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House of Lords

Thursday 5 November 2009

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

EU: Lisbon Treaty

Question

11.06 am

Asked By Lord Dykes

Lord Brett: The Czech Government's stance on the Lisbon treaty was discussed at the October European Council. The Council's conclusions make clear that the UK protocol on the European Charter of Fundamental Rights shall, at the time of the next accession treaty, apply to the Czech Republic. The Czech constitutional court met on 3 November and ruled that the Lisbon treaty was in line with its constitution. President Klaus signed the Czech Republic's instrument of ratification on the same day.

Lord Dykes: I thank the Minister for that Answer. Now that the erratic Mr Klaus has seen the light on the true, deep interests of the Czech Republic, does the Minister agree that Lisbon has now been fully ratified by the 27 sovereign parliaments of the national member states, themselves with deep intrinsic national sovereignty that is not only unimpaired but actually enhanced by the treaty provisions that give collective strength in the future?

Lord Brett: I agree 100 per cent.

Lord Tomlinson: Has my noble friend had a chance to consider the remarks of the French Europe Minister about the position of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition following the circumstances being in place for the ratification of the Lisbon treaty? Is it not a matter of national regret that a party that has pretensions to government is now seen as being so isolated on matters related to Europe?

Lord Brett: My Lords, one of my old mum's maxims was, "Never intrude on private grief". My only comment here is that if some of the Eurosceptic views that we have heard in the past few days were to become the practised policy of the British Government at any time, they would lead to public grief. Three million jobs are linked directly and indirectly to the EU, and more than half our exports go there. Perhaps more significantly, over the past month Europe has come together to ease the impact of the global economic storm on businesses and families. The co-ordination

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was truly unprecedented, and that action has helped considerably to bring us from recession. A recent poll shows that almost 80 per cent of the British people agree with the co-ordinated action. I am therefore happy to say that I do not see the substance of the French comments coming to pass, because I do not see a change of Government coming.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I thought we would not get far this morning without this kind of vacuous exchange. Does the Minister now understand and accept that it is our intention when in government to make the European Union more democratic and decentralised, as originally intended at the Laeken declaration, and fit for purpose in the 21st century? That is why never again will we allow undemocratic transfers of constitutional power, and why we propose a referendum lock, a legal lock and a sovereignty lock, as our German friends have, to protect the British people. May we at least have an assurance that the Labour Party, in or out of office, will agree to these sensible provisions?

Lord Brett: I noted what the noble Lord said about vacuous comments and I appreciate the vacuous comments that he has added.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I should declare an interest as someone who used to work with the current French Europe Minister 20-odd years ago when we were both in think tanks. The Czech President has now achieved a fig leaf in the form of a future protocol to satisfy Eurosceptics within the Czech Republic. What similar fig leaf might any future British Government attach as a future protocol to a treaty which would not damage Britain's interests or relations with other members of the EU27?

Lord Brett: I cannot imagine a fig leaf large enough. If what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said-it will be read in the press-enunciates the policies of the Conservative Party in relation to Europe, I do not believe that they can be achieved with a fig leaf, however large. It would be a long way along the road to withdrawal from the European Union, which would be disastrous.

Lord Sewel: Will my noble friend confirm that repatriation of powers would require treaty changes, that treaty changes would require unanimity among all member states and that, therefore, a programme of repatriation is a cynical con on the British people?

Lord Brett: That is absolutely true, my Lords. One of the areas where we have heard talk of repatriation is the Social Chapter and the employment protection given by it. The Social Chapter does not exist any more; it is scattered throughout the treaty. To repatriate any of those powers would inevitably require treaty changes. The unanimity which such a proposal would require is highly unlikely.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Is the Minister aware of the damaging effect on the National Health Service of the working time directive and the fact that, the

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more often cases are handed from one person to another, the more accidents and errors occur and the more patients are at risk?

Lord Brett: My Lords, we have discussed the importance of the working time directive before. It is not directly relevant to the Question. As we have said previously, we have put the working time directive in place; we have consulted; and it is working satisfactorily.

Poland: Inter-ministerial Meeting

Question

11.12 am

Asked ByLord Clinton-Davis:

Lord Brett: My Lords, there are currently no plans for any inter-ministerial meetings in the near future, but we have regular and close contact with the Polish Government. The Prime Minister has visited Poland this year and the Foreign Secretary has visited three times.

