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House of Lords

Tuesday, 23 February 2010.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

2.37 pm

Elections: Postal Ballots

Question

Asked By Lord Roberts of Llandudno

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government work with administrators, the Royal Mail and the Electoral Commission to ensure that postal voting is as effective as possible. The commission issues guidance to electoral administrators to ensure that they have the necessary processes in place. Royal Mail takes specific measures to support postal voting. Electors also have a part to play in ensuring that they return their postal votes in good time.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, is not the Minister immensely saddened that because of the Government's reluctance to extend the timetable, thousands of our troops in Afghanistan may well miss out on voting in an election this year? What reason has the Minister for rejecting the advice and guidance not only of the Electoral Commission but of every election authority in the United Kingdom?

Lord Bach: My Lords, there are two issues there. The registration deadline is key. For all elections the deadline for registration and for new or changed postal vote applications is 11 working days before polling day. Returning officers send out ballot papers only once this deadline has passed because, until the deadline, electors may change their address or cancel their postal vote, and we would not wish to see large numbers of duplicate ballot papers being distributed. On Afghanistan, the noble Lord will know-as will the House; it has been referred to before-that we are looking to put a scheme into place that will work for troops on active service in Afghanistan. We have been looking at the current postal vote system and we believe that it is possible, subject to operational priorities, to set up a scheme that would deliver ballot papers to and from Afghanistan in time for them to be counted.

Lord Naseby: The Electoral Commission has made a number of recommendations since the last general election. Can the Minister confirm that those recommendations have now been fully implemented; and if not, will he place in the Library a list of the recommendations from the Electoral Commission that the Government have rejected?



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Lord Bach: I am not in a position to say which recommendations are now in force, although I am sure that the vast majority are, and which are not, but I shall certainly put such a document in the Library.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there are distinct advantages, in terms of the timetable to which he referred, in holding the local and general elections on the same day? Does the higher proportion of postal votes make it more convenient and more efficacious to hold the count overnight on polling day?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as for whether it is good idea to hold the general election on the same day as the local elections, there are a thousand opinions-and I am not about to express one. As for counting on the night of a general election, the independence of returning officers is very important. However, there seems to be a consensus across the political spectrum that the overnight count, which is a traditional part of our democracy, should if at all possible be retained-it cannot be retained everywhere; we know that-not least because of the drama of a general election, and such a night is an important way of actually engaging people in politics.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the widespread cheating and malpractice that went on a few years ago, particularly in Birmingham, will not occur again?

Lord Bach: The noble Baroness may know that as a result of the European elections and the local elections last year, the Electoral Commission has said that comparatively few cases of the kind of cheating or fraud to which she refers have been reported. We think that the position is much better than it was a few years ago. However, I would deny that fraud has ever been widespread following the enlargement of postal voting, and the position is certainly better than it was.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that far more ballot papers-that is, postal ballot papers and ballots cast in the normal way in the polling booth-are spoilt when elections are held under various methods of proportional representation? Can he confirm that the statistics show that conclusively? Does he agree with me that that is one further strong argument for retaining first past the post?

Lord Bach: I believe that the system we should be looking to is the alternative vote system, which is what the Government are putting forward and which for some reason the Opposition are against.

Lord Henley: My Lords, can the noble Lord assist us further on the date of the election? He has answered a question from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench spokesman, who was suggesting that it might be in June to coincide with the local elections. The question relates to 6 May. Can he assist us as to which he thinks is most likely?



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Lord Bach: I think that I can help the noble Lord and the House on the date of the general election: it will be before 3 June this year.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister tell us how far the Government have got in the process of deciding whether prisoners can vote and, therefore, in complying with European legislation?

Lord Bach: As I think the House knows, our view is that the right to vote goes to the essence of the offender's relationship with a democratic society, and the removal of the right to vote in the case of some convicted prisoners can be a proportionate and proper response following conviction and imprisonment. However, we take our obligations under the ECHR seriously. We have to implement the judgment of the European court, but it has to be done in a way that takes into account our traditions and the political context of this country. That has always been understood, as I understand it. We have consulted, as the noble Baroness knows, and we are analysing the responses to that second consultation. We will consider the next steps towards implementing the judgment in legislation -as it would have to be-in due course.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, with respect, the Minister omitted to answer one part of my noble friend's question. Why did the Government reject the recommendation of the Electoral Commission for a 25-day period?

