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House of Lords

Thursday, 23 October 2008.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Parliament Square

Baroness Hamwee asked the Chairman of Committees:

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, Parliament has been closely involved in this project. The Parliamentary Estates Directorate was represented on the world squares steering group, the GLA wrote to Members of both Houses to seek their views and a number of submissions were made to the mayor. On 6 August 2008, the mayor announced that he had decided not to proceed with the project on the grounds of traffic impacts, cost and potential loss of green space. That was his decision to make. Parliament was neither the originator nor the owner of the scheme.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, Parliament was not the originator or the owner, but no one who works in this building can be unaware of how unwelcoming it is for visitors to be faced with so much traffic and no obvious area where they can look at the whole of a world heritage site, compromising the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey but bisected by a road. The mayor said that his decision was not a matter of cash but of design. May I urge the noble Lord and the House authorities to be proactive and energetic in working with the mayor to find a design that is acceptable to all so that we can be more welcoming to visitors?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, if the mayor comes up with new proposals, the House is still represented on the World Squares for All steering group and will actively take part in any proposals put forward.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, that was nearly a very bad birthday present from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I thank the Chairman of Committees for his reply, which was extremely helpful to those of us who find it impossible to get home without a taxi. There are many disabled people here, quite apart from visitors. This House exists for its occupants, not for visitors. If any change is going to be made to Parliament Square, could those little tent people be moved to Marble Arch?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I wish the noble Baroness a very happy birthday.

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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the noble Baroness made a number of points. Under yesterday’s instruction, I shall keep my reply as short as possible. The noble Baroness’s main point was that by no means everyone agrees on what the mayor’s proposal did not propose. It is not as simple as all that.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that Questions were raised on this subject in the House repeatedly, and that many of us found great dissatisfaction with the proposals, not only in what they would do to traffic but in how difficult access to the abbey would have been? Most of us are satisfied that those visitors who come to see us—I have plenty, many of whom come from a long way away—have no trouble at all in getting into this building.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, it is not for me to get into the merits or otherwise of the proposal, which has now been dropped. Part of the proposal that never got very far was the possible closure of Abingdon Street, which we debated back in July, but that proposal was never considered in detail.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees accept that access to the Palace of Westminster for as many people as possible is a basic democratic principle which we should all support? The possibility of opening up what would in effect be a great democratic space, as well as linking together the historic abbey and the Palace of Westminster for pedestrians, would hugely benefit everyone.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the noble Lord made exactly those points in his Question for Short Debate in July and I have nothing further to add to my reply then.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, as we are on anniversaries, I remind the House that it is also the anniversary of the Battle of Alamein, in which I declare an interest. Will the Chairman of Committees tell us how many people would wish to congratulate the mayor on what he has done?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I cannot comment on that. I am answering for the administration of the House; I cannot answer for the mayor or for those who agree or disagree with his proposals. I remind noble Lords that it was this House that passed the law that set the mayor up some years ago. If people now do not like some of the decisions that he makes, that is just too bad.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, although the Chairman of Committees does not want to be drawn into the issues, does he agree that a scheme that would include traffic going along the north side would meet some of the objections enunciated in previous questions? The scheme would be marvellous for tourists, both British and foreign, if that space were created as a piazza for Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

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The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is the scheme that has just been cancelled.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does this decision by the mayor mean that the unsightly barriers around the entrance to Parliament, which cause anyone approaching it from the west to drive all the way round Parliament Square, will remain for eternity?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the removal of the Corus security barriers in front of the Palace of Westminster—in front of our part in particular—was not affected by the scheme that has just been scrapped. They would have been affected only if the scheme had extended to the closure of Abingdon Street, which in many ways would have been a good result for this House.

Human Rights: Same-sex Relationships

11.13 am

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government have not amended or withdrawn the intervention. During the debate on 10 July the noble Lord raised an important technical issue in relation to the approach taken to Article 8. The Government undertook to reflect on that aspect. In accordance with that undertaking, my officials have sought views from other departments and expect to be able to provide the noble Lord with more information by the end of November.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I thank the Minister. It is bizarre for the Government, who turned my Civil Partnership Bill into legislation of which they can be justly proud, to intervene in a case against Austria apparently to persuade the Strasbourg court to adopt a narrow interpretation of the Article 8 right to respect for family life for same-sex couples in other European countries. Will the Government urgently reconsider their intervention and note the significance of the leading judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, given yesterday in the case of EM (Lebanon) against the Home Secretary, where he interpreted the fundamental rights in the following terms—

Noble Lords: Order!

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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to put the question without barracking.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, said:

“Families differ widely, in their composition and in the mutual relations which exist between the members ... Thus there is no predetermined model of family or family life to which article 8 must be applied”.


Noble Lords: Order!

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): Forgive me, my Lords. I was not in the House yesterday when my noble friend Lord Bassam spoke to the House about the need for us to have short questions, but I heard him on “Today in Parliament”. He was absolutely right, and I know that the House is very much behind him. I therefore remind all noble Lords to keep their answers and their questions brief.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I stand rebuked. Does the Minister accept that it is very important to protect the rights of British civil partners in same-sex relationships in other parts of Europe, for example in France, so that they enjoy protection?

Lord Bach:My Lords, the main purpose of our intervention is to address the argument made by the applicants that the right to marry, which is protected under Article 12, extends to same-sex couples, and I repeat that we are looking with some speed now at the point that the noble Lord made in his Question in July. As far as France is concerned, we have raised our concerns about non-recognition with the French Ministry of Justice. Both that Ministry and the French Finance Ministry have expressed their willingness to work with us to resolve the issue. There are a number of legal obstacles to recognition, but I can tell the House that this subject is on the agenda of meetings to be held between the Justice Secretary and the Europe Minister and their French counterparts in the next few days.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while Article 8 of the European convention provides mainly for privacy in the home and Article 14 provides for non-discrimination, Article 12 provides for a view of marriage between a man and woman and of family life that is basic to the existence and continuation of any society?

