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Lords Chamber

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 14 December 2006

House of Lords

Thursday, 14 December 2006.

The House met at eleven o’ clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Roads: Cyclists

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many cyclists were killed and how many injured in the United Kingdom in hours of darkness during each of the last three years for which records are available.

My Lords, the numbers of cyclists killed and injured in darkness in Great Britain are as follows: in 2003, 25 were killed and 3,249 injured; in 2004, 40 were killed and 3,282 injured; and in 2005, 38 cyclists were killed and 3,168 injured.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. Does he not agree that the law ought to be enforced against cyclists who ride at their own risk and at the risk of others, who ride at night without crash helmets, reflective clothing or adequate rear lighting? They are a danger to themselves and they create fear among honest, decent, careful drivers like myself, and no doubt like the person who drives the Minister around.

My Lords, certainly, honest, decent drivers such as my noble friend are assisted if cyclists are properly equipped with reflective clothing, and they should wear helmets for their own safety. In law, the only enforcement is having lights at night. We are concerned about cycling safety; that is why we put such a great emphasis on it with regard to school children and young people. The incidence of accidents at night is relatively low compared with accidents in daytime.

My Lords, can the Minister say why his Government do not apparently listen to or act on representations made by responsible bodies such as RoSPA, Age Concern, the motoring organisations and the Police Federation, which maintain that a switch to SDST and lighter evenings could reduce all categories of road accidents and street crime? Can the Government or the noble Lord’s office produce one single statistic to show that the present regime of darker evenings reduces road casualties or street crime involving motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists, pedestrians, joggers, school children and pensioners? If no such statistics are forthcoming from the Minister, or elsewhere, will the Government and the Opposition agree to support the Second Reading of the Lighter Evenings (Experiment) Bill, scheduled for 26 January in the other place?

My Lords, like all noble Lords in the House today seeing the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, in his place, I was able to anticipate his question. I am able to give him a slightly stronger answer than I have been able to do in the past. He stresses the advantages of double summer time for road safety, and his case is substantiated. The Department for Transport has been aware of these figures for some time, and as far as the department is concerned the case on road safety grounds is made. There are other considerations regarding double summer time beyond the Department for Transport, and that is why I cannot give him a more positive answer than the one that I have given.

My Lords, cycling is green, and some cyclists, particularly in London, are dangerous. As there is no registration scheme for cyclists, could not ASBOs be used to curb bad cycling?

Not ASBOs, my Lords, but we have empowered community officers to issue immediate fines to cyclists who cycle on the pavement. That is a very dangerous practice. It is dangerous to cyclists and dangerous to pedestrians. The officers can levy an instant penalty of £30, which is evidence of our concern that cyclists should be law-abiding.

My Lords, my noble friend gave very interesting statistics on cycling, but as, I believe, a responsible cyclist, I suggest to him that there is just as much fear among cyclists of bad car drivers as the other way round. The difference is that the cyclists and pedestrians are very vulnerable; they are not in a nice tin box with lots of padding. This morning, the Crown Prosecution Service announced a review of charges and penalties against motorists, arising to some extent from the Road Safety Act 2006, which this House debated recently. Does that not provide an opportunity to reflect on the increased vulnerability in accidents of cyclists, particularly the responsible ones, and pedestrians?

My Lords, my noble friend will recognise that during the passage of the Road Traffic Act we were able to identify the necessity for greater constraints on irresponsible motorists. That is why causing death by careless driving is now in a category where a severe penalty could be incurred. My noble friend is right that the number of accidents caused by cyclists is small in comparison to the problems that we have with cars.

My Lords, in addition to the misdemeanours of cyclists to which the noble Lord, Lord Janner, referred, will the Minister note that they also have an unhappy habit of riding the wrong way up a one-way street? I very nearly hit one the other night because not only was he doing that, but he had no lights on. Is that legal?

It is certainly not, my Lords, nor have we any intention of ever creating circumstances in which cyclists will be empowered to ride the wrong way up a one-way street. At times on our busy roads cyclists do indeed take what, in their terms, are defensive measures that lead them to take risks. Where they break the law, they are in fact subject to it. We cannot improve road safety unless all road users follow the Highway Code and obey the law.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular and, I hope, fully illuminated and law-abiding cyclist. Does the Minister agree that the provision made for cyclists on this country’s roads is hopelessly inadequate compared to the provision made by some of our mainland European neighbours? Indeed, if the Government wish to encourage cycling both for health and for other reasons, serious attention should be paid to that deficiency.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and welcome him as a law-abiding cyclist, of which, I hasten to add, there are many in this House. Of course we want to ensure that cycling on our roads is safe, because we want to encourage cycling for all sorts of obvious reasons—not least with regard to our strategy on climate change. Many of our roads in inner cities are dangerous. We are creating cycle paths where we can, but it will be recognised that in many of our inner cities it can be very difficult to accommodate cyclists and drivers. That is why each has to have respect for the other.

NHS: VAT Recovery

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why National Health Service trusts can recover VAT paid to employment agencies for nurses but not for other health professionals.

My Lords, the scope of the VAT refund scheme for services contracted out by government departments and the NHS is set out in a Treasury direction. Since 1993, this direction has allowed for refund of VAT incurred on agency nursing staff, but it has never allowed for refund of VAT incurred on the supply of any other health professionals. HM Treasury is reviewing the scope of the direction.

My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the Minister for his reply and I very much hope that the review will make some sense of what seems a rather extraordinary situation. However, is he surprised that the direction to NHS trusts on this matter was given without any consultation? Furthermore, given that the review is taking place, can he assure this House that trusts will not be forced to make back-payments of VAT, and, should it be sorted out logically, that some of the trusts will be able to reclaim VAT that perhaps they should not have paid?

My Lords, perhaps I should start by explaining that the VAT refund scheme is an exception to the normal funding principles and is not designed to cover all VAT costs incurred by government departments and the NHS. VAT costs not covered by the refund scheme should be taken into account within the normal funding round for each department. On the process, as I said previously, we inherited the current arrangements that were made in 1993. The direction has been changed from time to time since then, but not in this respect. As I said, a review is under way. I cannot think of circumstances in which changing that would cause trusts to have to make back-payments of VAT, but if I do so after reflection, I certainly shall write to the noble Baroness—but I do not think the matter should be of particular concern.

My Lords, could the Minister confirm that he is aware that whether or not you get VAT back, it is still much more expensive to use agency nurses than your own staff and that many hospitals now try to retain a list of nurses of their own who will come in on call when there is an emergency? That saves much more than the amount of VAT.

My Lords, one can see the merit of trusts making such arrangements. However, overall agency spending is down and is continuing to decline. The bill was £1.4 billion in 2003-04 and £1.3 billion in 2004-05, so it has gone from 5.1 per cent to 4.2 per cent of the pay bill—the lowest for six years.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Answer he gave seems rather strange in terms of the current rules? There seems no logic in treating nurses one way and other health staff in another. While I am pleased to hear that a review is under way, can he give us any idea of its timetable? Reviews can take months, years and Parliaments, and it would be a good idea to have this review sorted out quickly.

My Lords, the review involves the Treasury seeking views from the departments that might be affected by the VAT rules. In the latest round of discussions, requests by departments were due to be submitted by 30 November. No date has been set for the final consideration of those deliberations, but I would expect that to happen within a reasonable period.

My Lords, the Minister gave the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, the welcome news that a review was being undertaken. We are regularly told by Treasury Ministers in this House and in another place that VAT cannot be changed in various directions because of the European VAT directives. What is the relationship between this review and the current directives?

My Lords, it is true that the current directive binds the basic premise on which the tax is levied and constrains the UK in, for example, changing rules for exemptions or zero-rating. But the Treasury direction has been changed from time to time since 1993, which was the position that we inherited in respect of agency nurses. I do not believe that the EU treaties and our obligations are a constraint on changing the direction sensibly.

My Lords, can the Minister explain the position of non-nursing staff provided by NHS Professionals to NHS trusts and can he assure the House that such staff are on a level playing field with staff provided by other employment agencies, given the emergence of this non-deduction of VAT?

My Lords, there is a difference at the moment, which is the thrust of the question. The difference is dealt with in funding. In so far as VAT is borne on those costs by trusts and so on, it should be built into their up-front budgets. If it falls within the nursing agency arrangements, it is obviously not built in because the VAT is refunded and not borne by the trust. A key issue here is that the supply of care or treatment generally would be an exempt supply but, when these supplies come via agency arrangements, the supply is that of staff and therefore incurs VAT. That is part of the issue that needs to be addressed.

Regional Assemblies

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have for the future of regional assemblies in England, outside London.

My Lords, the Government believe that a regional approach is necessary to ensure that planning and investment decisions are properly integrated and to co-ordinate sub-national issues that extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authorities. For this reason, we have given regional assemblies the roles of regional planning body and regional housing board.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. But given that, first, the regional assemblies themselves cost some £20 million each year in administrative costs alone, that, secondly, even the Government’s own local government White Paper gave scant attention to these organisations, and that, lastly, if we are quite honest, these assemblies have zero public support, in reality should not these regional assemblies, if they are not directly elected, be abolished and their powers sent back to principal local authorities?

Absolutely not, my Lords. Regional assemblies are performing a critical function. In our local government White Paper, we stressed a strong role for the regions. We are of course in favour of devolving as much power from Whitehall as possible, and regional assemblies are critical to that. As for what they actually contribute, let me just quote from a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph from a Conservative councillor who serves in the assembly for the south-east region. He pointed out that the assembly had brought,

“£500 million of transport and housing investment into the region yet the assembly only costs 50p per person per year”.

We believe that that is a wise investment and that bringing housing and planning together is an essential part of growing prosperous economies at local level.

My Lords, further to the Question, is the Minister aware that we live in probably the most over-governed country in the world? Would she therefore not agree that any increase in assemblies, county councils, district councils, parish councils and borough councils is wholly deplorable?

No, my Lords, I do not agree, strangely. It is very important that, as in the rest of Europe, we ensure that the decisions that we take and our governance are based on the right level of decision-making. That is the thrust of our local government White Paper. That is why we want to strip out the performance frameworks so that we have fewer targets, clearer objectives, clearer leadership and more powers for local government to actually deliver the sort of society that we all want to see.

My Lords, does the Minister not accept that there is a principle of democratic accountability, which increasingly seems to be undermined? These regional assemblies are not democratically accountable. In the week when it has emerged that 1,000 Parliamentary Questions were simply not answered by the Government, should not the Government look at this whole question of accountability and perhaps, in doing so, recognise why people are becoming so disillusioned with the political process?

My Lords, I agree with that in many respects. What I would argue—and I think that this would be backed up by every Conservative councillor who serves on the regional assemblies—is that there is an inbuilt democratic mandate. Five out of these eight regional assemblies are chaired by Conservatives; 70 per cent of the members are elected, which is to say that they have a democratic mandate; 75 per cent of them are either leaders or deputy leaders of their local authority; and 60 per cent of them represent the local planning authority. This is a direct influence that local authorities have on the way in which the region plans its productivity, housing and planning. It is an extremely transparent and democratic system.

My Lords, will my noble friend reassure me that she will not be led astray by claims that we are over-governed in this country? In fact, we compare very favourably with most other developed countries. The real problem in Britain is that, because we do not have a regional government structure, we are unable to get through some of the major infrastructure developments, such as those in housing, which are managed much better in continental Europe. I accept that at the moment people are not ready to have elected regional structures—although, in my view, they would be better for the country—but it is very important that we do not go on with a system that does not allow us to develop on a regional basis in the way that has been done in continental Europe. That is why we get left behind on many public sector infrastructure issues.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. Let us take examples of regional disparities that already exist: the north-east has a 70 per cent employment rate, whereas in the south-east it is 78 per cent; in terms of skills, in the north-east, 26 per cent of the working-age population have NVQ level 4 qualifications, whereas in London the figure is 40 per cent. We are still looking at the situation and we have to address regional disparities. Because we have a triangular system of government offices, regional development organisations and regional assemblies, in recent years we have been able to see a significant reduction in those disparities, so we are moving in the right direction. That is not over-government; it is ensuring that labour market failures are tackled at the right level.

My Lords, is not the problem with this country not that it is over-governed but that there is an inadequate level of democracy in many parts of the public sector? Is it not the case that, far from being the wonderful democratic organisations that the Minister described, the existing regional assemblies are totally unknown to most people, they operate in secrecy and they are gaining more and more powers over local authorities, particularly in planning, housing and similar areas, but they are not at all accountable to those local authorities? What is needed is proper elected regional government in this country with powers that are devolved from here and not taken from local authorities.

My Lords, I am interested in what the noble Lord says because sometimes it is difficult to work out where the Liberal Party stands on the question of regional assemblies. On the one hand, members of the party say that they want regional assemblies and, on the other hand, people ask for their abolition, so, as I said, it is confusing. With regard to transparency and visibility, to an extent it is up to the regional assembly to show what it does, but the planning function, for example, is extremely transparent. Every stage of the regional spatial strategy is out for consultation and it is an iterative process. People will very easily get to know what the regional assembly does at the local level.

My Lords, the term “co-ordination” was mentioned. Although it is laudable to take things as close to the people as possible, my experience of dealing with India, for example, is that there is often duplication among the regions or that one region does something and another region does not even know that it is going on. What are the Government doing about co-ordination between the regions?

My Lords, RDAs are accountable to the DTI and the regional assemblies speak to our department. We ensure that they network together and speak to us jointly. So, in fact, we build in as much co-ordination as possible.

My Lords, is not the Government’s case for strong regional bodies getting stronger all the time, given, as my noble friend said, the growing economic disparities between regions and the growing powers and success of devolution in Wales? Whatever uncertainties there may be in the ancestral history of the Liberal Democrats on this matter, is it not the case that, since the time of RH Tawney, the Labour Party has always stood for strong regional government?

Afghanistan: Police Training

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the report on the training of the Afghanistan police force prepared by the State Department and the Department of Defense of the Government of the United States.