Lord Clinton-Davis: Can my noble friend give an assurance that in meetings with EU Ministers, and Polish Ministers in particular, the Government will stand by those principles underlying the EU and, unlike the Opposition, will never resort to dubious alliances or seek to consort with European extremists spurned by both Merkel and Sarkozy in order to weaken the EU?

Lord Brett: My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the Government will assert their adherence to the principles of the European Union, which were clearly expressed in the Maastricht treaty signed by a Conservative Prime Minister in 1992 and reaffirmed in the Lisbon treaty; namely:

"The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law".

That guides our discussions with all Governments.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, as the Polish newspapers do not normally display the xenophobia and anti-EU hysteria that we see in the comics that masquerade as newspapers in this country, particularly those which happen to be owned by overseas owners who do not pay proper UK taxes, will the Government through our embassy in Warsaw encourage our Polish counterparts to come to our country to explain why it is in our true interests to remain full-hearted members of the EU, as Monsieur Lellouche suggested yesterday-which would be in contrast to the hysteria that we witness repeatedly from members of UKIP, the BNP and quite a few Tory politicians?



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Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Lord has the advantage of me, as his knowledge of the Polish press is far greater than mine. He makes an interesting suggestion, which I will happily take away and look at. We have a situation whereby government-to-government relationships between Britain and Poland are very good and co-operation is very good. We should not always be diverted by what happens in party-to-party relationships-although another maxim of my old mother was, "By ye friends will ye be known".

Lord Howell of Guildford: As the Minister says, our relations with Poland are extremely good and we have a lot of common interests. I hope that that remains the case. Is he aware that the Visegrád countries, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and others, seek to form a new arrangement among themselves, over and above, or beyond, any common membership of the European Union, particularly in energy matters and north-south transport links? Will he assure us that the British Government will support their aspirations in this field, which include slightly greater flexibility than perhaps Brussels is ready to allow them? This is a very encouraging development. They are our obvious friends-can we support them?

Lord Brett: My Lords, I take note of the question. I am not aware of the absolute detail of those discussions. As the noble Lord rightly says, we are supportive of Poland and other countries in their access to Europe. We maintain good relationships and have interests in common, which I am sure will guide our discussions with Poland and the other Visegrád countries.

Disabled People: Student Loans

Question

11.16 am

Asked By Lord Addington:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, as part of widening participation, the Government give generous financial support to disabled students, and are aware of concerns expressed about delays in providing that support this academic year. These will be investigated in the Student Loans Company's review of lessons learnt, which has external scrutiny, expertise and challenge. Government-funded arrangements are in place to ensure that universities and colleges can support disabled students if there are delays in their assessments or payments, so no disabled student should be prevented from starting their course.

Lord Addington: I thank the Minister for that answer, but is he aware that there is overwhelming evidence from various bodies that students are not getting their

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support? Exactly who is responsible for breaking the commitments made in numerous Acts, many of which were passed by this Government? Whose head is ultimately on the block here and how many commitments have actually been broken?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I think that we should keep this in perspective. More than 855,000 students have been paid by the Student Loans Company this year, more than ever before at this time of the year. We should acknowledge that a significant number of students seem to practise through lastminute.com., in that they do not apply until shortly before the start of term. A very large number have been dealt with, but it is clear that there are lessons to be learnt from this year's processing cycle. I have asked for a review to ensure that those lessons are learnt and customer service is improved. It is a little premature to talk about such extreme measures as execution and decapitation.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, will the Minister explain why 250,000 phone calls went unanswered from students worried about not receiving their loans? Of those waiting, how many managed to start their courses?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, in relation to the phone calls, frankly-or so I have been told-there were not enough phone lines to deal with the situation. There were an unprecedented number of starts this year but, nevertheless, that clearly needs to be remedied. As the noble Baroness knows, there is also an online system, so people are perfectly capable of processing their applications online, and many do. However, as soon as things start to go wrong, phone calls are made. There was a deficiency there that is being investigated and lessons will no doubt be learnt.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, that is all very well but SKILL, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, of which I am the president-and I declare my interest-has evidence of the Student Loans Company refusing to accept applications by e-mail. SKILL has a fat file of evidence of students receiving no response to their applications for disabled students' allowance. Access centres have reported that they have no bookings for assessments at what should be their busiest time and medical evidence has been lost, which means that students have to pay for it a second time-and much more besides. All those things increase the likelihood of course deferral and drop-out. When does the Minister expect the Student Loans Company to have in place a disability equality scheme that is fit for purpose?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, first let me endeavour to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Low, that we have appointed somebody to investigate that. Deian Hopkins, an ex-vice-chancellor, will be investigating and he has already been in contact with SKILL, so I hope that that will be established. On disabled students, again, we should put this in perspective; this is a great success story, inasmuch as we have a huge increase in students generally, but the number of disabled

