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House of Lords

Wednesday, 9 January 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Armed Forces: Pay

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Before doing so, I draw attention to my non-pecuniary interest, which I have declared in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Question was as follows:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the vast majority of service personnel are paid correctly by the joint personnel administration system. Since the first full pay run of this system in April 2007, the accuracy rate has been 99.3 per cent against the submitted data. Joint personnel administration marks a significant step in modernising the Armed Forces. The complexity of the services and their pay structures mean that pay errors have occurred in the past. Error rates under joint personnel administration will reduce further as familiarity with the new system grows.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, what is the exact number of service men and women who have been disadvantaged by not receiving their correct pay entitlement over a prolonged period, stretching into months? Will the Minister not only confirm that these errors will be stopped immediately, but also give a guarantee that they will not be repeated, in view of the great irritation caused not just to the service men and women but to their whole families?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that there have been some underpayments and some months have been worse than others. For instance, a report in the Sunday Times on 9 December, to which the noble Lord may be referring, gave a figure of 16,000 to 17,000 people with incorrect payments. This was not a basic salary payment but a home-to-duty travel expense to reserves who were attending their training nights, so we are talking about figures of £20 to £30. We have looked at what has caused that: it was caused by a system change to prevent duplicate entries resulting in overpayments. However, the payments were made in full in the following months. We have learnt the lessons and the system has been rectified to allow those retrospective claims put in for home-to-duty training.

The noble Lord asked me to give a reassurance that this will not happen in future. I am afraid that I cannot give him a complete reassurance, but lessons have been learnt and we hope that we will minimise risks of mistakes in future.

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Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, this is obviously very important for the individuals concerned. Have the Ministry of Defence and the Government thought of any recompense to those who have been affected adversely? I was surprised to hear the Minister quoting from a newspaper; surely what we want to hear in this House is what the Government think the figures should be.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I should say to the noble and gallant Lord that I was quoting that newspaper because that is where other newspaper articles have come from about a seemingly catastrophic situation which, when you look at it, is not so at all. I quite agree with the noble and gallant Lord that our soldiers, airmen and naval personnel should get their pay and allowances on time, as they are putting their lives on the line for this country. They should be getting the correct and accurate payment—I absolutely agree with that. As I have said, lessons will be learnt.

Noble Lords might like to know that out of 300,000 possible personnel being paid, 322 suffered from underpayment in September last year; in October, the figure was 50 and in November it was 311. None of them should have been underpaid, but it is a small percentage of 300,000.

Lord Addington: My Lords, to follow up on that question, if anybody is financially embarrassed by underpayment, will the Government undertake to guarantee that they will be assisted and that embarrassment will be removed? That is quite simple.

Baroness Crawley: Absolutely, my Lords, and as soon as an underpayment comes to light, assistance is given. Payment is made as quickly as possible, often at unit level so that the member of the armed services can get it as quickly as possible. The payment information system needed improving and is being improved. For example, reservists may want to access the information line in the evenings when they are doing their training. The access line for information on pay will be open in the evenings from next week.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I accept the Minister’s assurance that the new personnel system has certainly improved efficiency and regularity, but does she agree that this is not a new issue? Indeed, in the early 1990s, when I was in Bosnia as chairman of the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body, I can remember that the whole of our visit was taken up with the issue of personnel not being paid the correct amount. There were no arrangements in place at that time to give people cash payments. This Government introduced cash payments to help people in that situation. I agree that it is not acceptable for people not to be paid, but it is not new and the situation is improving.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend and recognise the authority with which she speaks on this issue. The new system, the JPA, has successfully been rolled out on time and on budget to all three of the services. It is a major IT change programme—one of the biggest in the world, I am told—so I hope that nobody downloads it and puts it in the post.

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Baroness Fookes: My Lords, I do not recognise the bland statements made by the Minister. On a visit to a ship last year as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I was told in no uncertain terms that virtually everybody on board had had the wrong payments and that it was a continuing process. What is the Minister's answer to that?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, we recognise that with any new system, particularly one supporting a large, complex payroll, there will be mistakes. Mistakes should not be tolerated, but should any come to light they must be dealt with as soon as possible.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this problem is particularly irksome to members of the Reserve Forces and that many have decided to leave the forces as a result?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I do not necessarily agree with the last part of that suggestion, but reservists have found this system more difficult for two reasons. First, the data held in the old legacy systems were not as good as for regular service personnel. Secondly, as the noble Lord will know, their principal pay as reservists is attendance-based. The system has now caught up with that, but there were glitches in the past.

NHS: Medicines

3.15 pm

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, English GPs are able to prescribe any licensed medicine on the National Health Service unless it is listed in Schedules 1 or 2 of the National Health Service (General Medical Services Contracts) (Prescription of Drugs etc.) Regulations 2004. Scotland has similar arrangements backed up by separate legislation. There are no significant differences between the two countries in this area of policy. Hospital consultants are not affected by these statutory restrictions.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, in the light of the Minister’s Answer, is she aware that Scotland’s equivalent to NICE licenses medicines some nine months before England? Does that not result in the fact that England is subsidising Scotland? Is it not about time that we had a real National Health Service and that drugs were prescribable across the whole of the United Kingdom and not parts of it?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we live with the realities of devolution, whether or not the noble Lord likes them. Devolution means that the operation of systems for assessing new drugs in Scotland is a matter for the devolved Administration. That is where we are. In respect of the timescales, NICE has introduced a new, swifter single process and that is now almost as fast as the Scottish process, and is more robust.

