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Baroness Wilcox: I rather thought I had covered that. We have strengthened the leadership team; we are engaging more effectively with stakeholders, including those representing disabled students, which is very important and went wrong last time; and we have provided increased resources to help put the service back on track. I really do hope that this year, for the sake of us all and all our students, we will see a much clearer run at things-if they get their applications in early enough, please.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Marland): My Lords, the Russia-Belarus gas dispute had minimal impact on European gas supplies, though flows to Lithuania reduced, as did pipeline pressure to Poland on 23 June. However, no customers were affected. The EU-Russia early warning mechanism, strengthened after the January 2009 Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, was activated and the Commission led EU engagement with both parties to urge a swift resolution. Any such dispute is regrettable but we welcome its swift resolution before EU customers were affected.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and for the speedy resolution of the dispute. Does he accept that this dispute and the Russia-Ukraine difficulties show that Europe needs co-ordinated action on gas security? Can he say what progress has been made in the development of the southern corridor, which brings gas to Europe from the Caspian but is not dependent on Russia?
Lord Marland: My Lords, this gives me a great opportunity to praise the former Minister who, through his work on the EU security of gas supply regulation, helped to enhance the resilience of the emergency plans and provided cross-border support of supply. We look forward to his plans being adopted in the autumn. I am grateful for the work that he has done-as, I am sure, is the rest of the House. The general point is that the UK is not dependent upon the Caspian Sea or Russia for its gas supply: 65 per cent of our gas comes from our own domestic fields, 20 per cent from Norway and the remainder from other international sources. We have reviewed this situation in the light of what we have just seen and I am confident that we can support our customers to the full.
Lord Teverson: My Lords, given the continued dependence of Europe as a whole on Russian gas, what pressure are the UK Government putting on the European Commission to look at the potential for shale gas in Europe, which over just a couple of years has in many ways revolutionised the security of energy within the United States?
Lord Marland: My noble friend and coalition colleague raises a very good question to which not many know the answer, but I will do my best under the circumstances. The issue of shale energy, for those who are interested, is well advanced in the US. It is generating a great deal of supply, but it does not have the same planning restrictions that we do here in Europe, so only limited exploration has been carried out. As yet there has been no establishment of financial viability, but this is happening apace. The benefit from this for the UK is that as a result the US is importing far less LNG, which makes it cheaper and more available for this country.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Does the Minister not feel that he is being a little overconfident about Britain's position in all this, given that our capacity for gas storage is very low compared with a lot of other member states in the European Union? What are the Government doing to encourage more gas storage in the UK, which is surely one of the key elements in dealing with any interruption of supply?
Lord Marland: The noble Lord asks a good question. The reality is that we currently have eight days' gas storage-more than we have had for a very long time, and after depletion from a cold winter. We have to establish security of supply. As I said earlier, 65 per cent of the gas we need comes from our own shores; 20 per cent from Norway, which we believe is a friendly source; and 15 per cent from other countries throughout the world. Having reviewed this, we feel confident that we can sustain the supply required.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is not foreign control or ownership over the supply and distribution of energy resources in fact a national security issue for this country? Do the Government have a position on the foreign ownership of energy supply companies, such as the fact that most of London's electricity is supplied by Électricité de France?
Lord Marland: I think the noble Lord is being a bit unreasonable. I have explained where our gas supply comes from, which I think most people would say was adequate, and I really do not want to engage in whether France is a secure supplier of our electricity or not.
Lord Howarth of Newport: When the Minister answered the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I do not think he indicated whether it is the Government's intention to increase gas storage capacity in this country. If they wish to do so and if they are going to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission, how will
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Lord Marland: I think I have made this clear. The truth is that we have enough supply, 65 per cent, coming in from our own shores, and we have to work out whether we can supply our customers. We have 135 per cent capacity, which is increasing to support the import of gas into the country. Quite frankly, I have answered this question quite bluntly and blatantly.
