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28 Feb 2008 : Column 758

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the European Commission announced the publication of a draft regulation to introduce compulsory front-of-the-pack food labelling, based on guidance on daily amounts? The Conservatives have been calling for the Government to adopt the approach favoured by the European Commission since 2004. When are they going to do so?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it is nice to hear that the Conservatives approve of something that the European Commission is recommending. Noble Lords are, I am sure, aware that the recommended daily intake for adults is 6 grams. The recommended daily intake for children is less than 1 gram a day, but there is a sliding scale for children. It is very important that the Government continue their dialogue with food manufacturers to ensure that they recognise that. I feel I should mention that McCain, Heinz and Kraft are actively targeting salt reduction, so great progress is being made.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, will the Minister answer the question, which was about front-of-the-pack labelling?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that for many parents who want to ensure that the products that they buy have as little salt as possible, the type size used to list of the ingredients is so small that most people, even with good eyesight, cannot read it? Could she encourage manufacturers to ensure that the labelling can be read by ordinary people?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I will write to the noble Baroness to answer her question.

My noble friend is quite correct, and the answer is yes, we will.

Local Government: Cheshire

11.29 am

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, we received 55,000 responses to the consultation on restructuring proposals. It is simply not viable to publish them all, so we have published a summary. In addition, any person, including my noble friend, can view any of these responses on request. On 25 January this year, officers from Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council were given access to view the Cheshire representations. Which representations they chose to copy was a matter for them.

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Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend not only for that Answer but also for her work behind the scenes to bring clarity to this perilous, parlous and precipitate decision to chop Cheshire in half. But, in the spirit of glasnost, will she publish for the people of Cheshire the 906 responses received, a sample of which she has already mentioned demonstrate 80 per cent in favour of a single unitary Cheshire and only 5 per cent against? Further, in the spirit of glasnost, will she publish the CIPFA report, which undermines the district council’s financial guesses at what will be the consequences for Cheshire if this bifurcation takes place?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, it would be my great pleasure to welcome my noble friend to my office at the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at the 600 representations he wants to see. The independent financial analysis which we commissioned from CIPFA to look at the affordability of the proposals has not been disclosed because it falls under the exemptions in Section 35(1)(a) and (b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That of course relates to the formulation of the development of policy and ministerial communications, which is consistent with what we have done on other similar FOI requests about unitary proposals. But we have made this information available for the purpose of legal proceedings.

Lord Goodlad: My Lords, will the Minister confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has said—that these proposals have very few friends in Cheshire? Will she accept from one who has participated in previous consultations about local government in Cheshire that the public interest is served by the greatest possible transparency?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord’s last point but I do not agree that the proposals have very few friends. When you consider that the search for unitary solutions in Cheshire goes back a long way, we are in a unique position because we had two opposing proposals—one for a unitary authority and one for two unitaries. Absolutely predictably, opinion has been deeply divided. Our conclusion was that there was sufficient broad support to make the proposal which we accepted for two unitaries workable in the long-term interests and success of the region.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, why are the Government insisting on tackling this in such a rush? It is just 63 days until the first elections for these new authorities, yet these orders do not come to your Lordships’ House until next week. Given the number of years that have passed since this was first discussed, why are the Government rushing this so much?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I do not think that it is a question of rush. As we have approached this process we have been driven entirely by what local authorities say that they want and can manage. There was a very clear indication from Cheshire that it

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wanted as little delay as possible. It did not want this to drag on, because it has been an unhappy process for many people. That was made clear when it presented evidence to the Merits Committee. Earlier this week, in another place, local Members of Parliament, some of whom did not agree with the conclusion, have said that this must be made to work and that we must go forward as fast and as safely as possible, which I believe we are doing.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is widespread support for the unitary authority so that citizens and business alike know who does what? Does she also agree that whereas she has said that in Cheshire’s case there are irreconcilable differences between authorities, it is understandable that those who support the proposals, as half the authorities do, believe that they will have abundant time to deliver a successful reorganisation? Inevitably, those who opposed the proposals are calling for more time and more delay; that is understandable but it is not necessarily the wise path to follow.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, that is absolutely right. What is very impressive is that despite the fact that people do not agree, the implementation process is really going ahead; people are fully engaged and work teams have been set up to look at the future structure of services and new commissioning processes. Our job is to support those committed local authority officers and politicians who are now determined to make it work.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, it is a matter of regret that the Government’s reputation has been somewhat stained by what is perceived as the selective use of statistics. I accept that there is a difficulty for the Government in this respect because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. As it seems highly likely that we will face this situation again, will the noble Baroness give some consideration to how they are going to overcome that very particular difficulty? At the moment, what has happened is not perceived as being based on the sorts of returns that have been published, which makes it very difficult for ordinary people.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a serious point. In our debates on these issues on various occasions over the past two weeks, we have talked about the nature of polling, the validity of the results and the fact that the Electoral Commission has been involved, but not as it would be when normal voting in a national election takes place. Given that, we would like to give serious consideration to these questions, should the opportunity arise to do so in the future. Transparency in the process is vital if people are going to commit to making a success of the decision.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, has the noble Baroness received, as I have, a letter signed by all the head teachers of Cheshire schools expressing their great

