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House of Lords

Tuesday, 27 October 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Introduction: Lord Sacks

2.37 pm

Sir Jonathan Henry Sacks, Knight, having been created Baron Sacks, of Aldgate in the City of London, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Winston and Lord Carey of Clifton.

Introduction: Baroness O' Loan

2.45 pm

Dame Nuala Patricia O'Loan, DBE, having been created Baroness O'Loan, of Kirkinriola in the County of Antrim, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Blood and Baroness D'Souza.

EU: Budget


2.50 pm

Asked By Lord Vinson

The Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Myners): My Lords, the UK's net expenditure transfers to the EU budget for 2010 will have no impact on infrastructure spending in the United Kingdom.

Lord Vinson: I thank the Minister for that reply and for the idealism that I know configures it. However, would it not be more sensible for us to spend £8 billion on ourselves rather than on other people's infrastructure -wonderful roads and railways in Spain, Portugal and, not least, Ireland-while here at home we cannot even find the cash to dual carriageway the A1 to Scotland? Is it not time that we put British interests first?

Lord Myners: Our membership of the EU does put British interests first. It gives us direct access to a community of 490 million people. The EU accounts for 20 per cent of world trade but 57 per cent of Britain's trade. Some 3.5 million jobs in Britain are directly attributable to our membership of the EU, as is the fact that we receive over 25 per cent of all foreign direct investment coming into European countries.

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Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, knows very well, the alternative to paying our dues to the European club is to get out. Would my noble friend not agree that it would have been more to the point if the noble Lord had asked that question directly so that we could consider the highly damaging consequences for Britain of that course of action, diverting not £10 billion but tens of billions of pounds of global investment from this country?

Lord Myners: I cannot but agree with my noble friend, who expresses himself so eloquently on this subject. We are a significant beneficiary of being part of a larger, more prosperous and safer Europe. It creates jobs and trade and it gives consumers more choice and better prices. That is clearly in the national interest.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, the Minister said that 3.5 million jobs in the UK depend on our membership of the EU. Since we have a very significant trade deficit with the EU-a deficit that has grown hugely in the last decade-is it not true to say that there are more jobs in the EU dependent on trade with the UK than the other way round?

Lord Myners: The European economies are much less globally focused than that of the United Kingdom and therefore we have a far higher proportion of our employment in the UK focused on meeting the needs of other countries in addition to those of the EU. But I repeat my assertion that the EU is a positive contributor to job creation in the UK and that is what matters to this country: people having jobs with secure employment prospects. I only wish that the Benches opposite could understand that.

Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister accept that our contribution to the EU budget is a complete red herring when it comes to infrastructure expenditure in the UK? However, if we were concerned to increase infrastructure expenditure in the UK, does he agree that we could take a leaf out of the EU book-namely, from the European Investment Bank-and create a UK investment bank for long-term infrastructure expenditure that could attract funding both from institutions and from individuals?

Lord Myners: I agree with the first observation of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the link between EU contribution and infrastructure. However, the EU, through the EIB and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is a significant source of support for infrastructure expenditure. This year, EIB funding to the UK will exceed £3 billion, compared with £2.2 billion last year, and is likely to increase to £4.2 billion or so next year, largely as a result of the sterling efforts of my noble friends Lord Mandelson and Lord Davies. There are many cases where significant expenditure is taking place in the UK as a result of European support. I shall cite just one example. In my home county of Cornwall, the very exciting Wave Hub to create energy opportunities is being financed by European money.

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Lord Trimble: My Lords-

Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords-

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the maintenance of a single market of 27 member states of the European Union is hugely in the interests of the British economy and of Britain as a country? Will he continue to do all that he can to resist whatever protectionist tendencies there may be that might put it at risk?

Lord Myners: I can assure the noble Lord that I will do so, as I have been doing in respect of financial services regulation.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords-

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords-

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, why do we not hear from my noble friend and then from the noble Lord, Lord Lawson? I am sure that we have time for both.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I will be brief. The questioner raised the issue of putting Britain's interests first. If after Lisbon is agreed Mr Tony Blair decides to run for the presidency of the European Union, would that not be putting Britain's interests first?