Lord Dubs: May I put a different point to the Minister? He referred to 65 per cent of our gas coming from our own source in the North Sea, but is that not going to decline fairly rapidly in the coming years?
Lord Marland: My Lords, it will decline during the coming years, as we know. The fact is, though, that we have a broad spread of import, a secure supply from Norway and Holland and adequate capacity to store and provide for our customers. I referred earlier to our gas import capacity of 135 per cent, and that is increasing over the next few years to 165 per cent, which is more than adequate.
That the Commons message of 23 June be now considered; and that the promoters of the London Local Authorities Bill [HL], which was originally introduced in this House in Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, should have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 150B (Revival of Bills).
That Standing Order 40 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with on 5 July to allow the Motion to approve the draft State Pension
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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is it really satisfactory to ask people whose average age is about 1,006 to stay up till 12 o'clock, and to have 67 speakers all on one day on one Motion? I would hope that the usual channels could look into this and come up with something which was slightly more satisfactory.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, when the Motion was set down, no one had any idea how many speakers there would be. It so happens that 10 per cent of your Lordships are desirous of speaking. In those circumstances, seven minutes is about right for a midnight rising time. Of course, if noble Lords spoke for five minutes, they could be ready to go at 10 pm.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Given that we now know the number of noble Lords who wish to take part in this debate, what on earth is the problem about finishing it at the more reasonable time of 10 o'clock and going into a second day? If the Government do not want to hear the views of noble Lords all around the Chamber, they should say so. This is nonsense; it is just waffling.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I for one am delighted to have been able to find this very early opportunity in the lifetime of this Parliament to discuss your Lordships' House. I can say to noble Lords who have an interest-and many do-that this is the first of such opportunities that we will have to discuss the future of this House.
Before the election, we knew that if Labour had won we would now be faced with a Bill based on Jack Straw's committee paper, seeking to legislate on an elected senate in Labour's historic fourth term-but that was not to be. Equally, we believed that, with a Conservative victory, reform would not be such an urgent priority and we could continue to seek a consensus for a long-term reform. Under the coalition Government, the three main parties all share similar objectives and the issue has now been given greater priority. Today's debate is an opportunity for the Government to lay out the structure of their plan and an opportunity to listen to the views from your Lordships' House.
There were more speakers who had put their names down on the speakers list but decided not to go ahead. Some have written to me with their views, but, as I said a moment ago, this, I think, will be the first of such opportunities to discuss the future of this House.
We seem to have been living with propositions for reform of your Lordships' House for years, indeed decades. It is neither the most important question facing the country nor the least important; this is one House in a sovereign Parliament. It is a House that has often been proved right in recent years, but its voice needs to be better heard. Your Lordships' House does an outstanding job, but it has not been able to avoid this country having a near disastrous experience from a surfeit of spending, legislation and regulation. We have done what we can well, but it has not always been enough to achieve all that we wanted, whether that was in the fields of ancient liberties, choice or plain old common sense. If the first job of your Lordships is to call the Executive to account and to challenge the other place to do its job, we have not lately excelled. It is at least legitimate to ask if one of the constraints on our ability to act lies in how we are constituted.
There have been years of debate since the 1999 Act changed this House for ever by ending the right to sit by virtue of hereditary peerage alone. We have seen umpteen schemes and watched them drift down umpteen backwaters, often with many here cheering loudly as they ran aground in the mud. We have seen umpteen propositions for change within the House, with my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood perhaps the most persistent in his bid to create the wholly appointed House that both Houses rejected in 1999. Many have hoped that it would all go away, but it has not. Indeed, all three major national parties promised a largely elected House in their manifestos only a few weeks ago, while the SNP pledged our abolition outright. A reformed House could play a great part in pulling together the voices of the devolved nations. No wonder those who would divide our kingdom see no place for any upper House, representative or not. That is a view that I totally reject. I have no doubt that this country needs a second Chamber with authority in all parts of
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The coalition Government's declared intention is to bring forward a draft Bill on reform of the House, which will provide a proper focus for debate and decision. It is something that I and many other noble Lords called for many times over recent years. My noble friend Lord McNally and I will set out the government agenda, but we are also, just as importantly, here to listen to your Lordships' views. I can promise you this will not be the last opportunity. I know that many of your Lordships will have greeted this element of the coalition's programme for government with a degree of apprehension, although the work of the cross-party group led by the former Lord Chancellor, Mr Straw, set it at the heart of the programme of the party opposite, too.
