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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21 May 2008.

The House met at three o'clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Chester): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Death of a Member

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, it is with very deep regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Burlison. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to his family and friends.

Prisoners: Children

3.03 pm

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the National Offender Management Service does not routinely keep information on the number of prisoners in England and Wales who have dependent children. However, the 2003-04 resettlement survey commissioned by the then Prison Service Custody to Work Unit showed that half of all female prisoners had dependent children, including stepchildren, and that 46 per cent of those women had lived with at least one dependent child before custody.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. It reminds us that these statistics are not regularly collected, which is a weakness in itself. It is well known that time spent in a children’s home is a major predictor of offending behaviour, so what steps are the Government taking to ensure that the children of women prisoners do not become looked-after children? Bearing in mind that women are often remanded in prison on relatively minor charges, are the Government implementing the recommendation of the Corston review that women should be remanded only after consideration of a probation report on the impact on their children?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly take the noble Baroness’s point about statistics. I will ensure that my department considers that point. We are consulting on the Corston recommendation. The noble Baroness is right to refer us to the poor outcomes for many children in care. Many of the children of women prisoners find themselves in care. My department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families reviewed this matter. Although the review found no conclusive evidence to show that

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imprisoning parents of itself causes poor outcomes for these children, research undertaken on the children of offenders shows that they face severe challenges. That is why, as part of the Think Family approach, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and my department are exploring better ways to meet a child’s needs when a parent goes to prison.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, according to the Corston report, 18,000 children a year are affected by their mothers’ imprisonment and that a third of the mothers have children under five when they are taken into custody? What is being done to improve visiting arrangements— a Home Office survey showed that half of the mothers had had no visits—and communication between children and their mothers? Sixty-two miles is the average distance from home for mothers in prison; the distance is 50 miles for men. What are the Government doing about that?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right to raise the important question of visiting. The latest statistics I have show the average distance from home for women prisoners is 58 miles, although that can vary enormously depending on where the family lives and other issues.

Of course, we need to do everything that we can to encourage visiting. There is an Assisted Prison Visits Unit and there is help for those relatives or partners who receive benefits or are on a low income. Prisons are encouraged to undertake special children’s visits. There is a target for women prisoners to have children’s visits four times a year, which gives an opportunity for the child to have more contact with their mother than would be the case with ordinary visits.

Lord Henley: My Lords, if the noble Lord can give statistics on the average distance that a woman prisoner is from home when she is in prison—he gave the figure of 58 miles—why can he not give the statistics asked for in the Question? What is the point of the department if it cannot do that?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have already said that we have identified that we have an issue about that statistic and I said that I will take this back to the department. It is clear that many women prisoners have children, and that is why it is so important to ensure, as the noble Earl suggested, that visits are as effective as possible.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are only 75 mother and baby places in prisons? Bearing in mind the desirability of keeping babies with their mothers, and the fact that that is only a fraction of the number of mothers and babies who could benefit from being kept together in that way, are the Government planning to increase the number of mother and baby units? What help is being given to those caring for the children of prisoners when they are kept at home, which is clearly more desirable than putting them into care, where such carers can be properly supported?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, on help for carers, I have already referred to the Think Family initiative, which is an important part of what we are doing. The noble Baroness is right to raise the importance of mother and baby units, and she is right that in total they provide accommodation for up to 75 mothers and their children. I have been informed that over the past five years, the number of applications for admission to mother and baby units has never exceeded the number of available places.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the number of women offenders has gone up, perhaps not least because some of the laws that have been passed recently mean that a second offence requires an offender to be sent to prison? Under those circumstances, can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will be thinking of better ways to do this and of closer prison places for women? Can that be done ahead of Titan prison-building? We need an assurance on that.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the House will know that we will be publishing further work on Titans shortly. The report of my noble friend Lady Corston focused on the need for smaller units closer to women’s homes. We are considering that carefully. The noble Baroness is right that there has been an increase in the number of women in prison. That has now stabilised. I should emphasise that the law makes it clear that prison sentences should be given only when the offending behaviour is so serious as to merit a custodial term. Clearly, we must ensure that that is kept in mind at all times.

