3 Jun 2008 : Column 71

3 Jun 2008 : Column 71

House of Lords

Tuesday, 3 June 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

Rape Crisis Centres

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government have commissioned an advisory group of sexual violence organisations to consider the financial viability of the sexual violence voluntary sector and to report back to Ministers. In addition, the Government have announced an emergency fund of more than £1 million to prevent immediate closures of rape crisis centres. The Government have invested around £10 million over the past four years to ensure that victims are supported through a number of organisations and agencies.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer and for the £1 million of extra funding, but does he recognise that over the past 20 years the number of rape crisis centres has declined from 84 to 38 and that, of those remaining, half are in peril because of erratic funding and lengthening waiting lists? What more can the Government do to help those centres and to enable them to plan properly for the future, which erratic funding prevents them from doing? Can the Government do anything to encourage people to give to charities that help women and children as generously as they give to those that help animals and trees?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, obviously it is important that the Government should make the case for continued support for rape crisis centres, which do an invaluable job. We seek to ensure that a range of agencies provides support and assistance for victims of this most unpleasant and appalling crime. The noble Lord drew attention to what no doubt he sees as a disparity in support and sympathy for rape crisis centres and animal welfare charities; I fully understand that point. By encouraging people to give and, as important, by focusing on the local support that these agencies and bodies receive, we can raise their profile and encourage greater support from the public.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that fewer than 6 per cent of cases in which there has been a complaint of rape end in a successful prosecution? That is an affront to the administration of justice. As far as any deployment of police resources is concerned, the nature of the crime makes it unlikely

3 Jun 2008 : Column 72

that any preventive assistance can be given to women. Furthermore, does he accept that any diminution in assistance humanely given to women who make complaints in this way would be not only counterproductive but extremely unjust?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s last point. That is why the Government have provided support and encouragement to sexual assault referral centres, which were established in the early part of this century and are now increasing in number and developing the quality of their service. The noble Lord draws attention to the low percentage of cases of recorded rape that end up with a conviction. If there is good news in this sector, it is that the percentage of rape cases that are prosecuted is increasing: it now stands at some 34 per cent, which is up over the past 10 years. I take some encouragement from that, as I do from the fact that the Government’s approach in this sensitive policy area has at least begun to improve the volume and quality of reported rape cases, which are up from some 6,600 in 1997 to over 14,000. That shows that women are more confident in coming forward.

Baroness Gale: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that rape crisis centres perform a unique service to women? Only women are referred to them. Those who go to the centres may have been raped 10 or 15 years ago and many will not have made a complaint to the police; nevertheless, they still need support and counselling, even after a long time. I believe that the uniqueness of rape crisis centres means that the Government should put much more funding into them compared with other organisations that deal with women, men and children who have suffered sexual violence. Will the Minister agree to have talks with my right honourable friend Harriet Harman to see whether further funding can be made available, not only to keep open those centres that already exist but also to create new ones?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I fully acknowledge the valuable and valiant role that rape crisis centres play in different localities. Indeed, I take pride from the fact that we helped to rescue the local rape crisis centre in Brighton through local authority funding, which is the more traditional route for funding such centres. As I said, we have already announced an emergency fund of over £1 million to target the centres that appear to be most at threat. Of course, we will listen carefully to the advisory group in this field, which will no doubt give further advice to my right honourable friend Harriet Harman regarding proposals for future funding.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, do the Government recognise that the anticipated figures for next year are that, in a population of half a million, probably 320 adults will be raped, of whom 30 will probably be men and 50 will be children, and that the figures have been rising year on year? Can the Minister confirm that the funding of sexual assault referral centres, of which 20 are new and 18 are planned, is secure so that they can help with prosecutions into the future?

