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House of Lords

Thursday, 10 January 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Pensions: Responsible Investment

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, the Government note the report’s findings with interest. Current legislation already requires pension schemes to disclose both their policy on social, environmental and ethical investments and their policy on how they exercise their voting rights. However, we believe that the non-prescriptive approach to developing policies on the public disclosure of votes is the way forward, in particular the framework on voting disclosure published by the Institutional Shareholders’ Committee last summer.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, according to FairPensions, the campaign for responsible investment, only two out of the top 20 UK pension funds reveal how they vote and only seven out of the 20 actually publish their strategies on environmental, social and governance issues. Given that, will my noble friend, whom I thank for the Answer, place extra pressure on pension funds to follow the voluntary codes of conduct to which they signed up, or in default of that will he use the legislation already granted to him by Parliament to oblige them to do so?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Government support transparency. We encourage socially responsible investment and engagement. As my noble friend acknowledged, there is legislation covering statement of investment principles, and if that is not complied with it would be a matter for the Pensions Regulator. I think my noble friend would acknowledge that progress has been made. The FairPensions report itself acknowledges that. The Institutional Shareholders’ Committee report indicates that since June 2002 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of UK institutional investors reporting votes—53 per cent of UK equities managed by UK institutional investors—but the effectiveness of that will be subject to review next year. And, of course, we have the NAPF review of Myners, on which the Government have agreed to consult. There is a whole collection of things going on. The position is improving but there is more to do.

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Lord Stewartby: My Lords, I accept that the noble Lord’s Question is well intentioned, but will the Government be very careful in planning any further steps in this area, bearing in mind that public companies already have to comply with an enormous range of information and other governance requirements? The last thing one wants to do is to increase the bureaucratic burden with which they have to deal.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, as I have explained, the Government believe that a voluntary principle-based approach to encouraging socially responsible investment is the way forward. That is broadly the structure at the moment and certainly builds on the recommendations of the Institutional Shareholders’ Committee. We want a review of that to see how effective it will be. I think that is the right way forward. At the end of the day, there is rightly legislation and we expect pension schemes to comply with that.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the training of employee trustees is important in that connection, and can anything be done about that?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. The role of trustees, particularly member-appointed trustees, is very important. The Pensions Regulator has some very good material and proposals concerning training. We believe that it is the job of individual schemes to devise precisely how that training should be undertaken, but it is a very important issue.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, it has been common ground on all sides of the House that the framework that he describes, under which there is a legislative stick but a voluntary carrot, is the correct way to proceed. Is the noble Lord prepared to give an indication of the timing of the Government’s review and when they will decide whether the voluntary system is working?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we have asked the ISC to undertake a review and to report by the autumn of this year. That is a relatively short timeframe, but I think it is reasonable, given that it was only in June of last year that those recommendations were put in place.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, more and more investors in pensions and other investors in this country are becoming exercised about ethical funds, as I am sure the Minister will agree. Therefore, can he tell us whether the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority is likely to set up an ethical pension fund?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I agree that there is increasing focus on ethical investment, which is a thoroughly good thing. On the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, it will be for the trustees of the scheme to determine the investment policy, taking account of the usual considerations. But the noble

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Lord will recall the White Paper that preceded the legislation that we are going through which I think certainly indicated that the research suggested there was quite an appetite for ethical investment. Therefore, it is to be hoped that that would feature as part of the scheme, but it is not for Government to dictate.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that those firms with pension funds that indeed maximise disclosure are the most successful financially?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I understand that evidence suggests—these are not government data—that ethical investment also produces a very healthy return that is at least comparable to, if not better than, returns on non-ethical investment. It seems to me that that is an added bonus to the whole approach.


11.12 am

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, in the past 10 years, there have been disposals affecting 580 statutory allotment sites in England. We do not require local authorities to provide figures for the disposal of temporary or private allotments and it is a matter for local authorities to determine levels of provision to meet communities’ needs.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Would she perhaps consider revising guidance to officers who are concerned with this area so that allotment holders can feel confidence in their dealings with local councils? There are also waiting lists in many areas and concern that exchange allotments may be much smaller and so not viable.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness is a vigilant critic of government allotment policy. I am very pleased that we have seen a revival of allotments in this country and we are doing all we can to protect that. The noble Baroness is quite right. We have very robust legislation. Allotments are uniquely protected in law as green space and have been for a century, but we find that allotment officers often do not know the law and do not know how to apply it properly. We are revising guidance with the LGA and it will be available very shortly—in the spring.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, are the Government concerned that in many parts of the country we have allotments that are overgrown and