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student allowances has increased steadily since 1997-98. There were 10,770 disabled student allowances paid to HE students in England and Wales, and the total DSA expenditure was £13.3 million. I remind the House that those are non-means-tested, non-repayable grants for disabled students, so the contribution that we are making to those students is huge. We have a seen a 146 per cent increase in the number of disabled students enrolled in UK higher education. That is a success story.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the Minister is right to say that the scheme has been a success until this year, but is he aware that since the Student Loans Company took it over, which was this year, only 2,500 out of 14,000 applications have so far been processed? As the noble Lord, Lord Low, mentioned, it is a scandal. They had to be sent through by post rather than online; they were sent to Doncaster, but processed in Glasgow. The scanning equipment in Doncaster broke down; they were not sent properly to Glasgow, and many have gone missing. Can he explain why this is so, and why students should have been so disadvantaged as a result?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I do not think that I can explain all of those reasons; that is the whole purpose of the review and the investigation. We do take this seriously, but as for being disadvantaged our main concern is that disabled students are able to start their courses and that there should not be financial barriers. I agree that we will have to deal with the question of the assessment process, and ensure that that is able to take place on time. My information on HE students in receipt of the disabled student allowance was that there are 41,000 of them and a total expenditure of £90 million, so that the average DSA expenditure per student was £2,210. While there is money going through, we need to improve the assessment process and we will be working on that.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: If the noble Lord calls this a success story, how does he describe a failure? He has had criticism from all parts of the House. We need an urgent inquiry and an urgent report to this Chamber on exactly what is happening.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I think that I would describe as a failure the higher education policies that we inherited. That would be my description of a failure.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, what advice is being given to students who just have not been able to access courses, given that there will be an unprecedented number of students applying for courses in the new academic year?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I believe that I have already answered that question. This year, more students than ever before have been dealt with. There are some outstanding loan applications that require to be dealt with but, if you take into account the 855,000 students who have been paid by the Student Loans Company

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this year, it is more than ever before at this time of the year. We still have some to process and there were mistakes made, which will be investigated.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, why does the Minister exude such complacency, given that there have been expressions of alarm and despondency from all sides of the House on this issue? He really must indicate to the House that he will make this a number one priority.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I do not think that I have exhibited any complacency. I have merely endeavoured to put the matter in context. We have freely admitted that mistakes were made. We have said that there will be a full investigation and have appointed somebody of significant status to preside over it. We will be dealing with the organisations that represent students with disabilities. There is no complacency. I merely wanted the House to understand that, while mistakes have been made, there is still a great success story in the number of students attending university.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, in asking the Minister a question I thank him for admitting that mistakes have been made, but also ask him not to say for one minute that, after 12 years of this Government, they were the result of Conservative government policy.

To assure the House that there is a sense of urgency, will the Minister tell us the timetable for the results of this investigation? When are we going to know and when will action be taken?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I make no apologies for my comments on the 12 years of success in ensuring that 40 per cent more students with a disability are receiving a full grant payment and that 2 million more students are entering higher education in England, a rise of more than 20 per cent from 1997. Should the Opposition ever get into power, we will praise them if they can match that.

Baroness O'Cathain: Timescale!

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I will write to the noble Baroness on that.

Lord Grocott: I will not play the blame game. Does my noble friend recall, as I do, that throughout the 18 years of Conservative Administration there were frequent references to the problems of the 1970s and the difficulties, according to them, associated with the previous Labour Government? Given that we are now only 12 years into this Government, will the Minister continue the policy of blaming the previous Conservative Government where it is justified until 18 years have elapsed-that is, in 2015-and at that point, by all means, review the policy?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: In the style of the mafia, my noble friend has made me an offer I cannot refuse.


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