Aviation: Air Quality

3.08 pm

Lord Tyler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the European CabinAir research found that normally the levels of chemical and biological contaminants in aircraft are less than in many environments such as office buildings. The fume events described by “Panorama” occur on an estimated 0.05 per cent of flights overall and can be brief. The UK is leading the world on research using new technology to find out what substances, in what concentrations, could be present during such events.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Do he and the Government support the recommendation of the Science and Technology Committee of this House? It reiterated its recommendation this week, to the effect that it was looking for,

Does he accept that the research undertaken on a very limited basis by Dr Mackenzie Ross must be followed up if we are to avoid a serious situation developing and a lot of pilots feeling that their problems have not been properly attended to?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there are two issues there. Of course we take seriously the recommendations of the Science and Technology Committee. As the noble Lord will know, in its recent report, it expressed its delight that the Government are committed to filling the knowledge gap in this area and to ensuring that the AHWG-sponsored research to identify the substances produced during a fume event is completed urgently. With regard to the research to which he refers, of course we look at all research that comes in. There are question marks over some of the veracity of the research conducted, but we would be foolish to ignore such matters and we are keeping them under review as an important part of the AHWG’s work.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the independent scientific reports sponsored in this House and elsewhere conclude that evidence of organophosphorous compounds affecting health in cockpits and cabins is somewhat sparse? Does he further agree that further investigation of the issue might distract attention from other, more significant risks—for example, fatigue?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have to take all these things seriously. My noble friend is right to draw our attention to the issue of fatigue. We welcome the fact that the Civil Aviation Authority is working very closely with airlines, BALPA and other trade unions, and so on, on all initiatives to counter fatigue. We have an open-door approach to the aviation industry if it wants to discuss these and other important matters. We have to take the issue of fume events seriously—it is for that reason that we are now leading the world in research in that area.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is it true that since smoking is no longer allowed in aeroplanes, the amount of oxygen that travels around the aircraft has been cut? I am certainly convinced that I caught a form of bronchitis through travelling—I will not tell you on which airline—and a lot of my friends would agree with me on this point. I would like to know definitely whether oxygen has been cut and, if so, why it cannot be restored.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not an expert on the question of how much oxygen there may be in aircraft, so I concede that I am defeated on that one. I wish the noble Baroness all good health and I hope that she does not have any adverse bronchial defects in future.

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Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, which is extremely relevant, does not the Minister agree that businessmen are often flying more hours than pilots? There is a tendency now with fuel conservation for pilots to be encouraged to cut oxygen going into the aircraft. I have suffered from that on one or two occasions. I feel that they are also encouraged to do so because it encourages the passengers to go to sleep. That is absolutely iniquitous. Is there any ruling that we as passengers who travel frequently have enough oxygen to keep us going until the other end?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord has made me take a completely different view of my air travel plans in future. I am sure that he is right to raise the question. My noble friend Lord Jones—Digby Jones—here reminds me that he is a frequent air traveller, so we must make sure that his health is properly preserved, if no one else's.

Lord Winston: My Lords, given that I was chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology when we wrote the report on aircraft passenger environment, perhaps I may ask a question. Does my noble friend not agree that what we broadly found in our report was entirely reassuring on contamination in aircraft? There was an issue about viruses, which was a concern because they cannot always be filtered out of the system, but apart from that aspect, the aircraft passenger environment seemed to be completely safe, as did the question of oxygen levels.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for that intervention. He is absolutely right. Noble Lords can be reassured by that and fly safely.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, are the Government exploring the use of jet lubricant oils which are free of tricresyl phosphate and are being developed in some parts of the world? I declare an interest as also having contributed to the Science and Technology Committee. In line with its report, are toxic detectors being fitted in aircraft cabins to detect any contamination that affects not only the crew but also the passengers? Some of the substances that have been suggested as being implicated are odourless.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we conduct research in a whole range of areas relating to toxicity. I think that what the noble Baroness referred to is part of the programme, but I will take the point away and check exactly where we are on it. The fume-event testing that we are conducting is taking careful account of the TCP issue, to ensure that we have got it right.

