|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The freedoms and flexibilities review, currently linked to the comprehensive performance assessment results, when the comprehensive area assessment is introduced in April 2009, will be another opportunity for us to take forward the debate about the key partnership we want to see between central government, local government and local communities.
I totally disagree with the party opposite and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in their views on regional development agencies. They are simply wrong. My experience in the West Midlands with Advantage West Midlands is that RDAs play a critical role in partnership with local government, businesses and all the other key sectors in ensuring an appropriate strategy of putting together support which could not come from individual local authorities. My noble friend Lord Smith was right when he stressed that RDAs are not seeking to dictate what happens but to work in partnership with local government. The new government structure that will result from this legislation is the way to ensure that partnership approach. I noted his comments about late payments in the Audit Commission and I will ensure the commission is informed. I also noted the comments by my noble friend Lady Billingham about the fantastic story of Corby. It has been a remarkable transformation and clearly there is much that we can learn from that uplifting experience.
We have had some very interesting contributions on equality. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, spoke of fears she has come across of what she described as a lowest common denominator approach in bringing the various pieces of legislation together in a new Act. The Government have no such intention. In many ways this is a far more ambitious and broader piece of work than simply pulling together a single piece of equality legislation because it brings together in one place all the existing, rather piecemeal elements of discrimination law.
It does more than that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, suggested. We are looking for streamlined legislation that will simplify and standardise the law as far as possible. It is our contention that simpler law should lead to simpler guidance produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and that simpler guidance should lead to better understanding. I agree with noble Lords who say that we need effective and practical legislation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, whom I enjoyed
10 Dec 2008 : Column 475
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made a notable intervention on age discrimination. The Government are committed to banning age discrimination against adults aged 18 or over in the provision of goods, facilities and services and the exercise of public functions. This is one of the areas where protection has been missing and which the equality Bill will put right. Of course that is not the end of the story; much needs to be done. The noble Baroness has done the House a great service by bringing to our attention many of the problems. Action on Elder Abuse, for instance, has detailed a number of areas where we need to see decisive action taken forward.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is concerned that the Bill is too long. I accept that 320 clauses is a considerable length, but it will be a good deal shorter than the combined size of all nine major pieces of discrimination law that it will replace. Frankly, it will also allow your Lordships a great deal of opportunity to ensure scrutiny of those 320 clauses.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for interrupting him. I made a point that he has not dealt with, about the Equality and Human Rights Commission being a Whitehall orphan Annie, in that no department has yet taken responsibility for it. The reason that matters is that, although the commission has a brilliant chief executive in Nicola Brewer, in its early days the commission needs a lot of Whitehall support until it grows into the body that we all hope and expect it to be. Will the Minister try to produce a situation in which the Justice Secretary, or another appropriate Minister, becomes the guardian of the commission ministerially and gives it the support that Nicola Brewer and her staff deserve?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I was coming to that. The noble Lord is absolutely right about the need for appropriate support and proper departmental responsibility. I certainly understand that, and I will take that back. We set up the Government Equalities Office precisely to co-ordinate a strategy on equality issues. The office is responsible, among other things, for sponsorship of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I understand that the noble Lord wants to be assured that there is strong departmental support across Whitehall. Of course that is our intention, and I will certainly ensure that the appropriate Ministers consider that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that the Government should be an exemplar in this area. There clearly is more that can be done and ought to be done, and we will be very keen to pursue it. We have looked
10 Dec 2008 : Column 476
My noble friend Lord Parekh made the point about equal pay for ethnic minorities. That is already covered. If someone is being paid less because they are from an ethnic minority, they have a claim for race discrimination. My advice is that there is no need for a BME equivalent of the Equal Pay Act. On the question that he raised about the policies of banks, I will pass that to the Treasury for its consideration.
My noble friend Lord Parekh asked whether procurement was likely to be effective. We have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas, Lady Greengross and Lady Prashar, that using procurement could be a very effective way of dealing with these matters. Public sector procurement is over £170 billion a year. It is quite right to use the leverage that we have in these areas, and we are working hard to see how that can be done effectively. I understand the point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about ensuring that regulation on equalities will not unduly burden small organisations in the third sector. I very much sympathise with that point. Equally, given the number of organisations and small businesses, it is absolutely right that they should be covered by the law and we should expect them to operate the law as it is laid down.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark was worried that religious beliefs and rights might be less equal. Of course that is a very important point on which noble Lords will wish to have extensive debate. It is important to strike the right balance between conflicting rightsfor example, protection on the grounds of religion or belief and protection on the grounds of sexual orientation. We think we have it right with existing domestic legislation. We are very sensitive to those issues and will listen with great care to the debate in your Lordships House.
