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House of Lords

Monday, 23 June 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the best way of reducing the kind of everyday drinking that leads to ill health and other problems is to put into action our policy of identifying higher-risk drinkers earlier and providing advice and support. Our actions are guided by the best up-to-date evidence. We hope that the “Know Your Limits” and binge-drinking campaigns launched last week along with unit and health information on labels will help people to take responsibility for their actions and to make informed decisions.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, considering that the number of children and pregnant women who drink, the number of prescriptions and hospital admissions for alcohol-related disease and the level of violent attacks by people who have consumed alcohol have all increased sharply since the alcohol harm reduction strategy was first published in March 2004, do not the Government think that further action is necessary with a view to achieving specific reductions in these indices of harm? Will they publish a detailed response to the BMA’s recommendations in Alcohol Misuse: Tackling the UKEpidemic, in particular its advice on using the levers of price and availability?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, we expect retailers to behave responsibly and to uphold the law. We also expect the alcohol industry to label and to advertise responsibly. We have commissioned an independent review of the relationship between pricing, promotion and harm to provide us with the best evidence on which to make decisions. We are also monitoring our voluntary agreement with the alcohol industry. If we are not satisfied that the industry is behaving responsibly, we will take further action.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, has my noble friend considered the Scottish Government’s recent initiative to disallow supermarkets and off-licences to sell alcohol after a certain hour of the night?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. He will not be surprised to hear that we shall follow the Scottish consultation with great interest. We will shortly report on the

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results of independent reviews on alcohol and price promotion, as I mentioned. We have no proposals to raise the legal age at which alcohol can be purchased. The Government’s approach in England is strictly to enforce underage sales work with the alcohol industry to crack down on irresponsible promotions and to provide comprehensive information about alcohol to adults, young people and parents.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, what figures does the Minister have on the number of children whose welfare is adversely impacted by parental misuse of alcohol? Can she provide further information on the impact on child welfare of parental alcohol misuse?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, clearly, parental misuse of alcohol has a great impact on children. I do not have those figures to hand, but I will be happy to provide them for the noble Earl, because they are extremely important.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the alcohol industry is acting “responsibly”? I use my noble friend’s word.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, we are at this precise moment monitoring the effectiveness of the voluntary agreement that we have with the alcohol industry. As I said in your Lordships’ House when we debated the Alcohol Labelling Bill, if we are not satisfied that it is working we have every intention of taking legislative action.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great disappointment in the Prison Service because, although drug rehabilitation has taken a great step forward recently, not much help has been forthcoming for the many people with alcohol problems?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point and the House is aware of her interest in prisoners. This is a local spending decision. PCTs’ choices on spending on specialised treatment for drugs or alcohol are their decision, taken in line with locally identified needs and priorities.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I urge my noble friend to be wary of following the Scottish example. Is it not much better to enforce our existing laws effectively than to penalise 18 to 21 year-olds for the actions of 13 to 15 year-olds who drink excessively? Surely it is stupid to suggest that by penalising students you will stop young teenagers drinking.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. We want to send a clear message through youth alcohol action programmes to the minority of young people who drink in public places that it is unacceptable to get drunk on our streets or in our parks and to behave in ways that make other people feel unsafe. I recommend that noble Lords look at the adverts that are on between 9 pm and 10 pm, during programmes such as “Big Brother”. They are hard-hitting adverts aimed at that age group. We are informed that they are having some effect.

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Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the World Health Organisation report that shows that, in Europe and North America, Wales is the worst place for underage drinking, followed by Scotland, with England in fourth place? What overall UK-wide strategy does the Minister have in mind to tackle this problem seriously?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we take this extremely seriously. The good news is that the number of young people who have tried a drink is falling; it fell from 62 per cent in 2001 to 54 per cent in 2006. The proportion of 11 to 15 year-olds in that category is also falling, but the bad news is that those who are drinking are drinking more. We have to raise public concern and it is absolutely right that the public are concerned about this. The issue is not just young people buying alcohol illegally; it is more broadly about young people’s access to alcohol. We need the industry to refuse to sell to young people. We need to be clear that unsupervised drinking by young people is unacceptable. We need to work closely with parents, schools, health services and the police.

Baroness Golding: My Lords—

The Countess of Mar: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we have had three speakers from each side—the Cross Benches and the government side—but in strict rotational terms it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is it the Government’s duty to deal with underage drinking? Is it not the parents’ responsibility to know where their children are, what they are doing and how much money they have so that they cannot go out drinking? Is it not time that we enforced this with the parents rather than the children?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Countess makes exactly the right point. Young people, with their parents, are best suited to take action, but the Government’s role is to make sure that the information is right. There is a lot of confusion about units of alcohol, for example, so it is important that we make it clear. Young people need to grow up learning how to drink sensibly and to know their limits. Parents know at what age people may drink, and the noble Countess is correct that they have to take responsibility.

