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On the motoring front, I am pleased to see that 50 car models are now in bands A and B for emissions. Several are medium-sized family cars, not just super-minis. This shows what engineers can be made to achieve. Are the Government doing enough to encourage the purchase of bands A and B cars? Perhaps vehicle excise duty should be reduced from the £35 being charged for band B vehicles. Moreover, to set a good example, perhaps the fleet of ministerial cars ought to be drawn only from bands A and B models.

On the small-scale and microgeneration front, I hope that the Government will bring forward the proposed general permitted development order which will enable the equipment needed for the domestic generation of electricity to be installed quickly because such projects will not have to go through the planning process. Domestic electricity generation would be allowed to expand in the way it ought to. However, I accept reluctantly that householders need to be grant-aided—I was about to say “bribed” as they are in Germany, but that would be inappropriate—but confusion about planning permission is an unnecessary barrier to a

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development that everyone wants to see take place, but wants everyone else to do. There also appears to be another unnecessary barrier to domestic generation in the need for the Met Office to sell data about wind conditions in specific areas. I know that research and development must be paid for, but perhaps the information could be discounted because we need microgeneration plant to be installed quickly.

Finally, I turn to Scottish democracy. While it is good that Scottish politics now have an outlet again—at Holyrood—it is unfortunate that it can be only domestic and inward-looking in focus. The present settlement appears to enable only a teenage or young adolescent democracy when Scotland ought to be a grown-up democracy facing the world. For example, it is not possible to develop a Scottish foreign policy or defence policy, as it is for any other state of 5 million people.

Even a devolutionist will agree that there are already problems of interference by the United Kingdom Government thwarting Scottish democracy. First, Treasury Ministers refuse to fund policies which they do not like—I refer to the withholding of attendance allowance and the future withholding of council tax benefit. Secondly, there is no ban in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act on political party donations from outwith Scotland in the run-up to Scottish parliamentary elections. This favours unionist parties and has no reverse opportunity. Thirdly, there is a need for a ban on the Scottish Parliament’s lack of borrowing powers so that the infrastructure policies can be effected without resorting to obscure Scottish futures trusts or other devices. This is an undemocratic restraint on the people of Scotland.

Ultimately, the real issue for the people of Scotland is whether they ought to resume responsibility for sovereignty and a place in the world, or whether they want to continue to be submerged within Britain as a peripheral semi-autonomous region. This is a moral question and the issue of economics cannot be significant in it. No movement towards national identity has been so founded, with the possible exception of Singapore. It is a question of belief on a come-what-may-basis.

That rant over, those are a few thoughts on a thin but gracious Speech.

6.22 pm

Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: My Lords, I have been keen to speak on this dimension of the gracious Speech. In particular, I shall focus my remarks on the proposed equality Bill, which has some aspects I celebrate and others on which I wish to raise a slightly dissonant note. After all, who can disagree with the need for fairness and equality of opportunity? One would have to be out of one’s mind to disagree with the need to tackle discrimination and disadvantage. Some provisions in the Bill—particularly those relating to age discrimination and gender equality—owe much to the work of Members of this House, in particular the noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Young of Hornsey, and many others who have fought for these dimensions of equality provision for a very long time.

However, my note of dissonance is a reflection of my many years serving on the Commission for Racial Equality, where we struggled with the modernisation

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of the law and battled with how to make the existing law work in practice. It is a noble and laudable aim that the Bill should seek to amalgamate existing legislation, provisions and regulations and simplify the process. I turned to the Women and Equality Unit for a description of the proposed legislation and what I found caused me great concern. I shall draw the Minister’s attention to a few of the unit’s reflections that I found on the internet and ask for clarity.

We have now, I hope, an increasingly excellent Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is in its early days of bedding-in under the able leadership of my good friend Trevor Phillips. I discovered from the guidance notes on the department’s website that the Government have subsequently set up a cross-party task force, chaired by the very able noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, to look into increasing the number of women councillors across the UK. Surely that work could have been undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I discovered in the next paragraph that we also now have a Speaker’s Commission, which is to consider and make recommendations on how to improve the representation of women, disabled people and people from ethnic minority communities in the House of Commons. So we already have two other bureaucracies in addition to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was meant to end all other discriminatory bureaucracies.

In a further paragraph I discovered that there has been recently established a National Equalities Panel, which is chaired by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics, and, bizarrely, this new organisation is to look into the interconnected factors associated with family background, educational attainment, where you live, the sort of job you can have and its influence upon your life chances, as well as gender, ethnic background and whether or not you have a disability.

