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House of Lords

Tuesday, 10 November 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Personal Statement: Lord Inge

2.36 pm

Lord Inge: My Lords, I should like to make a personal statement. Before the defence debate last Friday, I am afraid that I forgot to declare an interest. I am the non-executive chairman of a private security company.

Road Safety: Electric and Hybrid Vehicles

Question

Asked By Lord Low of Dalston

The Secretary of State for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, my department has discussed with Guide Dogs for the Blind and Imperial College whether electric and hybrid vehicles pose a danger to visually impaired people. The Government will, early next year, start a research project to determine the extent of any problem. We will keep the RNIB and Guide Dogs for the Blind informed of the progress of this research and I will consult with them when the research is complete.

Lord Low of Dalston: I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware of the research from the University of California indicating that hybrid cars need to be anywhere between 40 per cent and 75 per cent closer than combustion engine cars before subjects can tell that they are approaching, leaving only one second to detect their approach when travelling at low speeds? What chance does that give small children and others to stop, look and listen before crossing the road? What is the timescale for the research that the Minister mentioned? Given that the Committee on Climate Change has said that it expects there to be 1.7 million electric and hybrid vehicles on British roads by 2020, does he agree that that research needs to be pursued as a matter of urgency?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we anticipate that the research will take about nine months. In respect of the growth in the number of electric and hybrid cars in this country, by 2015 we expect that only 3 per cent of new cars will be electric or plug-in hybrid cars, which will represent 0.4 per cent of the total UK fleet. Although I accept the points made by the noble Lord about needing to be fully aware of the impact of

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electric or hybrid cars on those to whom they may possibly cause danger, I believe that we have time to take appropriate measures.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an additional point for the research that he just mentioned should be to see whether the existing motor fleet could be made quieter so that ambient noise is reduced? Then we would be able to hear these electric cars more easily. Is that not the best solution?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I believe that cars are becoming quieter over time, so my noble friend's point is being met. However, he is right to point out that, according to research, more than 90 per cent of the UK population hear traffic noise while at home and about 10 per cent regard their exposure to that source of noise to be highly annoying. There is clearly more progress to be made.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: Does my noble friend agree that this is a no-win situation, whichever way the Government turn? We cannot advocate noisy vehicles because of the environment and yet blind people and deaf people really are vulnerable to silent vehicles. The only realistic solution is to raise the awareness of the public and drivers.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, as a Minister now for four and a half years, I am used to being in no-win situations. My perpetual quest is for the happy medium.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, I must declare an interest as the owner of an electric vehicle, which is completely and utterly silent. Surely nine months is an awfully long time to have to wait. There must be a simpler method, particularly with modern communications, to produce a report even before Christmas.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I look forward to the noble Lord's advice as to how we might accomplish that.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of the council of Guide Dogs for the Blind. I think that the Question could go a little wider. Cyclists are completely inaudible and frequently ride on pavements. Whether one is visually handicapped or not, they constitute a real peril to pedestrians. I think, if I may say so, that something ought to be done.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, cyclists should obey the law, like everyone else.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there might be a simpler solution? When I purchased one of these cars a few years ago, my wife, being very practical, said that the answer would be to put on the front of the car a small Swiss cowbell.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I think this is England. Whether such Swiss innovations would go down well here is a matter for conjecture. We have nine months

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for a wide-scale public debate. I shall ensure that the noble Lord's suggestion features prominently in that debate.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, what discussions is my noble friend having with colleagues-including, if I may term him a colleague, the Mayor of London-as to how to improve the likelihood that cyclists will indeed obey the law?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, as I said earlier, cyclists have a responsibility to obey the law and we take that very seriously. They are expected to have regard to the Highway Code, which stipulates proper behaviour on the road. As a society we need, over time, to improve the facilities that are available for cyclists, too. I do not think that cyclists get the quality of infrastructure which ensures that they are able to cycle entirely safely on the road. Here again, what we need is a happy medium.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, pedestrian accidents are more prevalent in disadvantaged areas. How will the Minister prevent these new vehicles exacerbating this problem?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we are addressing the issue of the impact of electric and hybrid vehicles on all areas. We are not discriminating between different types of area.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has suggested that a cowbell may be the answer. Does the Minister agree that, from the position from which I am speaking, maybe a man with a red flag walking in front of the car would be better?