My Lords, the document is a report produced by the US State Department for internal use, and we have not received a copy.

My Lords, I am disappointed to hear that. This is a very worrying situation. The UK is responsible for counter-narcotics but we have to rely on the American-trained Afghan police, who, according to this report, are corrupt and incapable of carrying out even routine law enforcement work. How is the UK contributing to the vital work of reconstructing the ANP, and how is that co-ordinated among coalition partners, who, apart from the US, appear to be doing very little?

My Lords, I understand the seriousness of the report as it was reported in the New York Times article. If the allegation is correct then Her Majesty’s Government will express their concerns to the United States because a well functioning police force is vital to democratic society. Noble Lords may be interested to know that, in the summer, Ken Deane, the UK Chief Police Adviser who has a seat on the new international police co-ordination board, suggested an overall review of all police training. I trust that that will happen in the not too distant future. As for the counter-narcotics operation, as noble Lords will be aware, the UK helped to establish the counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan. I understand that the UK is responsible for training the police in that organisation.

My Lords, could the Minister update us on the status of Mohammed Daoud, until recently the governor of Helmand province, who was appointed with British support and seemed to be doing a good job? If the reports of his sacking are correct—they also allege it was done at the behest of certain US personnel out there—then what does it mean for the police training we are talking about, the rule of law and the eradication of the poppies in Helmand province?

My Lords, we are aware of the situation but the appointment of governors is a matter for the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan. As the noble Lord will be aware, Governor Daoud has made very good progress in his engagement with local communities in Helmand province. We trust that whoever replaces him will have the same sort of record and follow on from his excellent work.

My Lords, does the UK police career structure encourage or discourage UK police officers from undertaking duties overseas in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?

My Lords, I am not equipped to comment on the UK police structure. However, I know that a sizable number of police are working in Afghanistan advising various government ministries and working in the provinces. That is taking place also in other situations where we need to assist in building a well functioning police force, for example in Iraq.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, a Statement on the post office network will be repeated later today by my noble friend Lord Truscott. We will, with permission, take it immediately after the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler.

HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health

rose to call attention to the Government’s policy on HIV/AIDS and sexual health; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we very much look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley of St George’s. I also understand that last night it was announced that today may see the swansong speech of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, who I gather is retiring at the end of this year. I will make no jokes about him spending more time with his family but I would like to thank him for all the work that he has done in this House on health. In moving for Papers, I should mention that I am a trustee of the Terrence Higgins Trust and am connected with the National Aids Trust, which I set up.

When we speak of HIV/AIDS we almost automatically think of the global position—the position in Africa, India and south-east Asia. We think of the 25 million people who have already died, the 40 million people who are now infected, the millions who are infected and will die over the next few years for lack of drugs, and the millions who will be infected in the near future because there are no sensible prevention measures. We think of the orphans, the widows and the suffering that has been created. In short, we think of a global crisis, which in one way or another has affected virtually every country in the world. Perhaps the magnitude of the international figures takes away the focus from the deteriorating position in the United Kingdom. This debate allows both the national and the international positions to be raised. If I were to say one thing on the international position, I would wish to pay tribute to the efforts of the Global Fund and Richard Feachem in tackling the situation worldwide.

I want to concentrate on the national position, which I do for these reasons: too often, the sexual health crisis in this country is ignored and swept under the carpet; too often, over the past 20 years, politicians have been embarrassed to get properly involved; and too often, sexual health has come bottom in the priorities of health Ministers and health authorities. In this House a week or two ago, a speaker bemoaned the difficulty of getting the public involved in the issues of mental health; she should try to get support for sexual health clinics or better facilities for clean needle exchanges for drug users.

What is the position in the UK? There are now 70,000 people living with HIV. On present trends, the figure will reach 100,000 in three years’ time. We have already seen a threefold increase in the number of people accessing HIV treatment and care services since 1997. Compared with other west European countries, our position was once the best, but we now rest at the bottom of the scale. The Health Protection Agency now identifies HIV as one of the most serious infectious diseases facing this country.

On other sexual diseases, last year there were 110,000 new diagnoses of chlamydia, a 200 per cent increase since 1996; almost 20,000 new cases of gonorrhoea, a 50 per cent increase since 1996; and 2,800 new cases of syphilis, another big increase over the same period. Add to that the undoubted pressure that the GUM clinics—the sexual health clinics—are under and one can see why the professionals on the ground talk about a sexual health crisis in this country. Above all, they want serious and effective action to counter it.

I speak in this debate with the following experience. Exactly 20 years ago, I was launching the then Government’s public health campaign on HIV/AIDS. Just before Christmas 1986, we put up posters around the country on the theme,

“AIDS: Don’t die of ignorance”.

We followed that up with television and radio advertising using the tombstone theme and then the iceberg. We sent leaflets to every household in the country and, in spite of a great deal of opposition, we introduced clean needle exchanges for drug users. The results of that campaign were startling. Our follow-up campaign showed that, as a result, 98 per cent of the public understood how HIV was transmitted—the figures for today are not remotely as good as that—and 95 per cent of the public said that the Government were right to carry out a campaign of this kind, which should persuade the nervous in Whitehall to follow suit. Most of all, new diagnoses not only of HIV but of sexual diseases came down markedly as a result, while the free needle exchange undoubtedly saved lives, as it undoubtedly continues to do.

Contrary to much advice that we received—at that time we received a great deal of advice on how the campaign should be conducted—we did not preach at the public. We gave them the best medical advice that we had. We also gave them this advice on every poster: the more partners, the greater the risk; protect yourself; use a condom. That remains very much the advice today. Using a condom is the most effective means of preventing disease.

I am going to be critical of the Government’s policy in this area, but there is one comment that I applaud. The Prime Minister said in his interview on World AIDS Day that the Roman Catholic Church should change its attitude to the use of condoms and recognise it as a way of preventing disease and protecting lives. There is a curious contrast in attitude here. I remember going to New York during my campaign and visiting the Roman Catholic St Clare’s Hospital. There was some magnificent work being carried out there but, in those days, because AIDS was fatal, it was to ease AIDS patients into death. Surely it is possible to look at the use of condoms as a way of preserving life—which it is if you have no drugs—and of preventing disease and suffering. The good that could still be done by a change of stance by the church is considerable. So I welcome the Prime Minister’s lead here.

I wish that I could say the same for all the other policies that have been followed since the Prime Minister came to power. Incidentally, I do not in any way absolve my own Government from blame in this area, but it is obviously this Government who are in charge of policy now and who can change that policy. It took this Government four years from 1997 to publish a strategy, while all the time the position was getting worse. Then it took another three years for them to publish the White Paper Choosing Health. For the first time, it seemed as though the Government were getting serious and putting serious new resources—£300 million in all—into sexual health. Caroline Flint, the Minister for Public Health, said in July 2005 that,

“we remain committed to improving the sexual health of the nation and continue to make it a government priority. We have already invested £300m as part of our Public Health Paper—the largest amount ever for this area”.

Of course, the trouble was that they had not already invested £300 million. They had said that they would invest that money. They had said that they would allocate £130 million for modernising the clinics, £80 million for accelerated implementation of chlamydia screening, £40 million for contraceptive services, and £50 million for a new national advertising campaign. Take that £50 million for a national advertising campaign: a campaign was indeed launched last month, but it did not cost £50 million, £40 million or even £10 million. It cost £3.6 million. So far there has been absolutely no guarantee that the remaining £46 million will be spent, although we know how effective such spending can be.

Whatever may be the case elsewhere, this is a direct Department of Health responsibility. This is not down to the primary care trusts; it is down to the department and the Ministers. What of the other money? Much of that has not been spent either. The Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould—to whom I pay tribute in the hope that it will not do her too much harm—carried out a survey of primary care trusts. I quote directly from the group’s report, which for some reason has not been published in full by the Government:

“Almost two-thirds of PCTs from whom we have received evidence have withheld some or all of their Choosing Health allocation for sexual health, primarily to address their financial deficits. This has affected all aspects of sexual health covered in Choosing Health: contraception, chlamydia screening, and GUM services. Not even the high priority public service agreement (PSA) targets for chlamydia screening and 48 hour GUM access have protected these funding allocations, and contraception remains the ‘Cinderella’ service”.

The independent advisory group is not alone in making such comments. I have also received a joint letter from the presidents of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV and the Faculty of Family Planning & Reproductive Health Care. They have been pressing the Government on this, and said:

“The result of this disinvestment is poor access to services, increases in waiting times and in some cases the closure of clinics, which will ultimately lead to further increases in sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies and abortions”.

Similar points have been made by other organisations, such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, the National AIDS Trust and, again today, the independent advisory group.

Part of the tragedy is that no one can seriously argue that extravagance in sexual services provision has led to the financial problems of the health service. All too often, the clinics are housed in poor, almost rundown accommodation where the pressure of demand is constant and unremitting, yet precisely those services are being penalised. Doubtless, the hope is that economies here will not produce the same public outcry as they would in some obviously more popular medical services.

We should be under no illusion about the impact of the diversion of resources. It means not just that expansion money has been cut back locally, but also that regular budgets have been cut in some areas. The Wandsworth PCT issued a press release saying that, due to financial pressures, none of the new funding intended for sexual health was going to be committed during the 2006-07 financial year. In some way—ring-fencing, if necessary—we must ensure that money allocated for sexual health actually reaches these services. It is not enough to say that it is a local decision when the result is plainly unacceptable. The Government have a national responsibility for public health. What is happening today is clearly against the public interest. It means that there is even greater pressure on overstretched services, that infection spreads as patients waiting for appointments remain untreated and that the eventual cost to the health service will be not less, but substantially greater.

Ultimately, this is not a financial question, but a moral issue. Just as we know what works internationally, we know what can be done to bring down our figures in the United Kingdom. We know that a major national advertising campaign can be effective in changing behaviour, but we have failed to mount one for 20 years. We know that modern clinics provide the right environment for advice and treatment, but we struggle on in outdated premises. We know that well staffed services can have a real impact in providing proper care, yet we are content to see cuts being made in the already inadequate. As things stand, there is not much here for your Lordships’ comfort. Political commitment will be necessary to change the position. I hope that such a commitment will be forthcoming. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for initiating this debate on the crucial subject of sexual health and for his kind comments.

Today, the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV—which, as the noble Lord said, I chair; I therefore declare an interest—launched its third annual report. It makes many positive recommendations for the future. Key areas considered are what constitutes effective leadership for sexual health, commissioning frameworks, training and development, prevention, and health promotion. We also say that we welcome the constructive steps taken by the Government and the department.

The 2004 Choosing Health White Paper, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, recognised—crucially, for the first time—that sexual health was a public health issue. Important commitments were given to reduce GUM clinic waiting times to 48 hours by 2008, to ensure the inclusion of chlamydia screening in local development plans and to carry out a national review of GUM services. This week, the NHS in England operating framework for 2007-08 classified sexual health as a priority.

Those aims can be achieved only by drawing national funding into identified local delivery. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, quoted the experience of £300 million of Choosing Health funding not reaching the front-line services for which it was intended. Experience has taught us that if the Government really want the money spent where it should be spent, it must be ring-fenced. Caroline Flint, the public health Minister, speaking at the annual conference of the Association of Directors of Public Health, hinted that the Government may consider ring-fencing funds for specific public health initiatives. Can my noble friend the Minister elaborate on that statement?

The National Strategy for Sexual Health and HIV, published in 2001, recognised the need to modernise and improve sexual health services based on the need for a holistic service. But there is a danger that the current reconfiguration and the introduction of payment by results encourages the fragmentation of sexual health services rather than the holistic approach envisaged by the national strategy. There are many benefits to the new commissioning structure and the modernisation initiative, not least the encouragement of innovative solutions to local problems. But against that background, and too often the lack of support at local level, the Government should ensure that sexual health services are protected and that the commissioning of services is reviewed on a national basis.

Ideally, there should be an over-arching, comprehensive strategy that incorporates all aspects of sexual health, similar to the extremely detailed strategy produced earlier this year on targets for reducing teenage pregnancy rates. Such a strategy is particularly important in light of the recent HPA report, A Complex Picture, which makes it clear that the current situation presents a substantial challenge to sexual health strategies across the UK. The problem is that the majority of PCTs have no formal strategy in place to address the rising STI rates or to maintain adequate contraceptive services.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, graphically presented the HPA findings and they do make disturbing reading. HIV prevalence continues to increase steadily, STIs diagnosed in GUM clinics in the UK have increased in the last year by nearly 23,000 and there is a further substantial increase in syphilis. There has in the past few years been a continuing decline in gonorrhoea but a disproportionate number of young people are affected by it as they are by genital warts and chlamydia. Over 100,000 young people have chlamydia, part of the 200 per cent increase which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, mentioned. Overall, however, the picture is much more complex as there are many cases of co-infections of HIV, syphilis and gonorrhoea.

The 48-hour target for GUM access is an immensely powerful lever, but the rising HIV workload, estimated at 20 per cent, can have a disproportionate impact on access to GUM. There is clearly a need for existing capacity in both GUM and community services to be maximised and, where possible, for new services to provide greater capacity. The PCTs are also having to manage the increasing cost of HIV treatment and would be assisted by separating HIV commissioning and budget management from general GUM.

The publicity surrounding World Aids Day highlighted the global picture of the HIV/AIDS pandemic affecting nearly 40 million people, 2.3 million of whom are children under 15, and with 8,000 deaths per day. In the UK, 70,000 people are living with HIV, with more than 7,000 new infections in 2005. One-third of the cases are undiagnosed and one in five people present late. Late diagnosis has been the cause of 35 per cent of HIV deaths. The reasons for late diagnosis are complex but one reason without any doubt is the prejudice and stigma faced by many people with HIV.

