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House of Lords

Thursday, 25 February 2010.

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

NHS: Metric Units


11.07 am

Asked By Lord Walton of Detchant

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Thornton): My Lords, NHS use of weighing equipment is regulated by local authority trading standards. LACORS, the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, which runs trading standards, conducted a national medical weighing project and published a report in July 2009. We are working closely with LACORS to address the concerns raised in the report. A new comprehensive safety alert will be published in March.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Is she aware that the importance of this topic relates to the fact that the dosage of many powerful drugs is now calculated according to the weight in kilograms of the recipient? If, in error, such a calculation used imperial units, there would be a serious risk of under-dosage or, more importantly, major over-dosage. Does she further understand that last year, LACORS, the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, carried out a major survey that found that 30 per cent of weighing machines in hospitals were switchable between metric and imperial units and that a staggering 10 per cent were permanently switched to imperial units only?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Lord raises a very important question indeed. The problem is that all noble Lords, if they weigh themselves, think of their weight in stones and pounds and not in kilos but all medical facilities, anaesthetics and clinical decisions are taken internationally on the basis of kilos. It is very important indeed that the weighing that is done in hospitals and all medical facilities is accurate. That is why we will issue a new alert in March-we issued one last year. We are making progress. The noble Lord is absolutely right-this is a very important issue that we must get right.

Earl Howe: My Lords-

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords-

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, may I just-

Noble Lords: Lord Howe!

Baroness Trumpington: Oh!

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Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords-and my lady-I must begin by declaring two interests: as long ago as 1972, I started two years as the Minister for metrication in Edward Heath's Government, and for many years I have been a patron of the UK Metric Association. Is the Minister aware that on 7 December 2008 her noble colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, when he was the Minister of science, wrote to the chairman of the UK Metric Association as follows:

"The Government's longstanding policy ... is to move towards full metrication in time ... We recognise that a single system of units of measurement as a reference point is vital for fair trade and consumer protection"?

Is she further aware that since I was concerned with this topic decades ago, almost every country in the British Commonwealth-including the Republic of Ireland-has completed that process absolutely fully? Is it not time for all of us, in all parties-I come to the crucial point-now to work together to clear up this long-standing and very British mess?

Baroness Thornton: I absolutely agree with the noble and learned Lord. He is completely right. All our children have been educated using metric calculations throughout and that is quite right. This is a matter that will solve itself over time but it is our job in government to move as fast as we can towards people recognising and feeling comfortable using metric calculations.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, the Minister has said that it is important and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, has, as ever, pointed out in detail why it is so important for safety and the saving of lives. It is a matter which has been around for some time. It is many months since it was brought forward. Rectifying it is not a matter of huge expense. The professionals are very clear about metrication. Why has it taken such a long time for the Government to respond with what is a very simple instruction to put the matter right, and not an expensive one at that?

Baroness Thornton: We have not taken a long time. We have been working with LACORS for several years to take this matter forward. However, the purchase and installation of weighing machines is done at the local level. The decision to replace and monitor weighing machines is taken by PCTs. What we must do-and what we have been doing-is make sure that they are regularly inspected and the instructions are completely clear. I am happy to provide the noble Lord with the alert that will go out in March. It is completely clear what needs to be done at the local level.

The other issue is that LACORS has been focusing on NHS facilities and hospitals. It is now moving its attention to doctors' surgeries, health visitors and other places, such as private hospitals, to ensure that their machinery is also as good as it should be and in order.

Earl Howe: My Lords-

Baroness Trumpington: I am sorry. Does what the Minister just said apply to weighing machines for domestic cooking? All my cookery books give measurements in pounds and ounces and my weighing machine is not metric.

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Baroness Thornton: My cookery books give a mixture of pounds and ounces and metric measurements, and my scales give both. That is probably how most people's are these days. Perhaps the noble Baroness should consider asking someone to buy her some new scales for her next birthday.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the National Patient Safety Agency has reported that one of the reasons for poor nutritional care in our hospitals is the,

Today, the Government's own advisers on malnutrition have written to her colleague, Mr Hope, urging him to,

In those discussions, will the Minister ask that all NHS hospitals have the weighing equipment that they need to help identify patients at risk of malnutrition?

Baroness Thornton: The National Patient Safety Agency has indeed expressed concerns about the impact that weighing scales have in relation to inaccurate readings, or possibly the inability of staff to operate the equipment properly. Training is a very important part of this whole drive to get these things right. I will take away the point the noble Earl has made and make sure that my honourable friend takes it into consideration.

Taxation: Monaco


11.15 am

Asked By Lord Wallace of Saltaire

The Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Myners): The UK does not have a tax information exchange agreement with Monaco, which until last year was classified by the OECD as an unco-operative tax haven. As a result of the G20 initiative on tax transparency taken at the London summit in March 2009, Monaco is now committed to the international standard of exchange of information. The Government are supporting a European Commission proposal for an exchange of information agreement with Monaco that would enable member states to obtain information for their tax purposes.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Does he think it acceptable that Monaco has a tax treaty with France on a totally different basis than it has with any other country? I understand that French citizens resident in Monaco have to pay a wealth tax as well as income tax. I also understand that Monaco has promised that it will have a similar tax treaty with Germany, but there appears to be no ongoing negotiation with Britain. Should Britain not be committed to making sure that our arrangements with Monaco are similar to those with France and with Germany?

