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House of Lords

Tuesday, 23 March 2010.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.

House of Lords: Procedures


2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Campbell-Savours

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, we have adopted a considerable number of procedural reforms recently. I know that there is a wide spectrum of opinion around the House on this issue but I believe that we could find consensus around various ideas that would merit further exploration. I believe that the establishment of a Leader's Group is the right mechanism for considering possible innovations and I hope that a group will be established following the general election.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, now that the Butler, Filkin and Murphy cross-party working groups, along with the Grocott group, have separately all proposed reform of House of Lords procedures and practices, has my noble friend had the opportunity to discuss with the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, the Cross Benches, and in particular leaders of the Official Opposition, whether, irrespective of who is in government after the election, they support the establishment of a Leader's Group to take forward this whole agenda?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, since receiving the reports, all of which I have read with great interest-copies are available in the Library of the House, should any noble Lord wish to read them-I have not had any further discussions with the leaders of the other parties or the Convenor of the Cross Benches. As I said in my earlier reply, I believe that a Leader's Group is the proper mechanism through which to discuss these reports in the next Parliament.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I share the noble Baroness's admiration for the initiative of the Lord Speaker in setting up these groups and for the very useful reports that have emanated from them. I make it clear that if I am Leader of the House after the general election, I shall carry on the good work that she has done as Leader. I regret only that my very good friend Lord Strathclyde is not in his place because I am quite sure that, if he were, he would be on his feet immediately to make a similar statement.

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I look forward to working with the noble Lord in whichever capacity we find ourselves. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, expressed some of his views in a very good debate that we had on a Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I suggest that noble Lords might wish to read that debate.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, would it not be circumspect to analyse whether abuses of procedures actually occur before proposing, or deciding to make, changes? Has the noble Baroness studied the statistics that I furnished after an orchestrated challenge to my Oral Question on 9 February? May I suggest that some of us, professionally, speak more slowly and distinctly than others?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, on the first point, as the noble Lord knows, I do not agree with his view that there was an orchestrated challenge, but I am very grateful to him for providing me with the interesting statistics. I wholeheartedly agree with him that some noble Lords take longer to express their views in the same number of words than others might.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that the Leader's Group in itself would not be sufficient, as leaders often do not speak for the Back Benchers? I can think of one major issue of reforming this place completely where they do not speak for Back Benchers. Would the Leader of the House think of having some of us in that group?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there are various sorts of Leader's Groups, as I understand it. For example, the Leader's Group that I established under the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Eames, did not have one leader in it; so there are various ways of establishing a Leader's Group.

Lord Denham: My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House bear in mind the wise words of the noble Lord, the first Viscount of Falkland:

"If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change"?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I agree that where it is not necessary to change, there is no need to change. However, I think that many noble Lords would accept that there are some potential changes in this House that are worthy of discussion. I am sure the noble Lord would agree.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: Can compliments from a Back Bencher be paid to the manner in which the Leader of the House has sought to protect the interests of the House beyond a particular political domain?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: I am grateful for the noble Lord's kind words.

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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, in the event of a Leader's Group being set up, it should consider all the recommendations, without exception, of the groups that I referred to in my supplementary question?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, many proposals were put forward in the various newspapers. I think that it would be necessary to prioritise them, but that would be a matter for the Leader's Group.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, since the late Lord Falkland has been mentioned, his last words, when he turned to the enemy and got himself shot, were that he was leaving a world that he no longer liked and no longer wanted to live in. Let us hope our legacy is not that.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Like the noble Lord, I love this world and I hope that we continue to live in it.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the reports produced by the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Filkin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, were about improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the House and in no way were based on a party political approach?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I entirely agree. One refreshing element of the reports was that there was cross-party action. That is a good means of establishing a future consensus on these issues.