That prejudice and stigma can surface in many settings: in the media, with inaccurate stigmatisation and press coverage and the misinterpretation of statistics; in the workplace; and, extremely disturbingly, in the places where people go for care—in the NHS and other public services. Some healthcare for HIV has been moved from specialist services to GPs, who have had little or no training in the use of antiretroviral drugs or on the crucial need for confidentiality. That has resulted in the inappropriate disclosure of HIV status by having “HIV” written on patients’ files or flashing up on computer screens. It is essential that all those working in primary care are given clear basic guidance on how to respond appropriately to people with HIV.

There are some 16,000 HIV-positive women in the UK who face rejection by their families, friends and communities and who often suffer domestic violence as a result of HIV diagnosis. But HIV sometimes comes from within the family, when women receive it from their partner. Gender inequalities within relationships make women vulnerable to HIV infection by their male partners because they often have no power to insist on safer sex and condom use. It is particularly problematic for African women in the UK and I praise organisations such as Positively Women that support and train women in the skill of negotiating safe sex.

Mother-to-child transmission has been reduced by the Government’s successful HIV antenatal testing programme. If a women tests positive for HIV in pregnancy, the risk of HIV transmission to the child is dramatically reduced by using antiretrovirals, a caesarean delivery and not breastfeeding. Now women living with HIV can become mothers knowing there is little chance of onward transmission. That is a perfect, classic example of effective prevention. We need to spend a little more time focusing on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Does good sexual health matter? Yes, it matters. Poor sexual health costs lives, particularly because of HIV. Lack of contraceptive services can increase the level of abortion and have a negative impact on teenage pregnancy. One pound spent on contraceptive services saves £4 for the NHS. STIs are transferable infectious diseases and so go round the cycle of transmission to infect ever more people. Each HIV infection that is prevented saves between £500,000 and £1 million over a lifetime. The prevention of unplanned pregnancies would save £2.5 billion per annum. Chlamydia screening can reduce the cost of infertility treatment in future. One could give many other examples but the answer to the question is that, yes, good sexual health matters. It is a crucial ingredient in the overall good health of the nation. If we are to see a downward trend in the levels of STIs and HIV, we have to ensure that money is ring-fenced; that there are targeted interventions, targeted health promotions and early testing; and that we increase awareness of the dangers of unprotected sex.

Finally, my noble friend Lord Warner is making his last contribution as Health Minister in your Lordships’ House. We have not always agreed on this issue, and I have argued with him that we have not gone far enough, but I wish him all the best for the future.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on once again raising the subject of AIDS and on his long commitment to ensuring that the UK faces up to the realities of that disease. He simply refused to be silenced or embarrassed. Other noble Lords may focus on the UK, where, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said, there are major issues to address, but I, as spokesperson on international development for the Lib Dems, wish to look at the wider world and at what the UK Government are doing to combat AIDS worldwide.

Whatever happens in the wider world affects us here. The number of AIDS cases is rising in Britain—not surprisingly when we see that the epidemic is growing most rapidly in eastern Europe. It is also brought in by some of those who have travelled abroad or who have arrived from abroad, including some who are working in the health service. I am waiting for the epidemic to hit our universities, as gap-year and other students return from their travels. Of course, there are other ways in which AIDS will affect us, by increasing instability in those areas where AIDS is knocking out a generation, undermining societies and economies. We are surely in the early stages of seeing those effects. The increase in the number of street children being drawn in as soldiers in the DRC, for example, relates especially to the incidence of AIDS there.

There are, as we heard, just on 40 million people living with HIV worldwide, with 4.3 million new infections this year alone, 65 per cent of which happened in sub-Saharan Africa. There are a few areas where the disease seems to have been checked—Kenya and possibly Zimbabwe, although we cannot be sure of what is happening there. There is a decline in Cambodia and Thailand, which shows that effective action can make a difference. However, right across sub-Saharan Africa, despite massive efforts—for example, by Gates and Merck in Botswana—things are not yet turning around. We know that HIV/AIDS is increasing significantly in China and most of India, where only 10 per cent are receiving treatment. The Russian Federation has the largest epidemic in Europe, with a twentyfold increase in less than a decade.

One of the millennium development goals relates specifically to combating AIDS, recognising as it does that the enormous suffering the pandemic causes is also a threat to the achievement of all the other MDGs. At Gleneagles last year, the G8 made the extremely important pledge that everyone who needed it should be on treatment by 2010. We are making some progress, but not at a rate that the impending catastrophe deserves. We need at least one Lord Fowler in every country around the world if we are going to tackle this disease.

Only 20 per cent of those needing treatment are receiving it and the numbers of those who are likely to need treatment are growing very fast indeed. There is still opposition to the use of condoms. The abstinence programme, however well meaning, clearly does not recognise reality, and people die as a result. Unfair trade rules are still preventing cheaper generic drugs becoming available. Inadequate health systems need to be strengthened to cope with the crisis. Immediate support needs to reach those who are currently suffering.

Children are particularly affected, often silently. There are 2.3 million children living with HIV worldwide and less than 5 per cent of them are receiving treatment. Most of those not receiving treatment are in developing countries. Save the Children, the Tearfund, UNICEF, UNAIDS and others all argue that children, especially girls, are among the worst affected by AIDS in developing countries. Young people may live at high risk of HIV, they may live with a chronically ill parent or they may be required to work and put their education on hold as they take on household or caring responsibilities. Their households may experience greater poverty because of the disease. They can be subject to stigma and discrimination, because of their association with a person living with HIV. Ultimately, these children may also become orphans, losing one or both parents to AIDS-related illnesses.

At the moment there are no drugs specifically for those children with HIV. They are given a half or a quarter of the drugs given to an adult. It is not finely worked out for their age or weight—if they receive anything at all. Drug companies are reluctant to work on drugs for children because they reckon the market is limited. If mother-to-child transmission is halted through drug treatment, they feel that their market will shrink. That gives little hope to the children, of whom I have seen many, who lie in hospital beds dying from lack of treatment, which seems an extremely inhumane way of going about things. What incentives are being given to drug companies to research and develop drugs specifically for children?

Women have been especially vulnerable to AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa, 60 per cent of those who are HIV positive are women. In some areas of southern Africa, two-thirds of those in the 15 to 25 age group who are HIV positive are women and girls. The United Nations describes marriage as a risk factor for AIDS. Women are often unable to negotiate the use of a condom or even whether they have sex at all—so much for ABC, abstain, be faithful or use a condom. If anything positive should ever come out of this epidemic, it will be that gender relations have been transformed. I welcome all those who seek to improve the rights of women and girls as they seek to reduce the impact of this disease. What further plans do the Government have to protect and treat women and girls, and what support, such as cash transfers, will be provided in the community? Will there be a timetabled, funded programme for getting treatment to all who need it to meet that goal in 2010?

We have a humanitarian responsibility, but we must also protect children from being orphaned, and societies and economies from being undermined. On money, the UK has rightly emphasised that there should not be a plethora of donors demanding this and that from the countries to which they are contributing. There should be one channel and one national plan. I was therefore surprised when I discovered quite how much of our aid goes bilaterally rather than through the global fund, which is a well respected and carefully audited body. What is the situation now? I know that the gap has narrowed and I should like to have details of how that trend is moving. How much aid goes bilaterally? What is the plan to ensure that the global fund has what it needs?

Health systems, social systems and cash transfers need to be addressed if the AIDS epidemic is to be turned around. If AIDS was hitting the UK in the way that it is hitting some parts of the world, we would surely be up in arms. I welcome the moves that the Government are making, but I have to urge even greater commitment and that they persuade their US and EU allies to take this as seriously as it deserves.

My Lords, an anonymous Ulsterman is reputed to have said at the beginning of a speech, “Before I speak, I want to say a few words”. As an Ulsterwoman, I understand what he was trying to say. I should like to preface my remarks with words of sincere thanks to my noble friends Lady Boothroyd and Lord Molyneaux who very kindly honoured me by being my sponsors. I have also been touched by the warmth and friendliness extended to me by so many Members, both before and since my introduction. It would be remiss of me not to mention the officers and staff in every department who are always so helpful and patient. Needless to say, I am deeply conscious of the immense honour and privilege it is to be a Member of this House. I look forward—although others may not—to contributing to its debates in future days.

When I was first elected to public office as a councillor in the Belfast Corporation, which is sadly now degraded to a mere city council, I counted myself privileged to serve not only my constituency of St George’s, but also people from other areas of Belfast who were living and working under similar circumstances. Today such people would be classed as underprivileged, and rightly so, but in 1967 the word “underprivileged” was unheard of and never used by these hardworking and industrious people. Like their parents and grandparents before them, they were used to working hard and long hours for low wages and they just carried on with the business of living. Thankfully things have changed to a large extent. It is because of the trust that they placed in me to represent them that I chose the title “St George’s” to be mine on entering this House. As it is an English name—St George is the patron saint of England—I doubted whether I would be allowed to use it, but I am grateful that I have been.

The subject before us today is most serious and we cannot afford to treat it lightly. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, gave us many statistics and I expect that the statistics that I have written in front of me here will overlap with his and those of others that have been given today. The scourge of HIV/AIDS is invading the entire world at breakneck speed. I have been looking at some of the statistics, which are frightening to say the least. In the United Kingdom the number of cases reported up to the end of June this year totalled 80,500, which included more than 7,000 new cases. The age group to which those figures refer covers adults. The statistic includes 15 year-olds, which I hardly think is right, but people aged between 15 and 59 are covered by the total of 80,500. One third of them were unaware that they were infected.

There have also been 22,281 diagnosed cases of AIDS. More than 17,000 HIV sufferers have died and at least 80 per cent of those deaths followed an AIDS diagnosis. The three main risk groups have been identified as, first, men who have sex with men; secondly, those who inject themselves with drugs; and thirdly, those who receive treatment with blood products. Between the mid-1980s, when HIV first came to public knowledge, and 1997 there was a decline in the number of cases, but since 1999 there has been a steep increase. The major cause has been heterosexual acquisition. The infections last year amounted to more than 4,000 compared with 840 nine years earlier.

In the same period infections acquired by homosexual and bisexual men were almost 2,500 compared with 1,500 in the same period. That figure was the highest ever among these men. Worldwide figures reveal that 40 million people are currently suffering from AIDS and one in every thousand people from 15 to 49 years of age already has AIDS. The more we examine the figures the more alarming they become. I was not aware until recently that 8 million children have been orphaned as a result of AIDS and that 48 per cent of all sufferers are women. In 2001, 3 million people died from AIDS. I do not know how many have died in the intervening years.

We cannot afford to be morally righteous about this subject, because anyone, whatever their lifestyle, can fall victim to these infections, and so it is imperative that an effectual and effective remedy is found quickly. We are grateful for what has been done and what is being done, but it appears that the malady is overtaking the remedy and it is also overtaking the advice that has been handed out daily through television adverts and notices. All kinds of information has been given to these people but they still continue in their path.

It worries me deeply that so many unborn children are at this moment already infected. What a dreadful life is ahead of these little ones. Babies were not meant to be born diseased. It is time enough when disease overtakes children who are already born and have entered this world but it is terrible to think that their little bodies are already suffering from this dreadful infection before they are born.

We call ourselves a Christian nation yet, to a large extent, we have forgotten God. When we listen to these statistics and to bulletins about what is happening throughout the world and see the toll of death in so many places, individually and as a nation we should be calling on God to give wisdom to the doctors and those seeking to help the people who are in such a dreadful physical and mental condition—because this disease affects people mentally. John Donne said:

“No man is an island”.

That is exactly what is said in the Bible, because the word of God says:

“No man lives unto himself”.

That is true whatever lifestyle we choose. Whatever we do and whatever we say has an effect on other people. John Donne also said:

“Any man's death diminishes me”.

How diminished we must be today when we think of all the dreadful deaths that are taking place unnecessarily throughout this beautiful United Kingdom of ours.

I also call on the Government to do all in their power to give help, sustenance and support, and any kind of aid that is necessary to help to relieve the dreadful situation in which we find ourselves as a country. Again, I believe that we need to call on God.

I was touched by the Prayers earlier today. One of the verses in that reading said:

“I called on God, and he heard me, and delivered me out of all my troubles”.

That is what we need to do individually and as a nation if we are to succeed in what we are trying to do today. I thank noble Lords for their patience and for listening to me.

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, on her maiden speech. I am sure that, like me, all other noble Lords found it to be very moving. It was from the heart and I have always found speeches in this House that are given from the heart, with personal conviction, to be very much more effective and moving. I thank the noble Baroness for her maiden speech and look forward to hearing from her on many occasions. May I also add that perhaps we will get to know the better half of the Paisley duo?

The next person I would like to thank is my noble friend Lord Fowler. I remember him well because I was quite active in the party when he was Secretary of State for Health. I always found him receptive, effective and very caring, so it is no surprise to me that he has initiated this debate, which is timely and necessary. I thank him for doing that.

For my part, I will start by posing three questions. First, who is suffering the most? Secondly, where is the greatest need? Thirdly, what can be or is being done? The answer to the first question is staring us in the face. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, has already touched on it. Women and girls are bearing the brunt of this pandemic; there is no question about that. The UN has already said that more than 70 per cent of all those who are infected are females—females rather than women, because some of them are not yet women. It is extremely important for us to keep in mind that more than 70 per cent of all those infected are females. We must not lose sight of that.

Where is the problem occurring? We have heard that the UK is not immune, although it is a highly developed and wealthy nation. We have not been able to do enough in this country. But what is happening in the rest of the world, in Africa and India? It does not even bear thinking about. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, referred to sub-Saharan Africa. Let me emphasise that three-quarters of all females in sub-Saharan Africa are living with AIDS. Ever younger girls are being raped, at home and outside, by their teachers, neighbours and church leaders—by all the people who should be taking care of them, not raping them. Even babies are being raped. It is a world that is unbelievable. In Cape Town, which I visited this year, there is a rape every 10 seconds. In India, in most cases it is the married monogamous women in the villages who are infected. When they are infected, they are not allowed to attend clinics because then everybody will know, and that will bring shame on the family. The husbands, especially those who drive for a living, are the ones who infect their wives.