Lord Bach: My Lords, Article 12 speaks for itself. Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and found a family according to the national laws governing the exercise of that right. When we passed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, we made a distinction in it and did not call single-sex partnerships marriage. In many important ways, it was very similar, particularly in the many legal rights that it quite rightly gave to single-sex partnerships, but it did not call those partnerships marriage, and that remains the Government’s policy.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, in the light of the Government’s excellent recent legislation on this matter, which we all support, why do the

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Government apparently object to the Strasbourg court developing any case law on this matter, which is the normal way in which law can be developed?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we do not object to the advancement of case law from the European court. Our main objection—I am sorry if I am repeating myself—is to address the argument, made by the applicants in the case referred to in the Question, that the right to marry, which is protected under Article 12, extends to same-sex couples.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the Minister’s answer is most welcome, and I am grateful for it.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, would it not be a rather good idea if, regardless of the merits of the legislation enacted in this Parliament, we got back to the idea that it is this Parliament that governs this country and makes the laws that govern the people of this country? It would simplify matters an awful lot, and would save us from a great deal of the verbosity of those who cannot read a brief without actually having it in their hot little hands.

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is this country that passes the laws for this country.

Small Businesses

11.19 am

Lord Cotter asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform & Cabinet Office (Baroness Vadera): My Lords, banks have committed to the recent recapitalisation scheme to maintain over the next three years the availability and active marketing of competitively priced lending to small businesses at 2007 levels. Central government departments aim to pay 100 per cent of invoices within 10 days, and we are providing advice and support services, including health checks for small businesses through Business Link and the “solutions for business” package announced earlier today.

Lord Cotter: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that Ministers are meeting the banks today. Will they agree with the banks a memorandum of understanding to ensure availability of finance, competitive interest rates and no increases in fees for small businesses? May I also point out that the issue of small shops has not been addressed? I presented to this House the Retail Development Bill, which the House has passed, and which calls for an assessment of business rates for small shops. Perhaps the Minister will also respond to that point.

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, on the memorandum of understanding, an agreement has already been reached with the banks to maintain the availability and active marketing of lending at competitive prices. I do not

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think that we have got to the sort of economy in which we can set the fees and interest rates for each loan. We also agreed with the banks this morning that they and the Small Business Forum would meet to iron out problems that come through in the next few months.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, given the importance of the single European market, will my noble friend re-examine the directive that governs that market on late payment and indeed the 1998 UK legislation which governs the same, especially with respect to the failure of big businesses to pay small businesses on time?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, we have had a long discussion with small businesses about the Act and the need for legislation. The view which has been reached is that this area would not easily lend itself to legislation and that the 1998 legislation is perfectly adequate in allowing interest to be charged in particular for late payments. We will be encouraging all businesses as well as government and the wider public sector to pay as soon as possible. That is why the Government have set the example by saying that we will pay within 10 days.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, in the Secretary of State’s Statement to your Lordships' House yesterday on the subject of this Question, he said that more than a million new businesses have been created since 1997. Was that a gross or a net figure?

Baroness Vadera: It was a gross figure, my Lords.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that the Federation of Small Businesses is today calling for the replacement of the small firms loan guarantee scheme by a £1 billion survival fund to be funded by the Government and the European Investment Bank. Is she yet in a position to give the Government’s response to that proposal?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, we have studied the proposal and have been discussing it with the Federation of Small Businesses for some time. We are currently in discussions with the EIB. Next week there will be a meeting between the Chancellor, my Secretary of State and the president of the EIB to discuss our application to the EIB for funding specifically for small businesses.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, in respect of the soon-to-be nationalised banks, what safeguards will be in place to ensure that the Government do not interfere for political reasons in the day-to-day running of those banks?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, we are required by law to protect the remaining shareholders. We will put our shareholding into an arm’s-length entity and have given our assurance that it will be run entirely commercially.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government intend to encourage an extension of flexible working with the cost saving that that brings to families and, indeed, to small businesses? Will she also do her best to see that flexible working requests from men with family responsibilities are treated as seriously as those from women?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, our views and our policies on flexible working are very clear on this subject. I understand that they were also clarified by the Secretary of State yesterday.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, in response to repeated questioning yesterday on whether the £350 million allocated to training is new money, the Secretary of State said that it,

To which projects had that money previously been allocated, which will now, therefore, not receive it?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, that funding was allocated by DIUS for Train to Gain, but not specially allocated for small businesses. John Denham’s announcement stated that we would create some flexibility in the way that small businesses can access Train to Gain as well as allocate this funding especially for them.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, the noble Baroness said that government departments will now be instructed to pay within 10 days. What was the average time before?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, 85 per cent of government procurement contracts were paid within 10 days while the remaining 15 per cent were paid on time but not within 10 days. We are attempting to move that 15 per cent into the 10-day timeframe.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, yesterday I asked the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, whether the Government intend to support the European Commission proposal to allow VAT to be reduced on repairs to houses, listed buildings and so on, which comes up at ECOFIN in a few days’ time. Presumably the Government know how they intend to act on this proposal, but the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, did not seem to know when he responded yesterday. Can the noble Baroness help?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, VAT is a matter for the Treasury and it would be inappropriate for us to comment before its position is made public.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, can the Minister answer the question asked previously about which department or where this money is coming from? She did not answer it.

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I said that the money is coming from DIUS, the department responsible for Train to Gain. That is the answer that I gave previously and the one that I am giving now.

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