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House of Lords

Wednesday, 7 April 2010.

3 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.

NHS: Dog Attacks

Question

3.05 pm

Asked By Baroness Verma

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Thornton): My Lords, in the financial year 2008-09, the latest year for which data are available, there were 5,221 hospital inpatient admissions in England where the cause of injury was recorded as being bitten or struck by a dog. The figure does not include people attending only accident and emergency departments for treatment or those attending their general practitioner.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Given that the majority of dog owners are responsible people-and I declare an interest as a past dog owner-it is extremely disappointing that the Government have failed to ensure that irresponsible dog owners are held to account for the increasing numbers of attacks by aggressive dogs. The public need to be reassured. Are dog owners to be issued with ASBOs if their dogs cannot be issued with DOGBOs? Are there any data to identify which breeds are more prevalent in the attacks, and if so, are the Government using these data?

Baroness Thornton: I am the health spokesperson here, so I may not be able to answer those questions as fully and adequately as my noble friend from Defra might. However-

Earl Ferrers: May I ask-

Noble Lords: Order!

Baroness Thornton: The Government launched a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act on 9 March and it will finish on 1 June. The noble Baroness is right that the legislation covering, for example, a person bitten in someone's private home is currently covered only by the Dogs Act 1871. We intend to review that because it does not provide for redress. I am very happy to go into the details of which dogs are covered if the noble Baroness wishes me to-

Noble Lords: No!



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Baroness Thornton: But I sense that the House does not.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I will ask a health question. I am sure the Minister will agree that, at the other end of the spectrum, for many people, especially the elderly, a dog or a cat is a friend, and often a great mainstay in their lives. Can she say what consideration is being given to animals that help to keep people fit and healthy, especially if they have to go into hospital or long-term care?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Baroness asks a very important question, and she is absolutely right. In many care homes and sheltered housing locations for the elderly the rules have changed over the past few years as people have recognised that having a cat, a dog or even a bird can be of assistance and provide company for people who are ill and possibly lonely.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who bears the scars of an Alsatian. Can the noble Baroness say whether the Government are likely to follow the Scottish legislation, where dog control notices can be issued against people who have failed to control their animals? The notices require them to take a number of measures, such as keeping their animals on a lead or muzzled when they are in public, in order to stop accidents taking place.

Baroness Thornton: I am aware that there is different legislation in the devolved Administration, and indeed there is a Private Member's Bill in front of the Scottish Parliament at the moment. A number of the ideas being put forward in that Bill, such as dog control notices, have been mentioned in the consultation that we have launched and will be considered during that process.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: Is the Minister aware that some dogs get jealous of children? Responsible sellers of dogs should pass this information on to new owners.

Baroness Thornton: Some 25 per cent of such admissions to hospital involve children under 15, so the noble Baroness makes a very good point indeed.

Lord Elton: Further to that point, surely it is new parents, rather than new dog owners, who need to be warned.

Baroness Thornton: The noble Lord makes an even better point.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, there have been a number of discussions with the medical profession about the importance of doctors in accident and emergency departments referring cases to the police when they feel that there has been a knife or gun attack. The General Medical Council has gone through a series of consultations on this subject. Have there been similar discussions about cases where dogs have clearly savaged individuals? Does the medical profession feel that such cases should be reported to the police?



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Baroness Thornton: One of the reasons for our reviewing the Dangerous Dogs Act is the increase in the number of complaints about people being savaged by dogs. That is one of the issues being raised in the consultation process.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Tragedies in which very small children have died in such cases are obviously not included in the Minister's statistics. However, can she tell us whether the damage done to adults and children in such cases is just of a traumatic type, or is there any lingering transmission of disease from the dogs which necessitates longer hospitalisation?

Baroness Thornton: One of the major issues facing someone who has been bitten by a dog is that they must have the wound cleansed immediately. There are diseases that can be transmitted by all animal bites.

Royal Mail

Question

3.12 pm

Asked By Baroness Wilcox

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, the Royal Mail pension liability is a matter for the company and the trustees of the pension plan. I understand the parties are currently working together to complete the ongoing March 2009 triennial plan valuation, which is scheduled to be finished by June of this year. The previous valuation in 2006 showed a deficit of £3.4 billion.

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Government have failed to provide the legislative framework for the Hooper review, which would have provided reassurance for thousands of Royal Mail workers worried about their pensions, before a general election. How could the Government have been in power for 13 years and left such a mess and such insecurity for Royal Mail workers?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I am struggling to come to terms with this new-found compassion for Royal Mail, which has not always been expressed in that manner by the Opposition. In relation to what the Government have tried to do, we have a good track record of investing heavily in Royal Mail. We have committed ourselves to universal mail provision. We have not held back in our support for Royal Mail. For example, in 2007 we provided some £850 million towards a £1 billion escrow account to support the pension plan, and we made available a further £1.2 billion for the company to fund modernisation.