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concern about the effects of these changes on the high quality of education in Cheshire? What comfort can she give them?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I have not received a copy of the letter, but I know that the Cheshire Schools Forum has joined the debate in, as I understand it, a productive way. I am sure that it wants the best outcomes in the decision that has been taken. We have an opportunity to debate this, at length if necessary, next Tuesday, and I shall certainly try to get more information about it by then.

Business of the House: Debates Today

11.35 am

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Baroness Gardner of Parkes set down for today be limited to three hours and that in the name of Baroness Eccles of Moulton to two hours.—(Baroness Ashton Of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Families, Community Cohesion and Social Action

11.36 am

Baroness Gardner of Parkes rose to call attention to the case for strengthening families, community cohesion and social action; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in my topic for debate today it is not by accident that family comes first. I believe it is that important. The family has always been the backbone of society and remains so. The word “family” has a much wider meaning now than in the past, and society has adapted to accept this. I will not define “family” as each person will put their own interpretation on the word. Each of us knows what we understand the family to be. Multiple studies show that children brought up in a loving family, even if they are financially hard-pressed, grow up to be better adjusted adults. My wish would be that every child could mature in these favourable conditions.

Sadly, this is so. Children suffer neglect, physical and mental, bullying at home, in school or at play, sexual abuse and violence even in their own homes. As a community, we must be on the lookout for signs of these problems and be willing to support and help those families to overcome them. As a society, we must always help those who due to disability are unable to support themselves, and we have a responsibility to their carers, often family members, who willingly undertake a great burden that would otherwise fall on the state.

Major problems arise from addiction, not only to drugs, which have become all too commonly used, but also to gambling and alcohol. Alcohol is rapidly

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becoming the prime problem for the young. I think that the Government have recognised this and hope to stem the surge in teenage drinking. Police reports confirm that 24-hour drinking has added greatly to the demands made on their time. Debt, both personal and family, has become a major issue. Historically, people bought only what they could afford. The change came with, “take the waiting out of wanting” credit card promotions. Buying or having things you cannot afford is a real addiction for some people, while for others it is simply a lack of understanding that debts incurred have to be met some time. I am old enough to look back to a time when children never drank alcohol and were almost totally ignorant about sex. With increased awareness, young people are sexually active long before the legal age, and I have doubts about the Government allowing pharmacists to supply contraceptives and the morning-after pill to underage persons. Only time will tell if that reduces the number of teenage pregnancies, for which the UK has an unenviably poor record.

The need for two parents to be in full-time work to afford a modest standard of living amid the rising tax burden can make it difficult to cope with a family. It is wrong that two-parent households need far greater earnings—£240 per week—than a lone parent at £76 per week to move past the poverty line, as shown by Frank Field’s study. Couples should not be penalised for providing two parents for their children, nor should it pay them to split up and thus obtain greater benefits. That is a perverse incentive. Perverse, too, is the benefit trap where taking a job can lose a family money. It must always pay to work. The cost of family breakdown is now more than £20 billion a year.

Poverty and the gap between rich and poor have increased in the last decade. Quality of life is a luxury for those who do not have to fight simply to survive. It is wrong that so many expenses are higher for the poor, such as energy supplies, where obligatory pre-paid meters add £175 a year to the fuel bill.

No one today talks of latch-key children, the major concern when I began dental practice in a non-affluent area of central London. Perhaps we now think “if only” children went home instead of wandering the streets, joining up with others into unsavoury gangs. No longer is the quick cigarette the health hazard; drugs are readily available. Peer pressure often causes youngsters to try these, and then the addictive power of the drugs has them “hooked”.

The formation of gangs of teenagers and young people has created a special hazard for the young themselves and for those who come into contact with them. Individuals who would not dream of attacking anyone on their own, suddenly feel invincible when backed up by a group of others—their gang. In the news every week—sometimes almost daily—we hear of ordinary people being attacked, severely injured or even killed by groups of youths; and they say that gangs of girls can be worse than boys, an unfortunate case of sex equality.

The culture of knife carrying has a cachet of its own. In London and other cities, young people are being killed by their peers wielding readily available

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deadly blades. Police amnesties gather only a small percentage of the knives that young people now carry as routine.