3 Jun 2008 : Column 73

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I referred earlier to the valuable work of sexual assault referral centres, which are a fully supported government initiative. We have invested £10 million in these specialist services over the past four years. I can tell the noble Baroness that not only do we acknowledge the value of these important initiatives but they get our continued support.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, is it acceptable that it takes at least 84 days for women in crisis who have been raped to be seen? That does not suggest a sense of crisis. What funding will the Government make available so that women in crisis can be seen within an acceptable time?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not aware of that statistic and I certainly do not understand it in the terms that the noble Baroness sets out. We have been putting funding where it matters and where it makes a difference. Rightly, the development and expansion of sexual assault referral centres have been praised and supported. The range of services and help that they provide for women is invaluable and that is where a lot of the investment has been going.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, is the Minister aware that my right honourable friend David Cameron has announced that a future Conservative Government will ensure stable three-year funding for settlements for rape crisis centres, thus avoiding the year-on-year funding crises? He said:

What specific plans do the Government have for introducing a stable and long-term funding settlement?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government have put a growing policy emphasis on dealing with the difficult issue of rape over the past 11 years. Much as I welcome David Cameron’s commitment, I think that he comes rather late to the policy. We are increasing our support in this sector and will continue to do so. Women deserve all the support, encouragement and help that they can get when they go through these difficult, traumatic situations.

Higher Education: Student Loans

2.45 pm

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, we estimate that a student who entered higher education in 2006-07 will take an average of around 13 years to repay their student loan. The repayment period is counted from the April following the year of graduation. The calculation is based on assumptions about lifetime graduate earnings

3 Jun 2008 : Column 74

derived from the British household panel and labour market surveys. The calculation takes account of gender, age and periods spent unemployed or inactive for other reasons.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which was obviously a theoretical one. Does she agree that we are in difficult times and that huge student debts, insecurity in the job market, pension commitments and the ballooning cost of living place a recent graduate’s financial future on very rocky ground?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, we need to be clear about the nature of the student loan facilities that have been made available by the Government, which are on a different basis from commercial loans. A student who is earning £18,000 is expected to repay around £22 a month for their loan. I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that when we consider the benefits of higher education, which I am sure everyone in the House accepts are highly significant and very important, it is not unreasonable to expect students who benefit significantly from such education to make some contribution towards the costs, as indeed the Government have been doing in the past 10 years by significantly increasing funding for higher education.

Lord Desai: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that income-contingent loans have been a great advance on previous kinds of financing for students and have advantaged a lot of students who go on to higher education? Does she further agree that for many families this is the first generation going into higher education and they find the whole way of applying somewhat complicated? Do the Government have any plans to simplify the process in order to help people to apply for university?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. He is right to point out that students from what are sometimes described as non-traditional backgrounds can find bewildering the process of applying for university and looking for finance. That is why the Government have invested significantly in programmes such as Aimhigher. There has been a year-on-year increase in applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we are also mindful of the need to do more. The Student Loans Company, as instructed by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, is involved in a major overhaul of the information, advice and guidance available to students, and we are aiming to have a streamlined application process for university and finance online by 2009.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, have the Government paid attention to the fact that a student loan can affect one’s eligibility for a mortgage? To my knowledge, young students are affected by that. What are the Government doing about that?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has been clear that students should not be prevented from making successful applications for mortgages because of their student loans. We need to be clear that student loans concern the ability to pay according to income and not the

3 Jun 2008 : Column 75

amount of outstanding debt. That is an important difference from the old mortgage-style loans that were introduced before this Government came to power.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, we all know that we may well be heading for a quite tricky economic situation. Surely that is an argument for looking at this scheme more thoroughly. Is the Minister aware that recent graduates are charged 4.8 per cent interest on their loans and yet, in employment, many of them receive pay increases of 2.5 per cent or less?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I am very aware of the interest rate that is charged on the outstanding debt that students have. We need to be clear about the difference between the interest rate on the outstanding debt, which is in line with RPI—it will be set again in September in line with RPI for March this year, so students will see a reduction in the interest charged on the outstanding debt—and the interest rate on repayment, which will always be 9 per cent above the £15,000 threshold. For example, the £18,000 earner will pay only 9 per cent, which is £22 a month. So we are talking about two kinds of interest and the repayment interest rate is 9 per cent.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that none of the £22 a month paid by the £18,000 earner will actually go towards repayment? Indeed, the debt will be accumulating at that point because with a debt of something like £20,000, which is what students will have in future, one will hope to be earning £25,000 before one starts repaying the debt, as distinct from just meeting the interest rate payments which, I accept, reflect the rate of inflation. However, at 4.8 per cent one needs to repay more than £500 a year before one gets anything back.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the key point is that graduates have an increased earning potential of at least £100,000 over their lifetimes in comparison with students who attain a couple of A-levels. It is about students putting something back because they benefit significantly from higher education.


