scheme, which does a great deal to bring taxis within the reach of disabled people who would not otherwise be able to afford them? Will he take steps to commend schemes of this kind as good practice to other local authorities?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have been a great admirer of the London scheme. When I was leader of my own local authority, we certainly did a great deal to encourage the adoption of best practice. The Brighton and Hove taxi fleet has a mixed range

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of provision. I know that disabled people there are fairly well catered for. Of course, one can always do more, and we should do what we can to encourage the raising of standards and to ensure that everybody can make use of taxi services.

Health: Organophosphates

11.21 am

Lord Tyler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government have so far committed £4.1 million to research and development on whether organophosphates cause chronic ill health in humans. None of the research so far has confirmed this suggestion.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Perhaps I may take this opportunity also to thank her colleague the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who has long shown an interest in and consistent attitude to this matter.

Does the Minister agree that some of this research—notably that by Dr Mackenzie Ross of University College, London—needs urgent completion? Does she also recognise that victims of OP poisoning are increasingly concerned that every bit of research so far seems simply to have produced the result that more research is needed? Does she recognise that the point may be reached where it is more important to deal with the symptoms and to ensure that any compensation claims are dealt with than to pursue additional research endlessly and at great cost to the taxpayer? Does she recognise that the victims feel that the manufacturers’ procrastination, and the tortuous way in which Government have dealt with these matters, adds to their concern? Does she recognise that many of them feel that they will be dead before there is a completion? Will she and her noble friend meet the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and me to discuss these matters?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I recognise that the sufferers are frustrated by the current situation and wish the research to be completed as soon as possible. That is entirely natural, and I am sure that that is what wider society wishes. However, we have to ensure that the research has a good scientific basis and is excellent. I understand people’s desire for compensation, but because no link between chronic ill health and exposure to OPs has yet been proven, we are not in a position to discuss it. I would be very happy to meet the noble Lord to discuss these issues.

Earl Howe: My Lords, have any recent studies shown a link between organophosphate residues and the human food chain?

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