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House of Lords

Tuesday, 16 March 2010.

2.30 pm

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

House of Lords: Members

Question

2.37 pm

Asked by Viscount Tenby

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government's 2008 White Paper on House of Lords reform proposed that Members of a reformed second Chamber should be able to vote in elections both to the House of Commons and to the reformed second Chamber. The proposals would enable all members of the peerage and new Members of the second Chamber to vote in all elections.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that incisive reply. Is he aware-I am sure that he is-that once those in custody have been given the vote, which rightly seems likely to happen in the near future, the only people unable to do so will be those who are judged incapable of voting and Peers of this House? With so much dissension about the constitutional reform of this House across and among parties, would not the Government welcome the chance to bring in a relatively easy amendment that would command support on all sides of the House?

Lord Bach: I am not sure that it would get absolutely unanimous support across the House-I have to say that first-although I think that it would get general support. However, our view is that provisions on voting in general elections are best dealt with in the context of a fully reformed second Chamber-so perhaps we should move to a reformed second Chamber as quickly as we can.

Lord Waddington: Would not the Minister agree that, whereas Members of the House of Commons represent their constituents, we have the great privilege of representing ourselves in Parliament? Leaving aside what may be in store for us in future, is not the present set-up entirely justifiable? Why should we have the right to have an MP represent us when we can represent ourselves?

Lord Bach: I do not think that the constitutional position could have been put better, but I am looking forward myself to being able to vote in a general election again.



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Lord Acton: My mother's father-the late, late, late Lord Rayleigh-adopted the American colonists' mantra, "No taxation without representation". Does that not answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington?

Lord Bach: It is an extremely effective mantra. Whether it actually answers the noble Lord's constitutional point, going back to the resolution of the House in 1699, I am not entirely certain.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: Would not the Minister like to divide the Peers from the lunatics?

Lord Bach: I do that every day.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: Would the Minister confirm that it is in order for Lords spiritual, who are not Peers, to vote in general elections, and that they should therefore be encouraged like all good citizens to use their vote?

Lord Bach: There is no bar to the Lords spiritual voting in parliamentary elections. However, I understand that it has long been the tradition that they do not do so. While they are not Peers, they none the less sit in this House and can therefore participate in person in the proceedings of Parliament instead of being represented in the House of Commons. There is no legal bar to the Lords spiritual voting in a general election; it is very much a matter for them.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, as the Minister said, there was cross-party agreement in the group that led to the 2008 White Paper on this issue. Does he recognise that that was 89 weeks ago? What have he and his fellow Ministers at the Ministry of Justice been doing all this time? Apparently there is now the promise of a draft Bill or some draft clauses. What is this going to be-is it serious legislation or is it simply electioneering at the fag end of this Parliament?

Lord Bach: The noble Lord will remember that, as I understand it, the cross-party group was made up of Front-Benchers. There are many others in this House who are not Front-Benchers who do not always share precisely the views of their Front Bench.

Lord Kinnock: I ask my noble friend to be slightly more incisive than he was even in his very incisive first Answer and anticipate the spirit of future reform by inserting a small government amendment in the forthcoming constitutional Bill that would enable those Peers who wanted to vote, as well as voting for a Member of Parliament, to vote for a Government, and those Peers who did not want to vote to be able to abstain. By those means, he would satisfy everyone.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I have always found everything that my noble friend has said extremely tempting, but on this occasion I have to resist what he has to say. Our view is that provisions on voting in general elections are best dealt with in the context of a fully reformed second Chamber.



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Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I declare an interest: I have never been able to vote at all. How many people, other than me, did not vote in the previous election?

Lord Bach: Of those entitled to vote, some 38 per cent.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, my noble friend made reference to a new reform Bill, which has been referred to as a constitutional Bill. An amendment could be incorporated into it, as has been suggested, to deal with the question of Peers voting in the general election. However, my understanding is-my noble friend referred to this when he talked about differences of opinion between the Front Bench-

Noble Lords: Too long!

Lord Davies of Coity: Sorry. My question is: can my noble friend guarantee that this House will support the reform Bill that the Front Benches are agreeing to?

Lord Bach: I find as months go by that I can guarantee really nothing at all. I have certainly never been able to guarantee anything that is before this House.

Universities: Student Services

Question

2.43 pm

Asked by Lord Ashley of Stoke

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, the Government have presided over huge investment in higher education, with spending up some 25 per cent since 1997 and significantly increased income to higher education from variable fees. This year the department is allocating some £15 billion to higher education, taking into account spend on institutions and students. Results from the national student survey show that students are very satisfied, with 80 per cent and over consistently rating their teaching experience highly for the past five years.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. It sounds pretty good, but is he aware that the University and College Union has said that no fewer that 14,000 jobs are expected to go in the university sector, meaning that people will suffer? Is he also aware that the real problem is that the impact of these job losses will be felt in the key staff sector and that disabled people will suffer accordingly, as they are helped by those key staff? Can he help?