It is the girl child, especially in Africa, who looks after the ailing parents and the siblings—not just the younger siblings but all of them, especially the male ones. The boys can play outside but the girls have to do all the work and look after their parents and the boys. On a documentary that I saw on the BBC, a girl had been working from dawn till midnight, when she was about to go to bed. The interviewer asked her something and she said, “Life is awful”. Life is unbelievably awful for these girls.

In Swaziland, 30 per cent of all health workers are infected, because they, too, get raped. We know that good sex education is necessary for adolescents, but condoms are also necessary. The only issue with condoms is that, although in this country they should provide us with an opportunity to avoid AIDS, in Africa these poor women do not have the power to make the men use them. That is where the education of the men becomes important. We must educate the men rather than the women; we can tell the women about safe sex but, if they cannot make the men use condoms, it is not much use. Sadly, the female condom has either not been provided sufficiently or people have not been taught how to use it; either way, it has certainly not become an accepted means of protection.

The only way forward that I can see lies with microbicides. So many people that I speak to about microbicides do not have any idea what they are; it must be the best-kept secret in the world. I am sure that everyone in this Chamber knows what microbicides are. The British Government are funding a lot of trials in Africa and Asia, and others, such as Gates and Buffett, are also doing their bit. Microbicides are up to 70 per cent effective already. Some people say that they are only 70 per cent effective. When you start from zero, does 70 per cent not sound pretty good? They probably will never be 100 per cent effective. It is time for us to put all our efforts behind microbicides to prepare for when they arrive—I hope it will be in 2009. A great deal of money is needed now to prepare the ground for the arrival of microbicides. Anything that arrives on the scene requires preparation of the area in which it is going to be used. That is where everyone now should be putting their efforts, to make sure that there is enough money either with the NGOs or with the government agencies so that people are ready to use microbicides as soon as they arrive on the scene. I propose a name for microbicides: “Protect”. It is easy on the tongue and it carries the power that microbicides will carry. I hope that that name will be accepted.

People say, “Let’s wait for the vaccine”. We have vaccines for malaria and TB—are we able to deliver them to everyone? Are we going to vaccinate every person on planet Earth, even if we had a vaccine for AIDS? No, it is not possible. Figures have already been given, but I will repeat them. Since the start of the pandemic, 65 million people have been infected, and 25 million have died. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, over 4 million people have been infected this year alone.

That is the world that we are in, yet there are people who absolutely dispense with all rational thought and say that instead of providing condoms the money should go to retrovirals. Is it really possible that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is thinking, “Never mind, let people get the disease, then we will give them the medicine”? Surely, prevention is the key to the control of disease, not the provision of medicine. He tells us about monogamous relationships; not one person in this House would disagree with what he says on that. Some of us probably have monogamous relationships and would not think of doing otherwise. But which world does he inhabit? I do not know. Does he know that the birth rate of Italy has dropped to 1.2 children per couple? Something must be happening somewhere there.

The cardinal says that the African bishops say that condom use increases promiscuity. In a continent where rape is endemic—it is an everyday situation for all women and girls—what is promiscuity? What does he mean by promiscuity? Have we got any figures? Catholicism is a male-dominated religion, and it does not think about women. Women are not at the top of the Catholic religion’s agenda. If this sounds like an attack on the cardinal or the Catholics, then I do not apologise. It is time that they understood that what they are doing breaches the human rights of every woman in this world, and time that we took them to task on that.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for securing this debate, for introducing it with such passion and for his continuing advocacy of sexual health issues. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, on her incisive maiden speech.

I remember when the HIV/AIDS pandemic first became an issue in this country. I was at that time working for what is now the Health Development Agency, and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, bravely and consistently spoke about this issue as a health issue that demanded responses from health services and not just moral speculations. I have remained eternally grateful to him for that. Speaking as a humanist, I call not on God but on Governments to act firmly on this issue.

Today, I want to address sexual health and HIV from the standpoint of health education and promotion. I shall ask the Minister to respond to the suggestion that personal, social and health education should be a statutory part of the school curriculum. I recognise that that is an education matter rather than one in his field, but departments do talk to each other. I shall ask him to respond to the suggestion that sexual health services should have ring-fenced funding at a local level—my noble friend Lady Gould, whom I salute as the chair of the sexual health advisory group, has already raised that issue, as that group consistently does, for which we should be grateful. I shall also ask when the NICE guidelines on injecting-drug use will be available for consultation. I shall add a little about transmission through the route of injecting drugs.

First, I turn to sexual health education’s importance within a planned programme of personal, social and health education. We have debated that issue before, pursuing it recently in relation to the Education and Inspections Bill, where we did not get very far. Sexual health education is not simply about biology, nor is it simply a clinical issue. For girls and boys—and I take the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather—health education is about fostering good, non-exploitative relationships. It is about learning to care about another’s feelings and about the risks to another of irresponsible sex, which may lead not only to emotional hurt but to infection or an unplanned pregnancy.

Sexual health education is also about helping young people to make informed decisions about their behaviour, while encouraging them to avoid being exploited by others. That rests on building self-esteem in young people, not only about sexual behaviour but generally. Decision-making skills and self-esteem can transfer from one activity to another; school programmes can and do help, as I have witnessed first-hand. Schools can, of course, also encourage aspiration in young people—and those who have aspirations in life are less likely to get into difficulty with health behaviours. Aspiration and, indeed, self-esteem may be encouraged by parents, family members and communities, as well as by schools. So education and nurturing are important in enabling young people to be healthy—and sexually healthy. That all starts very early, and while I am not talking about giving explicit sex information to five year-olds, I am talking about helping and supporting very young children to make confident and informed decisions.

I add a word about risk-taking behaviour, which was mentioned earlier: we all take risks, but people have first to know about a risk to decide whether to take it and whether they will mitigate that risk by some action—for example, wearing a rope when mountain climbing, or using a condom. There are protective factors related to risk-taking, including the encouragement of aspiration and family and community support, as I mentioned. Another is to have the right information at the right time—for example, telling young people where they can get help with health and sexual health issues. Some schools engage a nurse to talk about services; others have taken young people to visit a Brook Advisory Centre, which can, as evidence shows, help them to seek advice about sexual health more readily.

I turn to behaviour change as encouraged by health promotion, which as part of public health can either help to change people’s behaviour or help them to reject unhealthy behaviour. The first component is through laws that are enforced and the appropriate implementation of policies. There are good examples here in laws on smoking and seat-belts. Another component is through changing what is socially acceptable, where again smoking is an example—as is diet, to a certain extent. Health promotion or behaviour change communication has been defined, and this applies to sexual health as much as to any other health area, as a set of interventions, activities and changes in the social environment which help to move people towards a healthier life by changing behaviours. Health promotion and sexual health promotion need to be targeted, consistent and repeatedly reinforced. Front-line staff, such as teachers, GPs and those in clinics, are crucial. They need support, funding and adequate resources of all kinds.

Political will is, of course, an extremely important influence here. I give an example of this from my current professional activity. I chair a special health authority, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, which has been given political support and money to carry out activities to improve drug services at a local level. That includes ensuring that all drug action teams have plans to deliver and monitor drug treatment, and that funding is essentially ring-fenced. The approach has been successful, as the number of users in treatment has risen, waiting times for treatment have decreased and the workforce has grown dramatically. We have hit our PSA targets two years early. Focused and funded intervention works, which is why I am asking about ring-fenced funding for sexual health services. That is absolutely crucial if any strategy is to succeed.

Strategy is not a one-off intervention, but must be a process that encourages this kind of model. Someone has pre-contemplation about health behaviour—for example, a young man hears about AIDS but does not think that it applies to him—before moving on to contemplation, believing that he and his friends are at risk and that he should do something. That is followed by a decision, to get and use condoms. Then comes the maintenance of that behaviour, where the buying and use of condoms becomes a regular habit. This approach needs policies, services, education, campaigns and advocacy. As I said, it must be targeted, consistent, reinforced and funded.

HIV can of course be spread through drug use, and that has not been mentioned much today. Injecting drugs accounts for 5.6 per cent of reported HIV diagnosis. The overall prevalence of HIV among injecting drug users is relatively low, at one in 50 infected, but the prevalence in London is much higher, at one in 25. The recent increase in HIV among such users outside London is of great concern, as there has been a sixfold increase in two years—from one in 400 in 2003 to one in 65 in 2005.

Those figures are extremely worrying, so when will the NICE guidelines be produced for consultation, and how can we improve that situation? Again, we need to bring about focused activity to tackle a specific problem. This will mean identifying those most at risk and those who can best help and giving them training, support and funding. Lessons learnt from international interventions and experience show that, in addition to the need for political will, targeted health promotion and behaviour change is the most effective approach. Services and facilities must be in place, while service providers must be geared to tackle real and expressed needs and be sensitive to local cultural norms. Multifaceted interventions are the most successful, which means combining health promotion techniques with education techniques in a variety of settings and using public health measures across agencies—for example, in housing, employment, transport and education—to effect change and maintain healthy behaviour.

My noble friend the Minister is aware of these issues and much has been done to tackle them, but it is still the case that statutory personal, social and health education in schools and sufficient ring-fenced funding for services would have an enormous impact.

My Lords, I speak in this brief intervention as chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children. My noble friend Lady Northover has already referred to the situation of street children and child soldiers in the DRC and I should like to highlight the situation facing that particularly high-risk group. The Consortium for Street Children is the umbrella body for 45 UK-based charities working or supporting work with street children in 76 countries throughout the world. In 2005, its members agreed that one of the most serious situations facing street children was HIV/AIDS. The consortium has made that one of its key issues for work in the next five years.

With that in mind, the consortium sent a small team to the world AIDS conference in Toronto. The consortium agrees with the conclusions from the youth group at the conference that there needs to be more representation of youth from marginalised groups including street-involved youth. The conference notes on outreach and prevention among marginalised groups contain no mention of street children. On the whole they are not covered by the term “orphans” because, although they may be street-working and street-living, they have families. They are not mentioned in the notes but they are among the highest risk groups for a number of reasons including drugs, sex at an early age, and, crucially, lack of awareness.

A number of surveys have been carried out and I shall mention just a few. In 2001, Médecins du Monde, from Sweden, conducted a survey in the Russian city of St Petersburg among a sample group of 1,200 street children. It showed that 67 per cent of the children tested HIV positive. A survey in India, where some children had to turn to prostitution to survive, estimated that 90 per cent of the street children in Mumbai were sexually active. The survey was conducted by a group of Indian NGOs that comprise the HIV/AIDS forum there. Awareness of the disease among that group of children in India was similarly astoundingly lacking. A study by UNICEF in Namibia in 2004 found that less than 50 per cent of street children sampled had heard of the disease at all, in a country where a high proportion of the adult population is infected.

The picture is particularly depressing because, in 1992, an adviser to the Pan American Health Organisation wrote:

“we are confronted by the fact that one particular subpopulation, that of homeless youth, has received little attention in regard to their risk of exposure to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases … Street youth are often not included in traditional institutional networks for providing health care and social services”.

Today, 14 years later, the situation has not changed and street children world-wide continue to have little or no access to HIV/AIDS services. As the Government look to contribute to programmes, regardless of whether they are global or bilateral, they must bear in mind that situation and develop policies to address it.

DfID currently allocates a percentage of the £150 million it will spend to meeting the needs of orphans and other children. But will it ensure that street children are included and money is specifically allocated to meet their needs? It is crucial that HIV/AIDS education programmes reach out to street children and that donor Governments such as ours support the development of prevention, care and treatment services to be delivered to those children in the most appropriate way by the Governments of those countries. There is often a mountain to be climbed in persuading the Governments of various countries of the crucial need to include street children in the provision of other services such as education. The situation regarding HIV/AIDS is a little different because the case can be strongly made that by not including street children in all those programmes the effects will spread rapidly to the rest of the population.

I appreciate that a health Minister is to respond to this debate, but I hope he will encourage his colleagues in DfID to look at these issues, particularly because the world AIDS conference did not address this sector. An urgent reply is needed.

My Lords, I was expecting to see the noble Lord, Lord Winston, rush in, tearing off mask and rubber gloves, fresh from yet another life-saving situation or media engagement, but I now assume that he has withdrawn from the debate, which has been so well introduced by my noble friend Lord Fowler. As Secretary of State when HIV/AIDS first came to our attention, he must take much of the credit for many of the preventive measures that were introduced. I know that he does not agree with me, and I suspect that no one else in the Chamber will agree with a word I have to say, but I shall take advantage of this short debate to air my views once again.

One of the most important assumptions underlying our current understanding of AIDS is that it is a new disease caused by a new virus that appeared in Europe and America only during the later half of the 1970s. The recognition of AIDS as a distinct disease entity during the early 1980s supports that assumption. Yet hundreds of AIDS-like cases in people, some of whom have turned out to be infected with HIV, were documented in medical journals for decades before the recognition of AIDS.

The public face of AIDS research that is meant to reassure still maintains that HIV—the human immunodeficiency virus—causes AIDS, and that when we can learn how to vaccinate against HIV or develop a medicine to treat HIV infection then AIDS will be cured. The best kept secrets about AIDS are the questions unanswered, the puzzles unsolved, the contradictions unrecognised and the paradoxes unformulated.

There is no doubt that AIDS itself, as distinct from HIV, is at least a century old, with many cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma, pneumocystis pneumonia, cytomegalovirus infections and other opportunistic diseases in patients matching the definition of AIDS being reported in North America and Europe in the 50-year period preceding the perceived arrival of AIDS in the 1970s. Those diseases in this period have not been accounted for in our current theories of AIDS. If HIV is new and a necessary cause of AIDS, as most researchers argue, what was the cause of these pre-1979 AIDS-like cases? Are there causes of acquired immune suppression other than HIV that may explain AIDS? What might those immunosuppressive agents be? Or is HIV much older than anyone has been willing to consider? If HIV is old, why has AIDS become epidemic only within the past 20 years? Have modes of transmission suddenly increased? No matter how one tries to examine these questions, the answers are disturbing.