Lord Elton: Is it intended that the work of the Leader's Group will replace that of the Procedure Committee? Will it bypass it or will it be referred to it?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think that we should use the tried and tested procedure, which is to establish a Leader's Group to discuss these issues. That Leader's Group would then report to the Procedure Committee which in turn would report to the House. Ultimately, the decisions would be for the House as a whole.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, is it not important that the recommendations of the various committees get not just to the Leader's Group or even the Procedure Committee but to the Floor of the House? The House needs to make the decisions, whatever the views en route might have been of the other committees to which I have referred. Even if some of the proposals do not find favour with the committees, they may well find favour with the House as a whole, which is obviously the sovereign body and must remain so.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords, the House as a whole must decide. However, as I mentioned earlier, there is a huge number of proposals on a potential table. It would be necessary to prioritise, but I hope that whoever might be members of a future Leader's Group will be able to represent the views of the people in their own political groups or on the Cross Benches, for example.

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Firearms: Imitation Weapons


2.44 pm

Asked By Lord Harrison

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the misuse of imitation firearms is not to be tolerated. The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 banned the manufacture, import and sale of realistic imitation firearms, except for a few limited purposes, and made it an offence for anyone under 18 to buy or be sold any kind of imitation firearm.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend share my concern that on the internet it is very easy for under-18 year-olds to buy-and buy cheaply-imitation firearms which are scarcely indistinguishable from real weapons, despite the requirement of the 2006 Act that such imitations are made from 51 per cent plastic? Does he also share my concern that many of these weapons can be activated into real weapons, as was documented in the case before the courts in Reading in 2004, where 51 shootings had resulted in eight murders involving the use of these converted imitation firearms?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend raises a couple of important points. I should declare a slight interest in that I am a gunnery officer and was president of naval shooting for a number of years, and my grandfather was in the British shooting team at the 1948 Olympics. I have been concerned about this possible loophole in terms of postal sales. There is no doubt that it is an offence for a retailer to sell a realistic imitation firearm, unless it can be shown that it is to be used for special purposes, such as in museums and galleries or theatrical performances. The retailer also has to establish that that person is 18 years old. It is quite difficult to establish that online. There are serious punishments if it is found that the retailer has sold such a weapon to someone under 18 without trying to establish their age. However, my noble friend is right-it is quite difficult exactly to pin this down. I have to say that we have been successful in what we have done regarding imitation firearms. There was a 41 per cent reduction in crimes involving imitation firearms between 2007-08 and 2008-09. We have been successful, but there is a possible loophole. We will have to look carefully at whether we should apply some sort of very, very heavy-handed control but that may not be necessary. However, I will look at this issue to see whether something can be done. There are also clear rules regarding weapons that can be converted. It is an area of concern, but I am not aware that a number of such weapons have come from postal sources. Perhaps I may look into that point and get back to my noble friend.

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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, what contact has the Minister had with trading standards officers in respect of Section 36 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act, to which he referred?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I have to say that I have had no contact whatever with them. Perhaps I may find out whether those responsible in this area have been doing that and I shall get back to the noble Lord in writing.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if someone brandishes what appears to be a firearm-an imitation firearm-in a provocative manner, and that evokes a police response, such people are authors of their own misfortune?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. Imitation firearms are not regarded as being realistic if they have a bright colour, such as red, orange or yellow. All these colours are itemised. However, in the heat of the moment, in the dark, it is extremely difficult to tell whether a weapon is real or not. I have some sympathy with what my noble friend says. That is not a good thing to do, and we sometimes have to be sensible and careful about how we apply the rules because we could become far too overregulated.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, are the Government undertaking an evaluation of the workings of the Violent Crime Reduction Act? We are always told that everything is kept under review but he has just mentioned coloured-I think that they are called "two-tone"-weapons which are available to those who are not taking part in well regulated sports, such as airsoft.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, there are certain rules in airsoft that have to be applied: a person has to have been involved in those operations three times or more. Within that gaming context, it makes sense that weapons should be allowed-having a bright orange DayGlo weapon when hiding under camouflage looks a bit silly-so there has to be some option for that. I do not see that as a particularly dangerous area.