Lord Bach: There are issues of wider constitutional principles and the traditions and conventions of our system that allow the Prime Minister the flexibility to call and hold an election within a short timescale if that were necessary. However, even if we were to move to 25 days for all elections, it would not affect the fact that registration should be allowed for as long as possible. It would still have to be possible to do so no earlier than 11 working days before an election. We want people to be able to register right up to the last possible minute. Registration also goes with nominations. We want people to be able to nominate themselves or be nominated as close to the election as possible.

Health: Diabetes

Question

2.46 pm

Asked By Lord Harrison

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Thornton): My Lords, the department collects information from all PCTs each quarter on the number of people with diabetes who have been offered screening for diabetic retinopathy. The latest figures, from December 2009, show that all

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PCTs are offering screening to people with diabetes. The national screening programme for diabetic retinopathy is currently assessing the availability, quality and effectiveness of local screening programmes against national clinical quality standards.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I declare myself a beneficiary of this excellent scheme of screening for diabetic retinopathy, which threatens blindness to many diabetics. Does my noble friend agree that it would be useful to know the number of diabetics who have been screened and not simply the number of those who have been offered the screening, welcome though that is? Would she give some opinion, even at this early stage, as to the increased number of diabetics who are being treated early because this excellent scheme has been instituted?

Baroness Thornton: The number of people with diabetes being offered screening is 2,494,000. The number of people who have taken up that offer is 1,587,000. Ninety-six per cent of people with diabetes are now being offered screening and 75.6 per cent are taking up the offer of screening. The difference between those two figures, as my noble friend will recognise, is one of the challenges that we face in PCTs. Ideally, we want 100 per cent of people with diabetes to be offered screening and we want to get as near to 100 per cent as we can for those people who take up the offer. At the moment I cannot quantify the benefits of the screening, although, if retinopathy is diagnosed when you have been screened, there is treatment. We know that 50 per cent of people who get diabetic retinopathy will lose their sight within two years. We know that the benefits of this scheme will be good but it is too early for me to be in a position to give the numbers that are benefiting from it.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: Does the Minister agree that this national screening programme, centred in Cheltenham hospital, has done a superb job, ably supported by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists? Would it be appropriate to congratulate all the workers there on the very good work that they have done?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Lord, Lord McColl, makes a very good point. I absolutely echo his words. The leadership of this screening programme has been absolutely wonderful. That is one of the reasons why we are confident that it will be effective.

Baroness Barker: Is there any indication yet as to whether fixed location screening versus mobile screening is more effective in getting to the 100 per cent figure that the Minister is talking about?

Baroness Thornton: I am not in a position to say whether one is more effective than the other, but we are monitoring that. The national screening programme is looking at both methods. Our challenge is making sure that people are offered screening, that they take up that offer and that treatment is rapid and effective.

Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, I declare both a family interest and a university interest as a chancellor. Will the Minister give an assurance that the recently announced cuts in university funding will not diminish

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the amount of research being carried out at Oxford, Cambridge, King's College London and other medical schools into the problem of type 1 diabetes? Does she agree that, on any cost-benefit analysis, the ultimate saving to the National Health Service will undoubtedly far exceed the present expenditure?

Baroness Thornton: My noble and learned friend is absolutely right. At the moment, the department and the Medical Research Council jointly invest around £51 million into diabetes-related research. He is quite right-we are keen that this research should and will take place. Charities such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation make substantial and valuable contributions to that research, as my noble and learned friend will know. For example, £3 million has recently been awarded to King's College London to investigate the causes of type 1 diabetes among young people.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree-I speak from experience as a diabetic-that retinopathy, like serous foot complaints and heart disease, is the effect of the unsuccessful control of blood sugar levels in the body, which is complicated to achieve and fundamentally requires a great deal of education and training? What plans do the Government have to increase and restructure the training and advice given to people who have been newly diagnosed with diabetes so that they can understand the terrible effects of improper control?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Viscount has questioned me in the past about things such as glucose monitoring and the availability of strips for self-testing. He is quite right to suggest that part of the programme of treating people with diabetes is to help them in the management of their own conditions. For instance, guidelines were produced in 2002 on the management of type 2 diabetes and blood glucose. It is important that those self-care packages are clear and agreed with patients and that the training takes place. We are putting significant resources into that. For instance, Dr Sue Roberts, who was our director of diabetes at a national level, produced factsheets with the help of Diabetes UK and we are making sure that these are handed out to people with diabetes.