What, then, is the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? The Government are passionate about the need to legislate and cannot let go of the quill pen. As these examples prove, they seem to feel that there is an increasing necessity to bureaucratise and duplicate existing provisions. This concerns me deeply. If we are meant to amalgamate regulations and provisions into a new Act, how many supplementary bodies and dimensions of public money will go into supporting these additional activities? These new bodies will not necessarily advance the causes of freedom, equality, better democracy or fairer opportunity; they will simply allow greater inquiry.

This leads me to my next concern. While supporting as a whole the necessity for better equalities provision, I must sound a dissonant note. I read carefully the Government’s response to the consultation on the equality Bill and came across important paragraph 17 entitled, “Simplifying the law”. At this point I thought that everything would become easier but I then discovered that the Government intend to abolish the existing two-tier levels of definitions and tests in the Race Relations Act and standardise the definition of “indirect discrimination”. This will lead to a lawyers’ field day. What a feast they will have when trying to define “indirect discrimination” and standardising the definition.

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The Commission for Racial Equality failed to manage that in the improvements to the regulations and law in 2000; I struggle to see how that will be achieved here. I am sure the Minister will elucidate further.

I find the next statement in the paragraph deeply disturbing and, of necessity, it needs to be strongly opposed. It says:

“We will align the approach to victimisation with the approach taken in employment law and extend protection to children in schools whose parents”—


If enacted, this will provide a charter for fiddling and meddling based on playground antics. It would give to certain authorities—and sometimes, even, to the police—the opportunity to spin with delight and to go round proving pathetic and pointless complaints. It will be meat and drink to those who want to harass people who already feel under pressure in life. It would empower a joyless system which, instead of protecting freedom and promoting responsibility, would be pernickety and pursue idle points. If this measure is to be pursued into the equality Bill, I hope it will be fiercely rejected.

The opportunity provided by this legislation is profound. What lies behind it? As the Minister said in her introduction, it is to enhance the opportunity for everyone to have a fair chance. That is absolutely right; no one would disagree with that. But the Minister went on to say that these are exceptional circumstances—she was referring of course to the current economic squeeze, the pressure that business is feeling and the fight for survival in some cases—and she referred also to the need for the sustainability of our economy. That brings me back to the guidance note on the Women and Equality Unit’s website which encourages the Equality and Human Rights Commission to lead an inquiry into the financial and construction sectors. The inquiry will look at the underlying causes of inequality and consider measures to address discrimination and increase diversity in these sectors.

I cannot comment easily on the construction sector but it may be that many who work in it have time at the moment to be inquired into. I strongly suggest, however, that it would be idle and unhelpful to lead an inquiry into the financial sector during this period and to consider these measures when those in that sector need to pursue more critical operations to secure our economy, provide for sound and basic financing for ordinary people to survive in business and in their homes and ensure that our economy is brought back to life. This is the kind of unnecessary activity that I am sure Trevor Phillips will find that his commission does not have time for.

I want to support the Bill as long as it is sensible, rounded and based on common sense. I do not wish to be churlish but I encourage the Government to ensure that there is no opportunity in the Bill to duplicate existing processes, set up additional bodies and continue to have inquiries that simply add process rather than pursue opportunity.

6.31 pm

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, I shall contribute to the debate on the housing proposals in the gracious Speech. In doing so, I register my interests

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as a trustee of Shelter, chair of the Circle 33 Housing Association and chair of the Surveyors Ombudsman Service.

This debate is taking place against the backdrop of the current housing crisis which, as the Minister rightly argued, requires exceptional measures for exceptional times. Undoubtedly, this context justifies the continuing radical reappraisal of our housing strategy that is now taking place. Key to that are measures that will give consumers more influence and control over where they live, the standards of accommodation provided and how that accommodation is funded.

First, therefore, I welcome the announcement of the homeowner mortgage support scheme which will provide considerable reassurance to hardworking families caught up in the consequences of the recession. It also sends a strong signal to the mortgage lenders that repossession should in future be the last resort, not the first. It is a common-sense policy that recognises that repossessions are a cost not just to the industry but to all of us who are left to fund the alternative accommodation when vulnerable families become homeless. Building on that initiative, I hope that the Government will now also take the opportunity to expand the mortgage-to-rent scheme announced in September, which has the capacity to provide longer-term security for those in financial difficulty who cannot maintain their mortgage payments.