25 Feb 2010 : Column 1084

Lord Myners: The arrangements with France are of considerable duration and reflect in part a contribution that is made by the residents of Monaco to services which they receive from France, so I do not think it is a good parallel. More importantly, we are working with the European Commission to secure a tax and information exchange agreement, but that is currently blocked in ECOFIN by the Governments of Austria and Luxembourg. If we do not make further progress, we have made it clear that we will press ahead and secure our own bilateral agreement with Monaco to ensure that we have access to information necessary for our own fiscal purposes.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: I welcome the noble Lord's assurance on that. We on these Benches would not want to wait for general agreement. Will he accept our congratulations on the fact that the Treasury and HMRC are co-operating closely with the Germans to get information on tax avoidance in places such as Liechtenstein? Will he also accept my congratulations on saying that Monaco is an "unco-operative tax haven"? Does he agree that that must be the understatement of the century?

Lord Myners: On our Benches we exercise great care in our choice of language and avoid any opportunity to score cheap political points. Perish the thought that I would deviate from our policy in that respect. Monaco is an unco-operative tax environment but it clearly wants to come within the fold of greater disclosure, as do a number of other jurisdictions. Undoubtedly these pockets of offshore tax havens were a contributory factor to the world financial crisis, although I am not suggesting that it was in the front line, and there is an element of systemic risk attached to that, so we need to ensure that we have much better flows of information. We are now making good progress with Monaco but there is still a great deal more to be done. It would be tremendous if ECOFIN removed the blockage so that we could get a European Commission agreement. I accept the noble Lord's congratulations.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am glad to hear that my noble friend always wants to be as clear as possible. Will he look at the Answer that he gave yesterday, which was gobbledegook? As regards Monaco and other offshore places where tax avoidance takes place, as he knows a couple of cases have arisen recently about the number of days one can spend out of the UK before tax is charged here. If the appeal on those cases is lost, will he have it in mind to change the legislation?

Lord Myners: I am sorry that my Answer appeared to my noble friend Lord Barnett to be gobbledegook. I am particularly disappointed because I estimate that since I have been a Member of your Lordships' House about one in three of all the Questions I have had to answer have come from him. So I immediately thank him for continuing to give me plenty of opportunity to improve my performance. Some questions, unfortunately, can be answered only by what might appear to be gobbledegook because they involve complex issues of the sort that the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, was

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challenging me on yesterday around Glass-Steagall and the Volcker rules. It would not be appropriate to anticipate the outcome of a court case.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister said that in this instance the Government were prepared to enter into a bilateral agreement with Monaco should the EU not come up with a global EU arrangement. Does this apply to other parts of government policy?

Lord Myners: What I have said is that we are a full and committed member of the European Community and we would always wish to work with our partner countries within Europe; but the European regime and architecture permits bilateral negotiations, and where we judge those to be in the best interests of the country we will of course enter into them.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords-

Lord Dykes: My Lords-

Lord Davies of Oldham:It is the turn of the government side.

Lord Tomlinson: Does my noble friend agree that if "gobbledegook" is the correct description for his Answer yesterday to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, a large number of his noble friends on this side of the House would welcome more gobbledegook from him?

Lord Myners: I think I can give that a brief answer. I note what my noble friend says and I welcome the question from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes.

Lord Dykes: Is the Minister seriously confident that the Government are getting to grips with other tax havens? This issue remains a serious problem. What is the situation in Belize, which may involve certain Members of Parliament?

Lord Myners: I am not briefed on the situation in Belize; I have never really taken much interest in what goes on there. Perhaps I should do so. The issue of international tax and tax havens is important and undoubtedly there is seepage of money which should be coming to the UK Exchequer. The total amount of interest received from Monaco on its interest withholding tax agreements paid to the UK in 2009 was £1.4 million. I have a sneaking suspicion that we should be seeking a little more than £1.4 million from Monaco. I shall pass by the opportunity to say anything on Belize on this occasion.



11.22 am

Asked By Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government strongly support the right of members of the public to defend themselves, others and their property with

25 Feb 2010 : Column 1086

reasonable force. Under the law as it stands, a person is entitled to use reasonable force in self-defence, to protect another person or property, to prevent crime or to assist in the lawful arrest of a criminal. The Government have no plans to change the law on self-defence. The law is already in the right place and is working well.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: I thank my noble friend for that clear Answer. Does he agree that citizens who intervene to prevent anti-social behaviour should generally be applauded and not condemned, but that to change the law to allow disproportionate force-as suggested by the Opposition-would clearly cause vigilantism and undermine the rule of law? Does he agree that all that is required is a lighter touch by the police and prosecuting authorities, with perhaps more discretion allowed to judges to do justice in each individual case?

Lord Bach: Yes, I agree with my noble friend. Of course we strongly support the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves, their families and property with reasonable force, but it is important that the law is clear and accessible, as people must rely on this law in very difficult and stressful circumstances. We believe that the law is rightly and firmly weighted in favour of the victim. For example, there are very few prosecutions of householders for acts of violence committed against intruders, and obviously they take place only when the violence was extreme and completely disproportionate.

Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Answer that there is no intention to change the law. Does he agree that the law of self-defence is well understood by the courts and by juries, flowing from the resonant words of Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, whom many of us have quoted-that in a moment of stress you cannot to a nicety judge the precise amount of force to be used, and that due regard must be given to this by juries?

Lord Bach: I absolutely agree with the noble and learned Lord, who speaks with great experience as a former Attorney-General and a leading lawyer. He knows that the practitioners in this field oppose a change in the law. The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Mr Paul Mendelle QC, is reported as saying:

"The law on self-defence works well and has done for years. The balance is properly struck between prosecution and defence and it is easily understood by juries".

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, what happens if a dog bites an intruder in defence of its owner?

Lord Bach: I say one thing with certainty: the dog will not be prosecuted. I say something else with almost equal certainty: nor will the householder.

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