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House of Lords

Tuesday, 29 June 2010.

2.15 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Introduction: Lord German

2.23 pm

Michael James German, Esquire, OBE, having been created Baron German, of Llanfrechfa in the County Borough of Torfaen, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Livsey of Talgarth and Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Introduction: Baroness Hussein-Ece

2.28 pm

Meral Hussein Ece OBE, having been created Baroness Hussein-Ece, of Highbury in the London Borough of Islington, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Scott of Needham Market and Baroness Garden of Frognal, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Introduction: Baroness Ritchie of Brompton

2.34 pm

Shireen Olive Ritchie, having been created Baroness Ritchie of Brompton, of Brompton in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Hanham and Baroness Morris of Bolton, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Chagos Archipelago

Question

2.40 pm

Asked by Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, high levels of conservation have already been achieved with a legislative framework protecting sites and species of particular importance. The territory's quarter of a million square miles is Britain's greatest area of marine biodiversity. The territory's Administration will work with interested organisations and regional governments to increase awareness of the environmental and scientific importance of the territory.



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Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, that sounds very encouraging, but can the noble Lord confirm that sufficient funding is in place to ensure that illegal fishing in that vast marine archipelago will not take place in forthcoming years?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the declaration of the marine protected area did not cost anything, but by implementing a no-take fishing zone, the British Indian Ocean Territory's Administration loses between £800,000 and £1 million of revenue which they would have got from the sale of fishing licences. That revenue used to go towards the cost of maintaining a British Indian Ocean Territory patrol vessel for surveillance duties, and so on. The annual cost of running that vessel is about £1.7 million, including fuel costs, so the costs not offset by the fishing licence loss were met by subsidy from the overseas territories programme fund. The short answer to the noble Lord is that we need to find an additional £800,000 to £1 million, and the overseas territories division is in discussion with a number of foundations and charities which have offered to meet that requirement for a five-year period.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I acknowledge the merits of marine conservation, but does the Minister agree that the MPA has caused considerable tensions, not least with our close allies, the Government of Mauritius? Will he respond positively to the expressed desire of the Mauritius Government for the dialogue initiated by their Prime Minister and Gordon Brown to be continued as soon as possible by the current Government? Would he be prepared to meet representatives of the Chagossian community in the UK?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, under the previous Government, of which the noble Baroness was a distinguished member, there were some difficulties about the consultation continuing. It began, but then problems arose on the Mauritian side. We remain happy to talk to the Mauritian Government at any time about the marine protected area, but if it takes us into the broader issue, on which the noble Baroness touched in the second part of her question, of the Chagossians' right of return, all I can tell her at this stage is that the new Government are looking at the whole pattern of issues raised by the British Indian Ocean Territory's situation. I will certainly communicate with her and your Lordships as soon as possible on that issue, but I cannot say more today.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, bearing in mind that a total ban on fishing under the MPA would end the careers of Mauritian and Chagossian fishermen, and the amount of money that the Minister mentioned, which would contribute to the use of the BIOT fisheries range protection vessel, will the Government refrain from taking any decision on the MPA until Parliament has had the opportunity to debate the situation after the European Court's decision on Chagossian rights of return, expected before the Summer Recess? Secondly, can we invite the US to undertake a joint review of the pollution created by the US nuclear base on Diego

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Garcia, including the deployment of the nuclear submarine tender USS "Emory S Land", which is alleged to have contaminated the sea around its former base in Sardinia?

Lord Howell of Guildford: Parliament is free to debate the MPA, which is a very important proposal, development and plan, at any time it wishes. The intention to go ahead with the MPA is in place. However, on the broader issues of the hearing in the European Court of Human Rights and the nature of operations in the Diego Garcia base, the Government are, as I said, looking at all aspects raised by the British Indian Ocean Territory's problems, and I will communicate with the House when views have been reached. I cannot go further than that today.

Lord Luce: My Lords, I accept the concept of a marine protected zone, but does the Minister agree that it would be wholly wrong to implement this zone without doing justice to the Chagossian islanders who were gratuitously expelled from Diego Garcia and the surrounding area after 1965, whose rights of abode and access need to be restored first?

Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord is raising two separate issues. The proposal for a marine protected area is widely supported by many people and there are very few objections to the general concept from the Mauritians or anyone else. The Chagossians' right of abode is a broader issue. I would like to say that certain views have been reached which may or may not be different from those of the previous Government, but today I cannot because the matter is under review. I will communicate with the noble Lord and other noble Lords when we have a view on this situation, with which many Members opposite are very familiar.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Can the Minister tell us-

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords-

Lord Shutt of Greetland: I think we will hear from a Conservative Member first.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Is there any threat of rising sea levels endangering the possibility of people living on these islands, as there is in some Pacific islands where it may be disastrously affected?

Lord Howell of Guildford: I know of no specific threat in relation to resettlement. All sorts of other problems were studied in a feasibility study some years ago and the whole prospect of resettlement was found to be precarious. However, the particular issue of rising sea level is not one on which we have any detailed evidence.

Baroness Whitaker: The Minister mentioned the general concept of an MPA. Does he acknowledge that in the general run of MPAs, the people who normally live there actually live there, by which I mean the Galapagos and the most recent MPA, made by

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President Bush, around western Hawaii? Would it not be quite normal for the Chagossians to be living in the MPA?

Lord Howell of Guildford: As I have explained, the Chagossians are not living there because they have not resettled. That is a separate issue which needs to be looked at and we are studying. The issue of the MPA, which is a vast area, immediately affects only the licensed fishermen whose problems have been very carefully addressed. That is the position, and these are two separate issues. I am sorry that I cannot help the noble Baroness in bringing them together today.

Quangos

Question

2.49 pm

Asked By Baroness Seccombe

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, the coalition Government are committed to increasing the accountability of public bodies and to bringing forward a Bill in the autumn.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. Does he agree that 111,000 people are employed by quangos at a cost to the British taxpayer of more than £38 billion? Some of those quangos perform important and essential work, while others, in my view, are rather expensive talking shops, which, surely, are an undesirable luxury that cannot be afforded in today's world. How are we to distinguish between them?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Virtue is always easy to recognise, but my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has asked for all quangos to be assessed against three main tests. First, is the function technical? Secondly, does it need to be politically impartial? Finally, do facts need to be determined transparently? My right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office will discuss the outcome of this assessment with Ministers in July and, following Cabinet agreement, publish the outcome in the autumn. He has confirmed in a Parliamentary Question in another place that cost-effectiveness and suitability will also be factors. His assessment will also ask whether the Government really need to do this and whether the function should be performed at a local level or through non-state means by either a voluntary or a private body. Furthermore, his assessment will also bear in mind costs, efficiency and the requirement for savings, including alignment with Budget and spending review requirements, and, finally, the impact of the changes on the Government's policy objectives.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, maintaining the monarchy for the taxpayer costs 69p for every person in the United Kingdom, whereas maintaining all these quangos costs £2,500 per household. Is the cost of maintaining the quangos not an utter disgrace?



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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The noble Lord expresses himself powerfully. As my noble friend mentioned in her supplementary question, the cost of maintaining quangos amounts to £38.4 billion per year, which contrasts with £15.4 billion in 2002. There is a considerable problem to tackle. By dealing with it rigorously, I hope that the Government will show that they are in earnest and have purpose.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his new role. I am sure he will agree that new Governments always talk about getting rid of quangos and not creating them. Much has been made of the importance of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which I believe is a quango. Therefore, how many quangos have the coalition Government announced or set up since they took office?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The Government are determined to ensure that any new bodies set up will satisfy the new tests. I remind the House that those tests are: is the function technical; does it need to be politically impartial; and do the facts need to be analysed transparently?

