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House of Lords

Wednesday, 30 June 2010.

3 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Introduction: Lord Touhig

3.08 pm

The right honourable James Donnelly Touhig, having been created Baron Touhig, of Islwyn and Glansychan in the County of Gwent, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale and Lord Jones, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Broadcasting: Digital Radio

Question

3.13 pm

Asked By Lord Renton of Mount Harry

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, the Government will be looking closely at proposals for a digital radio upgrade, with some continuing role for FM. The Government recognise that it is important that any switchover date realistically reflects consumer engagement, market readiness and financial constraints, and the Government will work to ensure this.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I thank the noble Lord for his comments. Can he go a little further? Will he accept that there are still many things wrong with digital radio? Will he assure us that he will do something, for example, to cope with excessive costs of coverage, the need for more energy and the often muffled and fizzy noise that it makes? Can some of that be cured before analogue radio finally disappears?

I have to confess that I have an interest in this matter. I am a partner in a vineyard where we regularly use analogue radio all night to stop the badgers eating our grapes.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, in researching possible supplementary questions, I was led to believe that it is not fizzy. Indeed, 75 per cent of the people asked say that digital radio is better in terms of the quality of what they can hear. That is the information I have been given and I repeat it to the House. However, 24 per cent of radio listenership is through digital radio-that having risen from 20 per cent last year. Much is being done to work up to the switchover, which is perhaps even more than an aspiration. The previous Government suggested that it would happen in 2015. I have not heard of plans for that to change, but there is still a lot to be done.



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Lord Walpole: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that about 99 per cent of the cars in this country cannot receive digital radio?

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I understand that many cars cannot receive digital radio and that it will be 2013 before most cars, as they are manufactured, have digital radio sets built into them. There is the possibility-the Government are working with the industry on this-of having switchover sets placed in motor cars.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the latest issue of the digital radio newsletter recognised that reception still needs to be improved both in its reach and in the signal strength? What steps are the Government taking independently to validate the industry's stated coverage, and what contact is currently taking place with the consumer expert group to ensure that the concerns of consumers continue to be taken seriously?

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, there are many groups that the Government are involved with at DCMS in working up the way forward. I shall not cite all the discussion groups that are taking place, but lots of work must be done before there is a switchover. For example, I said that 24 per cent are presently listening; that must be at least 50 per cent before there is a switchover. Nearly 90 per cent are able to receive the signal; that must be nearer 98 per cent before there is a switchover.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, as chairman of the Communications Select Committee, which looked at this issue, I do not entirely recognise the first figure that the Minister gave on the approval rate for digital radio in this country. Is he aware that there is a whole range of problems? About 20 million cars will need windscreen converters once switchover takes place, and there is the cost to the radio industry, which was asked by the previous Government to plan for switchover. Would not a sensible way forward be to have a longer debate in this House on the issues, perhaps based on the excellent report of the Select Committee?

Lord Shutt of Greetland: I pay tribute to the noble Lord and his committee. I read the summary of the report and there is a response to it from the Government dated June. Within the next couple of weeks, the Minister in the Commons will make an announcement on the road map forward on digital switchover.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I have given notice of this supplementary. Can the Minister say what plans the BBC has in an all-digital world to provide an accurate time signal at least equivalent to its analogue signal in 1924, which was accurate to one-fifth of a second on a pendulum clock? If the BBC cannot improve its current digital time signal, which has a variation of four seconds, will the Government insist that in future a MSF radio clock is fitted to all digital receivers, thereby providing a timescale with an accuracy of one-tenth of a second UTC for digital listeners?



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Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, the noble Lord gave me notice of his question, and it is a good job that he did. We are not aware of any plans for the BBC to change the delivery of the time signal. However, I understand that the BBC already compensates for the time delay in analogue radio broadcasts. Should a digital switchover take place, the BBC would equally be able to compensate for any time delay in the broadcast of digital radio transmissions. The Government have no plans to add MSF radio clocks to digital radios at this time. However, the Government are willing to discuss this matter with manufacturers.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords-

Lord Maxton: My Lords-

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we have room for one more question.