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unworked, particularly in the south-east—I come from the Brighton area where we have a substantial number that fall into that category—yet we are desperately short of land for housing, particularly social housing? Is it not time that we had a flexible approach on some of these issues?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. Part of the problem is that allotments fall into disrepair and become an easier target. To address that we recently put out help for allotment holders warning them about this. We have also invested in the allotments regeneration initiative, which is a collection of extremely experienced and passionate people who provide direct help for allotment officers and allotment holders. The noble Lord should be aware that under our planning policy—PPG 17 in particular—there is no provision for building on allotments. We have to audit our open public space, protect it and make sure that if we do build on it, it is surplus to requirements. The law provides that.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am well aware of the problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. That said, the allocation of any land within any built area—I use that term so that I do not fall into the trap of urban areas perhaps not including villages—is always a very difficult local issue. Surely the sacrifice of any of that land should always be a last resort rather than, as it sometimes appears, the first instance that people look at.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, our planning policy statement on open space and, most recently, our planning policy statement on housing—PPS 3—made it absolutely clear that new housing development should not be at the expense of open space and that an allotment should not be built on unless it is clearly shown to be surplus to local requirements. Having said that, it is important to bear in mind the fact that by no means all allotment loss goes on housing or development. About a third of allotments go for enhanced green space, which is a very good thing.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister accept that although there has been a great revival of interest there has certainly not been a revival of provision? In London, as well as in many other cities, the chances of getting an allotment plot are so bad that you will get a graveyard plot before an allotment.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, there is an issue about providing equivalence in terms of allotments. Allotment officers need to know that if they provide alternatives they have to be of equal quality. London has a particular problem because it is managed slightly differently. When we consider the relative loss of allotments—182,000 since the high point of the war over the period to 1997, and only 10,000 statutory plots lost since 1997—we have stopped the rot. There is a lot of optimism about getting a plot these days.

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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that an interest in growing things, enjoying the fresh air and taking physical exercise needs to be fostered in the very young for it to be carried on into adult life? Will she say what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to encourage youngsters—six and seven year-olds—outside school to grow their own things, watch them growing, and eat them when they have grown?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, many encouraging things are happening. For example, there is a growth of gardening clubs in schools. A lot of the allotments—I was at one in Dorset Road in Bromley the other day—have connections with schools and encourage people from all over the community. It is interesting to see the different sorts of things that are grown by different members of the community. For example, in St James’s Park this year we had a wartime plot, which made a link with the history of wartime growing. It was absolutely fabulous—the biggest cabbages you have ever seen in your life; they were perfect. A lot of young people were involved in that as well.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, having been responsible for allotments as a member of the GLC, I was aware that outer London had allotments but that inner London was not expected to provide any. Can the noble Baroness say whether the same applies to other large cities or whether London was unique?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. London is a special case. I do not think it is under a duty to provide allotments in the same way as other parts of the country. Arrangements are reached with other boroughs. I am fairly certain I am correct about that but I shall write to the noble Baroness with more detail. There was a report in 2006 on London allotments, which looked at the waiting list.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, have the Government made any assessment of the amount of dangerous asbestos in allotment sheds up and down the country? This is very expensive for the allotment owner to remove. Do local councils have any guidance on this issue? I declare an interest as the part-owner of a very dodgy allotment shed.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is, unfortunately, in rather good company as the owner of a dodgy allotment shed. I have absolutely no briefing on asbestos and garden sheds. I can only apologise to the noble Baroness. I am sure there is somebody in my department whose speciality is precisely that kind of thing. I will find them and get back to the noble Baroness.

Lord Elton: My Lords, reverting to the problem of overgrown allotments, is it not the case that every allotment requires some very heavy digging, at least once a year? This may be what discourages some

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older members of society from keeping their allotments in apple pie order. Is this not very suitable, heavy, productive and instructive work for those serving community service orders?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, as my noble friend says, it is better than going to the gym; he is probably right. What I have found interesting as I have toured these allotments is the number of young people there, particularly young mothers who want to grow their own food because of a preoccupation with healthy eating. A lot of mentoring by older members of the allotment societies on how to care for the plot goes on. It involves a lot of hard work, which is something that we all have to learn.

Road Safety

11.21 am

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there is an up-to-date overview in the second three-year review of our Road Safety Strategy, published in February. Examples of forthcoming initiatives include a fundamental review of driver training and testing, a safety-rating scheme for motorcycle helmets and a consultation on how we can help to improve drink-drive enforcement. The strategy review contains all these initiatives and much more.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for what he said. I declare an interest as I have just become chair of the Road Safety Foundation. Does my noble friend agree that in 2000 Britain had the best record in Europe for low death rates on our roads? Since then we have slipped to sixth place in the European league. Does he agree that in addition to tackling driver behaviour and vehicle safety, a small expenditure on the infrastructure of our roads has been shown to lead to significant drops in death and serious injury? Would he look further at the potential for improving our infrastructure in low-cost schemes to achieve that end?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his appointment. If today is anything to go by, he will be assiduous in following up these issues. It is more a case of the other countries catching us up. My information is that only Sweden, the Netherlands and Malta have safer roads than us. Certainly, over the last 10 years deaths and serious injuries are down by 33 per cent, over headline figures going back to 1994-98. The noble Lord is right to say that making small improvements to road schemes—the engineering, as it were—can bring big rewards. We have a very good record on road safety; we need to continue to build on our earlier successes.

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