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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, most modern commercial aircraft are fitted with high-efficiency particulate air filters, which are very efficient in removing airborne contaminants such as droplets, bacteria and large viral particles. Compulsory fitting of filters for volatile organic compounds would have to be required by the regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency,

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on the basis of evidence that there was a harmful substance in cabin air and that a particular specification of filter would remove it.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I am amazed by the noble Lord’s reply because I have had an enormous amount of correspondence on this from cabin crew and pilots. Is the Minister aware that 50 per cent of the air reaching passenger cabins is unfiltered and contaminated with hydraulic fluid and engine oil containing organophosphates? Will the Government take urgent action to require internationally that all aircraft must be fitted with filters before being passed for service?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, if 50 per cent of the air reaching passenger cabins were unfiltered and contaminated, as the noble Baroness suggests, I have a feeling that there would be a major crisis in the aviation industry and that very few planes would take off. It is not correct to say that. Studies such as those conducted by the European CabinAir project have shown that the levels of chemical and biological contaminants in aircraft are normally lower than in many work environments, such as office buildings. Compulsory fitting of filters, as suggested by the noble Baroness, for volatile organic compounds would have to be required by the regulator on the basis of evidence. At present, there is no such evidence.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, in our recent exchanges in your Lordships’ House, the Minister failed to respond to the recommendation of the Science and Technology Committee that there should be an epidemiological study of pilots to ascertain the incidence and prevalence of ill health in air crews. Can he now say what the Government’s attitude is to that recommendation and why he referred to there being question marks over the veracity of some of the research conducted? What research was he speaking of; why does he dispute the findings; and will the Government now take this problem more seriously?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we do take this seriously, and that is exactly why we have commissioned further research from Cranfield University. There is a question mark over the veracity of some of the research that has been quoted—in particular, that of Professor van Netten. We remain sceptical of that work because, in correspondence with the department, the professor was unable to give information on the chain of custody for samples that were apparently taken without the knowledge of UK airlines. As to the epidemiological survey to which the noble Lord referred, there are some difficulties with the methodology. Those need to be very carefully considered and I understand that further thought is being given to them.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister is not resorting to epidemiology as a backstop. Having been through interminable sheep dip and Gulf War veteran cases involving epidemiological studies, which have delayed the answers, does he not

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agree that epidemiological studies conducted in line with clinical studies, such as those being conducted by Dr Mackenzie Ross at University College Hospital, London, are the way to find the answer to ill health? Will he ensure that the doctor is provided with the information that she requires to conduct those studies?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I understand the noble Countess’s question about Dr Mackenzie Ross’s approach to this matter but that researcher has not yet provided sufficient information to justify the very rare step of using CAA pilots’ addresses to recruit them for that form of research. That remains a difficulty. We need to keep a sense of proportion about this issue. If the case were as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, made out, I think that there would be a profound problem. There is not a profound problem, and no research has yet substantiated that claim.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept not only that there is the epidemiology problem but that the situation is made much worse because of the often insufficient distribution of oxygen in airliners? It is known to be much less sufficient in economy class than in first class. Surely that makes the matter a far more urgent one for the Government to consider.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, oxygen supply is a different question from studies of cabin air quality. Let us try to keep a sense of proportion about this. So far, on the worst estimates possible, a fume event—that is what we are talking about—takes place on fewer than one in 2,000 flights, and there is considerable dispute about what the quality of such a fume event might be. I have written to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, on the oxygen issue. There is no evidence to suggest any variation at all in the level of oxygen supply, and my understanding is that the suggestion that the crew somehow interfere with the supply of oxygen is not true either.

Baroness Trumpington: Well, my Lords—

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is it not relevant—

Noble Lords: Order!

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I say to my noble friend that I feel the House wants to move on to the next Question.

Higher Education: Office of the Independent Adjudicator

3.06 pm

Lord Lucas asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, in designating the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education as the operator of a student complaints scheme, under Chapter 8, Section 13, of the Higher Education Act 2004, the Government were satisfied that the OIA was able to operate independently of the higher education sector. We are confident that that continues to be the case. The OIA provides a speedy and effective mechanism for resolving student complaints.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have confidence in the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, but it has been quite difficult for the public to have confidence because until very recently there were seven university board members to five independent members, and one of the supposedly independent members was a professor who was on the council of a leading university. Is it not important that both the council of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and its sub-committees should be seen to be independent of the university sector so that all those students and others who rely on the independence of its judgment can have confidence in it?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s sentiments. My reading of the situation is that of the 13 board members, seven are independent and six are nominated by higher education institutions. Whether or not some of the seven have experience of or are involved in higher education, they are not nominated by a higher education institution. In fact, one of those nominated is a representative of the NUS. I agree that the body needs to be independent and perceived to be so. It is a company limited by guarantee and, therefore, the onus on the board is to take corporate responsibility for that independence, as I believe it does.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that from 2006 to 2007 complaints to the adjudicator increased by a quarter? What would she say is the significance of that?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I can confirm my noble and learned friend’s comments. It is quite interesting to analyse the significance of that. It could be because there are more issues of concern, or it could be that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is becoming more widely known and, therefore, more able to get involved with dispute resolution, which is very important. We need to keep the numbers in perspective. I believe that from more than 3.5 million students, 150 complaints were upheld, which gives us a sense of proportion.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I understand the purpose of the noble Lord’s Question and the need for the body to be seen as independent. Having said that, I know from attending an international conference how very highly regarded the independence of the adjudicator is. Will the Minister confirm that students pursuing courses of higher education in colleges of further