I hope that we will be able to reassure the House today that your Lordships, indeed both Houses, will have a full opportunity to take part before ever any legislation is introduced. In our programme for government, we said we would establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper Chamber on the basis of proportional representation. We have done that. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister is chairing that committee, which is composed of members from all three major political parties as well as from both Houses. My noble friend Lord McNally, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and I all serve on it. The committee is charged with producing a draft Bill by the end of the year.
Lord Barnett: Whatever is in manifestos, the plain fact is that at the moment the Front Benches of this House are on this committee and, as the noble Lord and all sides of this House know very well, in advance of a debate the Back Benches do not agree with the Front Benches. Why is there not a single Back-Bencher on that committee?
Lord Strathclyde: Because, my Lords, this committee is charged to create a Bill in draft. There will be a full role for Back-Benchers in both Houses, on all sides and with different views, when we set up a Joint Committee of both Houses which will then give it the scrutiny it deserves before it is introduced to each House.
Lord Grocott: Could the Leader of the House, in the spirit of the coalition document, referring as it does to the importance of transparency, ensure that the agenda and minutes of this committee which is meeting at present are made available to the House and to the public?
Lord Strathclyde: I am very happy for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to discuss that with the Leader of the Opposition, who sits on the committee, but the Government will not be publishing either the agenda or any minutes because our objective is to come forward with a Bill in draft. That will be the result of the committee and we hope to do that before the end of the year. This will be the first time that legislation setting out how an elected second Chamber might be constituted will ever have been published by any Government.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Before we leave the matter of the composition of the committee, perhaps the noble Lord could explain why representatives of three of the main groups in this House are on that committee while the fourth group-the Cross-Benchers-is not represented? In order to save him from doing something which will irritate those around me quite a lot, will he please not say that it is because we have already made up our minds as to the shape of a future House?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I have no desire to irritate the noble Lord or, indeed, his noble friends, but the point is that the three main political parties each had a manifesto at the last general election which was broadly in agreement. The Deputy Prime Minister took the view that it was important to bring those political parties together in drafting the Bill. When we get to the creation of the Joint Committee of both Houses, the noble Lord and others of his views-not just on the Cross Benches, but elsewhere-will quite rightly be fully consulted and represented on that committee.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: Does the noble Lord agree that the path that he has now undertaken means that the House will be presented with the choice of the three political parties? It is a bit like Henry Ford: "You can have any choice you like, so long as it's mine".
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in a way that is how it works in Parliament. Governments propose legislation and then Parliament disposes of it in whichever way it wants-and that will happen. I am sure that what the Government publish and what comes out of this committee at the end of the year is not where we will be at the end of the day. This is the start of the process. It will be up to the two Houses to set up the Joint Committee; it is not the job of government. My noble friend Lord McNally, the Deputy Leader, and I will make the case for the inclusion of all strands in this matter.
The Earl of Onslow: I am normally an enormous fan of my noble friend on the Front Bench, but surely his argument about not including Back-Benchers is slightly destroyed when it becomes a cartel of the three Front Benches. If it was solely my noble friends on the Liberal Front Bench and my noble friends on the Tory Front Bench, his argument would be absolutely solid. However, as it has included the Labour Front Bench, which as far as I have gathered is not part of the coalition-even though 1931 might come again-surely to exclude Back-Benchers is not a sensible idea.
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