Lord Myners: I am sure that the envisaged role for the president of the European Council will be important and one for which the former Prime Minister, Mr Blair, is eminently well qualified.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, while the surrender of the British rebate negotiated by my noble friend Lady Thatcher in the 1980s by Mr Tony Blair at the last European Council before he resigned as Prime Minister may have enhanced his reputation among other European countries, with whatever consequences may flow from that, what benefit has it brought the United Kingdom?

Lord Myners: The disapplication of part of the abatement negotiated and agreed in 2005 was designed to ensure that the UK, along with other major European nations, made an appropriate contribution towards welcoming into the EU the eight countries that joined in 2006. I am delighted to see that our trade with those countries has increased by 40 per cent since they joined the EU.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Can the Minister tell the House how much this disapplication cost the taxpayer?

Lord Myners: It is equivalent to approximately 0.1 per cent of GDP per annum.

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Aviation: Air Quality


2.58 pm

Asked By Lord Tyler

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the Government understand that the European Aviation Safety Agency has certified this product as safe to use. We shall be interested to hear the experiences of airlines which buy it. Meanwhile, our research is making progress, led by Cranfield University, to ascertain what substances, and in what concentrations, may be in cabin air during fume events. That information should help identify appropriate solutions if necessary.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Is the Minister aware that since June 2000 I have been pressing Ministers in both Houses to take this issue a great deal more seriously than has previously been the case? However, Ministers seem to have been in perpetual denial about the seriousness of this in terms of the health and safety of both cabin crews and passengers. Will the Minister now accept that the decision by BAe would seem to indicate that it now takes this problem a great deal more seriously than it has in the past because it is investing money in these systems? Taken with the Breakspear research into fume contamination and the chronic medical effects on crews and passengers, will he now meet a deputation of those most directly affected with concerned Members of your Lordships' House?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on the diligence with which he has pursued this issue, as he says, for nearly 10 years. However, he is quite wrong to imagine that the Government do not take it seriously. The Government responded to the report by the Committee on Toxicity in 2007, which said that the evidence was inconclusive and no connection between pilot ill health and cabin air could be proved or disproved, but that more research was needed. That was informed by BALPA as well. As a result the Cranfield study was set up, and we hope to get the first findings from that next year. We are not in any way complacent about the issue; we accept that some people experience unpleasant smells during the course of a flight and that there are occasional fume events that create those unpleasantnesses.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I understand that these filters use an ionisation technique, which is brilliant for biohazards such as viruses and bacteria but is also being promoted as being good for taking toxic fumes out of aircraft. Have the units been tested when there has been a contamination event? If so, has the output from the filters been characterised?

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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: I also pay tribute to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for the part that she has played in raising this issue in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions.

It is important that we know what is in a fume event when it takes place. The purpose behind the Cranfield study is, first of all, to establish whether there is anything there that needs to be dealt with. Until we know that, it would be premature for us to say that a particular filter was the right solution. We know that they remove volatile organic compounds, and they are very good at removing bacteria and viruses. We are also aware that organophosphates are present in hydraulic engine oil. We need to establish whether there is contamination from the engine oil into the cabin, and that is what the Cranfield study is looking into.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Professor Helen Muir, who is responsible for the research of the Cranfield project, said last year in a magazine called Flight International that such fume events have occurred in the research? She goes on to mention,

and finishes by saying, "including organophosphates". We know that organophosphates are extremely dangerous; Gulf War syndrome is one example of that, and we have seen shepherds affected by dipping their sheep. So why are the Government dithering when the health of tens of thousands of people is continually being affected by these events on commercial airlines?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, almost answered his own question by referring to the work that Professor Helen Muir is undertaking at Cranfield. She is an experienced and well respected expert on aviation safety. The examination being conducted there is being done with the co-operation of airlines. It is the only work of its sort that is being conducted in the world, and that work is well over half-completed; we expect to get the findings next year. We do not yet have conclusive evidence that there are organophosphates that are harmful to health, but if that turns out to be the case then action will be taken straight away.