Lord Maxton:Given that the Government are continuing their commitment to provide broadband to every household in this country by 2012, and given the very rapid development of technologies around mobile phones, is it not the case that this debate is totally irrelevant and that the future lies with internet radio, not with digital or analogue?

Lord Shutt of Greetland: The noble Lord may be right in what he says, but it was not quite about the Question, so I am not too well placed to answer that point.

Health: Private Insurance

Question

3.21pm

Asked By Lord Crisp

The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, all private health insurers must comply with Financial Services Authority requirements, including those for treating customers fairly, which include adherence to industry codes. The Financial Ombudsman Service takes account of all Association of British Insurers codes of practice in determining whether a complaint should be upheld and, if so, what the redress should be.

Lord Crisp: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that it is outrageous that an insurer that says it offers full cancer coverage can stop payment for a cancer drug during treatment in complete defiance of that industry code of practice? Will he ensure that the consumer protection and markets authority, which I believe is being created, will properly cover the selling, and perhaps the mis-selling, of private health insurance?



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Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I welcome this Question from the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and I appreciate the concerns that lie behind it. The process by which industry codes, which are not statutory, are enforced has a number of levels. First, the Association of British Insurers makes it a requirement of membership that codes are adhered to by all its members. Secondly, the Financial Services Authority has a process of confirmation of industry codes that are put in place. To be confirmed, those codes have to meet a series of guidelines as to form and content. The FSA takes account of non-compliance in its regulatory decisions. Furthermore, the ombudsman is required by the FOS rules to take industry guidance into account. Therefore, broadly speaking, if a complaint is brought and the code has not been adhered to, there should be a finding in favour of the complainant. I very much regret the situation that the noble Lord described, but it should be picked up if the processes are properly followed.

Lord Peston: Is the Minister aware that his Answer and the Question reinforce the views of many of us about the great wonder of our National Health Service? This sort of thing does not happen in the National Health Service, and could not possibly happen unless the Government, under their present rather right-wing policies, change it. Is not the answer to this for people not to be fooled by thinking that they can opt out of problems by going private? The best thing they can do is to go to our NHS and support it solidly.

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I think that the scope of the Question is rather specific. It is about industry codes of practice and the adherence of private health insurance companies to those codes of practice. The noble Lord raises important issues, but they are rather outside the scope of the Question.

Lord Newby: My Lords, how many complaints relating to medical insurance companies have been received by the Financial Ombudsman Service over the past year? How many of those complaints were upheld?

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Newby. On the basis of the published information from the Financial Ombudsman Service for the latest available year, 2009-10, there were 2,026 complaints relating to health and medical insurance companies, which was an 8 per cent increase on the previous year. About one-third of those cases were found in favour of the complainant, overturning the original decision of the company concerned.

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, has raised a very important issue. It is a very disturbing aspect of private health insurance that the providers of long-term cover often have the ability to vary the premium late in coverage, subject to what they euphemistically call contingencies. Is the noble Lord aware that such variations are supposedly subject to the FSA's statement on fairness of terms in consumer contracts? I say supposedly because the statement offers only principles of fairness and no clear rules. Will the noble Lord adopt the position of the Prime Minister in his G20 Statement on Monday and encourage the introduction of clear rules in the regulation of this sensitive issue?



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Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I am grateful for the question because it enables me to go further in explaining what I think is a fair balance between non-statutory codes of practice and enforcement under the FSA statutory rules. This is a complex and sensitive area in which questions of acute and chronic care and other issues require constant review and updating in the codes. The balance between a code of practice which is reviewed on a regular basis by the ABI but is enforced in the way in which I have described strikes an appropriate balance.

Lord Walton of Detchant: In the light of the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lord Crisp and the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, in relation to the complaints against the companies which have been upheld, what sanctions have been applied to those companies in order to prove that those complaints were valid?

Lord Sassoon: I thank the noble Lord for his question. On the information I have here, I am not able to go through the sanctions, but clearly those will be judged by the ombudsman in relation to the complaints received.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister comment on whether the code includes the information that, in the event of serious complications, the patient may be transferred to National Health Service provision? The Government apparently intend on insisting that those coming from abroad to work-non-EU migrants-have private healthcare insurance. Will he also take into account that they and their employers should understand that many of us have been in NHS facilities to find that patients are being transferred from the private sector, to the annoyance of consultants?