There was massive consternation during the 1990s caused by reports that HIV may be neither necessary nor sufficient to cause the syndrome. The key experiments had been performed in the laboratory of the discoverer of HIV himself, Luc Montagnier of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and he announced that HIV alone is not sufficient to cause AIDS. Since then many clinicians have reported similar cases of HIV-free AIDS. Suddenly AIDS without HIV became big news because too many cases had surfaced to be ignored. There is no longer any doubt that HIV is not necessary to cause acquired immunodeficiency. The question is whether the causes of HIV-free AIDS are also at work in people with HIV, and therefore what role HIV plays in causing AIDS in anyone. Do we believe that everyone is equally susceptible to infection with the retrovirus and its consequences? If HIV is sufficient to cause AIDS, then everyone should be at equal risk and AIDS should develop at an equal rate among different risk groups once infection has become established. Clearly that is not the case.

Researchers realised by 1987 that the threat of AIDS to non-risk groups was very small. Some calculations place the figure of contracting AIDS from a heterosexual without risk behaviours as low as one in 1 million—about the same risk as being struck by lightning. On the other hand, the high-risk groups are still high risk. The cumulative incidence of AIDS seven years after HIV infection in drug abusers is over 40 per cent, and about the same in homosexual men. The average latency period for the development of AIDS is about 10 years. In other words, one would expect that about half of all HIV-positive individuals should develop AIDS within 10 years, if drug abusers and homosexual men are typical of the entire population. But, of course, they are not.

What am I trying to say? Some people are far more susceptible to AIDS than others and the reasons are clear: immunological exposure to semen, blood or other alloantigens; multiple, concurrent infections; prolonged medical or illicit drug use; malnutrition. Those are all serious factors that considerably weaken the immune system. Resistance to AIDS is about having an efficient, intact immune system. I believe that there should be a much broader approach to AIDS that includes specific remedies for malnutrition, elimination of all drug use, proper hygiene, safer sex measures and behavioural modification. These can all have profound effects on AIDS risk and the development of overt disease, even among people who are already seropositive.

If, as I suggest, AIDS is not caused by a simple HIV infection but is a syndrome requiring multiple, concurrent causes of immune suppression, then the tremendous drop in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases associated with safer sex means that the risk of immune suppression due to multiple infections and allogenic exposure decreases drastically, the risk of autoimmunity decreases even more and the probability of developing an HIV infection concurrent with an appropriate cofactor infection diminishes. In other words, the same measures that are meant to control the spread of HIV are necessary to control the spread of allogenic and infectious cofactors in AIDS.

I believe that the incidence of AIDS itself, as distinct from HIV seropositivity, will decrease much more quickly than the rate of HIV infection. More and more HIV-seropositive gay men will live longer and healthier lives. The fact that the latency period between HIV infection and AIDS has been increasing yearly indicates just such an effect. The latency period should continue to increase until many HIV-seropositive people are living healthy lives for several decades. Then we will finally recognise that HIV does not equal AIDS and that current treatment methods should be reassessed.

In view of the Minister’s recent announcement, today is probably the last time I will have an opportunity to debate health matters with him. I am grateful for all he has done, particularly with the introduction and defence of the new dental contract, and I wish him well for the future.

My Lords, what a privilege it is to take part in today’s debate. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley of St Georges, and thank her very much for her contribution. It was full of compassion, which many noble Lords really appreciated, and I wish her very well.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Warner. He and I have faced each other across the House for some time now. Very rarely have we agreed on things, but he has always been true to the issues and an exemplary Minister in how he has dealt with them. I wish him all the very best.

I always like to take part in debates initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not least because I always have to stop and think as I prepare for them. Thinking about today’s debate, I found myself wandering back over the past 25 years. Twenty-five years ago we did not even have a name for this disease, and it then went through a variety of different names. If I look back over those 25 years, when friends have been affected by this in many different ways, two things stand out for me. One is that advert. If he does not mind my saying so, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, may become the only man in history—I hope in the very distant future—to have a tombstone on his tombstone. The advert stands out.

The other thing that stands out is a book—it was also made into a film—called And the Band Played On: People, Politics and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, an American who attempted to track the development of the disease in America from the first patient. The most important point in the book is when staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta have discovered that the disease is blood-borne but do not know what it is. They try to persuade the organisations involved in blood transfusions in America to take on board their messages, but they will not do so because they do not want to damage what is a big business for them. At one point, a man asks at a meeting, “When doctors become businessmen, where does somebody who needs a doctor go?” Throughout the past 25 years, that has focused my mind very much on the different parts that the health service, public opinion, journalists and so on have to play. Today’s debate is about the role of politicians in this campaign.

Today many noble Lords have talked about the figures in the Health Protection Agency report A Complex Picture—a very good title because the picture is complex. I do not want to repeat the figures that other noble Lords have set out but I will give just two. One is the rise in all STIs and how cross-infection makes the management of HIV, in particular, more difficult. That should concern us. The Health Protection Agency says that prevention makes good sense for individuals and public health. Some STIs are easily treated; others are lifelong and recurrent, with serious consequences, including infertility. The coincidence of HIV with other STIs makes managing that more difficult. The Health Protection Agency goes on to say:

“The continued rises in diagnoses of HIV [and] … acute STIs, attendance to sexual health services and sexual risk behaviours … suggest that a scaling up [of] our prevention responses to a level that will have an impact on the current trends is urgently needed”.

I contrast that with the findings of a survey of sexual health clinic services, conducted recently by my honourable friend Sandra Gidley in another place. The survey shows that fewer than 33 per cent of clinics provide appointments within 48 hours, with over half of patients having to wait five days or more for an appointment, and that the average wait is more than seven days. Furthermore, many clinics reported restricted opening hours during the working day, often amounting to fewer than 20 hours a week, and many opened irregularly. That is hardly a strategy for encouraging people to come forward for testing. If you have plucked up the courage to go along for what may be a life-changing interview only to find that the place is closed, I dare say that that will put you off going back again. Most worryingly of all, as other noble Lords have said, those same clinics reported that funding is being cut to plug NHS deficits. Community, outreach and voluntary sector services designed to promote sexual health have been cut, even when they have been extremely effective in the populations whom they seek to serve.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will forever be associated with one of the most effective advertising campaigns in history—that first national campaign. Since then, there has been a huge amount of research about what works in public health campaigning. There is now a body of overwhelming evidence from across the world that what works in this field are short general messages to the public, repeated over and over again, coupled with specific messages to sub-populations who are at risk. I am afraid that at the moment we are not doing that. Out of the £50 million that they promised in 2003, the Government currently have in place one short £4 million campaign aimed at teenagers. It is very good but it is so short that it will be over before it has an effect. I strongly urge the Minister to take on board the need for a consistent message, coupled with other messages for distinct populations. That will truly help us to make a difference with the group of people who do not remember the tombstone campaign because they were not old enough at the time to see it.

I turn briefly to the international scene, which I do not get to talk about very often, and to one aspect in particular. I agreed with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, said, although by no means all of it. I hope that we do not follow some of the conclusions of South African Health Ministers; however, I agree that, where there is a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses, particularly female health workers who can go into rural districts, it is inevitable that treatment, for women in particular, will be diminished.

I should also like the Government to focus on the case being brought by Novartis against the Indian Government in relation to ARVs. If successful, the ongoing legal action against that Government could restrict the production of generic ARVs in India. The impact of that would be felt not only in that country but all across sub-Saharan Africa, because one-third of all ARVs used by people in developing countries are generic versions produced in India. I hope that we can support the Indian Government in resisting that action. If we do not, many of the things that my noble friend Lady Northover and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, talked about will only get worse.

Finally, I want to talk about one thing that has not been mentioned in this debate. The results and consequences of the mid-term election in the US brought a number of welcome changes. There is one that noble Lords may not yet have noticed and I bring it to their attention. The Democrats on the House Committee on International Relations have signalled that they wish to investigate funding for faith-based HIV/AIDS and abstinence-until-marriage initiatives, which receive funding under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. At the moment in the US, by law, one-third of HIV-prevention funding under PEPFAR must be used for abstinence-until-marriage programmes.

Whatever the moral case may be for such an approach, the case against it is that it simply does not work. Two-thirds of 18 year-old girls in South Africa have HIV, but such messages do not, and never will, work in those cultures. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, talked about that most tellingly. Given that the appropriateness and efficacy of such programmes has been challenged repeatedly, I hope that the Government will use their special relationship to support those within the US Administration who seek to challenge something which, when there are 14,000 new infections every day, cannot be right and cannot be sustained.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is absolutely right to have raised this issue again. He, perhaps more than anyone else, embodies the role of government in this. That role is to keep banging on with the messages that no one else wants to hear or to make, to keep doing it when everyone else has gone away and taken their attention elsewhere, and to persist with something which is unpopular and derided by the media but which could make a big difference. It was most important that he and his Government released that advertisement all those years ago; it could not be more important now for this Government to carry on that persistent message about HIV.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley of St Georges, on her splendid maiden speech, and we hope that we will hear many more. I also thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for initiating this debate, and I pay tribute to him, as have others, on his extraordinarily successful campaign in the 1980s. When you now speak to people who were teenagers at that time, they say that their overwhelming impression was the creation of fear. That, of course, has gone.

The World Health Organisation defines sexual health promotion as,

“any intervention that improves a person’s physical or psychological wellbeing”.

We agree with the Government in their stated aim in the first National Strategy for Sexual Health and HIV, published in July 2001, to,

“reduce the transmission of HIV and STIs”,

with interventions that include increasing access to condoms, HIV education, needle exchanges for drug users, and a target of 48 hours for GUM clinic access.

Unfortunately, five years later, the Government’s target of a 25 per cent reduction in HIV/AIDS has been quietly buried. The reality is that the increase in cases has been 10 per cent per year since 2000, with a doubling between 1997 and 2005. That is published in Communicable Disease and Public Health, 2002, vol. 5, page 97.

In 1992, the then Conservative Government published Health of the Nation, a strategy for health in England, which identified HIV/AIDS as one of the five priority areas, with specific objectives set. It was accompanied by a high-profile public health television campaign warning people of the dangers. There was an initial drop in the rate of STIs but, since then, they have been rising exponentially, with the national strategy having no discernable effect.

Between 1997 and 2005 the number of cases of syphilis increased by 1,653 per cent, gonorrhoea cases increased by 44 per cent, chlamydia cases by 147 per cent, herpes by 16 per cent, genital warts by 17 per cent, and HIV cases by 110 per cent. In contrast, between 1989 and 1997 the number of syphilis cases declined by 62 per cent and gonorrhoea cases declined by 29 per cent. Between 1991 and 1997, cases of HIV declined by 8 per cent. Expenditure on sexual health campaigns between 1997 and 2005 totalled £53 million, whereas in the eight years leading up to 1997, expenditure on sexual health campaigns totalled £122 million. Incidentally, we need to be cautious and use only Global Fund statistics on HIV, as some of the others can be somewhat dubious.

In his 2002 report on the NHS for Gordon Brown, Sir Derek Wanless warned that the extra cost to the NHS of not engaging people in public health might reach £30 billion by 2022. In his annual report on 21 July 2006, the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, served warning that the Government were following Wanless’s worst-case scenario. Two per cent of the health budget is devoted to health promotion, which is half that of Germany. Sir Liam Donaldson explained in the annual report that public health budgets are being raided to solve financial deficits in the acute sector. Only 36 per cent of primary care trusts—the bodies charged by government with overseeing the majority of public health interventions—believe that they have sufficient capacity and capability to deliver public health care effectively.

The number of full-time equivalent doctors in the public health, medicine and community health services sub-group of the NHS workforce has fallen from 312 in 2000 to 252 in 2005, a decline of 19 per cent. The Faculty of Public Health reported on 29 March this year that four of England’s 13 medical deanery regions had cancelled their spending on public health training completely for 2006-07.

As this is the noble Lord’s last appearance as Minister, he might like to take the opportunity to comment on his statement, reported at col. 1290 of the Official Report, that there are now 122,000 more doctors. Incidentally, we are sorry to hear that he is going. We wish him all the best and thank him for his hard work, for which we are very grateful.

As my noble friend Lord Fowler pointed out, funding for sexual health services was to be £300 million. In August 2006 the Department of Health’s Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV reported that much of the extra money earmarked for the Government for sexual health services had not reached the front line. To be precise, 33, or 17 per cent, of the 191 primary care trusts that it surveyed said they had withheld some or most of the funding, while 51, or 27 per cent, had absorbed the entire allocation into their general budget.

As my noble friend Lady Flather emphasised, there have been successes with prevention in some countries—Uganda, Kenya and Botswana—with the ABC campaign. It has been criticised quite a bit in the House today, but there is no doubt that it has saved lives and substantially reduced the number of HIV/AIDS cases in pregnant women in Uganda, from 25 per cent to 6 per cent. Those are hard data. However, there are problems, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Flather, mentioned. Condoms are not always successful in preventing pregnancy, let alone HIV, which is not surprising given that the virus is a fraction of the size of sperm. Also, many men refuse to wear condoms.

Secondly, being faithful in marriage may fail because the wife may be faithful while the husband is not. Thirdly, as mentioned, in many societies women do not have the option of abstaining, especially when they are forced into marriage at an early age. As my noble friend Lady Flather mentioned, the United Kingdom Campaign for Microbicides (UKCM) may give women much more control over the situation, and it is to be hoped that that will continue to develop. Bill Gates said something very interesting in this sphere:

“No matter where she lives or what she does, a woman should never need her partner’s permission to save her own life”.

Further to the subject of abstinence, politicians tarnish their reputation somewhat with rather ill judged sound bites. The late and distinguished Baroness Young asked Her Majesty’s Government at Question Time why they did not present the whole picture, a comprehensive, preventative picture: condoms, be faithful in marriage, abstinence. The Minister at the time laughed and simply said, “Abstinence does not work”. That is what psychiatrists call incongruity of affect. I presume the Minister meant to say that abstinence on its own does not work as a national policy. That is obvious.