2.52 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Blaker and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I are in regular contact with SADC leaders and Foreign Ministers to

3 Jun 2008 : Column 76

discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe. Our embassies and high commissions in the region take every opportunity to remind them of our concerns and emphasise the key role they have in resolving the situation.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The outrageous spectacle of Mugabe’s presence at the FAO summit in Rome has been condemned from many quarters. Has there been any condemnation from African Governments? Recently, President Mbeki wrote to President Bush asking him to “butt out” of Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Mbeki used his vote at the UN Security Council to block discussion of the crisis in Zimbabwe. Is it not time he was reminded forcefully that the US and the UK between them have to feed over half the population of Zimbabwe to save them from starvation as a result of Mugabe’s evil policies? Does the Minister agree with Morgan Tsvangirai that President Mbeki’s lack of neutrality makes him unfit to lead the SADC process on Zimbabwe? Given HMG’s patient support for regional action on the crisis and our strong bilateral links with SADC countries, what response has there been to the Prime Minister’s call for election monitors from the Caribbean, Canada and other countries? Is it not time for SADC to insist that trade union delegations from the region be allowed to enter Zimbabwe? Finally, if China can be open to the world in its crisis, why not Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I am not sure that President Mbeki needs any reminding that we are meeting the food needs of half the Zimbabweans because there are 3 million Zimbabweans in exile in his country. The desperate and tragic violence in recent months reflects the cost to South Africa of failing to resolve this crisis. The internal debate in South Africa around that issue shows that many South Africans share the view not just of this Government but of SADC neighbours that it is time for an honest, fair election and for its result to be recognised by President Mugabe.

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, given the current levels of intimidation, torture and displacement in Zimbabwe, can the Minister say what the UK Government’s attitude as part of the international community will be if President Mugabe is re-elected as president?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that the omens are not good. The NGOs authoritatively report that since the second round began 30,000 people have been displaced, 1,700 have been beaten and 27 have been murdered. It would seem that all that is a targeted effort by the Government to undermine the human infrastructure of the MDC opposition. We have been clear that for this election to be recognised by the world it must meet SADC, AU and international principles of freeness and fairness. Frankly, it is not off to a good start.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, we do not know when fundamental change—the end of the Mugabe regime—will come in Zimbabwe, but come it will. Is

3 Jun 2008 : Column 77

my noble friend confident that DfID, the European Union, the United States and the international community generally are prepared for that, when it comes, and that we will have a package of immediate aid to help the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has committed to a major contribution by Britain, through a multilateral effort, probably led by the World Bank and the UN, for the reconstruction of the country. DfID has taken the lead in encouraging the World Bank to set up a multidonor trust fund and to begin planning for that moment when Zimbabwe returns to accountable government and starts to put back in place a functioning economy.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am sure the Minister has seen the statement by President Bush calling on the AU, the UN and SADC to blanket the country with elections and human rights monitors. In view of the fact that it is unlikely that the regime will allow more than the bare minimum of something like 300, which has already been agreed, to enter the country, would he consider suggesting to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the High Commissioner for Human Rights that they jointly appoint a special representative to receive testimony via SMS and voice messages about the violations occurring now, so that retribution can be visited on the criminals perpetrating those atrocities after the elections have brought another party to power?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we have certainly made it clear to the UN Secretary-General and in the Security Council that a UN human rights envoy is badly needed in Zimbabwe. An earlier envoy was able to stay the violence over slum closures several years ago. We also continue to press for the maximum number of observers necessary, which is estimated as between 400 and 600. We are supporting a trust fund at the UN to finance observers. We are working with SADC and AU leaders to make sure that they are able to provide sufficient observers, and we are continuing to press for Caribbean and Latin American observers to make sure that there are witnesses to what happens in coming weeks in Zimbabwe.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, would the Minister give his support to the call by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for the United Nations to investigate the sustained campaign against the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I certainly would. I observe that the attack on the Anglican Church clearly represents the effort to close down any free, fair and objective voices in the country in advance of the second round of elections.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page