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House of Lords

Thursday, 13 March 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Chichester

The Lord Bishop of Chichester—John William, Lord Bishop of Chichester, was introduced between the Lord Bishop of Rochester and the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Housing: Repossessions

11.10 am

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

My Lords, the Government have introduced statutory regulation to help to ensure that lenders lend responsibly and borrowers are able to make informed choices. The Government provide targeted support for those experiencing difficulties through the provision of debt advice and support for mortgage interest. The Government welcome the industry's recent statement setting out the steps that it is taking to help to support borrowers. The Civil Justice Council’s Housing and Land Committee is currently consulting on a draft mortgage protocol.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I really do thank my noble friend for that Answer. It looks like something may be being done. As he knows, there is growing evidence of a big increase in early foreclosures. Has the Treasury considered the Ministry of Justice’s recent proposal to help borrowers who are in trouble with temporary financial difficulties by arranging a court order to prevent early foreclosure? Will my noble friend have a word with the Treasury about that?

Lord Davies of Oldham: Certainly, my Lords, we are eager to ensure that people holding mortgages are able to avoid court proceedings and repossession and we are giving advice on how they can so organise their affairs. The important thing is that the mortgage lenders also have a real interest in using repossession only as a last resort. Therefore, they are eager to co-operate with strategies that ensure that, as far as possible, people are helped when they get into difficulties with their mortgages.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, the Budget headlines yesterday were for more taxes for ordinary families. The small print of the Budget shows that the Treasury forecasts that house prices will fall in real terms. Did the Budget have anything at all to reduce the increasing likelihood of a rising rate of mortgage default and therefore repossession?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House will recognise that the rate of repossession is considerably below that of the 1980s and early 1990s. That is a reflection of the fact that interest rates are considerably lower than in those rather drastic times. The noble Baroness will appreciate that the Chancellor, in defending a robust economy, is able to emphasise that the rate of repossessions, although it may increase to a degree, will be nothing like what was experienced in the past. Both the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading are involved in improving regulation and advice in order to help people holding mortgages when they get into difficulties.

Lord Peston: My Lords, even with my imagination I did not realise that this Question was about yesterday's Budget, but if it is, is my noble friend aware that, from a macroeconomic standpoint, the Chancellor got the budgetary position pretty well exactly right? One can hope only that the Monetary Policy Committee does not do something stupid to offset that, but that is by the way.

On the Question itself, should we assume that, on the whole, banks and building societies are rational, and therefore, with the housing market as it is, they would not rush into premature housing repossessions? Would I be right in understanding that the Treasury will act in a minimalist fashion on this and again rely on the free market—in this case the banks and building societies—to behave sensibly?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Treasury will act in a supportive role with regard to the free market. There are areas in which government agencies are able to improve the position—the quality of financial advice and the understanding that individuals have with regard to their mortgage commitments. All this can and should be improved. The Government can provide some pump priming in this area. But broadly my noble friend is absolutely right that we can rely on the mortgage lenders to act responsibly. More than 50 per cent have already given a lead by cutting their interest rates in line with the most recent Bank of England cut.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the normal advice given by mortgage lenders to borrowers facing temporary difficulties is to request to pay interest only?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is certainly so. Mortgage lenders have an interest in the ongoing relationship with the mortgagee and the point of last resort is repossession. They do adopt such strategies to help borrowers and, on the whole, have good relationships with them. That does not alter the fact that we all recognise that we are going through bumpy economic times and there will be difficulties for some individuals. That is why the Government are concerned that the Financial Services Authority should do additional work on its support in this field.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, it is well known that Northern Rock has been particularly active in the repossession field in recent months, which is, no doubt, a reflection on the quality of its lending. What guidance has the Treasury given to Mr Sandler about this?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I think I should convey to the House that the Government are not going to monitor every single act of the chief executive of Northern Rock. The arm’s-length relationship guarantees that that should not be so; the Treasury is not running Northern Rock. What we will do in due course, as has been promised to both Houses of Parliament, is publish the framework agreement between the Treasury and Northern Rock. The noble Lord will see from that—I have no doubt that it will condition future questions—that it would not be appropriate at the Dispatch Box for a Minister to comment on every single action by the chief executive.

Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that every effort should be made before any repossession takes place to keep families in their homes? Will he therefore support proposals that in every case before court proceedings are taken informal arbitration takes place to try to find a method to keep people in their homes?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that generally does take place, for the reasons I identified earlier. The mortgage company or bank has no interest in repossessing, except as a last resort. We are seeking to strengthen that. The whole point of the increased work of the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading is to give greater support to families in difficulty in terms of information and knowledge on how to handle their negotiations with the building society or bank when the issue arises.

Railways: West Coast Main Line

11.18 am

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, a significant increase in west coast route capacity will be achieved in the new timetable to be introduced in December this year. This will use the existing fleet of Pendolino trains and extra tilting Voyager trains to give a 50 per cent increase in long-distance trains to and from Euston.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but it does not build on the Written Answer that I received, in which he said that there would be a 30 per cent increase in capacity from December. On inquiry to the train operator, I am told that 29 per cent of that is off peak and 1 per cent is during the peak. These trains are very overcrowded but I know of no plans as yet agreed to increase their capacity. What are the Government and their negotiators going to do to secure a better deal for the taxpayer, the passenger and the train operating company?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that most of the increase in capacity is concentrated in the off-peak period, but we have been talking to the operators and have put in place significant plans to improve the quality of passenger experience on that route. As I made plain, there will be

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new Pendolino carriages—something like 106 new ones—and a further 92 additional carriages on the London Midland route. We are undertaking a whole programme of capacity enhancement, including platform lengthening on significant parts of the west coast main line. Also, of course, we have already invested something like £8.125 billion extra in improving the west coast route.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, has my noble friend seen the Atkins consulting group report that came out earlier this week? It indicated that capacity on the classic railway network will be fully saturated within 10 years and that the only solution to problems of overcrowding on routes such as the west coast line is the construction of a new high-speed line that would bring down journey times to Birmingham to one hour and to Glasgow to three hours. The report indicates that the economic benefits for the nation as a whole would be in the region of £60 billion over a lengthy lifespan, so is this not the way forward and should not the Government be planning for it now?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we continue to refine our plans for the future development of the rail network. The network is doing a brilliant job in this country. It is expanding at a faster rate than at any time since 1947, when the father of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was Prime Minister. There are now more rail passengers. We have invested significantly and we continue to do so. We keep under review the need for high-speed operational lines and, in the past few years, we have made significant improvements in the speed of journeys between London and Manchester and London and Birmingham.

Lord Elton: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Attlee is a good deal younger than the noble Lord gives him credit for; the noble Lord was referring to his grandfather. On the Question, may I give the Minister another opportunity to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, by asking what proportion of all the goodies that he promised would be forthcoming on the west coast line will be available during peak hours?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I always try to make the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, happy and satisfy him with my responses, although I know that I do not always reach that point of perfection. I accept that most of the capacity increases will be off peak. Nevertheless, we have made significant improvements to peak services over the past few years. I accept the point made by the noble Lord that there will be some difficulties in the future, but we think that adequate capacity is in place and there will be continued provision of that capacity.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, one of the best ways of reducing overcrowding on the railways is to add more coaches to trains. When I asked my noble friend recently in a Written Question how many spare carriages or trains were sitting doing nothing in depots, he could not answer me. Perhaps I can help him. Nine or 10 Adelante five-car trains are going into storage quite soon, but they would be ideal for dealing with the

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serious overcrowding around the Bristol area and in Wales. What action is he taking to make sure that they go to work rather than fester in a depot somewhere?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I suppose that I should always be grateful for the help that the noble Lord gives. We work closely with train operators, particularly South West Trains—concern is frequently expressed in your Lordships’ House about the operation of that company and its routes—to ensure that carriages are released. I am sure that the noble Lord will be delighted to learn that a refurbishment of class 455 units on South West Trains is currently being undertaken. I am told that over time that should begin to ease some of the difficulties.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, the United Kingdom currently has 110 kilometres of high-speed line. How many will we have in 10 years’ time?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not going to make a prediction like that. I would be foolish to do so. The most important thing for us to tackle is ensuring that we have capacity in place. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is right to point his finger at that being the key issue. The majority of our investment is going to ensure that we can match the capacity needs that passengers are rightly demanding from us.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, what does the Minister believe to be the longest train journey for which it is reasonable to stand if we are to get travellers out of their private cars?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we set a standard that no one should have to stand for more than 20 minutes.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I am struck by the number of long-distance commuters from Wigan, Warrington and Preston. Their trains are already overcrowded in standard class during peak hours. Must they stand until 2014? Why do not the Government negotiate with Virgin so that two standard-class carriages per train can be ordered now and be in service by 2010?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, they will not have to stand until 2014. It is true that we had an unsolicited offer from Virgin last November, but we concluded that significant service improvements could not be delivered in the way that Virgin suggested. We did not think that it was a good offer in terms of value for money. We have had further discussions with Virgin on this, because it is clearly an important issue. The White Paper deals with the whole period from 2009 to 2014. Many of the improvements will come on stream rather earlier than the noble Earl suggests—from the time of the introduction of the new timetable at the end of this year, as I said at the outset.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, what business is it of the Government to second-guess the train operators?