On another occasion, when the same question was put, another Minister said, with a laugh, that only old people recommended abstinence. He is wrong because young people are now taking the law into their own hands and devising their own policies. It will be interesting to see what happens. I was impressed with what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, said so sensitively and thoughtfully. An interesting article in the New Statesman pointed out:

“Reva Klein, a journalist who has done extensive research into progressive education in the US and UK, emphasises that the most effective sex education programmes aim to build young people’s self-esteem and ‘discourage them from seeking affirmation and escape through sexual relationships’. She tells of one example of a ‘social and emotional development curriculum’ … where teenagers have been trained as peer educators and sex education classes are run without adults present. Within seven years, teenage pregnancy rates plummeted in this deprived urban area”.

We ought to give great credit to the young for taking the law into their own hands, and to give them all the support they need.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for leading this debate on such an important subject. I am also grateful to him and to others for their kind personal remarks. I reassure noble Lords that I shall still be active. I shall be able to speak on a much wider range of subjects and keep a beady eye on the Benches opposite.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his contribution and leadership 20 years ago and for his commitment to this subject. I am sure that one of the reasons we have not experienced the rates of HIV seen in many other European countries is his early action in introducing needle exchange schemes and other preventive measures. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, on her compassionate maiden speech. I hope she will understand if I do not follow her down the path of religion in my speech. I hope I will not upset the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, if I say, neutrally, that it is 25 years since HIV/AIDS first clearly appeared in the United States, Africa and Europe. That is about the best I can do not to get into a scientific tangle with him. We need to recognise what has been achieved since those days as well as facing up to what remains to be done. I wholeheartedly recognise that more needs to be done.

Last month two new reports were published: one from UNAIDS on the global picture, and one from the Health Protection Agency in its annual report for 2005 on HIV and sexually transmitted infections in the UK. I fully agree that both make sobering reading. As noble Lords have highlighted, the sheer scale of the AIDS pandemic worldwide is daunting, with an estimated 39.5 million people now living with HIV, of whom an estimated 4.3 million were new infections this year. An estimated 63,500 adults live with HIV in the UK, of whom an estimated 20,000 or 32 per cent are unaware of their infection. In 2005, there were 7,400 new HIV diagnoses. Those are sobering figures.

However, there have been successes. Needle exchanges, on which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has already done so much work, are a success story. In the UK, we are seeing the results of 10 years of antiretroviral therapies that have reduced AIDS diagnoses and deaths and transformed people’s lives and we have some of the best treatment outcomes in the world. Introducing routine HIV screening for all pregnant women has been a success and in England and Scotland we estimate that around 95 per cent of HIV-infected women were diagnosed before delivery.

In Europe, our world-class HIV surveillance, developed over 20 years and managed by the Health Protection Agency, means that we can monitor the impact here and take action on emerging epidemics such as in eastern Europe and countries bordering the European Union. In 2005, eastern Europe saw the largest number of newly diagnosed HIV cases—53,000 cases, over twice that reported in western Europe with 22,700 cases.

I very much welcome the priority the European Commission is giving to action on HIV/AIDS in member states and neighbouring countries through its communication agreed earlier this year and, in particular, the setting up of an AIDS think tank of which the UK is an active member through the Department of Health. HIV is a priority for Germany’s presidency, from 1 January, and we are working with Germany on the high-level conference it is planning on HIV prevention next March.

We have had some successes in our international response to HIV/AIDS. The UK has been working actively with country partners and the rest of the donor community to scale up the international response to HIV/AIDS and has committed £1.5 billion over three years to support that effort. The UK led the G8 to support universal access to treatment by 2010 at Gleneagles last year. We also supported the strengthening of this commitment at the UN in June when all Governments agreed to work towards achieving universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention programmes, treatment, care and support by 2010. We led donors to agree that for all poor countries, no credible, costed, government plan to tackle AIDS should go unfunded.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked what we have done with the pharmaceutical industry. The majority of pharmaceutical companies have developed some form of differential pricing for their product ranges. Most companies producing ARVs make them available more cheaply to developing countries, but DfID thinks that differential pricing needs to be extended to more drugs and to a larger range of countries than at present and is working on that with the pharmaceutical industry.

The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, spoke about microbicides in her feisty and, I thought, rather compelling speech. We are seeing progress in that area. DfID’s funding for microbicides now totals £50 million provided by two main funding streams: the development programme to which DfID has committed around £40 million since 1999 and the international partnership for those products to which it has committed around £10 million since 2002.

In Africa, recent work includes investing £100 million in Malawi over six years, part of which aims to double the number of nurses and triple the number of doctors, and retain them through better pay and conditions, with salary increases of 50 per cent. That support is already helping to stop the outflow of health workers and recruitment has dramatically improved.

Since April 2006, 700 nurses have returned and training schools have increased intakes to double the number of nurses and treble the number of doctors in training. Other recent work includes the start of a £25 million programme in Zimbabwe to protect the lives of mothers and newborns affected by AIDS. The programme aims to increase access to family planning services and newborn care and to reduce exposure to HIV infection during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding.

On stigma and discrimination, DfID is supporting approximately 100 projects and programmes including an anti-stigma mass media campaign in Zimbabwe, and the Champions for Change programme in the Caribbean. We recognise that gay men and African communities continue to bear the brunt of HIV in the UK. They are the focus for our national health promotion work. This year we have strengthened our national response by investing an additional £1 million for 2006-07 in work delivered by the Terrence Higgins Trust and the African HIV Policy Network. We are also funding, over two years, three innovative projects aimed at reducing stigma and discrimination linked to HIV.

On the wider sexual health agenda, sexual health is a key plank of the public health White Paper, Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier, published in November 2004, to which a number of noble Lords referred. I recognise the concerns expressed in the debate about funding for sexual health services. However, it is government policy, on which we remain of the same view, that the local NHS must be free to make its own local priority setting and spending decisions within the national guidance and standards that have been issued. We have no plans to reintroduce ring-fencing at the moment. It is important that the NHS gets back into overall financial balance during this year and achieves continuing, sustainable financial balance locally in the future.

However, that does not reduce our commitment to improving real outcomes from local investment. That is why we have introduced sexual health into the local delivery planning process, including GUM access, reducing gonorrhoea rates, teenage pregnancy and chlamydia screening. That will enable us to see where real improvements are being delivered in areas such as waiting times and rates of infection. Of course, the Healthcare Commission will remain active in assessing local trusts’ performances against national standards. The White Paper, Our Health, Our Care, Our Say, set out our commitment to modernise services, including for sexual health, looking at new models of service delivery, particularly in the community. The move to practice-based commissioning, which will operate extensively in 2007-08, will support these developments and local innovation, resulting in flexible, high-quality services for patients from a much wider range of providers, and in settings closer to home or more convenient to them.

In our national chlamydia screening programme, screening is taking place in a range of traditional health venues as well as more innovative settings, such as Army bases and nightclubs. In the third year of the programme more than 100,000 screens were performed, of which 18 per cent were screens for men. One in 10 people tested positive. We have also contracted with Boots to offer a free and confidential chlamydia screening service in all its London pharmacies. To date, more than 29,000 kits have been issued, with a return rate of nearly 50 per cent. The positive rate is around 8 per cent.

We welcome the independent advisory group’s report on sexual health, which also covers HIV. We will publish a full response as soon as possible. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Gould, chair of the group, and her colleagues, for their valuable work in raising the profile of sexual health.

Sexual health and access to genito-urinary medicine clinics is one of the top six priorities for the NHS. Our target is to ensure that everyone who needs an appointment at a clinic is offered one within 48 hours by 2008. We have not in any way backed away from that ambition and we are making excellent progress towards it. Data published by the HPA today show that in November 65 per cent of patients were seen within 48 hours, and a further 4 per cent were offered an appointment, but chose not to attend. In May 2004 only 38 per cent of attendees were seen within 48 hours. That is progress of some considerable measure.

In November we launched a new sexual health campaign, “Condom Essential Wear”, to tackle the five major acute sexually transmitted infections: chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhoea, genital warts and herpes, as well as HIV. The campaign, which targets 18 to 24 year-olds, who are most at risk of contracting STIs, focuses on the invisibility and prevalence of STIs, and the importance of using a condom. Its aim is to normalise condom usage in order to prevent the spread of STIs and unintended pregnancies. Preventing unintended pregnancy is a key aspect of improving sexual health. The Choosing Health White Paper highlighted the variation in access to contraceptive services and the range of contraceptive measures. We have undertaken a national baseline review of contraceptive services to ensure that we are clear, locally and nationally, on how best to meet the gap in services, ensure that the full range of methods are available, and that best practice is shared.

We will shortly publish the results of this review as well as best practice guidance on reproductive healthcare. My noble friend Lady Massey mentioned the issue of PSHE. The Government remain to be convinced that making PSHE statutory would, in itself, make PSHE better. Much PSHE content is already statutory. There are already specific statutory requirements for sex and relationship education, drugs education and careers education and guidance. We believe that a new statutory subject would not sit comfortably with the 14 to 19 flexibility needed at this stage of the curriculum. The noble Baroness mentioned the issue of NICE and the needle exchange schemes. These are still in the early stages of the NICE topic selection process. My understanding is that NICE’s consideration panel discussed this at a meeting on 24 November and the paper will proceed to the next stage of topic selection. There are a number of steps to complete before NICE takes on a proposal. If successful, we would expect a formal referral to NICE in April 2007.

We are making good progress in this area but I acknowledge that there is still much more to do in order to reduce STIs and HIV prevalence and unintended pregnancies. HIV is still a life-threatening illness, for which there is no cure. New infections continue to occur in the UK. We need to recognise, too, that changing behaviour is not an area where government action alone is sufficient. We need to work continuously with the NHS, local government, the voluntary sector, the commercial sector and individuals to ensure a sustained and focused effort to improve sexual health. No one, however, would doubt our commitment to seeing through the necessary improvements to this important area of public health.

Where I have not answered noble Lords’ points satisfactorily, I will study Hansard and write to noble Lords on those points I have missed.

The noble Lord, Lord McColl, drew attention to the fact that as I galloped through my closing speech in last week’s debate on the NHS, I garbled a number of statistics. I would like to take this earliest possible—and, indeed, my last—opportunity at the Dispatch Box to correct those figures. We have certainly increased the number of NHS staff over the past five years; that essential point was correct. The correct figures I should have given are as follows: there are 85,000 more nurses since 1997, and there are more than 404,000 in total; there are 32,000 more doctors, and there are more than 122,000 in total; there are 16,000 more allied health professionals, and more than 61,000 in total; there are nearly 2,500 more radiographers, and 12,700 in total; there are 1,800 more healthcare scientists, and more than 30,000 in total; there are nearly 4,700 more GPs, and more than 32,000 in total. I hope I have put right the record in respect of those misleading figures given previously, for which I apologise to the House.

My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this debate. It has been, in many ways, an outstanding debate, with some important contributions, matching the importance of the subject, from the Back Benches. The noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, in her excellent maiden speech, rightly said that the more we examine the figures, the worse the picture becomes. She is entirely right on that. On the national position, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, both of whom spoke with authority on their own experience. We also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who made a very important point about campaigns. They have to go on, month by month and year by year. To have a campaign 20 years ago and then go off the air in the interim makes no sense.

On the international position, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, my noble friend Lady Flather and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, who rightly pointed out the impact on women and children. Then my noble friend Lord Colwyn added his own view on HIV. I have no doubt that we will continue to debate this subject for many years.

I should like once again to thank the noble Lord, Lord Warner. I already detect a new zip in his step as he gets ready to depart. I make one small point: before the noble Lord goes he might like to answer my Written Question of 20 November, which is in the sin box, published today to Ministers. The Minister spoke of the efforts made by DfID in this area. The real question is whether the Department of Health is doing as much as the Department for International Development. There will be many who are rather disappointed by his reply on ring-fencing sexual health resources. If we do not do something like that in this area, the position will not improve. Local trusts will always find sexual health an easier option for cutbacks than other alternatives.

The message of this debate is that national and international policy on HIV and sexual diseases needs higher priority if we are to prevent death and suffering. Today’s speeches establish that we are not doing enough to combat either HIV/AIDS or sexual disease generally. The tragedy is that we know what works and what can be effective and, therefore, what should be done. We will not be forgiven if we do not take the action open to us today. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Post Offices

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The Statement is as follows:

“I am today publishing the Government’s proposals in a consultation document, copies of which will be available in the Vote Office in the usual way.

“First, let me set out the background to the proposals that we make. There are 14,300 post offices in the UK. Some 480 are Crown post offices owned by the Post Office, while 13,820 post offices are operated by postmasters and mistresses as private businesses.

“Historically, branches have been located where the sub-postmaster has chosen to set up business, rather than as a result of a strategic decision by the Post Office. The result is that, in some places, many branches are competing for the same customers. That is why the Post Office will take a more active role in ensuring that the right post office is in the right place—something the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters supports.

“The big problem is that people are simply not using post offices as they once did. Some 4 million fewer people are using post offices each week compared to just two years ago. The market in which the post office network operates has changed beyond recognition over the past 10 to 15 years. Traditionally, the post office was the place where people went to post a letter, pay their utility bills and collect their benefits. Many still do, but, increasingly, people choose to send an e-mail or text; they pay bills by direct debit or internet banking; they pay for their tax disc online and have pensions or benefits paid into their bank accounts.

“Of the 11 million pensioners in this country, 8.5 million have their pensions paid into a bank account. In fact, most people making a new state pension claim choose to do so in this way. Inevitably, that has taken its toll on the Post Office. Last year, the Post Office lost £2 million a week. This year the figure is £4 million. It is not surprising that both the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the Trade and Industry Select Committee have recognised that the present situation is, to use their word, ‘unsustainable’. So change is needed. Of the 14,300 businesses, around 4,000 are commercially viable. Many never can be, nor should we realistically expect them to be.

