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House of Lords

Monday, 14 January 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Health: Flu

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we continue to develop tests and review our preparedness measures in a proportionate way. We have tested our plans in major national and cross-government exercises such as “Winter Willow” in early 2007 and “Shared Goal” in 2006. Various regional and local exercises have also been conducted and the UK participated in the EU-wide simulation, “Common Ground”. Lessons learnt from those exercises have been considered in the development of our national framework and other guidance, as well as in local planning.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I welcome the national framework document that the Government published last November, but am I right in believing that in the first wave of a flu pandemic, before a specific vaccine can be developed, the antiviral drug Tamiflu will be the only treatment available, but that to be effective it has to be administered within 48 hours of a patient’s symptoms appearing? As, in the worst case, some millions of people could seek that treatment, how is that to be made available to patients? What is meant by a “simulation exercise”—the phrase used by the Secretary of State for Health—and was “Winter Willow” an example of a simulation? Did it involve real doctors, real nurses and a real national flu line manned by lay people?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I shall answer two of those questions. A simulation is an exercise in which participants are based in their own organisations and the control sends information and actions to participants to test communication flows and decision-making between those organisations. More than 5,000 people participated in “Winter Willow”, including GPs, people from SHAs and many outside operations. We also do many real-life exercises in distribution and so on. In respect of Tamiflu, I believe that it should be administered within 48 hours. We will have the national flu line to which the noble Lord referred. When people think they have flu, they phone that line and someone arranges to collect the Tamiflu to be administered to the patient. We will also have some vaccines available.

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Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, what stocks of Tamiflu do the Government have available in the event of such a pandemic?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we currently have enough for 25 per cent of the population, and we are buying enough to cover 50 per cent of the population. Much of that will be available by the end of 2008 but some of it will become available in 2009-10.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, have the Government considered pre-pandemic vaccination with a vaccine that resembles, but is not totally, the virus that will infect the population eventually so that it will confer some immunity? If they have taken that into consideration and will leave the vaccination until after the flu pandemic starts, what are the logistics of the vaccination exercise? Are GPs going to do it, or are there sufficient staff in the community—community nurses and others—to carry out the exercise?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we have a stockpile of H5N1 vaccine and we are closely watching scientific developments to see whether any other vaccines might come available which would ensure that people could be vaccinated as soon as there is a pandemic. If the science is there, we will buy the vaccines. An exercise starting later this month will look at the medicines and healthcare consumables supply chain for primary and community care to ensure that people are prepared in the community to get these vaccines out.

Lord Soley: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the importance of our role on intergovernmental organisations in relation to pandemics, not just of flu but also of other communicable diseases? Is she also aware that the newly set-up ad hoc Select Committee on intergovernmental organisations has chosen communicable diseases as its first area of study because it regards it as so important?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I was aware of the important role of international organisations, but I was not aware that it was the subject of the new committee chaired by my noble friend. I am delighted that it has chosen this important topic.

Lord May of Oxford: My Lords, do the Government have simulation exercises on the ground foreshadowing targeted prophylaxis, which is what Tamiflu is aimed at? When the Select Committee of this House looked at the issue, the Secretary of State told the Select Committee that Tamiflu would be given only to people who had been diagnosed with flu, which is directly contrary to the use envisaged in targeted prophylaxis? Can the Minister reassure me that we have gone further than that now?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I understand that simulations are taking place on the ground, but if I am incorrect I shall write to the noble Lord. We are looking at the much wider use of Tamiflu. Indeed, we are now looking at the possibility of providing Tamiflu not only for a person who has been diagnosed with flu but also for the wider family within that household.

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Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does that mean that, after all this learned knowledge, the vaccination I had for flu is no damn good?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it will be extremely important for the noble Baroness in relation to the usual flu viruses this year. However, in a pandemic it will not be as effective as she would wish.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work that the churches are doing ecumenically to respond pastorally in such a crisis? Do the Government see the pastoral work done by clergy of the faith communities and all the churches as part of their strategy in responding to such a crisis?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, faith groups have been involved in pandemic influenza preparations across government. We warmly welcome that; indeed, we depend on faith groups in many ways and we are grateful to them.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior:My Lords, I return to the antiviral agents and to Tamiflu in particular. It is recognised that overuse of antiviral agents may lead to resistance to them in the virus. Have the Government taken that into account in their plans for simulating a flu outbreak? What alternative antiviral agents will be available should resistance to Tamiflu develop?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, the Government have taken that into account and are supporting and monitoring research on viral resistance to influenza antivirals. We are looking at alternative products. I shall write to the noble Lord with further details.


2.44 pm

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the most recent provisional figures for 2006-07, collected for management information purposes, show completion rates of 65.1 per cent for apprenticeships and 64.2 per cent for advanced apprenticeships. The figures are provisional until publication of the LSC’s outcomes statistical first release in April 2008, which will confirm the final results for 2006-07.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister, although it would have been better if we had known what that was 65 per cent of. However, he will no doubt agree that a completed apprenticeship is enormously valuable to the individual and to the country as a whole. Last year, the All-Party Group on Arts and Heritage met employers in construction skills and heard that most of the expertise is in the small firms. Those firms are very willing to train apprentices but find that they lose out badly when they do; not only do they incur a financial loss in

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training but the people they train are in such demand that they leave for better-paid jobs. Does the Minister agree that the answer is to directly fund employers that provide this specialised training to ensure that they can continue to provide it? Will he assure us that that will be taken into consideration?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am well aware that many employers feel that it would be better if there was direct funding, for precisely the reasons that the noble Baroness describes. However, a great many small employers have said that they would rather group their activity because they do not find it administratively efficient to do it directly themselves. That has been the overwhelming evidence from the small and medium-sized business sector. I think we will find that one size does not fit all and that we will need to respond to the different kinds of business case in the ways that those businesses think are most effective.