Lord Haskel: The noble Lord has just spoken about tens of thousands of people being at risk. Exactly how many fume events have actually occurred?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, in 2007 the Committee on Toxicity said that fume events occurred in roughly 0.05 per cent of flights overall-that is one in 2,000. The most recent figures for 2008 show that 97 contaminated air events were reported to the CAA out of 1.2 million passenger and cargo flights by UK carriers. Twelve pilots out of 20,000 have lost medical clearance for reasons that they attribute to cabin air. With regard to passengers, out of 29,000 complaints put to the Air Transport Users Council since January 2001, one has related to air quality.

27 Oct 2009 : Column 1100

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, why was Cranfield University selected for the study? Why was there no competitive tendering of that research? Why was no neuro-psychological study included in it?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: Cranfield is understood throughout the world to be a leading expert on air safety and air quality. The Government took the view that it was the obvious choice to carry out this work. This is an entirely independent study; there is no industry involvement in terms of funding.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, does the Minister expect all the aircraft which have been mentioned to be repaired and improved, or does he believe that most of them will be cascaded off into the third world?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: I imagine that every airline will ensure that all its aircraft are safe all of the time. Given that events are so few, the chances of aircraft having to be retired for this reason are remote.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I speak as an ex-chairman-

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, to be fair to the next Question, we ought to move on.

Health: Alcohol


3.06 pm

Asked By Lord Harrison

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, high-alcohol wines are increasingly available as we import more wines from the new world which are stronger than those from France, Italy and Spain. It is important that people understand how strong their drink is, how much they drink, and the health risks.

Lord Harrison: Given that the average alcoholic strength of a bottle of wine has risen in recent decades from 11 to 13 per cent, with a commensurate rise in hospital admissions for those with alcohol-related problems, will my noble friend consider lowering the excise duty on lower-strength wines to encourage both sensible drinking and wider, broadened consumer choice?

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend raises two different points, one of which is to do with consumer choice. It is indeed the case that consumers should be able to choose lower or higher-strength wines. However, it is not for the Government to decide what products retailers should make available. What we think is

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important is that people understand how strong the drinks are, what advice is relevant to them and the risks of regularly drinking above the lower-risk guidelines. My noble friend's second point related to taxation. I can say with some accuracy that that is above my pay grade and is a matter for the Chancellor.

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I declare an interest as an adviser to a wine-producing company. Is the Minister aware that only from this month has the industry been permitted by EU regulations to reduce the alcoholic strength of wine for sale in Europe, but only by up to 2 per cent? Will the Government support the industry's campaign to relax the rules further so that more lower-strength wines can be marketed legally in the UK?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Baroness raises a very important point. The 2008 wine reform allowed EU producers access to wine-making rules used by third countries and new technologies used internationally, but, as she said, only to reduce alcohol in their wine by up to 2 per cent. We see this as an important development. I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that we will continue to work within the EU to increase the scope for dealcoholisation of wines. Unfortunately, not all in the European Union favour these developments, because new technologies are seen as betraying traditions of European wine-making. So we have to recognise that old and new skills have to live side by side and that people must get every opportunity to improve their competitiveness in this market.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, may I assure the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that I have just had the pleasure of sharing a bottle of red wine with 13 per cent alcohol in the Lords dining room, with really, I think, no ill effect to my health? Would it perhaps be sensible to say that the real answer is occasionally to drink one bottle with 13 or 14 per cent alcohol rather than two with 10 or 11 per cent?

Baroness Thornton: I thank the noble Lord for that comment. To add to his information, the House of Lords claret is 13.5 per cent, the sauvignon is 12 per cent and the chardonnay is 12.5 per cent.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, is my noble friend working with other departments to ensure that people such as parents and teachers are aware of the difference in alcohol content in various drinks, so that children are protected?

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend points to a very important matter. The way in which we tackle alcohol abuse, particularly the problems that we know face young people and their drinking habits, is through the education of those young people and their parents. We are absolutely committed to that. We have a youth alcohol action plan, providing advice for children and parents, along with a whole series of measures that we take jointly with the Home Office on these matters.

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