Secondly, it is welcome that the Government are now taking action to give tenants in social housing a greater voice. I hope that that will develop into a broader expansion of rights and scrutiny so that council housing can become integrated into the new regulatory regime. As I know from my experience as chair of a housing association, the right level of scrutiny and accountability can be a real force for continuous service improvement and a drive for excellence. Given that we are now acutely aware of the failings of the free market in housing provision, though, I also hope I can persuade the Minister that the time is right to extend those rights universally across all housing providers, including the private rented sector. Currently that sector is failing to rise to the challenge of being an effective third arm of housing provision. It could be a major partner in meeting future housing need but it needs help in addressing its outdated business model, which results in squalid, overcrowded accommodation for too many of its tenants. These issues were comprehensively explored in the recently published Rugg report, and I welcome its contribution to this debate.

I acknowledge that there are groups for whom the private rented sector can be an ideal provider— those for whom choice, flexibility and mobility are key factors. While some live in high quality accommodation, however, that is not the experience of the majority, with over 40 per cent living in non-decent homes. Dampness and disrepair remain a significant issue, particularly in the older housing stock. That has a significant impact on families with children, often living in overcrowded conditions, where health problems and lower educational achievement are rife.

In addition, rents in the private rented sector are not cheap. While potential owner-occupiers may find rent levels more affordable than mortgage payments,

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the situation for those who might otherwise have been offered accommodation in the social rented sector is very different. For example, in 2005 local authority rents were about 45 per cent of those in the private rented sector.

There is also considerable evidence that neither tenants nor many landlords know their rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is usually the tenants who fare worse in that relationship. They find it difficult to hold the landlord to account for poor service and often feel unable to pursue a complaint, fearing that they could lose their tenancy. In these circumstances, I believe that the time is right to give private rented sector tenants similar rights and protections to those enjoyed by social housing tenants. That could help to improve the quality of the housing stock, which could in turn encourage greater flexibility and mobility between the different housing sectors.

A step towards that would be the creation of a national registration and accreditation scheme for all landlords and managing agents. Ideally, that would be complemented by a simplification of rental law and standardised tenancy agreements. But this will not achieve its goal unless we also take urgent measures to tackle the poor quality of housing and lack of repairs in parts of the rented sector. Part of the solution must be adequately to resource local authorities to enforce their powers under the Housing Act 2004, but there is also a role for independent inspection and scrutiny of the larger landlords in the sector. I hope the Government will feel able to address that proposal.

I turn to improved regulation and consumer redress across all housing transitions, including buying and selling. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the provisions in the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act that strengthened consumer rights in property buying and selling and required all estate agents to belong to a redress scheme. However, there is surely now a case to consider rolling out consumer protections across the housing industry as a whole. There is, for example, no logical reason why letting agents should not be subject to the same consumer redress requirements as estate agents.

Earlier this year, Sir Bryan Carsberg reported on his inquiry into the regulation of residential property. Not surprisingly, he found a worrying lack of awareness from consumers about the roles and qualifications of the different agencies involved. He recommended simple, transparent information for clients, proportionate control over the service provider and consistent enforcement and redress. His report was warmly received by the responsible players in the sector. The time is now right to take that package forward to provide renewed consumer confidence. While I welcome the OFT’s recent announcement of its intention to conduct a market survey of this issue, I do hope that it will also take account of Sir Bryan’s work. It makes sense to have the right structures and frameworks in place at the start of any market recovery.

A voluntary Property Standards Board has been established by a group of the professional organisations in the sector with the aim of setting out cross-industry codes to build on Sir Bryan’s recommendations, but

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without the backing of legislation to make these standards binding there is a risk that the housing sector will splinter further into those committed to high standards of customer care and those who want to cut corners at the customer’s expense. I therefore hope that the Minister will feel able to give some reassurance that the Carsberg recommendations for regulation and consumer protection can be properly assessed and implemented in the current legislative programme.

These are difficult times for the housing sector, but one thing we have learnt is that the market alone cannot be left to resolve the crisis. In many areas, the Government have rightly taken steps to intervene and protect consumers. The time is now right to extend those rights across all sectors on a comprehensive basis. I hope that the Government will now take the opportunity to join up their policies and usher in a new sense of confidence and empowerment for housing consumers.

6.40 pm

Lord Greaves: My Lords, we are almost halfway through the list of speakers in this interesting debate. As with all debates where a series of subjects is put together, it has been rather ragbag, but, so far, it has been of extremely high quality. I have no doubt that it will continue to be of a similar high quality after I have spoken.