“The Post Office has a vital social and economic role. That is why we will continue to support a national network of post offices, and we are able to back them with the money that they need. The Government have invested more than £2 billion since 1999 to support the network. That has included £500 million for the Horizon programme, providing computerised banking to all post office branches. I can tell the House that the Government will provide up to £1.7 billion until 2011 to support the Post Office—to support the network and to pay for restructuring to provide a firm basis for the future. The annual subsidy will remain in place.

“Let me now turn to my proposals. We propose to introduce new access criteria for the postal services to ensure a national network. The access criteria will include provisions to protect customers in deprived urban areas and remoter rural areas. Details covering rural and urban areas are set out in the consultation document. I can tell the House that, nationally, 99 per cent of the population will be within three miles of a post office.

“This will mean restructuring of the network of Crown and other post offices. The Post Office will consult widely before taking decisions on its proposals. The Post Office will also provide services in different and more imaginative ways to better serve its customers’ needs. The way in which postal services are provided will also change. Government support will enable the Post Office to open at least 500 new outreach locations to provide access to services for smaller and more remote communities using mobile post offices and post offices within other locations, such as in shops, village halls, community centres or travelling mobile vans. In some cases, these will be able to deliver services directly to people’s homes. The Post Office is also determined to provide more new services for its customers, particularly financial services. It is, for example, the market leader now in foreign exchange provision.

“We expect that, as a result of these changes, about 2,500 post office branches will close. However, the remaining network of around 12,000 will still have more branches than the entire UK banking network.

“After discussion with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, the Government have decided to provide compensation to those leaving the Post Office, based on a 28-month remuneration package.

“The Government want to devolve greater responsibility for local decisions and to provide greater flexibility for local funding decisions. We will therefore look at what role local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might play in influencing how the postal services are best delivered in the future.

“The Government intend to consult on these proposals, with the consultation ending in March. It is intended that the restructuring proposals will be implemented over an 18-month period, starting in the summer of next year. The Post Office will ensure that it puts in place procedures to consult on restructuring proposals as widely as possible, providing people, including right honourable and honourable Members, with an opportunity to make representations and suggestions in relation to outreach provision, for example.

“The Government introduced the Post Office card account in 2003 to enable people to get their pensions and other benefits in cash at the post office. The Government remain committed to allowing people to get their pension or benefit in cash at the post office if they choose to do so, and there is a range of accounts available at the post office which make that possible.

“The current Post Office card account contract ends in March 2010. I can tell the House that the Government have decided that they will continue with a new account after 2010. It will be available nationally, and customers will be eligible for the account on the same basis as they are now.

“The EU procurement rule leaves us with no option but to tender competitively for this product, and we must ensure that best value for money for the taxpayer is achieved, but the Post Office is well placed to put in a strong bid given the size of the network and the access criteria that we are now introducing.

“In addition, cash will be available at the post office through some 4,000 free-to-use ATMs, which are being introduced across the network, as well as a range of interest accounts. These will be attractive to the general public as well as those POCA users who choose to build up balances on their card account.

“The proposals we make today will put the post office network on a stable footing and ensure that there is a national network across the country. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for advance sight of the Statement—initially in the weekend’s papers, and formally this morning.

The Statement is both disappointing and wrong. It will bring fear and anxiety to people, often the most vulnerable, in every part of the country. It will destroy many good businesses, simply because the Government do not have a long-term vision for the future of the post office network. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that if the local post office closes, the last shop in the village often closes as well? A van for a couple of hours a week is no replacement for a post office that is open full time, always assuming that the van can get through the snow, ice or rain. Around 4,000 post offices have already closed under this Government. Taken with today’s Statement, that means that we will be losing over one-third of the post office network in 10 years of Labour government.

The Government’s decision on Post Office card accounts is welcome; it is what we have been calling for since the Government announced their intention to scrap them. I am glad that the Government have responded to the arguments put forward by this side of the House and have changed their minds on this issue. It is vital that the new Post Office card account scheme is genuinely available to existing customers, and that the application process is not made unnecessarily complex. The Minister said that the vital contract for the new account may not go to the Post Office. How many more post offices will have to close if the Post Office does not get it?

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our sub-postmasters and mistresses, who provide such a fantastic service to their local communities, such as the one in my village, St Mawes, in Cornwall. They tell us that they do not want to depend on subsidy, but want instead the opportunity to do more business and to serve their customers. Yet that is exactly what the Government are denying them today. This Statement is based on how many post offices the Secretary of State thinks he can get away with closing, rather than on a real business case or an understanding of what the consumers—especially the most vulnerable in our society—want and need. Labour’s vision is to have fewer post offices providing fewer services to fewer people; this is not the Labour Party that I knew before it came into office.

The Statement leaves many questions unanswered. When will the Minister publish the full list of branches that will close? Will closures be disproportionately in rural areas? How will the process of selecting branches to close be carried out? Will the Post Office identify the branches, or will it allow sub-postmasters and mistresses to volunteer for closure? How was the number of 2,500 closures reached, and how does this relate to the figures reported in the press that we are facing a potential closure of 7,000 of the 14,000 sub-post offices? Alan Leighton and Adam Crozier are doing a remarkable job in turning around the Royal Mail, but the Government appear determined to make them the fall guys for their own lack of vision in this area.

The Minister said that compensation will be paid where a sub-post office closes. Can he confirm media reports that compensation of up to £70,000 is being considered? Does he anticipate that uncompensated closures will continue? What will a local community have to prove to avert a closure? Will there be local consultation about potential closures—indeed, will the local community have any say at all?

The Minister also said that the annual subsidy will remain in place. Will that be at the same level as now, and for every year until 2011? Does the figure of £1.7 billion that he announced include the compensation to those postmasters and mistresses who close their post offices? If not, how much extra will be made available for those compensation packages?

Government and business must of course deliver their services in the most cost-efficient way. Yet this Government seem committed just to managing the decline of the post office network, when they should be trying to bring new business opportunities to it. The Government should be announcing today that they will allow post offices full access to work with carriers other than the Royal Mail. Her Majesty’s Government should be working with local councils to encourage them to offer more council services through post offices. They should be doing more to give post offices the flexibility to offer a wider range of business services than they are currently envisaging, and they should be acting to prevent the Royal Mail from poaching business away from sub-post offices by undercutting the prices that they can charge for postage.

While the Government fail to come forward with policies to give post offices a better business future, the Prime Minister lays the blame on the consumer. How can he make that claim with a clear conscience when it is his Government who have taken £168 million worth of business away from post offices this year?

This Statement is a missed opportunity for the post office network. Worse than that, it is a tragedy for those who depend on the network and for the communities that will lose a vital piece of their economic and social structure. This Statement brings us no closer to a sustainable post office network and, as a result, we are destined for more years of uncertainty, decline and dissatisfaction.

My Lords, from these Benches we thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am standing in for my noble friend Lord Razzall, our DTI spokesman, whose duties keep him away. Given the impact on our rural communities, I am glad that I am able to do so.

In a Statement made in the other place on 28 June 2000, the ill fated Stephen Byers told the House of the vital role that the Post Office was playing in communities, be they rural or urban. He spoke of how more than nine out of 10 people lived within a mile of a post office. Now the government target is that people should live within three miles of a post office. This entails a six-mile round trip for the elderly and those who have small children. The three miles are, I believe, calculated as the crow flies, so the distance might be considerably more than that. The situation is completely unsatisfactory.

Stephen Byers went on to say of the post office network:

“Now is the time to harness its full potential and to develop it in totally new areas”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/06/00; col. 907.]

He spoke of three developments to do this: first, establishing the universal bank; secondly, providing internet access and exploiting e-commerce; and, thirdly, having an enhanced role in government services. We know what has happened in the six years since then: the Post Office has had a declining role in government services, mainly brought about by the fact that not nearly sufficient energy was put into the development of the Horizon programme. It was not thought that the Post Office could reasonably tender for the passport service or vehicle excise duty, although it could have done, had Horizon been rolled out properly and fast enough.

A New Economics Foundation study suggested that each post office saves businesses in the area some £27,000 a year. Do the Government agree with that estimation? What will they do about the businesses in the areas where post offices are closing?

The Statement said that the way in which postal services are provided will change and that the Government will support the provision of at least 500 new outreach locations. How will these locations be decided, and by what route will they be funded? Will they have to bid for funding, or will they be provided with funding on the basis of access for communities?

The Statement also speaks fairly glibly of providing services in travelling mobile vans, village halls and community centres. A lot of the time, these will have to be staffed by volunteers, whom the Minister will have heard on the radio this morning saying how hard the Government’s attitude is going to make life for them. They are volunteers; they are not even being paid. The impact on urban communities, too, is not to be underestimated; for those deprived urban communities already lacking many facilities, the blow will be equally great.

When we compare the Statement made in 2000 to the one made today, we see that the failure is astonishing. Yet, before the Conservative Benches claim too much credit for having been guardians of the Post Office, the statistics provided by the Library show that 3,500 post offices were lost in the years of their Administrations—perhaps lost more by careless neglect than anything else.

Liberal Democrats have a strong set of suggestions, which we will bring forward as the consultation rolls out, to strengthen the Royal Mail, separate it from the Post Office and give the Post Office freedom to develop the new business that is undoubtedly out there with the internet and other mail companies. The post office network needs investment in order to realise that potential so that communities can continue to count on having a post office at their heart.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, made a number of points that bear a remarkable similarity to the points made by Charles Hendry MP in another place. That shows a remarkable consistency of position, but I do not wish to be discourteous to the noble Baroness. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has therefore responded to the key points and questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, but I will go over some of them and will then turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer.

We have no choice but to tender on POCA and I would not like to speculate on choices beyond 2010. As I indicated, the Post Office will be well placed to put in a strong bid. The replacement of POCA will include features similar to those of the existing Post Office card account and will provide people with a simple and convenient method of accessing benefits in cash. POCA will run until 2010, and post-2010, a similar scheme will match it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about the impact on sub-postmasters and raised the question of compensation. The DTI proposition provides a dignified exit for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who are faced with closure, and there will be increased opportunities for those who remain. Although detailed negotiations have to take place with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, we expect the level of compensation to be similar to that offered under the urban reinvention programme, which was based on 28 months’ remuneration. If I recall correctly, the figures can vary from a few thousand pounds up to almost £100,000, depending on the level of activity. I think noble Lords will appreciate that that is fairly generous.

As the Statement said, it is proposed that there will be 2,500 closures gross, spilt broadly evenly between rural and urban branches. About 500 of the rural closures will be mitigated by the opening of outreach, resulting in about 2,000 closures net. That partly deals with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller.

Both noble Baronesses mentioned the consultation process, the timing and how it will work in practice. The Government are currently committed to a national 12-week public consultation about our proposition, which is in line with Cabinet Office guidance. That means that the consultation will run from the announcement until early March, with a final announcement by the end of the month. On top of that, Post Office Limited will be required to consult over local implementation plans on an area plan basis based on groupings of parliamentary constituencies. That will mean that there will be about 120 local consultations across the country, so all that is being proposed here will be thoroughly consulted on at national and local levels.

The outreach services are being funded from the £1.7 billion subsidy that I announced. Outreach services will be managed by local sub-postmasters, who will enter into local arrangements with local businesses. We do not anticipate any reliance on unpaid volunteers and the outreach work will provide opportunities for existing postmasters and postmistresses.

Access criteria were mentioned by both noble Baronesses. It is anticipated that nationally about 90 per cent of the population will be within one mile of these services and 99 per cent will be within three miles. In urban areas, 95 per cent of the population will be within one mile, and in urban deprived areas, 99 per cent of the population will be within one mile. In rural areas, 95 per cent of the total rural population will be within three miles, and 95 per cent of the population of a postcode district will be within six miles.

I do not recognise some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. The Government have been extremely generous in funding the social networks. We are committed to spending £1.7 billion until 2011 to support the Post Office. I am not sure whether the Benches opposite are suggesting that we should renationalise the sub-post office structure or that we should be more generous in our support. I would be interested to hear comments along those lines. We have been generous, and we must bear in mind that, although they provide a vital social service, which is recognised by the Government, some post offices are serving 20 people a day, some are competing against each other and some are not economically viable. The level of subsidy is rising dramatically and will continue to rise unless we take action to make post offices more viable in rural areas and in some urban areas as well.

My Lords, before I start asking the Minister questions, I should say that there is no suggestion that he is personally responsible to the British people for the betrayal of the wonderful Post Office that we once had. I bear him and his predecessor no ill will.

Is the Minister aware of what our Government—the Government I worked hard for—said when they brought in the White Paper? I shall quote from it in case he has not had a chance to read it. As one of the opposition speakers mentioned, the White Paper stated that reform would provide,

“a world class service for the 21st century”.

Stephen Byers said:

“We will maintain your existing postal services ... We will improve postal services for all customers through greater choice, better quality and falling real prices ... We will support a Post Office network which ensures you have access to public and private sector services ... We aim to ensure the UK Post Office can compete in the fast-moving domestic and international postal market”.

My noble friend may not be aware of what my Government, the Labour Government, said at the time. Does he not think that today’s announcement is a clear act of betrayal of the vulnerable people who have already been mentioned by the opposition spokespeople, such as the elderly and young mothers? Does he not agree that if we had not acted with such indecent haste to accept European directives on the Post Office, we might today have been in a position where we were able to use some of the money that has accumulated from the long-awaited change in the pricing structure of the core product of the Post Office—the stamp—which is bringing in more money? If we had not been so silly and had, perhaps, adopted the attitude of France, which will not even think about it until 2009, we would not be in this position today. Will my noble friend now say how sorry he is to the people in those areas, both urban and rural, who are now going to suffer the indignity of going through card shops and chemist shops to find a counter, to those who are going to be given a van that might come round, if it does not break down, every so many hours? Does my noble friend really think that this is a world-class service for the 21st century? If he does, then I hope that he will take time to reflect on what he says today.

