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House of Lords

Wednesday, 9 December 2009.

3 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Public Spending: Infrastructure


3.06 pm

Asked By Baroness Valentine

The Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Myners): My Lords, £365 million of the £3 billion capital fiscal stimulus accelerated to 2008-09 was spent as planned on housing repairs, insulation and college refurbishments, including £110 million to accelerate investment in modernising facilities in further education colleges. In 2009-10, accelerated spend includes £969 million for DCSF to spend on capital projects in schools, £275 million for BIS to spend on higher education and research infrastructure and £525 million for CLG to spend on housing and regeneration. As reported in the Pre-Budget Report, including projected 2009-10 spending, it is estimated that £1.7 billion of the £3 billion total has now been spent.

Baroness Valentine: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for the Government's recommitment to Thameslink and Crossrail in the Pre-Budget Report. But short-term spending commitments are not a substitute for sustained investment, especially as the OECD notes that in Britain infrastructure projects are,

Will he commit all parts of government properly to consider and publish comparable cost-benefit analysis of major spending proposals, whether these proceed or not?

Lord Myners: First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on getting her response to the Pre-Budget Report onto her website even before the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished speaking. That is absolutely the speed out of the starting blocks that we expect from London First. I am delighted to hear that she welcomes the support to Thameslink and Crossrail. Progress on both has already commenced, as is the case for other major infrastructure expenditure. The OECD's observation about infrastructure and capital expenditure being placed at risk during a recession is tested by the fact that we brought forward capital expenditure. Of course we indicate that it will decline going forward to 2013-14. In fact, it will fall from 3.3 per cent of GDP to about 1.25 per cent. But before we get too alarmed about that, I remind noble Lords that that represents three times the proportion of GDP for 1997 and twice the level in real terms. As far as cost-benefit analysis is concerned, that is at the heart of all our decisions.

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Lord Newby: My Lords, we welcome the announcement in the Pre-Budget Report of the establishment of Infrastructure UK. But is not the real problem how to get more funds into infrastructure investment? Will the Government give further consideration to the establishment of a national infrastructure bank that can take funds from institutional investors and private savers?

Lord Myners: The establishment of Infrastructure UK, which will absorb the Infrastructure Financial Unit in HMT and Partnerships UK, to be a focal point for infrastructure development, is an important step. The appointment of Mr Paul Skinner as chairman is to be welcomed. I am not persuaded that an infrastructure bank in itself would offer anything over and above the efforts we will make to channel long-term funds into infrastructure investment. I agree with the noble Lord-or at least with the thesis behind his question-that in the past our major pension funds have not invested in infrastructure projects, which, of course, have many features which would match the liabilities that they are seeking to finance.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, one of the most important infrastructure decisions that remains to be made relates to the additional runway at Heathrow. Can the Minister confirm that, despite reports in the press today, the Government will not seek to make a binding decision in relation to that runway before the next election?

Lord Myners: I have not seen the reports to which the noble Baroness refers and I am not briefed to answer the question. I shall no doubt establish, and indeed shall ensure, that my colleagues are aware of the reports, but I am unaware of any decisions having been taken in respect of Heathrow in recent days. I am clear that we are committed to investing in Heathrow as a major transport hub to support the UK economy and the integration of London with the regions-something that the party opposite is clearly unwilling to do.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, how will we be able to afford the major roadworks and rail improvements outlined in the Pre-Budget Report?

Lord Myners: We are continuing with PSNI-public sector net investment-at a significantly higher level of GDP than was the case before this Government came into office. That is entirely fundable and can be financed in accordance with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's plans, as outlined today in the Pre-Budget Report.

House of Lords: Procedure Committee


3.11 pm

Asked By Lord Campbell-Savours

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The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, the Procedure Committee met on Monday. It agreed a report recommending the introduction of Oral Questions to Secretaries of State in this House, amendments to Standing Order 78, which governs the composition of the Committee for Privileges, and the abolition of the Personal Bills Committee. It also discussed the procedural implications of the coming into force of the Lisbon treaty and new editions of the Companion and Erskine May. As always, the Procedure Committee is pleased to consider proposals put forward by noble Lords.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, with 240 Members of this House indicating that they want a review of the Speaker's powers and responsibilities, the introduction of a new code of conduct, the reconstruction of the Lords expenses system and the Wright report in the Commons seeking wholesale modernisation of the handling of legislation, what is our Procedure Committee doing in the area of major changes which many Members are asking for and which would bring us into the 21st century?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am aware that there is interest in change, as has been expressed on a number of occasions recently by noble Lords speaking on the Loyal Address and at various other times. However, I do not believe-nor does practice have it-that the Procedure Committee is the best means of bringing about such change. Major changes of the kind that the noble Lord refers to are best considered normally by a Leader's Group and occasionally by a Select Committee. It is then for that group to report to the House and for the House to consider any proposals. The Procedure Committee then implements those proposals. As the noble Lord will be aware, the Leader of the House has already responded to these suggestions-most notably on 25 November and at the Procedure Committee this week-and she is, I understand, considering whether to proceed.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, has any consideration been given to the possibility of having Monday's debate on the SSRB report deal solely with the principles enshrined in that report, with detailed consideration of the individual points in the report taken on some other day?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that was certainly not discussed at the Procedure Committee; it would not be a matter for the committee. The Motion for Monday's debate, which I shall be opening, is to recommend acceptance of the House Committee's report, but it also recommends setting up an ad hoc group to look into the recommendations.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Is the Chairman of Committees aware that, although the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is very much in favour of some sort of powerful Speaker, many Members of the House are very concerned and feel that that would be a retrograde step? For that reason, I hope that there would be no movement on it unless it had been put to the whole House and considered in great detail. We all support the comments of the Leader of the House that the present system is working very well, especially in relation to the Lord Speaker.