7 Apr 2010 : Column 1470

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I fear the Minister is being somewhat obfuscatory in his answer. Only last week or the week before, many of us received a letter from Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Royal Mail, indicating that the pension liability was £10 billion, not the £3 billion to which the Minister referred. I am sure he is aware of that. I am sure he is also aware that when the Postal Services Bill was going through your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, indicated that the Government were not prepared to do anything about the liability for the pension fund unless the necessary reforms to Post Office working were put in place. Is the Minister satisfied that Adam Crozier's letter set out appropriate measures to put those reforms in place? If so, do the Government stand behind the liability?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I was not being obfuscatory, I was factually reporting the position as it is. However, it is true that in the recent interim accounts published in December 2009, Royal Mail expected the deficit to be in the order of £10 billion.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Young of Norwood Green: That has not yet been fully validated because this matter is going through the proper valuation process with the trustees. We believe that the pension scheme is a matter for the company and the trustees to work out between them. We made clear our view that if we were going to take on that liability, it would have to be as a part of the Hooper review recommendations. They are threefold, as I am sure the noble Lord remembers, including external investment and the modernisation programme. The good news is that, as we speak, an agreement has been reached between the CWU and Royal Mail and a ballot will take place this week on the modernisation agreement, so there has been progress in the right direction.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: May I ask the noble Lord-this question has not been answered-whether the Government stand behind this liability? Could he answer that question?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I believe that I have answered that question. It is not a question of saying whether the Government stand behind it. We believe that this is a matter for Royal Mail and the trustees. They are working to find a way forward. They have until June of this year and can apply to the Pensions Regulator to extend that deadline if necessary. We have proved that we support Royal Mail through the generous funding that we have given to the pension scheme and the modernisation programme. Nevertheless, we believe that at this point the obligation is on the company and the trustees to find a solution to this problem.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: Does the Minister agree that among the wreckage that this Government are leaving behind, one of the great missed opportunities has been the failure to reintroduce the Postal Services Bill?

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He has already been asked a question about it that he has not answered. According to the First Secretary of State, that Bill was much improved and strengthened in this House and was the best chance of securing the universal postal service while protecting Royal Mail pensions. Why has he not reintroduced that Bill?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: The First Secretary of State made it quite clear why we felt that we could not proceed at the time. We did not believe that the investment scenario was the right one to attract the necessary investor in the scheme and we do not believe that that situation has changed. We refute the political hyperbole of the noble Lord's use of the term "wreckage". Royal Mail has very recently concluded a modernisation agreement with the Communication Workers Union. We believe that to be a fundamental step forward in ensuring a modernised Royal Mail which will provide a successful universal postal service.

Lord Christopher: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that the steps the Government have taken in relation to the recession have probably restored the value of the pension fund by around 20 per cent, owing to the recovery that has taken place in the stock market?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My noble friend makes a very valid point.

Lord Elton: The Minister said that the deficit figure given by the Liberal Democrat Front Bench was based on an expectation of some time ago. Can he say on what the figure he gave the House a moment ago is based, and whether that is a firm figure or an expectation?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I have already answered that question but I will do so again. In the recent interim accounts published in December 2009, Royal Mail expected the deficit to be in the order of £10 billion.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords-

Lord Elton: My Lords-

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I think we should hear the next question from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his replies will have given great comfort to a number of shyster employers and owners of companies with huge pension deficits who could follow the Government's example and simply walk away if the employees do not do what they would like them to do?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: That is a very florid interpretation by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. No, I would not agree with that. We have provided some £850 million towards a £1 billion escrow account to support the pension scheme and a further £1.2 billion

7 Apr 2010 : Column 1472

for the company to fund modernisation. If you can find other companies that are doing that and walking away at the same time, I would be interested to hear of them.

Lord Tomlinson: Does my noble friend agree that it is rather unfair of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, to be talking about shyster employers, unless he is talking about those who keep coming out of the woodwork to support the Conservatives in the most partisan way during this election campaign?

Lord Elton: If the noble Lord has difficulty in answering that question, can I again ask him to answer my question about his statement?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I think that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is getting overenthusiastic this afternoon, which is unlike him. I do not think that I can add any more to my noble friend's analysis.

Employment Relations

Question

3.21 pm

Asked By Lord De Mauley

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, the Government's approach to employment relations will continue to be guided by three key principles: fairness aimed at providing the necessary protection for workers; flexibility aimed at providing choice and opportunity for individuals, combined with the freedom for businesses to create wealth and employment; and partnership aimed at increasing the number of workplaces where there is mutual trust and well informed co-operation, which is surely the best foundation for solving business problems.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. His right honourable friend the Schools Secretary says that it is not enough to protect front-line services, but that every aspect of every public sector employee's job should be sheltered from the effects of Labour's great depression. Does he agree?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: No, is the short answer. I know that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, would seek to imply that somehow this Government are responsible for what has been widely accepted as a worldwide recession. We have already made clear our attitude towards public sector pay, for example.

Lord Howarth of Newport: Does my noble friend believe that drastic, doctrinaire cuts in public spending and deflation of a fragile economy would tend to improve employment relations?



7 Apr 2010 : Column 1473

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I think that there was a touch of irony there from my noble friend. No, of course that would not help the situation. We value the public services. We know that they have a vital role to play in the future. We have made clear our commitment to front-line public services. Some financial savings will have to be made and we have indicated where those will take place.

Lord Razzall: Does the Minister not accept that there is a problem for this Government in presiding over an improvement in employment relations in the UK, when they are so dependent on funding the forthcoming general election with trade union money, particularly from the trade union Unite?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I had hoped that we might get through this debate without political point-scoring.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I suppose it was a vain hope. I would say only this to noble Lords: we have made absolutely clear our attitude towards the recent round of industrial disputes. However, the real analysis-if the noble Lord is interested in that-is a success story, because the number of working days lost this year remains very low by historical standards. In the 1980s, 7.2 million days on average were lost. I reject the view that somehow this Government are in hock to the trade unions. We believe in a responsible approach to employment relations which encourages both sides to resolve their problems.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords-

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords-

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is the Conservatives' turn.

The Earl of Onslow: Can the noble Lord tell me, now that £11 billion-worth of public sector waste has been identified by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, how many public sector jobs will be cut?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: No, my Lords, I cannot-that is the straight answer.

Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that industrial relations would be greatly improved if members of the party opposite accepted that they were wrong to oppose the national minimum wage, which has done so much to lift so many out of poverty?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: Of course my noble friend is absolutely right: they were wrong to oppose it and absolutely wrong in their prediction that millions of jobs would be lost as a result of its introduction-but that is collective amnesia for you.


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