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House of Lords

Monday, 2 February 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Introduction: Lord Davies of Abersoch

2.38 pm

Evan Mervyn Davies Esquire, CBE, having been created Baron Davies of Abersoch, of Abersoch in the County of Gwynedd, was introduced and took the oath, in English and in Welsh, supported by Lord Gavron and Baroness Vadera.

Parliament: Representation of Wales


2.43 pm

Asked By Lord Anderson of Swansea

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am pleased to inform my noble friend that this Government have no such plans.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, that is a welcome and reassuring reply. The Minister will be well aware that Mr Cameron stated on 12 January that, if elected, he would as a matter of priority reduce the number of MPs overall by 10 per cent and Welsh MPs from 40 to 30. A few days later, his shadow spokesman confused the picture by saying that Wales would be exempted until such time as there was change in the Assembly. Does my noble friend agree, first, that Wales needs a strong voice at Westminster and, secondly, that it is wholly wrong for a party to change electoral arrangements for partisan reasons and without obtaining consensus?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the first consensus that the Leader of the Opposition in the other place should strive for is consensus within his own party. As my noble friend has indicated, no sooner had he made the comment that it would be a good idea to drop the level of representation of Wales at Westminster, but his spokesman made it clear that he did not think that it should happen in the immediate future. This Government will preserve a strong voice for Wales at Westminster.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, is it not the case that, in every election since the privacy of the franchise was established by the Ballot Act 1872, the Conservative Party has not succeeded in gaining a major share of the votes or the seats contested? In such a situation,

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the Conservative Party is perhaps not best appointed to seek unilaterally to bring about such a fundamental change for Wales.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, this may of course be part of a wider strategy crudely billed as “England for the English”. That is likely to cause resentment in more quarters than just Wales.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, how great it was to hear the Welsh language, the language of heaven, spoken in this Chamber just before the Question was asked. Will the Minister confirm that his Answer, while very welcome, will not preclude Her Majesty’s Government from following the Richard Commission’s suggestion that the number of Welsh Assembly Members be increased from 60 to 80 to give the Assembly a more sound and thorough opportunity for scrutiny?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, sometimes the language of heaven can produce discordant voices. As the noble Lord will know, the argument of some in Wales that the Assembly needs to increase in size is countermanded by very many who think that it is just about the right size at present.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that, in electoral matters, it is desirable that there should not be any great divergence in the size of constituencies and that, if there were a significant variation in certain parts of the kingdom, that would have an unfortunate effect. Would it not be much better if there were, as it were, a single UK electoral quota and efforts were made to ensure that constituencies were approximately of the same size throughout the United Kingdom? I put that forward without any hesitation because Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where the seats are judged on a UK-quota basis.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course I listen carefully to what the noble Lord has to say about this; he is a significant voice. However, he will appreciate that the devolution arrangements produce different positions in different parts of the United Kingdom. He will also appreciate that Wales is a significant minority voice. All democracies pay some regard to the needs of minorities when working out their constitutional system, and so do we.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, surely the point of devolution for the Welsh Assembly is that it should take more and more powers from Westminster. As that process evolves, surely that should mean more Members of the Welsh Assembly and fewer in Westminster.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that would be the case if the Welsh Assembly had tax-raising powers on the principle of no taxation without representation. The Scottish Parliament has such powers and, as we all know, Scottish representation at Westminster was reduced in cognisance of that fact. However, Wales does not enjoy that position at present. If it ever achieved a level of devolution comparable to Scotland’s, the argument would assuredly change.

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Baroness Gale: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the All Wales Convention has just started its work going around Wales under the chairmanship of Sir Emyr Jones Parry? While we await the result of that consultation, and the result of a referendum, is it not rather premature to talk about reducing the voice for Wales at Westminster?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I indicated in my immediately prior answer, Wales does not have full tax-raising powers, nor has it had devolved to it powers comparable to the Scottish Parliament’s. Some wish that to be achieved. We have no idea whether that is a majority opinion in Wales at present; in fact, many think that it is very much a minority opinion. We await the outcome of the deliberations in due course.