Lord Adonis: Your Lordships are full of such useful suggestions this afternoon. I believe it was Herbert Morrison who lifted the speed limit above 20 miles per hour, which it was until the 1920s in this country. That is where it had got to after people had ceased to be required to carry red flags before cars. I do not believe, though, that the future always lies in reinventing the past.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the penalty for riding on the pavement is only £30? Would it not be helpful if that penalty were quadrupled to £120, which is the fine imposed under the London congestion charge if you do not pay the penalty within two days?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I expect to see the law properly enforced, but the penalties which are in place at the moment are those that we expect to be observed.



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BBC: Funding

Question

2.44 pm

Asked By Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, under the terms of the BBC's royal charter, the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee until the end of 2016. The Government are committed to reviewing the scope for funding mechanisms for post-2016 funding. In January 2007, the Government announced a six-year funding settlement, which began in April 2007.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I thank the noble Lord for his reply and declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company. We on these Benches support the licence fee and the BBC that it funds-an institution which is envied around the world except, perhaps, in the offices of News International. But does the noble Lord not agree that the BBC needs competition? If so, what is his response to the BBC Trust's suggestion that when spectrum charging is introduced, the money accrued from the BBC should not go to the Treasury but be ring-fenced to fund public service broadcasting on channels other than the BBC?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is a perspective of some distance in the future. As I indicated, the settlement which has been reached on the licence fee and the use of the licence fee moneys in broad terms has been established until 2016. However, as I indicated in my original Answer, it will be necessary to look at the whole issue of funding mechanisms after that time. The noble Baroness has identified one area to which consideration could be given.

Lord Grocott: I am sure my noble friend agrees that public service broadcasting is one of the institutions and services in this country that we should cherish despite all the difficulties that can arise from time to time. However, does he also agree that if public service broadcasting were seen as being provided exclusively by the BBC, that would inevitably lead to its slow death? It is essential to ensure that the public service remit of other channels is not just protected but properly funded.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, and I indicated the Government's openness on the issue with regard to the future. Certainly the concern about the continuance of high-level regional and local news on independent channels, which may need provision against the criteria of public service broadcasting, might lead to resources being made available for that particular dimension of independent broadcasting. As I indicated, these matters are somewhat beyond the present settlement.



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Lord Maxton: My Lords, if the public are to be made more aware of the reasons for the cost of the licence, is it not time that the BBC was made much more accountable for its expenditure? Will the Government therefore consider including the BBC within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act so that we can know at all times how that money is spent?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the BBC Trust is responsible for making the decisions of the BBC, and the strategies that it follows, open and accountable. My noble friend is right to identify that anxieties about the BBC's expenditure are expressed from time to time. However, I am not at all sure that that debate is necessarily occluded through a lack of information. It seems to me that when people want to make points about the BBC, they succeed in getting access to the relevant information.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Minister feel that the BBC's news programmes, which use taxpayers' money, have increasingly been used recently just to give newspaper headlines?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is important that progress is made on the issues of accountability. We are all too well aware of the fact that at present, when so many other institutions and activities in the country are under great constraint, the BBC enjoys a particular position with regard to the settlement on the licence fee. That is why the obligations on the BBC to respond constructively and openly are all the greater.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, would the Minister care to consider that one of the principal planks of the public service ethos is that there should be healthy debate on all sides of all major issues? When the views of all the major parties happen to be on one side of an issue, does not the BBC have an even greater responsibility to make sure that the other side has a good hearing?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, if the noble Lord is suggesting that the Flat Earth Society should have equal time with proponents of established scientific proof, I would have to disagree with him. He may be thinking about another scientific parallel that is not too far away.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, following on the question of my noble friend Lord Grocott about the extent of necessary competition and diversity in public service broadcasting, is it not important for the BBC to pursue the possibility of sharing its facilities and creating partnerships with other organisations to spread the benefit of the licence fee? Is that not a more creative way forward than reducing the licence fee or cutting aspects of the BBC's remit?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Given that the BBC has increased its use of independent production companies, it makes sense for it to cherish those who supply its programmes-and that means at times being prepared to consider

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partnerships and to be open about the possibilities of extending broadcasting opportunities through the judicious use of public money.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: Have the Government ever recommended to the BBC that it should consider using a salary review body similar to the ones for doctors, dentists and other public service professionals?