In terms of serious crime, there is no doubt we have made a huge effort to tackle gun crime and we have been very successful. This is the fifth year running that we have shown a reduction; we have had fewer homicides through firearms than since 1988. I am always very wary of statistics and I am not going to throw any more around, but the fact that there are fewer gun homicides since 1988 shows we are achieving things. There has been a slight blip in the last quarter, but overall the number is coming down and we have been extremely successful. I know from my intelligence hat that it is quite difficult to get hold of weapons in this country. That has to be a very good thing and we need to keep that pressure on.

Lord Wright of Richmond: Is the Minister aware that his reference to his grandfather's shooting skills will have led many of us in this House to question whether we have adequately declared our interests in the Register of Lords' Interests?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I await with interest these other interests coming out.

Lord Harrison: Will my noble friend praise the work of the police in places such as Southwark, and indeed Chester, where my wife witnessed demonstrations by the police of the differences in these imitation guns? Will he encourage not only further demonstrations to young people, but also the successful amnesties which have drawn many of these imitation firearms off the street?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right: the police have done some remarkably good work. It is interesting that the areas where a small problem still remains are in Manchester and the East and West Midlands. Otherwise, we have been amazingly successful all over the country, and even in those areas there has been a reduction.

Housing: Decent Homes Programme


2.52 pm

Asked By Baroness Fookes

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, the Secretary of State announced as part of the housing pledge initiative that, over this year and next, the Government will be investing a further £1.5 billion to build an extra 20,000 new affordable homes for rent and low-cost sale. As a consequence, £150 million has been reprioritised from the Decent Homes programme in 2010-11 to fund the pledge initiative to contribute to the building of these new homes.

Baroness Fookes: Are the Government not ratting on their previous obligation to fund the Decent Homes initiative, which brings many substandard homes up to scratch? Why are some of the neediest tenants being required to live for much longer in what is frankly grotty accommodation?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Government are certainly not ratting on their obligations in this regard. I remind noble Lords that, since the Decent Homes programme was introduced in 2001, the Government have put in something like £21 billion, so that 1.5 million homes and 86 per cent of social homes were decent as at 31 March 2009 and further homes will be made decent by the end of the current year.

Earl Cathcart: Is this not yet another example of the Government cannibalising the plethora of their existing schemes, which is causing confusion and uncertainty for the building industry? Will the Minister confirm that the Government are also cutting from

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the growth fund, the private sector renewal fund and the Homes and Communities Agency and, if so, will he say by how much?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the £1.5 billion funding to deal with the pledge came from a number of sources. Some of it was reprioritised-rescheduled into this year or deferred into next year-including a range of things that we had in the programme. The most important thing was to make sure that we did what we could, given the current difficulties in the housing market. This means support for the construction industry for jobs and skills. It also means support for first-time buyers, mortgage lending and the wider market and support for the long-term goals of recovery and sustainability in the construction sector.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there is a serious problem of the leaching of young people from rural communities? Will he say how much of the affordable housing fund is being put into rural areas in order to keep young people where they want to live and where their work is?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: The noble Countess raises an important point about support in rural communities. We asked for a report to be drawn up so that we could see how we could better focus support in those areas. It is an integral part of the housing pledge and of the Decent Homes programme.

Lord Tope: My Lords, will the Minister say what consultation took place with the local authorities that were affected by this decision before it was announced? While he looks for the answer, I declare an interest as a member of one of the authorities that lost many millions of promised pounds from the Government as a result of the decision, about which nothing was known until we heard the announcement.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, let us be clear. The £150 million affected 13 arm's-length management organisations. At the time the decision was made, none of the 13 ALMOs had achieved the two-star rating that was one of the key criteria for obtaining the funding. What has happened since is that some of the ALMOs have achieved the appropriate two-star rating and there has been an opportunity for further funding allocations to them so that they can take forward an investment programme. However, at the point when the decisions were made-the noble Lord shakes his head, but this is a fact-the 13 ALMOs did not fulfil the criteria for funding.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, does the Minister recall that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, asked why the money had been redirected? The noble Lord has told us that the money was redirected. Would he now care to tell us why?

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