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education have access to the independent adjudicator? If they do, will she ensure that those students are aware of any such right?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I believe that that is the case, but it is still very early days for the office and we should be very encouraged by the enormously important work that it does. The organisation was led by the first independent adjudicator, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, whom we all should congratulate on her contribution. We also welcome the new independent adjudicator, Rob Behrens, and wish him well in his role. This is not something that we take lightly. The work of the independent adjudicator is also about ensuring that institutions know how to resolve complaints locally rather than elevating them to the higher status that this body represents.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, will the Minister say why the source of the funding for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education changed from being the Government in 2004 to subscriptions from a large number of universities? Surely in the light of this funding, students will rightly have little confidence in being treated impartially by the adjudication process.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I am aware that there is a sliding scale of contributions made by institutions, depending on the number of students that they have. I am not sure why we would not want an independent higher education system to have a very independent and successful adjudicator. As far as I understand, the system is working very well and larger institutions are making a much greater financial contribution than the smaller ones, and we should be pleased with the way in which it is progressing.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of the complaints to the independent adjudicator have come from overseas students who feel that they are not getting value for money from their fees? Does she feel that this indicates that these fees might sometimes be too high or that the quality of service might be too low?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing overseas students’ fees into the discussion on the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. International students do make complaints, but they are not in the majority. According to the office’s annual report, the majority of complaints come from students who are concerned about their academic status, exam results and degree award. A smaller proportion—9.7 per cent—complains about the contract.


3.13 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, with the leave of the House, my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will repeat a Statement on House of Lords reform at a convenient point after 3.30 this

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afternoon. For this Statement, the usual channels have agreed that the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, should have the opportunity, as the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, to speak within the initial 20-minute period set aside for the Front Benches, along with the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Tyler. As usual, there will then be another 20 minutes for noble Lords from all sides of the House to put questions. I urge them to put short questions so that the maximum number can be taken. I reassure the House that we intend to find time to return to this subject for a full debate at a later stage.

Repeating the Statement will remove time from the Committee stage of the Pensions Bill. It is hoped that the Committee stage will conclude today. If it does not, further time will be available on Wednesday 16 July. I am an eternal optimist.

Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions) Order 2008

3.14 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 9 June be approved. 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Considered in Grand Committee on 8 July.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2008

London Waste and Recycling Board Order 2008

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I beg to move the Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft order and regulations laid before the House on 11 and 18 June be approved. 22nd and 23rd Reports from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Considered in Grand Committee on 8 July.—(Lord Rooker.)

On Question, Motions agreed to.

Pensions Bill

3.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

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[The LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]

Baroness Howe of Idlicote moved Amendment No. 126:

The noble Baroness said: In many ways, but not all, Amendment No. 126, a probing amendment, is similar to the one I moved in June 2006. Its aim is that the intentions of the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975—equal treatment for men and women—be applied to annuities, thus ending this, sadly continuing, discrimination against women in their retirement income.

The history of this takes me back to my early days as the junior partner of the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on the Equal Opportunities Commission. When the EOC was first established in 1975, retirement age and pensions were firmly outside the scope of the Sex Discrimination Act and were not the commission’s concern. However, it was not long before pensions, following a decision in the court, were firmly ruled to be a part of pay and, thus, became the EOC’s responsibility.

Interestingly, we received an almost equal number of complaints about pensions from both sexes. Men thought it was unfair that they had to work five years longer than women before they could receive their pension, while most complaints from women were that they were not allowed to work beyond 60 and were thus deprived of any opportunity to earn a higher pension. The situation today, of course, is very different. Plans to increase the state pension age for women to equal the male pension age of 65 by 2020—we have already had a preliminary discussion on that—are already under way. Perhaps over time there will be a further rise of three years to a new common retirement age of 68. Interestingly, when this happens, men’s statutory retirement age will rise by only three years, while for women there will be a hefty rise of eight years. At least, both would retire at the same statutory age, or range of ages, with the same pension expectations. Equality will have been achieved at last.

But, will it? There remains the problem of annuity injustice, which I have pressed on this House for years—no doubt I will continue to do so for many more. Understandably, the law requires a percentage of the benefit from private pension schemes to be taken from the date of an individual’s retirement as an annuity. But a woman with a pension entitlement that is, on the face of it, identical to a man’s receives a smaller annual pension from a sum set aside for an annuity on the basis that women live some three years—a number that is declining, as the Minister confirmed—longer than men. All that this amendment proposes is that when the equal retirement age is reached and an equal pension pot becomes available to man and woman alike, the annuity payable to each of them should be the same, which certainly is not the case today.

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Let me inform the Committee about what happens by referring to a report in the Times on Saturday, 24 May 2008. Based on a pot of £100,000, six insurance companies gave their varying quotes. I shall take just one of them, from Legal & General. At the age of 65, the annuity offered for a man is £7,674, while for a woman it is the considerably lower figure of £7,075—an inequality of £600 a year for the rest of the woman’s life. I would argue that that is hardly just. I do not suggest that the insurance industry should bear the huge extra cost that may or may not be incurred, merely that an annuity should be split evenly between the sexes in employment.

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