Energy: Utility Bills


2.50 pm

Asked By Lord Tomlinson

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government monitor energy prices and are well aware of the significant rises in the UK over the past year. The Government expect reductions in those prices following reductions in wholesale prices. To improve transparency on energy prices, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change have asked Ofgem to publish quarterly reports on wholesale and retail prices.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in those OECD figures not only was there the 16.7 per cent increase in the United Kingdom, but in the same survey there was a reduction of 2.4 per cent in the OECD as a whole, a reduction in the United States of 13.3 per cent and a very small increase in the G7? Is it not the case that the astronomical increases in energy prices in the United Kingdom, despite the too little, too late cut from British Gas, show that the benefit to consumers from competition in energy, which was promised at the time of privatisation, has yet to reach the British consumer?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I well understand my noble friend and public concern. The Government have impressed the need to see retail energy prices reduced as soon as possible to reflect changes in wholesale prices. As well as taking the percentage increase, one has to look at the comparator of prices generally. The UK domestic electricity price is below the EU 15 median and domestic gas prices are the lowest in the EU 15 for July to December 2008.

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Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, will the Minister admit that high fuel prices are causing poor British people today to underheat their homes in these freezing conditions, threatening their lives? Is he not ashamed of his Government for doing nothing at all to force energy suppliers to bring down prices for our poorest families?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Government have been very active in their work in relation to the companies. There has been an Ofgem probe as a result of the intervention, which has led to recommendations about problems of differentiation in prices. The Government have already invested £20 billion in relation to fuel poverty. Another package was announced last autumn. We are not at all complacent. We continue to meet the energy companies. We have said that if they do not respond positively to the current Ofgem consultation, we will make interventions.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I accept that the Government have promised that they will make interventions, but can we have some idea of roughly when these will occur? If we do not have a figure for that, can the Minister take back to his colleagues that they should not make such statements in the first place?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there is a consultation by Ofgem, which finishes this month. It has been made abundantly clear that if the companies do not respond satisfactorily as a result of that consultation, we will certainly consider intervention.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, would not low energy users benefit directly from the rising block tariff system? How is the proposal developing within Government? Are we getting anywhere?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the rising block tariff essentially means charging a lower rate for the first proportion of energy used. The Government are in discussion with Ofgem about how that could be considered in more detail. However, there are concerns about that, because fuel-poor people, out of need, may consume more energy than the average. Clearly, as we discuss this further with Ofgem, it has to be considered very carefully and looked at in the round.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the noble Lord, Lord Turner, the chairman of the climate change committee, made it clear that the only way in which the Government’s binding commitments for emissions reductions can be met is by a significant increase in energy prices? In light of that, has his department calculated how large an increase in energy prices is likely to be required to meet the 34 per cent reduction in emissions that the committee said was necessary by 2020?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath:My Lords, the Government are not in the business of forecasting future prices. We listened carefully to the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Turner, and his committee. As the noble Lord will

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know, energy companies are expected to make considerable investments in the energy field in the next few years. It is a mixture, including new nuclear stations. We also wish to see a considerable increase in the amount of renewable energy. I am confident that we can achieve that.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, made a fair point in one sense, but have not the Government also made a welcome decision? In this year’s Budget there will be a parallel financial budget relating to the short and medium-term fund and the raising of taxation through CO2-type tax, some of which could be recirculated so that it does not have negative effects on prices for lower-paid people. That is an important balancing factor to what is being discussed.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. A premium had to be paid in relation to the cost of renewable energy; that is well understood. In general—I return to the question of whether we can meet the commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—it is clear that we need a mixed economy in relation to energy. That will include the development of new nuclear, and increased renewable energy as well.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we may need a mixed economy but we also want to avoid a mixed policy. The Minister referred to a premium for renewables. At present, fossil fuel prices—oil, gas and coal prices—are 75 per cent lower than they were a year ago, which means that the premium for renewables such as wind power has to be vastly increased. Is there not a difficulty there about how that will be raised? If it is raised by higher energy prices, how is that consistent with our proper concern about lowering energy prices?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out that wholesale prices have come down; as my noble friend said, we had the announcement from British Gas. We hope to see more reductions in domestic prices over the next few months. Lower energy prices are, of course, important to the economy as a whole. Equally, as part of our climate change policies, renewable energy in this country must be increased. It is an important part of the contribution to future energy supply. Clearly, a premium must be paid in that regard. The essential point is to have a balance.