Energy: Electricity Supplies

2.45 pm

Baroness Miller of Hendon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Baroness Vadera): My Lords, the precise causes of the disruption are being investigated by National Grid. The immediate causes were near-simultaneous, unscheduled outages at Sizewell B and Long Gannet power plants. The resulting disturbances to the supply/demand balance triggered an automatic response designed to cut demand and preserve the integrity of the system as a whole. The action was sufficient to stabilise the system, but supplies to about half a million customers were cut off. Most were restored within an hour.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. With the enormous rise in energy prices, coupled with our need to buy from abroad because of our short supply of gas storage and the imminent loss of nearly 90 per cent of our nuclear capability, will she explain how we can avoid such a thing ever happening again? When will the Government proactively consider and encourage new nuclear build so that we never again have to go abroad with a begging bowl because we are short of supplies in this country?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, perhaps I should explain that the outages were not related to generating capacity. The generating margin, which is the capacity over peak demand at any time, is currently 26 per cent, which is historically very high. It was 19 per cent in 1997. The outages were caused by system and other outages and errors that are currently being investigated. Nevertheless, the noble Baroness makes a valid point about the need to ensure that we can have new nuclear on stream effectively and efficiently. I assume that the noble Baroness and her noble friends will be supporting the Planning Bill, which is essential to ensure that we can get planning support.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does not my noble friend welcome the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller? It is the first time that I have heard a prominent speaker from the Conservative Benches asking us to go forward with nuclear as quickly as we can.

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I was delighted to hear the unequivocal support for nuclear, which the Leader of the Opposition is unable to provide.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, from these Benches we do not give unequivocal support for nuclear. Was it not the outages in the nuclear power stations that led to the problems in May? Considering the problems with new build on nuclear, is it not unlikely that a significant amount of general electricity will be generated by new nuclear build until the 2020s? If so, what are the Government’s plans for meeting the shortfall?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, new nuclear is anticipated to come on stream by 2017 to 2020—not the 2020s. The shortage was caused by two plants having an outage within two minutes of each other, which has never occurred before, and which has a probability

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rate of 0.01 per cent. Sizewell B was one of them but that plant has been running for three and a half years without any unanticipated outages, and no generating technology is immune to outages.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, will my noble friend explain to the House what is an outage? Is it the same as a power cut?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, as many noble Lords will learn, outage is a generating plant going offline.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, why on earth cannot the noble Baroness speak English and say “power cut” so that we can all understand?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I apologise if I was not speaking English. I was using the technically correct language.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, is that not an outrage?

Baroness Vadera: Very witty, my Lords.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, if, as the Minister tells us, there is 26 per cent surplus capacity, why did it not cut in when the two power stations broke down?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, at any point in time a reserve is held. As the event had never previously occurred, the capacity held in reserve was not sufficient for two plants going down at the same time. Furthermore, as it takes between four and 12 hours for new plants to come online, it was not possible to deal with that amount of generation capacity going offline at that time.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, is not the real criticism of the Government that they took 10 years to make up their mind about nuclear power?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, this issue has troubled all sides of every party. It has been a courageous decision to ensure that we now have a nuclear programme that will be one of the first in the world in the new generation of nuclear. We are fully supportive and are doing everything that we can to ensure that it comes on line in time.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, have the Government had discussions with the National Grid about its policy of building thousands of wind turbines? Is not the National Grid concerned about the connection of these wind turbines and will it not require additional conventional capacity to be built to cover the time when the wind is not turning them?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. In answer to the question that was asked earlier, wind generation is intermittent and therefore needs—may I use a technical term?—base-load capacity,

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which means we need to build for coal and gas to back up the wind. That is why it is not the most effective source in terms of energy security of supply, but it is very effective for climate change.

Digital Technology

2.52 pm

Lord St John of Bletso asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews):My Lords, the Minister with responsibility for digital inclusion, the right honourable Paul Murphy, leads a new cross-government Cabinet committee to co-ordinate and promote policies that will ensure that all citizens, especially disadvantaged people, will benefit from the use of digital technologies. A digital equality action plan is due to be published shortly.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that almost one-third of adults in Britain have never been online through any platform? Does she agree that the Government’s current strategy for digital inclusion, to which she referred, has made no discernable difference to the take-up of digital technology? Will she explain why the headline statistics for the use of digital technology, recently published by the ONS, have remained virtually unchanged, at around 65 per cent for individuals and 45 per cent for households, over the past two years?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I agree that one-third of people are not accessing the internet. It is very serious because they are the people least likely not to benefit. By and large, they are in the lower income strata. For example, the figure includes half of people with an income under £10,400. That is serious. I do not agree with the noble Lord that nothing has happened. For example, over the past few years, we have seen a significant expansion of UK online centres. We have put £580 million into 6,000 centres, which can be accessed anywhere by people who have no knowledge of computing. We are working to develop in the new strategy a coherent equality programme for hard-to-reach people, including some young people.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I must declare an interest as having a brother-in-law who is severely partially sighted. Is the Minister aware of the frustration felt by blind and partially sighted people who have heard, and sometimes seen in part, advertisements on the television for audio description but find that only 10 per cent of programmes actually have it? What do the Government intend to do about that?

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