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House of Lords

Tuesday, 25 March 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Disability: Independent Living

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it is wonderful to see my noble friend in his place once again.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Government published their five-year, cross-government strategy for independent living on 3 March. The strategy sets out a five-year plan which aims to extend self-determination and choice to all disabled people and to enable greater access to housing, employment, health, education, transport and other opportunities.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is she aware that the Government’s strategy document is an outstanding piece of work except for its recommendation that the Government should wait for five years before deciding whether they will need legislation? I am convinced that it is important to have legislation now. The case for that was spelt out in the debates in this House in recent weeks on my Bill on independent living. If the Government were to accept the aims of my Bill it would be widely approved throughout the country and in Parliament—with the exception, of course, of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not expect him to agree initially but I hope that when he sees how beneficial the Bill could be, he might be persuaded to change his mind.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend knows that he is held in the highest regard in this House and elsewhere, particularly for his work on independent living. The Government support the principles underpinning the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill but there are two important reasons why we do not think it is necessary at this stage. First, significant progress is being made in support of people with disabilities through the strategy that was announced earlier this month, individual budgets, additional support for carers, support for user-led organisations, Putting People First and the housing strategy. Secondly, the independent living strategy sets out in detail how progress will be measured and provides a commitment to take action if this annual measurement indicates that barriers to independent living remain. It is important that the implementation and monitoring

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of the new strategy means that year on year we will be able to assess whether it is necessary to return to this issue, including legislation, and, indeed, that may be before five years.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, on measuring progress, the noble Baroness will be aware that the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit recommended in 2005 that a centre for independent living or an equivalent user-led organisation should be established in every local authority by 2010. What action has been taken with the Local Government Association and/or individual local authorities with a view to delivering that commitment? Are the Government on course to meet it?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, user-led organisations are local organisations that are run and controlled by disabled people. The focus of Department of Health-led work is on organisations of adults, including older people, and families of disabled people. We are committed to supporting them. Funding has been made available to provide information and advice, advocacy and peer support, assistance with self-assessment, support in using individual budgets, support to recruit and employ personal assistants, disability equality training and consumer audits of local services.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will know that there is some anxiety about the monitoring of the independent living plan. Can she tell us more about the Government’s plans for monitoring its implementation?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the strategy was launched on 3 March. The review was conducted over the previous 18 months using a principle of co-production involving disabled people at every stage. The strategy is jointly owned by five government departments. This partnership between disabled people and the Government does not end with the publication of the strategy; it will be equally, if not more, important as we move forward to implement and monitor its progress. The Government have launched a consultation process that will run until June. Disabled people and their organisations will be involved in working out the detail of how to implement the strategy, how the annual monitoring should take place, who will be involved in it and how progress will then be assessed.

Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that what she has just said about monitoring the strategy proves how difficult it has been so to do? We already know that best practice in this field will address most of the problems. Are the Government convinced that there is any point in waiting if the same problems are going to be identified?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Government’s strategy is not about waiting; it is about implementing and getting on with this. It is about tackling barriers that have prevented disabled people having full choice in and control over how they go about their lives. It is about ensuring that health, social care and other

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services are delivered in ways that enable disabled people to have choice in and control over how their needs are met. It is intended to make a real impact on the lives of disabled people now, but it will be monitored annually.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister spoke about dissolving barriers. What progress has been made in extending registered disabled housing across the country?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Andrews recently announced funding of £4.9 billion over the next three years to support people through our housing strategy. That will help more than 1 million vulnerable people each year, including older people, disabled people and those with mental health problems, to live independently in their own accommodation. In addition, the Government recently announced increases in the disabled facilities grant. It will increase by £25 million in 2008-09, which represents a significant rise of 20 per cent.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, community care law experts argue that the current community care legislative regime profoundly handicaps disabled people. Does my noble friend acknowledge that there are significant shortcomings in the current legislation?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I do not think that there are significant shortcomings in the legislation, but it is clear, and will be particularly so following the Second Reading debate on the Health and Social Care Bill today, that there is a great deal of work to be done. There is no doubt that services are patchy; there is no doubt that access to advice is very important. That is why monitoring is so important.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, do the Government still agree that for some of our most intellectually impaired people the most independent form of living can be in our intentional and village communities? If so, will the Government continue to support those under their new plans?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Government are in favour of a diverse range of support, including small and independent living communities.

Sudan: Darfur

2.45 pm

Lord Sheikh asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, due to fragmentation among rebel movements and intensified fighting between the Government of Sudan and rebel groups, there has been no recent progress in the

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political process. At a meeting convened in Geneva on 18 March by the UN and AU envoys, the UK set out proposals for a cessation of hostilities and actions to revitalise the political process, including the urgent appointment of a single chief mediator and deeper engagement with civil society.