Health: Stroke Care


2.58 pm

Asked By Baroness Rendell of Babergh

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Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a member of the Stroke Association.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Government launched the stroke strategy in December 2007 and have made stroke care a priority for the NHS. We aim over the next few years to effect a revolution in stroke care by, among other things, creating stroke networks, by providing extra funding of £150 million for equipment and staff and by a public awareness campaign, which is soon to be launched.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her Answer. Does she agree that at present the public are insufficiently prepared to recognise the signs of stroke? Most particularly, they are unaware of the importance of the time factor—that a stroke patient or potential stroke patient should be got to a stroke unit within three hours. Is she aware of the stem cell therapy that is currently being trialled—it involves human trials—with the aim of repairing stroke damage and disability? Does she feel that the Government would approve and support those trials?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, since December 2007 we have been establishing the stroke networks, which are modelled very much on the cancer and heart networks which have proved so successful. Next Monday, on 9 February, we are launching what we call the FAST campaign, which aims to make the general public and relevant healthcare professionals more aware of how to identify stroke and the necessity of speedy emergency action. FAST stands for: “Face—is there facial weakness?”; “Arm—can the person lift both arms and hold them there?”; “Speech—can the person speak and are their words slurred?”; and “Time—is it time to dial 999 for an ambulance if you see any of these signs?”. On my noble friend’s second point, I am aware that at least one proposal being considered for clinical trials is directed specifically at stroke. As we are all aware, stem cell research offers enormous potential to deliver new treatments for disease. The Government, in support, have tripled their investment in this area in the past three years from £13 million to £42 million.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, the crucial issue in the management of stroke is that the patient should be admitted preferably within three to four hours at the most, and have a scan so that the suitable cases can be treated with appropriate therapy. Following the noble Baroness’s point, is the Minister aware that in Glasgow, based upon experimental research which has been very encouraging, it is proposed that 12 patients should be treated in the very near future by the injection of neuronal stem cells derived from foetal material in the hope of promoting repair of the damaged brain tissue?

Baroness Thornton: Yes, my Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord’s second point. Like him, I hope that it proves as successful as it looks like it might well be. The noble Lord is completely correct to say that speed is of the essence with stroke; three hours can make the difference between complete recovery and someone having a disability for rest of their life or, indeed,

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losing their life. That is why we want the whole NHS to follow the example of the best of the NHS, which is to create the right kind of acute centres to provide scanning immediately when someone is admitted to hospital and then to provide the necessary treatment within that three-hour period.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords—

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, there is time for everyone. Shall we hear the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, first?

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the Government’s plans for stroke centres—they are indeed long overdue. But what plans does the Department of Health have to ensure that pre-hospital care is available by doctor-led teams who can assess, intubate and ventilate patients, if necessary, on their way to the stroke centre so that they arrive alive?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, one of the reasons that we are promoting the new public awareness programme not just for the public but also for health professionals is so that ambulance drivers and paramedics—who are often the very first people to deal with this—know that they need to take the patient straight to one of the centres where they will receive treatment at speed.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, while I am delighted to hear that the education is widening, there is a major problem in that even when someone with a stroke presents at the hospital accident and emergency department, it can still be many hours before a brain scan is done, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, pointed out. That is what happened to my husband, who spent four or five hours in accident and emergency. What attention is being paid to transient ischaemic attacks, known as TIAs, which are minor strokes? All stroke experts believe that each case should be followed up because very often they are followed by major strokes.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely correct. That is why access to scanning and treatment is absolutely vital and needs to be very quick. The national audit of the Royal College of Physicians shows that all hospitals should now provide CT scanning, but the problem is that they do not all provide it 24/7. We need to put more investment into training doctors, specialists and physicians to ensure that the cover is as comprehensive as it needs to be.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister reassure us about the transition from hospital care back into the community? Is progress being made on this? Is a postcode lottery still in existence? I think that so far only about half of patients have received the care that they should have done.

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