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: I thank the Minister for his full reply. Is it the Government's intention to seek to consolidate quangos in order to save overheads where that can be done without necessarily winding up useful bodies? Will he undertake to consult the public before introducing legislation? This is such a vast field that there will be particular consequences of the application of the Government's criteria which cannot be suitably dealt with during the legislative process.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, the whole point of the exercise is to make sure that the agencies of government as represented by quangos perform in the interests of the body politic. To that extent the body politic will be involved in the legislation. The country is well aware of the economic background against which these decisions will be taken and of the costs, as I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, of the existing quango structure. The Government are right to tackle that task, which they will do with determination. I hope that the Bill will be before the House in the autumn.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, many of us recognise that there are quangos and bodies that need to be reviewed and some of them may need to disappear. But can we not set up a small committee here, which will cost nothing, to try to ensure that when Questions are asked, they are answered? Can we have an answer to the question of how many commissions and quangos have been set up since the Government came to power, and can we please have the cost of them as well?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I am afraid that I cannot give the answer to that. What I am trying to do is give the House an indication of the standards by which this Government will address the whole business of public agencies and bodies. I will write to the noble Lord and,

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indeed, to the Leader of the Opposition who asked the question in the first place so that they are aware of the facts, but I am afraid I am not briefed on how many have been set up since the Government took office. It cannot be very many, and certainly cannot be as many as we found-966 in total-when we took office.

Student Loans Company

Question

2.56 pm

Asked by Lord Addington

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): My Lords, last year, the service delivered by the Student Loans Company was unacceptable. The Student Loans Company now has a strengthened leadership team and is engaging more effectively with its stakeholders, including those representing disabled students. My department has provided increased resources to help the Student Loans Company put the service back on track, and has set tighter turnaround targets for applications for the disabled students' allowance.

Lord Addington: I thank my noble friend for that Answer. As something like 10,000 students did not receive their disabled students' allowance last year, can the noble Baroness give an indication of what is being done to make sure that any future reorganisation of the service does not result in a disaster like this one, where a locally run service was replaced with a central one and ended up failing totally?

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, the Student Loans Company has made a number of improvements in the way it processes applications, which I hope will improve customers' experience. The scanning technology that was at the heart of the processing problems last year has been moved from Glasgow to Darlington where the processing teams are based so that all paper documentation is sent to one location, allowing the Student Loans Company to react quickly to any problems. A more user-friendly online application process has been introduced for new and returning students. Applications for disabled students' allowances are now being turned around faster, and in consultation with stakeholders-who have proved to be an invaluable support to us-the Student Loans Company has streamlined its processes for dealing with these applications. That includes a fourfold increase in the number of staff allocated to the work, with better training and quality assurance to ensure consistency in the service provided to its customers.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I welcome the assurances given by the Minister. Can she confirm that arrangements have been put in place to enable

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contacts between disability groups and the Student Loans Company? My experience of going around universities suggests that they bend over backwards to assist potential students with disabilities.

Baroness Wilcox: I am sorry, I rather thought I had answered that. We have set up a special group for all the outside groups that need to consult, and we have made sure that we have a chairman who is from their number rather than from our own.

Baroness Afshar: My Lords, I declare an interest as a contact person for disability at the University of York. It is my experience that, essentially, help does not arrive on time. The problem is that there is no system whereby an advance can be offered to students whose cases have not been processed, but disabled students need help from the moment they arrive. Unfortunately, even a little delay can cost them a great deal in their studies. Is there a way of advancing an initial sum to these students so that they are given assistance on arrival?

Baroness Wilcox: As noble Lords can imagine, we have studied this question very carefully to see what can be done. Special financial arrangements have been made to get people over the difficulties that they are experiencing immediately, and money has been set aside for that. The applications that we have received are receiving good attention now. However, we are mindful of the fact that people do not seem to realise that for this year, for example, starting in September, students-whether able or disabled-should apply now; they do not have to wait. If they or their representatives were to start applying now, we could get to the core of their difficulties, so that by the time they start their year arrangements will be in place. We have found particularly that disabled students wait until they are on the course before they start applying, by which time the lag that they experience causes them difficulties. However, even in such cases we will make sure that, because of last year's awful experiences, people will not be put off starting their studies for fear of not having their money.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: Does the Minister agree that the setting up of this disability stakeholder group is a major step forward, as it provides a proper assistance set-up? A great deal of credit for this forward movement should go to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his pressure and assistance.

Baroness Wilcox: My noble friend Lord Addington has been an absolute champion of the disabled. He very kindly gave us of some of his questions in advance so that we could start to process them already. If the noble Lord has other questions that he would like answered, I very much hope it will be okay for us to write to him. This is a big and complicated subject and we really do not want to see it get into the trouble that it did last year.


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