We need to take back our communities from these young thugs who are found at all levels of society; this is not solely a problem for deprived areas. To hear that the Home Secretary is fearful of walking the streets at night is no surprise but is a sad indication of how things are. A more visible police presence is essential, and not only in patrolling cars. I was shocked to read that the Government are proposing to reduce the number of police at a time when we need them so badly. Why, when the zero tolerance of crime has worked so well in New York, are we proposing fewer police in the UK? David Cameron recently suggested that the community itself needs to be prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour in other people’s children. Fair enough—certainly we always used to—but in this we must be able to rely on the support of other members of the community and, ultimately, the back-up of our police.

Last Friday in affluent central London, a horde of 75 young people ran riot in a quiet street. Twenty had been invited to a private party; 80 gate-crashed. It seems they discover where a party is to be held and notify one another by mobile phone. Trouble began about 10.30 pm—cars were broken into, handbags stolen. Conditions were frightening and terrified local residents phoned the police. It was one hour before any police arrived and they explained that they had already dealt with 50 incidents that evening. There are simply not enough police to deal with these alcohol and drug-fuelled incidents, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. I thought that was very disturbing, happening very near where I live in London, but then I read in yesterday’s paper that 250 people arrived uninvited at a 16th birthday “bash”, was the word, in Australia, and it took police in 15 cars three hours to restore order.

It is so simple to list today’s problems and so hard to resolve them. When anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, were introduced, it seemed that a solution had been found. ASBOs have sometimes worked well but I saw in The HouseMagazine of 13 February 2008, as quote of the week, the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that,

Too many of the young have reacted in just this way.

The topic of this debate is wide-ranging and I must return to the family. The present cooking furore about Delia Smith’s advice on nutritious food and the organic food group has right on both sides. Organic food is more expensive and probably is a middle-class luxury. Readymade meals are often less nutritious and more costly. Good home cooking, especially with low salt content, on which we have had a Question today, must be a health benefit. The poorest families often use too many relatively expensive prepared meals that they can ill afford. Teaching cookery and home economics at school again will interest young people in how to prepare and cook healthy and tasty meals at a fraction of the cost.

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Nothing unites a family more than sitting together at a dining table for a meal and a conversation, having that as a time without television, a time for communication as a family. Reports say that many homes do not even possess a table at which a family could sit together. The habit of grazing—that is, eating on the hoof—has become common.

The breakdown of family life is sometimes triggered by particular events and can have disastrous consequences. I listened, on the radio, to a sad history of a man whose father died and he lost his job almost at the same time. Desperately upset, almost disorientated, he took to viewing pornography on his home computer and it became an addiction. He went on to be convicted of an offence, his wife was completely alienated and he was not allowed alone with his grandchildren. Now he is undergoing rehabilitation and he spoke about the help he and his family had been getting from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, without which he thought he could not have survived. I mention that case particularly because Members of your Lordships’ House will remember Lady Faithfull, the former head of Oxford Social Services, as a great source of wisdom in this House for many years.

Charities, the voluntary and community sector, non-governmental organisations—there are many terms to cover these groups—play an important part in supporting those in need or on the fringe of society. Last month, I met workers from Barnardo’s and was most impressed by the changes in the organisation and the work it is now doing. I had not caught up with the fact that it has had no orphanages for 15 years. Its work now is with disaffected young people; to quote one of the workers, “to walk alongside people, not to tell them what to do but to give them a second chance”. She told me that many were hard to like as they were so damaged that they were “not very nice people”, and there was a need for a lot of listening. These young people were angry, with no self-confidence or self-esteem and totally lacking trust in others. Barriers had to be broken down and trust re-established. In Northern Ireland, where she came from, a certain number aged 16 to 20 were taken on as trainees in the organisation for two years and helped to develop their potential and their self-confidence.

Training, or education, is vitally important and each person needs to have some skill or occupation to find employment. Employment skills give people opportunities in life. Motivation is all-important and I know that the Australian experience has shown that you need to retain continuity of occupation from the end of formal education. They have found that if young people leave school and have nothing to do for more than three months, they are almost a lost cause. I believe that there is now a general recognition in the UK that training schemes for the young, rather than a continuing education that is only academic, will make a great difference in retaining interest and the motivation that is essential. Prevention is better than cure, and if voluntary and statutory organisations can step in at an early stage, that must be better.

I have previously spoken in the House about the young offender programme led by National Grid, a pioneering scheme for prisoners that has dramatically

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reduced the national average of young people reoffending from 74 per cent to less than 7 per cent through employment and the training they have had to give them employment when they finish their sentence. It helps meet industry’s growing need for skilled and motivated labour. To date, the programme has engaged with more than 80 companies, and 1,000 offenders have successfully gone through the programme.

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