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, will further thought be given to the award of an apprenticeship diploma to recognise the achievement of those who do complete apprenticeships?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the alignment of different qualifications for those coming through further education or for adults who go through these courses is obviously important. We have the general introduction of diplomas and other arrangements in further education, a matter on which I know the noble Baroness is an expert, and it is critical that the outcome of an apprenticeship should be recognised within a scheme that bears relationship across all of those. Fortunately, the preparatory work is being done by the same groups and we have every reason to think that an alignment of qualifications will be achieved.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is there not evidence to suggest that the quality of entrants to apprenticeship programmes is being undermined by our target of 50 per cent of people going into higher education?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do not think that my noble friend is right. The entry qualifications to get into an apprenticeship either at the basic level, level 2, or the advanced level, level 3, are boundaries that employers are setting in terms of the outcomes they seek. I would prefer that that was decided by employers rather than in Whitehall, as I think that we are likely to get the people we need in the economy more effectively that way. I do not think that people going into higher education per se makes the difference, but I certainly would like to see schools consider alternatives to higher education where that is more appropriate for the young person involved.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, according to the Leitch review of skills, over one-third of adults of working age in the UK do not have a basic school-leaving qualification and 5 million adults have no qualifications at all. What plans do the Government have to widen adults’ access to apprenticeships?

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Lord Triesman: My Lords, the plan overall is that there should be a considerable advance in the availability of apprenticeships to adults. It will be essential to raise the standards of many of those leaving school at 16 if we are to drive through to people continuing to 18, and some of the plans which my right honourable friend Ed Balls has announced to ensure one-to-one mentoring of young people who have not achieved appropriate literacy and numeracy standards are intended to ensure that those young people are prepared for the world of apprenticeship.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, will the Minister consider whether there could be sufficient provision in the foundation level and in additional and specialised learning in the diplomas to enable people who see themselves as apprentices to get sufficient hands-on practical work?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, some of the streams that have been identified in the new diplomas will have exactly that effect. The new diplomas have not been rolled out yet, and whether they have the whole of that effect will be seen in practice rather than just in theory. I will ensure that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, is drawn to the attention of those working on the pathways through diplomas to ensure that we get that outcome.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is excess demand for apprenticeships from young people and that not enough places are currently being provided by employers? What plans do the Government have to encourage employers to take on more apprentices?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I know that some of the evidence about the extent of demand is anecdotal, but as I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, last Monday, I completely accept the credibility of the argument put by the noble Baroness. It is essential that the work that the CBI and other partners are doing to encourage more employers into the sphere is undertaken with great energy. At the moment, about 130,000 employers are engaged in the scheme. We believe that that number can be increased considerably. With the leadership of businesses such as Tesco and Rolls-Royce, which are putting in a good deal of effort, for which I commend them, into growing the number of employers, there are good prospects that we will increase those numbers considerably.

Housing: Home Loans

2.51 pm

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, independent regulation of mortgages and credit by the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading helps to ensure that borrowers are afforded suitable protections and have appropriate means of redress. The Government are also taking steps to help address debt problems, including improving financial capability and funding a range of debt advice to help support those experiencing difficulties in repaying their mortgages. The Citizens Advice report will help to inform the Government's thinking on those issues.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Let me try an even simpler question: does he think that the current regulatory regime for vulnerable people who borrow from debt consolidators on second mortgages or who are lured into sale and leaseback arrangements is adequate? If so, can he name one reputable financial services organisation or charity that agrees with him?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful for the simple question, and I will give a simple answer: no, we do not think that the regulatory regime is adequate in the two instances to which the noble Baroness has drawn attention. That is why the Financial Services Authority is addressing its regulatory role and why the Office of Fair Trading is taking on board the additional scrutiny possible because of the passing of the Consumer Credit Act 2006. There are potential difficulties in this area. The Government are all too well aware of the necessity for help for people who may have these problems.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, the CAB report is very serious and cites some heartbreaking cases, as I am sure that my noble friend is aware. Importantly, it states that, unlike in the crisis in the 1990s, where lenders were at an equivalent level, lenders appear to be going to the court for possession rather more quickly. The CAB report makes serious recommendations on that and on sale and leaseback, which is especially worrying. Will the Government act appropriately to reply to the CAB report?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I emphasised, we are watching the sale and leaseback position especially carefully, because it is giving rise to great anxiety. My noble friend is also right to say that the speed with which some institutions are calling in their debts is giving rise to anxiety. We will ensure that the maximum amount of advice is available to people faced with those problems. I may add that we are talking about economic conditions far removed from those of 1991, when, in any case, the number of mortgage repossessions was three times the level now.

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