Courts: Damages

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By Lord Lucas

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the award of costs in form 4 complaints under rule 8 of the Distress for Rent Rules 1988 is a judicial decision in which Her Majesty's Government would not interfere. However,

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I have asked my officials urgently to obtain comprehensive advice on the legal position. I have further asked my officials to consider whether any additional information might be included in the current guidance.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that rather unsatisfactory Answer. Is he aware that form 4 is the only way for the citizen to make a complaint about a bailiff; that it is available on the Government's website without caution; that costs never used to be awarded-it appears that they are being awarded now merely because of a change in the way that the courts are administered, whereby judges are not taking a sufficiently early decision on whether the case has merit; and that the result is that people making a perfectly ordinary complaint against a government official are quite unexpectedly landed with thousands of pounds in costs? Do the Government intend to extend this principle elsewhere within government?

Lord Bach: I am disappointed that the noble Lord is disappointed. I thought that my Answer would be helpful to him. I thank him for raising this important matter because there is a difficult legal issue around it which, as I have said, I have asked my officials urgently to look into. The noble Lord is quite right to refer to the guidance document. It is important that that document should set out the position perhaps better than it does at the moment.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, is it not the case that form 4 is not the only redress for a person who has lost something because of an error on the part of a bailiff? I think I am right in saying-I checked this in the Library half-an-hour ago so I should be fairly accurate-that Section 124 of the County Courts Act 1984 obliges a judge to hear any claim by a person who has lost anything on account of the connivance, omission or negligence of a bailiff. Therefore, once such an award is made, the issue of costs would normally follow and, in any event, would be a matter of judicial discretion.

Lord Bach: I know the noble Lord is nearly always right in the legal advice he gives the House, and today is no exception. However-and here I rush to the defence of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas-it is true that, as far as certificated bailiffs are concerned, a form 4 complaint is one of the important remedies against wrongful action.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as well as the steps which the Minister indicated he has asked officials to take, I am sure he will wish to confirm that in March 2008 the Ministry of Justice said it would establish a powerful independent regulator to tackle unscrupulous bailiffs; that in March 2009 a further announcement said that the Government would produce a consultation paper setting out their intended proposals for regulation; and on 1 February this year the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, answering a Question in the other place, said that the Government remained committed to commence a consultation exercise. Why the delay?



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Lord Bach: Because we want to get it right. It still remains our intention for all enforcement agents who are not Crown employees to be overseen by an independent regulatory body. We do not resile from our preferred option for regulation by the Security Industry Authority. The noble Lord is right. We consulted on regulation of enforcement agents and put forward three options: first, no change; secondly, the creation of a new regulator; and, thirdly, regulation by the Security Industry Authority. The majority of responses supported the third option. As he said, we announced in March that we would produce a consultation paper which would set out our intentions for a package of measures. We intend to commence this consultation paper this year with a view to implementing the changes-wait for it-in April 2012.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, have the qualifications for being a bailiff become more rigorous since the Minister last wrote to me on the subject?

Lord Bach: No, I do not think they have since I last wrote to the noble Lord on the subject. It would help if I could remember-or if the noble Lord had reminded me-on what date that was. However, it is our intention to implement the changes in the bailiff law reform part of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act in April 2012. That will be important legislation when it comes into force. It will put all bailiff law into one place; have one complete set of regulations; and, importantly, regulate when and how enforcement authority can be obtained to enter property. Those changes will certainly take place.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: As I read the Question, it implies that these costs and damages are being paid by people simply because they have used the form. Is there a difference between those people whose claims are justified as opposed to those whose are not?

Lord Bach: Certainly, the costs are awarded only against those complainants whom the county court judge has found against. If the complainant succeeds there will be no order of costs against him or her.


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