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Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I am aware of the figures that have emerged from the UCU, but some of them do not bear inspection. There are those who talk about cuts bringing HE to its knees, but such claims are alarmist. We are asking for savings of less than 5 per cent; we expect universities to make those savings in a way that minimises the impact on students, teaching and research activities, especially on those students who require additional support and help. We will still be making significant funding available for students who receive disabled student allowances. The Government cannot arbitrate on where universities decide to make savings, but we want to give a strong steer about institutions carefully examining their efficiency and considering matters such as pay restraint before they attack anything which might impact on front-line services, including those for students with disabilities.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, my noble friend referred to students' general satisfaction with their courses. Has he taken into account the diversity that exists? For example, those who study philosophy seem to have a very high rate of satisfaction, while those who study dentistry are at the other end of the scale. It may be that they are completely different types of subjects. In any case, surely each student has no real means of comparison between the course he is doing and courses which he does not take.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I was just pondering the unintended pun about dentists and scale. As Minister for Students, I go around as many universities as I can, talking directly to student listening groups, and there is still high satisfaction. Of course, if you disaggregate statistics, not everybody will be pleased. Talking of dentistry, I found when I visited UCLan-the University of Central Lancashire-that the dentistry faculty received a very high level of satisfaction. I do not deny that there will be disparities between different subjects. Nevertheless, consistently, year after year, the student satisfaction survey gives high ratings of 80 per cent and 81 per cent, so it cannot be all bad by any means.

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, the university think tank Million+ has proposed that full-time and part-time students should be treated equally with regard to student support systems, with equal access to student services. How are the Government proposing to ensure equal services for part-time students?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: We are encouraging universities to think more flexibly about the services they offer. My noble friend Lord Mandelson pointed out the possibility of their offering two-year degrees; similarly, they should consider the kind of flexibility that would ensure the best possible services for part-time students.

Baroness Murphy: My Lords, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has very wisely allowed flexibility for universities-I declare an interest as chairman of St George's Hospital Medical School, University of London. That being so, could we not return to the very serious case raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, that with such flexibility comes responsibility? Unfortunately in the past, support

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services, especially those for students with disabilities, have often been disadvantaged. What will the Government do to ensure that those services are preserved?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, my experience from visiting a number of universities is that they all take very seriously the question of access for students with disabilities. They go to inordinate lengths. We have stressed that efficiency savings should not be achieved at the expense of groups such as students with disabilities. These fairly modest savings of 5 per cent in relation to a budget of £15 billion should be achieved without putting at risk the important groups referred to by the noble Baroness.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, will the Minister consider imposing a windfall tax on the inflated earnings of the current crop of vice-chancellors?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: The short answer is no. Like many noble Lords, I saw yesterday's article in the Guardian. Higher education bodies are autonomous institutions. However, we believe that this period of pay restraint should be taken into account.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, will my noble friend congratulate universities on their extraordinary achievement over the past 20 years of educating vastly increased numbers of students and a diverse student body to a very high standard? Is he not also confident that, in their professionalism, university staff will seek to continue to do the same in the forthcoming period? Will he and his department be sensitive to the areas of stress that fiscal retrenchment may bring about?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I thank my noble friend and concur with the first part of his analysis-that it has been an extraordinary experience. We set ourselves a target of 50 per cent of people going to university. We have achieved a level of 43 per cent. In many cases, those students are the first in their family to go to university, which is an example of social mobility. Universities have managed to maintain standards and we are confident that, given the steer that we have given, they should be able to do that in a period of modest restraint.

Power Station Closures

Question

2.52 pm

Asked by Lord Willoughby de Broke

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): Within the confines of the large combustion plant directive, it is for companies to either manage their assigned operating hours or take appropriate steps to make themselves consistent with the directive. However, the market is already responding with new-build plants under construction or with planning consents to replace those closing power stations.



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Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Can the Minister confirm that no new nuclear power station will be operational until at least 2017, and that clean coal and carbon capture and storage remain aspirations rather than reality? Is it therefore sensible for the Government to tie themselves into this large combustion plant directive at the risk of facing power shortages after 2015?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we hope that the first new nuclear power station will be in production by the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018. As far as carbon capture and storage is concerned, the noble Lord knows that we wish to see four scaled-up projects developed. We are in the middle of the first competition and I am confident that, as the years go by, clean coal will have a major role to play. However, in the interim, there is considerable building activity. I am aware that 2.3 gigawatts of power generation has recently been commissioned. A further 10 gigawatts is under construction and a further 11 gigawatts has planning consent. I am confident that we will have the replacement necessary for those plants that will have to close.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, the large combustion plant directive deals with sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides and other such pollutants, but not carbon dioxide. We manage to have emission performance standards for such relatively small items as cars and trucks. Why can the Government not introduce emission performance standards for carbon dioxide for power stations?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Because we think it is unnecessary, premature and would risk delivery of our CCS demonstration programme. This has been discussed extensively in the other place in debates on the Energy Bill. I have no doubt that at Second Reading next week we will discuss it again. Not only is it unnecessary but it would lead to a lack of investment in the very sector that we wish to encourage through carbon capture and storage.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, is it not clear that, should there be a choice in the near future between allowing the lights to go out in this country and deferring the implementation of the directive, which many-if not most-energy experts think is likely to occur, we will have to defer the implementation of the directive?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the lights will not go out. To suggest that they are at risk of going out at some stage in the next decade is completely wrong. As I have already indicated, a considerable amount of generating capacity is either being built at the moment, or has received or is seeking planning consent. I am confident that we will have enough electricity generation to make sure that the noble Lord's suggestion will not happen.

Lord Broers: My Lords, in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, said, would it not be better to extend the life of some of our atomic nuclear stations that are still operating? Also, if we fast-tracked our first nuclear plant, we might even bring them on a year or two earlier. That would mean that we matched the rate that other countries have succeeded in achieving.


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