Energy: Clean Coal Technology

3.16 pm

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office & Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Jones of Birmingham): My Lords, since the energy White Paper in May 2007 we have made steady progress on the development of clean coal technologies. The competition for our carbon capture and storage demonstration project is under way and the carbon abatement technologies demonstration programme is supporting an oxyfuel project and a new call for project proposals which will be announced this year. There is also increasing research and development activity across a range of clean coal technologies.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that this is fast becoming a major issue of energy policy, as coal already represents a quarter of all the energy consumed in the world, a proportion which will inevitably increase as a result of the major coal-fired power station construction programme in China and elsewhere, including, as recently reported, in the Middle East? Does he also agree that while the competition on carbon capture and storage he has announced is undoubtedly to be welcomed, it means the selection of one process from many processes for clean coal technology? Last year, 10 projects were available, of which the Government have selected only one. Would it not have been better to have had an overall scheme for encouraging all those processes by which greater and more diversified progress could have been made?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for mentioning that coal has an enormous role to play as part of the mixed bag of fuel that will be used this century for energy generation across the world. As he will know, Kingsnorth power station, a coal burner, is going to proceed here in Britain. He also mentioned the Middle East. As chairman of UK Trade & Investment, I was in Qatar and Abu Dhabi last week. I was heartened to see Abu Dhabi putting $15 billion of its oil revenues, which come in part from this country, into research and development on using fossil fuels more cleanly for energy generation, and that includes coal.

The noble Lord asked why we selected from the 12 available CCS technologies. We had to select one. We can proceed only with one. We are talking £1 billion a time, which is big money in anybody’s terminology. We had to ensure that the competition was effective. Demonstrations are extremely expensive. It was not realistic to expect one country to tackle them all. I hope that noble Lords will be delighted to hear that we are just one of three countries in the world—Norway and America are the other two—which are even going down the path of a demonstration project on carbon capture and storage. We chose post-combustion capture because it is the most globally relevant technology. It can be retrofitted to existing installations—Kingsnorth may well benefit from it in the future—and it is likely to be relevant particularly to the future major emitters of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. I include in that specifically the technology transfer that we can achieve with China.

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Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, given the stage of development of this technology, particularly carbon capture and storage, is there not now a real need, as was identified last year by the European Union leaders, to provide incentives to companies to invest in this technology? Why is it, therefore, that I have been told by Ministers that the substantial proceeds from auctioning the allowances under the Emissions Trading Scheme cannot be used to provide these incentives but have to be surrendered to the Treasury? Surely what the Minister has just described from the Gulf is an example of how they are using their energy revenue to encourage development in low-carbon systems. Why cannot we do the same?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raises a valid point about hypothecation. It is very easy for Abu Dhabi to hypothecate when they provide something like 20 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel revenues and have little call on that money. Here, the money goes into the Treasury and is used to promote so many different initiatives. But the noble Lord is not exactly accurate when he says that we are doing not a lot. We are supporting one of the world’s first commercial-scale CCS demonstration projects, as I mentioned. That is a significant commitment at £1 billion a throw. We are already supporting an oxyfuel project under the carbon abatement technologies demonstration programme. We are also supporting 15 other clean coal technology projects supported by the Technology Strategy Board. That is all using taxpayers’ money. It is not true that we are doing nothing.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the Minister said that these technologies are £1 billion a throw, but in view of the cost of carbon as outlined in the Stern report that does not seem a vast amount for technologies that will be going through for the coming few decades. In that light, with just one demonstration project, are the Government not putting all their eggs in one basket? Would it not have been better to have a couple more projects looking at pre-combustion technology and not just at carbon capture and storage, as welcome as that is?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I am certain that there will be a role for pre-combustion technology. This is not the only game in town but it is the one that we have chosen; there will be many others round the world. The advantage of pre-combustion is that it is slightly cheaper, and the problem is that you cannot retrofit it. With so many coal burners around the world—and I have in mind the developing world especially—the ability to use technology, which has yet to be completely perfected, to retrofit on to coal burners will be very useful. Britain will play a leading role in selling technological solutions to climate change around the world. This type of technology is one of the things that I sell round the world for this country. It is something where we can win. On that basis, I suggest to the House that we have made the right investment decision.

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