I intend to be fairly discursive, because the two things on which I would have concentrated are the Bills coming to your Lordships' House very soon, the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and the other Bill for which the Minister could not think of a short title—I thought that it might be called the LocDemEdCon Bill, which sounds a little nonsensical. Whether that sums up the contents of the Bill we will find out. I remain to be convinced that it is a Bill in which I really want to get involved, but, as always with the Minister, I am entirely open to persuasion that it is excellent. We will find out.

I very much welcome the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which has been a long time in gestation. It has had a lot of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, from which it benefits. It is solid legislation, and I look forward perhaps to improving it even more in your Lordships’ House. As far as both Bills are concerned, we are like greyhounds waiting in the slips to unleash ourselves on the new legislation, but since their Second Readings are next week, I do not see much point in saying much more about them today.

I was very interested in the previous speech, made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about housing. As I am speaking today from the Back Bench and do not necessarily have to parrot party policy, I can say that I agree with a great deal of what she said. It is a great shame that, following the previous housing legislation, which was mainly about public sector and social housing, the Government have not taken the opportunity to bring forward legislation on the private rented sector, because so many of the housing problems in this country rest with it. I hope that the Government are thinking hard about that and will consider seriously many of the proposals put forward by the noble Baroness.

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I thought of talking entirely about housing, because the current position is dire. The supply of mortgages has dried up for most people. House-building in the private sector has collapsed. The supply of social housing is collapsing on the back partly of the collapse of private sector housing and Section 106 schemes not going ahead, and of the shortage of investment capital. The Government are taking welcome action on repossessions, but, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, they do not appear to be facing up to the potential scale of the problem, which could turn into a flood. However, I then read the speech by my honourable friend Sarah Teather in the Queen’s Speech debate in the House of Commons a couple of days ago. I thought that I could not possibly match or better it and saw no point in just repeating what she said, which I hope the Government will take extremely seriously, as I hope they will listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.

A few people have spoken about transport. The spokesman from the Conservative Front Bench mentioned the welcome conversion of the Conservatives to high-speed rail. I am never churlish when people are converted to a good idea, although I think that their proposal does not go far enough. What this country has to look forward to, over a period which may be beyond the lifetimes of many of us here, is a high-speed rail network of the kind which other European countries have. Just one line to the north of England which then zigzags across the Pennines is not enough, but, nevertheless, the Conservatives’ conversion is welcome. My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie also mentioned the need for a high-speed rail line. He did not say so, but it is clear that he wants it to go as far as Scotland, which is quite right.

My noble friend is very lucky in that he lives in a town in Scotland called Alloa. He will think that he is very lucky for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is that Alloa has just been reconnected to the rail network of the United Kingdom, thanks to the foresight of the Scottish Parliament and Executive. I could make political comments about Liberal involvement, but I shall not—nevertheless, it is true. Noble Lords will know that I am a keen supporter of the campaign to reintroduce the missing rail link on the north of England trans-Pennine route between Colne and Skipton—there is a very active group called SELRAP. On Sunday morning, I had the great pleasure of being on Colne railway station to meet a train from Skipton, but instead of coming 15 miles along what would be the direct route, it had done a 75-mile diversion via Shipley, Leeds, Bradford, Hebden Bridge, Accrington and Burnley, finally arriving at Colne with 80 very happy people on it—perhaps there had been a bar on the train. It was the first ever excursion train to bring people to Colne; all those in the past took people away from it to places such as Blackpool. It was a good occasion. But there is a serious point here: there is a lot of expectation that government policy on the railways is changing; there is talk of a programme of electrification; and we hope that we will embark on a programme of reopening lines not just in Scotland and Wales but in England.

I then thought that I would talk about the uplands, because, from an agricultural, tourism, economic and climate change point of view, there is increasing

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understanding that the uplands of England and the UK require more government attention. The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, talked about agriculture, but my concern is agriculture in the uplands, because, unless hill farmers throughout the country can continue to carry out their jobs and trade, everything else that takes place there, from tourism to recreation and maintenance of the uplands in a satisfactory condition to prevent them degrading and contributing seriously to carbon dioxide emissions, will be of no avail. It is an important issue that some of us will want to come back to during the course of this Parliament.

I look forward very much to discussion and debate on the two Bills. I was interested by the challenging comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, on local democracy and community enterprise. I am not sure that I agree with him on everything, but if that is the standard of the debate that we are to have on the new local democracy Bill, it will be enjoyable after all.

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