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In January our Prime Minister met the Chinese Premier. Subsequently, in February, our Foreign Minister made a statement in China. It is said that China can perhaps do more to achieve peace. What is the Minister’s assessment of Chinese involvement? Can we influence the situation in any way?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, China continues to be constructive on the immediate issues ahead of us in Darfur. The Chinese envoy for Africa and Darfur, having visited London, went on to Sudan and put constructive pressure on the Government to accelerate the deployment of UNAMID and to prioritise political negotiation. Obviously, at a broader level, we are all concerned that not enough has been done to insist to the Government of Sudan that they must make and keep the peace in Darfur.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is now seven months since the United Nations Security Council’s resolution authorising the deployment of the hybrid force; that the UNAMID force is still 15,500 personnel short; and that there are reliable reports detailing the recent bombing of the civilian population of Darfur by the Sudanese Air Force? With 2 million people displaced and some 300,000 dead already, when will the international community show the urgency and commitment to ensure that some kind of peaceful settlement prevails?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is completely correct: the facts are bleak. Against them I would say that the pace of UNAMID deployment is slowly and painfully picking up, and there is pressure on the Government of Sudan to stop the current attacks. But that is the continued chronic problem with Darfur: not enough and always a little too late.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I welcome the Government’s recent recruitment by the Government of five consultants to enhance the capacity of the Darfur dialogue in Khartoum. Although the immediate prospects are bleak, as my noble friend has said, how does he envisage this Darfur dialogue developing as part of a longer-term peace strategy?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Darfur dialogue, as my noble friend refers to it, is an effort to draw Darfuri civil society into the peace-making process. While the rebel leaders often seem more attached to the baubles of office and to grand schemes, the civil society leaders are refreshing for their focus on the basics of security for the people of Darfur, the opportunity to resume their living as farmers and the right to go home. The more we can bring those dimensions into the negotiation, the better prospect there is of peace in the longer term.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we all share the Minister’s pessimism about what is happening. The situation seems to be getting darker and darker. I noted a particularly grim figure of 70 children dying a day amidst all the hundreds of thousands referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Is there anything specific we can do to speed up UNAMID getting its forces into operation? It seems to be a very slow business indeed. Also, following on from what my noble friend Lord Sheikh said, is there more we can do to encourage the Chinese and, indeed, the Japanese, who showed a strong interest in this area, to use their considerable resources and influence to help us meet this hideous and worsening tragedy?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we are clearly not doing enough; the noble Lord is correct about that. However, our diplomacy is extremely active. We are continuously convening or participating in meetings in New York and Geneva to try and get the required troops and helicopters deployed more quickly. The United Nations Secretary-General met with President al-Bashir twice over the past several weeks to press for an acceleration of the UNAMID deployment. Every diplomatic stone is being turned to try and accelerate this frustratingly slow process.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, since the JEM—the principal rebel movement—has said that it does not object to the UN-AU process as such but to the cumbersome structure of the joint representatives, and that it would like Kofi Annan to be the single mediator, can I take encouragement from what the Minister has said about the process in Geneva, which may lead to the appointment of a single mediator? Is that now acceptable to the Sudanese Government?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the idea of a single mediator to co-ordinate in one person the activities of the UN and AU is, I think, accepted. Names have been bandied about—regrettably not including Kofi Annan who, I think, has his hands full at the moment. The fact that the noble Lord cites JEM—a group largely responsible for the flare-up in fighting in Darfur because of its backing from Chad—shows the complexities of this. Nobody means quite what they say in Darfur.

Food: Grain Stocks

2.51 pm

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for this Question, which I think is the first time that this matter has been raised in either House at Question Time.

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The current situation is that world grain stocks are forecast to decrease to 247 million tonnes this year, as a result of two successive lower wheat harvests and the increased demand for cereals from the food, feed and fuel sectors. The main impact on the United Kingdom and globally has been sharply higher prices, which, combined with policy changes such as the removal of the set-aside requirement for the 2008 harvest, will undoubtedly stimulate grain production in the UK and, we hope, elsewhere.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that, while the situation is serious, the origin is not national? Is there a blueprint for managing this situation or will there just be a scramble for this vital commodity?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is not national as the noble Earl accepts. As I have said, removing set-aside, for starters, should stimulate grain production and we hope help to contain prices. The EU has taken other measures, including the temporary suspension of import duties on feed grains until the end of this growing season in June and the reselling of all the remaining intervention public stocks of grain. In the longer term, we expect set-aside to be abolished. As far as the UK is concerned, the Home Grown Cereals Authority—one of the levy boards—has been conducting, with the Cereals Industry Forum funded by Defra, risk-management training, so that all parts of the food chain can understand their particular role in that part of a very volatile situation, and one which we expect to remain volatile for some years to come.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, what impact has the move to bioethanol in the United States had on the availability of grain? Has the subsidy by the US Government had a major impact on the amount of grain going out of food production and into bioethanol?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, there is no doubt, that there have been some issues, particularly the effect on the harvest in the European Union and Australia. So far as the use of grains for biofuels are concerned—although the question relates to America—the EU has not been affected; some 2 per cent of production has been used for biofuels. The American situation is slightly different in the sense that in 2007-08 it used 80 millions tonnes of maize for biofuel and that is projected to rise to 110 million tonnes in 2008-09. There is some doubt as to whether that is sustainable, but it is not being done just to create fuel; there are other reasons. The subsidy, of course, is quite unacceptable.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, to what extent do the Government see pressure on grain supplies as a permanent shift? There is increased demand for livestock products worldwide, a drive to biofuels, and a refinery to be opened in the north-east of England shortly that will take over 5 per cent of our wheat crop in 2009. Does that mean that grain production will be at a premium in future? Other than the set-aside proposals, what policy changes do the Government have in mind to deal with that?

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