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we are into the 17th minute.

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Portable Antiquities Scheme

11.26 am

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Portable Antiquities Scheme is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and administered on its behalf by the British Museum. The MLA has committed itself to funding the Portable Antiquities Scheme at £1.3 million for 2008-09. Beyond that period, the funding and management arrangements for the PAS will be subject to an upcoming review of the scheme, jointly commissioned by the MLA and the British Museum.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, but I imagine the Minister is aware that the future of the scheme has been much discussed in recent months. Does he recall that his noble friend Lord Bach said from that very Bench some six weeks ago that,

I was hoping for a clearer statement about the future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is widely felt on all sides to be one of the best things that this Government have done in the field of archaeology and heritage. Can the Minister be a little more explicit about the future arrangements for the scheme?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great authority on these issues, and I pay tribute to his work in this area. We are looking forward to the conclusion of the discussions on the future of the scheme. The scheme is greatly valued, as he indicated. It brings various artefacts into museums in a way that otherwise would not occur. What is more, it engages a wide-ranging section of the public who otherwise would not visit museums. They do so because of the scheme, so we value it highly. However, it is necessary for us to think about the future of the scheme constructively, which is what the two bodies are doing. I regret that the noble Lord can point out to me that we have not made enormous progress in the past six weeks, but I assure him that we expect these discussions to conclude favourably in the near future.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, as the Minister has just suggested, if the remaining problems are to be resolved satisfactorily, will it not be necessary for the DCMS to intervene more actively and more constructively, and specifically to provide a more generous dowry for the Portable Antiquities Scheme as it enters the full embrace of the British Museum? Is this not incumbent on the department, which in the Comprehensive Spending Review chose to allocate an additional £50 million to the Arts Council, which was welcome, and even found £50 million for a new building at Tate Modern, but imagined wrongly that it would be acceptable to cut funding by 25 per cent for a range of important but

13 Mar 2008 : Column 1575

less glamorous programmes, including the Portable Antiquities Scheme, housed at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the cut for the Portable Antiquities Scheme is merely that the annual sum granted to it for the coming year is the same as it was last year. Of course that is a cut because of inflation, but it is nothing like 25 per cent; we are talking about a marginal cut. However, I accept what my noble friend says. We want a resolution of these issues so that the future of the scheme is identified effectively. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, we expect progress to be made on these matters. If the department needs to intervene more proactively, we will certainly do so.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, will the national nature of the scheme be preserved? As all sides of the House have mentioned in previous debates, the great value of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is its national nature, so that every part of the country is covered. If it is cut even marginally, that national nature might be threatened. Would that not have damaging effects on the archaeological heritage of different regions?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his work in this area—and, indeed, to my noble friend Lord Howarth. In fact, all three noble Lords who have questioned me about this matter today know a great deal more about it than I do myself. I want to emphasise that there is no intention of changing the structure of the Portable Antiquities Scheme—quite the opposite. We highly value the scheme. It has great virtues and we intend to safeguard its future. However, there is discussion on where authority for the scheme should lie, and those discussions have not quite concluded yet.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I declare a sort of interest as the person who took the treasure trove Bill through this House—legislation which has been a great success, as I think your Lordships will agree. I am not absolutely certain that all these wonderful words of support include finances. Are the Government actually giving money towards this scheme? I say that as a portable antiquity myself.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I cannot guarantee than the noble Baroness will be a direct beneficiary of the £1.3 million allocated to the scheme. However, as I indicated to the House, that figure obtains over the next year. Protests and anxieties have been expressed because that does mean a reduction of 2 or 3 per cent in the resources available to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. I think that will be recognised as on the margins. Certainly the Government’s intent is that the scheme should continue to develop and flourish. The issue of management, however, is still to be resolved.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does my honourable friend know—

Noble Lords: Noble!

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