Lord Davies of Oldham: That is a challenging concept, my Lords. The noble Baroness will be only too well aware that broadcasting is of a different genre from the professions that she has identified. I should imagine that anyone who reviews salaries would regard the task of reviewing those professions, difficult as that might be, as relatively straightforward compared with the issues of reviewing broadcasting.

Abu Dhabi

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By Lord Soley

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead): My Lords, we frequently discuss issues related to the rule of law with the Abu Dhabi Government. The counsellor for law enforcement co-operation in the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi and more than 60 UK police officers work with the Abu Dhabi police to provide practical assistance and support. It is significant that the Abu Dhabi Government have this week asked the UK to partner a project to modernise their judiciary. That demonstrates a commitment to develop this vital area.

Lord Soley: I am encouraged by that reply. Does my noble friend share my view that no state can succeed in the modern world without the rule of law? She will be aware of the dreadful case of Sheikh Issa and the torture of one of his employees, and she will be aware of a number of businesspeople whose assets have been seized. I am most familiar with the al-Ghussein case. Is it possible for us to assist countries such as Abu Dhabi, perhaps by setting up a school of law or even an independent commission against corruption, which, frankly, many of these problems stem from?

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I thank my noble friend. Judicial reform and modernisation, which I mentioned in my Answer, is a serious gesture in addressing some of the concerns that he has rightly expressed. This involves partnering the 40 leading judges and counterparts from five other states, including the United States, who are involved in the programme which we will be working on. We welcome that development, which demonstrates an interest in moving things forward. My noble friend raises a very good point: the concept of a United Arab Emirates regional

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rule-of-law school is an innovative concept, which we should suggest to our UAE counterparts at an official level. I shall do that. I also intend to ask the Foreign Secretary to discuss this matter further with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed when he sees him at the end of the year.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following the noble Baroness's first Answer, will she tell the House whether any ministerial trips to the area are planned?

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I am afraid that I have no knowledge of any ministerial trips, although, as I said in my previous answer, the Foreign Secretary will meet the Crown Prince in December. That is as far as I can go on that, but I will write to the noble Baroness and say what the case is.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, perhaps I may put this in a multilateral framework. An adequate rule of law is essential in a global business world for businessmen moving from country to country. Are we working through the OECD, the WTO and others to make sure that the rule of law is strengthened in all member states of those organisations? Recent cases in Russia and China, for example, have been extremely worrying in terms of foreign investment and the treatment of businessmen as they travel around.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: I can inform the noble Lord that a corruption conference was held in Qatar on Saturday. My honourable friend was there and I am sure can report back on what took place. The noble Lord is right that such collaboration should and does take place between the OECD, the WTO and other players to ensure that business activities can take place in such a way that issues of concern can be dealt with. One such issue in relation to the Emirates is financial crime, as the Emirates are a hub for finance, banking, shipping and trade, which are subject to substantial and serious problems of transactions, money-laundering and so on.

Lord Woolf: Does the Minister agree that it is most important that there should be visits of the sort to which she just referred by government Ministers to the Middle East and other parts? Does she also agree that this country should take a lead by showing in its own practices that it is always observant of the rule of law?

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: The noble and learned Lord makes an important point, which illustrates the importance that we attach to providing as much support as we can for the capacity building that the United Arab Emirates needs to improve the rule of law. Noble Lords will be aware that there are concerns, such as the one that my noble friend raised on the torture tape, but it is important for us to understand that there is progress. We are doing everything that we can to improve the record and I think that the Emirates, too, intend to make every effort to do so.


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