It was fascinating to hear of the outstanding work of my noble friend Lord Mitchell and that of his fellow parliamentarians. My wife is Jewish and she teaches at a sixth form college with over 90 per cent Muslim students. I very much empathise with the points he raised and I am sure that noble Lords would welcome the opportunity of a debate in the future so that we can learn more about this outstanding work.
The right reverend Prelate made a point about the way legislation is undertaken, complaining about the problem of late amendments introduced by the Government, which then create order-making powers. I understand that, but I pray in aid the Energy Bill, when the Government decided to introduce feed-in tariffs and heat incentives as a result of debate in Parliament. Inevitably, they were brought in at a late stage and the provisions involved order-making powers
10 Dec 2008 : Column 477
My noble friend Lord Graham emphasised how important housing is, particularly in the current economic climate. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, my noble friend Lady Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Whitty all emphasised the real challenge that we face. Of course we understand the critical pressures in the housing market as a result of reduced credit and a loss of confidence. I want to reassure noble Lords that we remain committed to our long-term housing supply goals and the targets to increase housing supply and respond to long-term demand. We are increasingly emphasising the role of affordable housing, including homes for social rent and low-cost home ownership. I very much accept the point made by my noble friend Lady Jones about the private rented sector. She knows of the independent review on this headed by Julie Rugg of the University of York. We are very carefully considering the recommendations made in this regard.
Noble Lords will know of the action that the Government have taken on the issues of mortgages and the fear of repossession during the downturn. We will continue to work very closely with the lenders in this area to ensure that the problems that have been identified are dealt with effectively.
We had a very interesting debate on transport matters. My noble friend Lord Soley asked where the integrated transport system was. I was a member of Oxford City Council in 1973 when we introduced the integrated transport policy. I am as committed as anyone to integration. That is what the Government are seeking to do on transport.
We have heard trenchant remarks on either side of the debate about Heathrow. I am not going to comment, because my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced that he will take a decision in January 2009. We have had a huge number of responses to the consultation. Of course I understand the issues and the tensions. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that, whatever the decision, it will be a tough one to make, and all these matters will be very carefully considered.
My noble friend Lord Adonis is currently very much looking at the issues surrounding rail, and I shall ensure that the trenchant comments that we have received are passed on to him with enthusiasm. I very much understand the point that was made about rail schemes that are in the back pocket and ready to come forward. I, too, am not sure exactly where one can point the finger, but my experience is that the railway industry can be pretty slow at responding, even when money becomes available for local schemes. That is my experience in Birmingham, where we have been able to open some tracks with a huge passenger response but we could do so much more. I would not ignore the role of the regional development agencies in getting people to work together. Alas, I cannot as yet report progress to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, concerning the Colne-Skipton line, but I am aware of the issue.
The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, raised the question of road safety. He made some very important points about the need to continue to improve road safety and the need for digital maps. He is right to draw that to our attention, and we are seeking to do more to improve our record in this important area.
On energy and climate change, there is no question but that we hope that the current talks in Poznan and the Heads of State meeting in Europe this week will lead to a successful conclusion. That is absolutely critical. Our negotiations in Copenhagen follow on from Kyoto. These are critical decisions. I believe that the decision that this House and another place made during the passage of the Climate Change Bill to go for an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was very important in helping to get the right international agreement. However, no one should be under any illusion about the challenge of achieving such international agreement.
With regard to microgenerationa subject raised by many noble Lordsthe feed-in tariffs introduced in the Energy Bill are very important. In relation to nuclear, there is the proposed takeover of British Energy by EDF, which is subject to the Brussels competition authorities. Part of the takeover bid contains proposals to build new nuclear, and I think that that enjoys general support in your Lordships House.