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The Chairman of Committees:As I indicated in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that would not be a matter best dealt with by the Procedure Committee as such; it would be a matter that should be discussed in either a Select Committee or a Leader's Group. Then, any recommendations would have to come to the House as a whole and be agreed by the House. It would then be up to the Procedure Committee to implement any recommendations put to it.

Lord McNally: Does the Chairman of Committees agree that the other place has received considerable kudos by setting up the Wright committee and giving it a fairly tight timetable to bring forward suggestions? As the noble Lord pointed out, the system can be cumbersome and slow. Perhaps a Leader's committee-a Campbell-Savours committee springs to mind-

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord McNally: The Chairman of Committees will immediately see what strong support there is for that idea. We have very few weeks left in this Parliament. Why do we not use the opportunity, as they have done at the other end, to look at improvements that could be made to make this place, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, fit for purpose in the 21st century?

The Chairman of Committees: The noble Lord mentions the Wright committee. That was a Select Committee of the House of Commons. It was not dealt with by the House of Commons Procedure Committee. It has come forward with recommendations, some of which may affect our procedures in this House. For this House, that would be exactly the sort of thing that would be dealt with either by a Leader's Group or by a Select Committee.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, in his Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, the noble Lord mentioned the Lisbon treaty. Can he please explain what effect the Lisbon treaty will have on the procedures of this House?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, it is all to do with scrutiny-with which, I imagine, the noble Lord will be in favour. A paper by the Leader of the House was put before the Procedure Committee on Monday. I believe that it is in the Library of the House. The noble Lord will no doubt wish to get a copy before they all run out. There is also a copy of a paper from the noble Lord, Lord Roper, the chairman of the European Union Committee. We had useful discussions on this and will be returning to the subject in February, but procedural changes will need to be made regarding the scrutiny of matters.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, although this may not be directly related to the Procedure Committee, would not the noble Lord agree that the scrutiny procedures introduced through the Lisbon treaty will enhance this House's role in scrutiny and strengthen our role in legislation coming fromEurope?

The Chairman of Committees: I am sure that the noble Baroness is right, but that is not a matter for me.

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Voting: Service Personnel


3.19 pm

Asked By Lord Roberts of Llandudno

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, service personnel face unique challenges in electoral participation. The Government are working to ensure that we have in place the most effective measures to support their participation. A registration awareness campaign has engaged every Armed Forces unit, and the Government will extend the service declaration period from three years to five to increase convenience. The Elections Minister met MPs and Armed Forces families' representatives last week to discuss further steps.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I hope that that will include provision that ballot papers will be delivered in plenty of time to servicemen in, say, Afghanistan-9,000 of whom would appreciate the speeding up of thought that the Government are giving to that question. Can I ask two further questions?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: We are all concerned about this. First, could we have the automatic registration of service recruits, so that they are registered to vote when they sign up to the Armed Forces? Secondly, could we have permanent machinery in place so that we do not always have to fight a battle to make sure that service personnel are able to vote in what are vital elections to them, as they are to the rest of us?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I will do my best in the limited time to answer the noble Lord's first question on this occasion. Statutorily, there are only 11 working days from the close of nominations until polling day. This is a very tight timeframe, which presents logistical challenges for Armed Forces personnel serving overseas. However, for this election we are attempting to put a scheme in place, which will work for troops on active service in Afghanistan. We have been looking at the current postal voting system and we believe that it is possible to set up such a scheme, which would deliver ballot papers to and from Afghanistan in time for them to be counted. Why? Because there are a lot of supply flights to that country on a very regular basis. We are working towards that end. I have to emphasise that operational priorities must prevail at all times and we cannot guarantee success, but I hope the House will think that it is worthwhile trying.

Lord Swinfen: Using modern information technology, would it be possible to have the votes counted confidentially in Afghanistan and the results e-mailed to the relevant constituencies in the United Kingdom, so that they can be incorporated in the final counts?

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Lord Bach: The noble Lord puts forward an interesting and ingenious idea, which I will take back. The Elections Minister, my right honourable friend Mr Wills, has set up a working group consisting of officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission, as well as the families federations of the Armed Forces. It is considering a number of proposals, and I will make sure that that is one of them.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that all serving personnel are old enough to vote?

Lord Bach: I cannot confirm that they are, which is one of the difficulties about automatic registration. The idea is excellent, at least in theory, for service personnel of whatever age either to be told about registration or to be registered when they join the Armed Forces. The Elections Minister has asked officials to explore the idea that has been mentioned here today, along with a range of other suggestions which may improve registration.

Lord Tyler: Do the Government accept that arrangements for proxy and postal votes for the armed services often prove unworkable because of the tight election timetable to which the Minister has referred? Will the Government look again at the excellent report from the Electoral Commission in 2003, entitled Election Timetables in the United Kingdom, in which the Commission argued that there was no evidence to suggest that the,

Will the Minister assure your Lordships' House that he will look again at this issue in the light of the discussions that have taken place here today?

Lord Bach: I will certainly do that because we are looking for assistance on this important subject from all quarters. The Electoral Commission itself thinks that the best way to guarantee a high turnout from service personnel is through the proxy vote system, which can be put in place well before nominations are closed.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, with reference to my noble friend's recent suggestion, does the noble Lord agree that e-mails are nowadays, on past precedent, somewhat porous?

Lord Bach: I believe, my Lords, that it has been known.

Boundary Committee: Suffolk


3.25 pm

Asked By Baroness Scott of Needham Market

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