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Lord Barnett: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is perfectly reasonable for any part of the UK to choose its own priorities, but what is more important is that each part of the UK should receive a fair distribution of public expenditure?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords, it is perfectly fair that each part of the United Kingdom should be able to address its own needs, but there must be fairness in the receipt of resources. I am confident that that is the case.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, given the natural divergence in provision that occurs with devolution, local decision-making and local commissioning decisions, are the Government giving any consideration to reviewing their attitude to co-payments so that patients are able to pay for rare drugs which are not being commissioned without having to pay privately for the whole of that episode of care?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, the Government are not giving any further reflection to the system of co-payments because we believe that such a system would risk creating a two-tier National Health Service, and I am sure that is not what noble Lords wish.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it is good news when Scotland decides to operate part of its National Health Service quicker, as it has with regard to the prescription of drugs, and England follows by speeding up its process? Such competition does no harm at all.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we always welcome competition.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is not the only difference between Scotland and England in this kind of provision? Scotland is moving towards free prescriptions, as is already the case in Wales. There is free personal care for the elderly. This is perfectly okay within devolution as long as it comes within the overall block grant, which is decided on a very clever formula, which was devised by a very clever man who now sits in this House and has some very clever ideas for the future. As long as that is done, that is perfectly okay. But if we constantly attack what is happening in Scotland and pretend that advantages are given to the people of Scotland when that is not the case, we shall play into the hands of the SNP, which wants to break up Britain, which would be devastating not just for Scotland but for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I entirely agree with those comments.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, as a Scot living in England, I ask the Minister whether she agrees with me that Scotland has always put a higher priority on the health of its population.

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness in this instance. Healthcare throughout the United Kingdom is rather good, and the quality of healthcare in England and in all parts of the United Kingdom has always been very good.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, can the Minister clarify her answer to my noble friend? Was she really saying that the newspaper reports that we have all read over the past few years that indicate that life-saving drugs are available in Scotland that are not available to patients in England are completely incorrect? Is she saying that it is only a matter of timing, or is there a difference? How can it be justified that the Government’s policy in England should be sustained by the votes of Scottish MPs, whose constituents benefit from the advantage of the health service in Scotland?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I will respond to the first part of the question, which relates to the original Question. Only one drug has been recommended by the Scottish Medicines Consortium—the equivalent of NICE—that has not been recommended by NICE for patients in England. That drug is Fludara, for the treatment of chronic leukaemia. I believe that all other drugs are available in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, does the Minister agree that since each Administration regularly conducts strategic reviews of the health inequalities in their countries, which are different, it is entirely logical that they will have different spending priorities for drugs?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, absolutely.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, will the Minister answer the second part of the question asked by my noble friend Lord Forsyth? Does that mean that all the newspaper reports are wrong?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords, the newspaper reports are incorrect.

Flooding: Defence

3.22 pm

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we are committed to sustained investment in effective management measures for the alleviation of flood risk, the improvement of water quality and the enhancement of amenity and ecology where those are necessary. All those activities are based on risk.

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Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. I am a riparian owner in north Oxfordshire, which is classed as a low flood-risk area yet saw some of the worst of the flooding in 2007. The Environment Agency shows more concern for the bats, voles and otters than it seemingly does for the management of our river systems, unlike the National Rivers Authority, which used to do such an excellent job. Is not the Environment Agency conflicted in carrying out those two delegated tasks? Do not the needs of humans come before wildlife?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I understand the annoyance of the noble Lord, and I have seen his correspondence with the Environment Agency regarding his situation, but I do not think that his conclusions are accurate. The Environment Agency policy is based on risk, and its defences protected at least 100,000 people during the recent floods. Some 95 per cent of flood defences are in good order, and during the recent floods 99.8 per cent of those defences held. New defences that it put in place last summer protected 7,500 properties from flooding in the Burton-on-Trent area. There is an alleged conflict between the role of the Environment Agency and others in clearing the watercourses, but some of the easy answers are not always so easy, such as arguments about further dredging, which can actually make matters worse. If you are not careful, you will cause flooding in areas up-river. There is a balance to be struck, but I have looked at this and visited flooded areas—some of my initial reactions have been similar to those of the noble Lord—and the fact is that the Environment Agency is doing a good job and has our full confidence.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, given the fact of sea-level rise, it is widely recognised that the Thames Barrier will not fulfil its reasonable function much beyond another decade. Can the Minister tell us where the Government are in terms of upgrading the barrier and where that money will be found?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot, except to say that it is well known that at some point the Thames Barrier will have to be either replaced or reinforced. The timescale is, I think, rather more than a decade, although the barrier is being used more than planned. There is no doubt that work has to be done some time within the next 30 years. When I looked at the Question, I asked about internal rivers and what the alternatives were, but I have not been briefed on coastal areas and sea-level rises, I am afraid.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, when the noble Lord answered a question of mine a while ago, he said that if ditches, dikes and streams were kept clear, towns and cities would be flooded. He now seems to have changed his mind and says that areas upstream of these places will be flooded. Can he explain why there will be floods if watercourses are kept clear? Is not the problem that the drainage systems in towns and cities are not built to accommodate all the housing and factories that are affected there, rather than keeping the watercourses clear?

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