The question of fairness of pricing was raised by my noble friend Lord Whitty and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. There must be fairness: it is wrong that poor people find themselves adversely affected by the tariff system. My noble friend knows that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made that clear to the energy companies. In answer to the question raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, last night my right honourable friend gave a speech in which he talked about the interrelationship between markets and the role of government. I will send him a copy of that speech, as I think he will find that it denotes an important emphasis on getting that balance right and making clear the role of government in this area.
I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for his work on living with environmental change. I very much agree with him. I recently attended an international conference in Brazil on biofuels. The second generation is very important and this has to be undertaken in a sustainable way. We have to deal with the issue of indirect land use, which is causing much angst among many people. I also very much agree with the noble Earl about innovation, and I wonder whether marine technology is an area to emphasise. Where the UK is currently in the lead on technology, we must do everything that we can to encourage the sector to make the most of it.
It is very appropriate to come to the question of farming in the last few minutes of the debate. Like other noble Lords, I pay great tribute to the NFU on its 100th anniversary. It is a tremendous organisation which wisely relocated its headquarters to Warwickshire. It is to be commended on that.
Of course the Government understand the importance of the food and fisheries sector. Who could not understand its importance to the economy, its importance to
10 Dec 2008 : Column 479
On bluetongue and an import ban, an Oral Question will be asked next week, but we do not think that the imposition of a ban on imports is the right approach. The noble Baroness will know that the Commission has been looking at developing an approach and we are clearly looking at that carefully. We re-emphasise the importance of the vaccine programme for next year and we are clearly learning some of the lessons. We must also look at the current rules to see whether they are adequate. We will then take forward further discussions in Europe on that matter. I suspect that it is rather late for us to engage in a detailed debate on bovine TB, but I reassure the noble Baroness that of course the Government take that disease seriously and that we are committed to tackling it using all available measures. She will know that there is a group from which we seek advice. We are guided by the science and will continue to be ever alert.
On food security, the Government are not at all complacent. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has issued a Written Statement today on food security following a discussion paper that he produced in July this year. The interesting point that I take from that Written Statement is that most of those who have responded to the discussion paper have agreed that we should not base our food security policy on the pursuit of self-sufficiency. The debate has really shifted to a broader discussion of the complex factors that contribute to our food security. We announced the membership today of the council of food policy advisers. They will be asked to advise on what may be necessary in future to ensure that we have a secure and sustainable food system in the UK. What is not in doubt is the role and contribution that our farming sector has to make to that and its enormous value to our nation.
On the CAP health check, we would have wished to have made further progress. We did not support the final deal because we wished that further progress had been made. We continue to look to longer-term reform of the CAP. Our vision is to see the elimination of Pillar 1 of the CAP altogether with payments to farmers targeted at specific public bands such as environment enhancement through Pillar 2.
On the question of fisheries, I well understand the question of discarding and the challenge of mixed fishing. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, asked me to ensure that my colleague understood her points. I certainly undertake to do so. No one can be in any doubt about the difficulties of negotiations in Europe on this matter or the pressure on the fishing industry in this country.
I thought we would spend considerable time on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, but noble Lords are anticipating our Second Reading debate next Monday. This Bill has received a great deal of attention. The only criticism has been that it has taken us too long to produce it.
I have to say to the Benches opposite that they normally accuse us of producing too much legislation. When we produce a Queens Speech that is well ordered and not over-full, we are criticised for all sorts of motivations. That is completely wrong because this is a well ordered legislative programme. It is true that we do not have a Bill in relation to floods and water, but that is not because we are complacent. We will be responding to the Pitt report shortly, and we are taking measures now, short of legislation, to ensure that we are well prepared for future floods.
My noble friend Lord Graham, who has been a doyen of the Co-operative movement for so many years, was right when he talked about the value of co-operation and credit unions. I assure him that the Government will not be put off by the doubters and dissenters whom we heard in this debate.
However, in general, we have had a constructive debate, for which I thank all noble Lords. We know that we face formidable challenges, but this Government have shown their ability to recognise the global nature of the challenge and have ensured global co-operation. This Government have shown their ability to lead our nation by taking decisive action and have the vision and determination to get us through. I commend the humble Address to your Lordships.
The Bill was brought from the Commons; the declaration of the agent having been deposited in accordance with Private Business Standing Order 150A (Suspension of Bills). The Bill was read a first time. It was then deemed to have been read a second time and committed to a Select Committee.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|