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I have the 15 pages of guidance in front of me. It requires disclosure of a range of issues and it may be helpful if I send the noble Baroness a copy. I point out that the ABI is about to start its triennial process of consulting on any updating of the code and she might like to contribute thoughts during the consultation process.

EU: European Defence Agency

Question

3.30 pm

Asked by Lord Anderson of Swansea

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Astor of Hever): My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jamie Kirkpatrick, 101 Engineer Regiment, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on 27 June. All those who have died on operations are sadly missed, but this loss is particularly poignant for me as I have just handed over as honorary colonel of 101 Engineer Regiment.



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On the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for the time being we will continue to participate in the European Defence Agency but, as part of the work on the strategic defence and security review, we are reviewing all aspects of our defence engagement with international institutions, including the EDA, to ensure that it matches the UK's priorities and interests.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time on the government Bench and mourn with him the loss not only of the brave soldier he mentioned, but of the others. On the Question, he will be aware that last September, Dr Liam Fox, then the opposition spokesman, said in terms to a US magazine, Defense News:

"If it's possible, we would like to withdraw from the EDA".

Has that not proved possible? Is there not a signal here that the Government are spoiling for a fight with the European Union, and indeed may be converging with the policy pursued by the Labour Government?

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words. Our manifesto pledged that we will re-evaluate our position with the EDA and we are not spoiling for a fight with the European Union. Once the work of re-evaluation takes place, we will provide an Explanatory Memorandum setting out more fully the Government's policy on the EDA. Although NATO remains our most important strategic relationship, this does not mean a reduction in co-operation with our European partners, but we are clear that the EDA must prioritise its use of resources to focus on the key capability challenges now and in the future.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I join those on these Benches in the tribute. Whatever the merits of the EDA, does not my noble friend agree that the major prize in European defence co-operation would be serious co-operation between us and the French? In this regard, can I ask him whether there were serious discussions about this with President Sarkozy when he came over here? If so, what were the conclusions?

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the recent meetings between the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy re-emphasised the considerable amount of bilateral defence activity between the United Kingdom and France. Their discussions also highlighted the shared ambition to increase the level of defence co-operation. France's reintegration into the NATO command structure can only deepen this relationship.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we on these Benches also offer condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jamie Kirkpatrick. I am not sure what the Minister's answer is to this Question. Are we re-evaluating or are we still contemplating withdrawal from the European Defence Agency? Surely, in these difficult times in Europe, more co-operation is needed in Europe. Surely, if we do withdraw from the European Defence Agency, as mooted by the Conservatives before the election, it will be the triumph of doctrine over common sense.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, just to make it clear, our manifesto did not say that we are leaving the EDA, merely that we would re-evaluate our position,

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and that is our position now. The EDA is the only forum that simultaneously seeks to promote armaments co-operation, improve the European defence industrial and technological base, and promote collaborative defence research. But we remain concerned that the EDA is not yet delivering the full benefits and improvement goals that it has set itself.

Lord Hylton: Has the voluntary code of conduct on defence procurement produced tangible benefits or results yet, and have the 40 research and technology collaborations produced something worth while?

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I do not have a great deal of briefing on that issue and I shall write to the noble Lord. On the second part of his question, my understanding is that they have produced a great deal.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords-

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords-

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, perhaps we should let my noble friend ask her question.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recognise that there is a strong link also with the WEU? Has he anything to say on that matter and on the involvement of Members of this House and the other place in its working?

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the presidency of the Western European Union announced on 31 March that the signatories to the modified Brussels treaty had decided to terminate the treaty, thus effectively closing the organisation, with WEU activities ceasing preferably by June next year. We remain committed to inter-parliamentary debate on the common security and defence policy which the WEU assembly currently performs. We continue to examine the options for inter-parliamentary scrutiny of CSDP and will report to the House in due course.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: My Lords, I express my sympathy for the death that has been announced and recognised here today. Let us all hope that that death will not be in vain and that we continue to fight in Afghanistan for what we know is right in order that all these deaths will be seen to have been in the right cause.


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