My Lords, I appreciate that my noble friend Lord Clarke has a great deal of experience in this area. He has been a distinguished worker for the rights of Post Office employees. The Government recognise that there are many vulnerable people who require these services, both in urban and rural areas. I have outlined how we are trying to structure the services so that those people are not unfairly impacted upon. However, the way that people use post offices and increasingly use the internet and the way that technology is moving on the patterns of people’s consumption mean that the world is changing. We have to recognise that. At the end of the day, post offices, which are also businesses, have to recognise that. We have to restructure them in a way that both provides a social network but also makes the businesses more viable. That is what we are trying to do.

My noble friend is perhaps being slightly unfair to the Government on how they have tackled social deprivation in rural and urban areas. For example, since 1997-98 unemployment has fallen by 40 per cent in rural areas. Fifty per cent rate relief has been extended to village shops. The rural bus subsidy grant has been introduced to support more than 29 million passenger journeys a year. Ninety-nine per cent of rural households have access to broadband services. My noble friend knows very well what we have done in terms of increasing the basic state pension, pension credits, maternity leave, and a whole raft of social policies, which have benefited many who previously suffered great social deprivation in this country. That is a credit to this Government.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Post Office Superannuation Scheme. The Minister referred to the new account going out to competition. In the criteria on which the judgment will be made, will he assure us that the competitor needs to provide equal access in the locality to that which the Post Office provides? Would he think it right to do the total sum when deciding where the public interest lies? If the account goes elsewhere, the Government will have to find another large sum to sustain the network thereafter—£2 billion has been spent and another £1.7 billion is going to be spent. How much more? Should that not be part of a rational decision?

My second point is about the possibility that these places, particularly in rural areas, might become centres through which members of the public could get first-class information about public services. Old people and poor people often do not have a computer at home. They find it very difficult to get such information. A government agency, Learn Direct, through its own operations, has 6,000 outposted installations. With a postmaster to help, these could be a very valuable source of information to old, dependent people on what they are entitled to. We all know that they are getting less than their entitlement. I hope the Minister will consider that this is a real opportunity to bring in new business and to provide a valuable service.

My last point is a touch unkind. One month before the end of the previous Session, I put down a Written Question, which, among other things, asked the Government what estimate they had made of the level of subsidy they would need to offer as a result of their decisions to change the basis of social security payments. I had an answer on the last day of the Session. It did not answer that part of the Question. I spoke to the Minister concerned and had a letter from him—it did not answer the question. In the interests of open information, I wonder what estimate the Government made some years ago. Did they come up with an estimate of £3.7 billion and still rising?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, I am not aware of the figures to which he refers but I can certainly write to him.

The POCA has to go out to tender because of European Union rules. I can reassure the noble Lord that the replacement POCA will include similar features to the existing Post Office card account, providing people with a simple and convenient method of accessing benefits in cash. That is our intention. At this stage we cannot speculate as to exactly what product will be offered, although we are aware that it will have similar features. When it comes to the bidding, the Post Office will be in a strong position, because it already meets the general criteria. I cannot go into further details because of the commercial nature of the matter.

There is a range of ways of enabling access to benefits. There is already a range of ways in which people do that. I can assure the noble Lord that part of the purpose of the consultation is to ensure that we get it right nationally and locally so that vulnerable groups have what they require and that they have free access to their benefits—through a bank account, POCA or some other mechanism.

My Lords, talking about the Post Office is one of the most thankless tasks in either House of Parliament because at the end of the day no one is satisfied. The only thing that can be said about the Statement is that it removes a degree of uncertainty. For example, I know that the Royal Mail was anxious to find out what was happening.

We would like some clarity on one or two points. For example, how many of the Crown post offices, of which there are 480, are deemed viable and how many will remain open? Once in the private sector, will the franchising operations be subject to greater prescription than they have been hitherto, particularly on hours? From my own experience as a constituency Member of Parliament, I had very small village facilities—barely post offices—which opened only for a short time. There is nothing more frustrating than arriving at a post office at 5.15, after being at work all day, to discover that it is closed or that it does not open on Saturday afternoons. The rest of the retailing revolution in Britain seems to have passed by many of our postmasters and postmistresses. That is why a lot of them do not get the business that they should be getting.

Lastly, will the Government and whoever issues the franchises be more discriminating? If somebody wishes to give up their post office and take the money, will that be allowed only in those instances where the businesses are not viable? If a person wishes to retire, he should be required to take his chances and sell his business on, as any other entrepreneur would try to do. In the recent past we have lost people who have taken the money and run, regardless of the needs of local communities, whether rural or urban.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his sympathy with me today in delivering this Statement. The Crown offices are obviously not part of this announcement, but discussions are proceeding on their future, particularly with Post Office Limited on the level of investment that is required, how services can be improved—my noble friend mentioned opening hours and so on—premises, new technology and the whole scope of services offered by approximately 500 Crown offices. The Government intend that Crown offices should act as flagships, setting standards for customer services across the network and pioneering the use of new technology. We hope that the result will be a smaller, profitable, national chain of Crown offices operating to modern retail standards.

On his question about some postmasters and postmistresses taking compensation and leaving certain areas without a proper service, the point of the consultation is to ensure that the structure left in place will provide a proper service for local people, both nationally and locally. There is no intention to close offices and sub-post offices as people take compensation. The idea is to retain a viable structure of sub-post offices across the country. The Statement stated that around only 4,000 sub-post offices out of around 14,000 are commercially viable. No one is talking about reducing the number to 4,000. We want to ensure that the remaining post offices provide the social services and social network that noble Lords have mentioned is so vital.

My Lords, the Statement says clearly that people will have a choice. Although it is not his department, and he is far too young, when it comes to getting your pension, there is no choice. Everything that people do to try to get their pension paid through a post office account is blocked by the DWP, which encourages people to have it paid into their bank account. No wonder people give up, because five or six communications are involved. “Choice” is misleading in this Statement.

The Statement refers to the closure of post offices and, obviously, my interest today is primarily post offices. If the Government are to maintain post offices within a three-mile radius for people to be able to access them, surely, logically, it will be the very remote ones that will be closed. Therefore, the percentage that the Government claim will be within a three-mile area will be the most vulnerable. I seek clarification on that.

The Minister threw down the observation, but I hope that when our party returns to government we will free up post offices and allow them to have new business choices, which this Government, with their withdrawing of various schemes from post offices, have denied the general public.

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned the difficulties that some pensioners have in accessing their benefits. The Post Office card account is very popular and the majority of pensioners now access their pensions through bank accounts. Again, this is the changing nature of consumer behaviour. I agree that people who wish to go to the post office should have one within a reasonable distance. The access criteria that I mentioned should cover that.

Which offices will close is a matter for the consultation process to surface. It will be a detailed consultation, with up to 120 local consultations. It would be wrong for me or the Government to lay down any general rule on which offices should stay open or should close. Four million people use the POCA and applications run at around 15,000 per month. Anyone who wants to use the card, which is quite simple, is free to go to the post office to take out their pension in cash. That is making access easier, which is why it is so popular and why we are extending it.

My Lords, my noble friend said that 2,500 post offices will close. Is that figure set in stone or will there be a liberalisation of that figure when the consultation has taken place? Otherwise, the consultation is meaningless.

My Lords, that figure is not set in stone. We wanted to give some estimate of our view of the sort of numbers that would be involved. Otherwise, it might be said that we were not giving adequate information or that we were trying not to disclose the scale of the issue. The figure of 2,500 closures gives an idea of that scale, but it is difficult to say in advance of the consultation which offices will close and the exact numbers in each region.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, like my noble friends Lord Clarke and Lord O’Neill, even I cannot give a warm welcome to this Statement by the Government. Also, astonishingly, I agree with one of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. A statement made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, really took our breath away. When I represented a large, rural constituency of 800 square miles for 26 years, in the 18 years of Conservative Government, post office after post office closed, year after year. In the eight years when I represented that constituency under a Labour Government, no post offices closed, because of the subsidies that were given by the Government. The Conservatives would be better placed keeping a little quiet on this issue.

What is the reaction of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters to this announcement? My noble friend said that local councils will be encouraged to participate and perhaps subsidise and support the continuation of local post offices. Will he consult the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly to see what they can do to support rural post offices in Scotland and Wales?

My Lords, my time is up, but I will write to my noble friend Lord Foulkes on the points that he has raised.

Immigration and Asylum

rose to call attention to the human consequences of current immigration and asylum law and practice and to possible improvements in the systems of assessment, care and support; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have drawn this Motion as widely as possible because I very much hope that subsequent speakers will cover all aspects of it. However, I intend to concentrate on destitution. Have the Government studied, with the care that it deserves, The Destitution Trap, a joint report by Refugee Action and Amnesty International, published on 7 November? Kate Allen, director of Amnesty UK, said,

“The Government’s policy on refused asylum-seekers is a failure on both a practical level and a humanitarian level. Forcing people into complete destitution is backfiring badly, and vulnerable people are suffering—forced to sleep in parks, public toilets and phone-boxes, to go without medicines even after torture, and to rely on charity or drop-in centres”.

Sandy Buchan of Refugee Action said,

“There exists in Britain a new and growing excluded class, with no contact with the authorities, no access to work or mainstream support services, and little prospect of their situation being resolved”.

Lest anyone dismisses those comments, let us see what those directly affected had to say:

“I feel I am waiting for nothing, stuck in limbo, in between. I can’t work, I can’t go home. I can’t get any support. I feel as if I am wasting my life”.

That was the view of a 36 year-old from the Sudan. A 67 year-old woman from Zimbabwe stated,

“Destitution—it sounds as if people have been put in the bin and are scavenging. It makes me sound like an animal. Perhaps that is what I am now”.

A 49 year-old woman from Rwanda said,

“If I go home they will kill me, straight. They killed my mother and my son. Better to move about like a nomad in England, where I am safe”.

I trust that no one, least of all Her Majesty’s Government, will brush aside such heart-rending comments or indeed the validity of the whole report. Its survey interviewed 125 former asylum seekers in the first half of this year. They live not only in London but in nine other cities ranging from Plymouth and Southampton to Liverpool. The five principal countries of origin were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan: all states which have suffered a huge number of years of war and social breakdown.

Some 27 voluntary organisations, including the British Red Cross and the CAB, contributed valuable experience and information while academic and legal sources also helped this first survey of its kind. Almost one in three respondents were women, several were pregnant and all had children here. Seventy-eight per cent were aged between 21 and 40; some had reached Britain as unaccompanied children only to become destitute on turning 18. More than one-third had university or higher-level education. Twenty-six per cent of respondents were awaiting acceptance of a fresh asylum claim, but others were backlog cases from 1999 to 2004. Just under half had been destitute for up to a year, the average length of destitution being 21 months.

In preparation for the debate I met a 23 year-old Darfuri, some of whose family had been killed. He does not know whether three of his closest relations are alive or dead. He was refused refugee status and advised to return to Khartoum, something he considers very dangerous. His view is confirmed by the Aegis Trust. For five months he had endured destitution and sleeping rough. Now he has submitted a new application since his brother is a well known leader of the insurgents. While that is pending, he has £35 per week in food vouchers redeemable only at one supermarket, together with shared accommodation provided by a charity.

It is important to look at the factual background. For some years the great majority of asylum applications have been refused. In 2005, 70 per cent received final refusals, even allowing for successful appeals. Removals and returns home always lag far behind. The National Audit Office recently estimated the backlog of asylum cases as between 155,000 and 283,000. The CAB says that it is over 300,000 plus dependants. This summer the BBC discovered that a trawl by the IND found between 400,000 and 450,000 unresolved cases. In 2005-06, 40 per cent of requests for help to Refugee Action arose from destitution.

Once an asylum applicant has had a final refusal, with no further possible appeal, financial support and accommodation are cut off after 21 days. Hard cases— that is, those with serious medical problems or for whom no travel arrangements can be made—are entitled to relief under Section 4 of the 1999 Act.

Some do not know this, and even among those who do the take-up is poor. At September 30, just under 6,000 people were receiving support. Part of the reason why so many fail to get support is that they are often required to sign a form saying they will return voluntarily. The thousands who do not receive support or food vouchers face destitution. They have the stark choice of begging, working illegally, taking to crime or degenerating into madness. Begging is not well received and causes many problems. Illegal work is wide open to exploitation. Crime may land one in prison or in detention. Madness is a real possibility brought on by homelessness, isolation and exclusion from normal society.

I have evidence from psychiatrists that failed asylum seekers are usually refused secondary medical care. Mental health diagnosis and treatment are seldom available, which means that there is an increasing pool of mentally ill and potentially violent people at large who are becoming progressively more desperate. When individuals are psychiatrically examined, perhaps through the generosity of some professionals, it often turns out that they have genuine grounds for refugee status. Those grounds have been overlooked as a result of fast-tracking or poor quality initial interviews coupled with no or poor legal advice. Some cases have to be sent to intensive care, which is very expensive and could be avoided by improving other parts of the system. Dispersal policy and social exclusion after applications have been refused intensify traumas suffered in the country of origin or in transit. Detention on arrival or prior to removal can damage the mental health of applicants.

I will try now to give my understanding of how this grim situation has arisen. In many debates on asylum matters I have claimed that the quality of the first interview or assessment is crucial. Without first-class interpreters and interviewers able to gain the confidence of applicants, results will always be erratic. Legal advice or assistance from experienced practitioners can make the whole difference between success and failure. In the survey, 78 per cent complained about legal representation and 50 per cent about interpreters. Up-to-date and accurate information about countries of origin is also vital. Legal aid has, alas, been drastically cut, and the number of solicitors willing to take immigration and asylum cases has fallen sharply.

Do the Government accept those points and what are they doing to improve the quality of initial decisions, thus avoiding appeals and unnecessary refusals? Improvement should now be much easier because of the steep fall in new applicants for refugee status. There used to be a large category of applicants who did not qualify for full refugee status but who were granted exceptional leave to remain. That happened because of personal or family circumstances or where conditions in the country of origin made it unsafe to return.

In recent years, exceptional leave to remain has been more and more sparingly given and the proportion of outright refusals has tended to rise. Between 2002 and 2005 limited leave to remain dropped from 25 per cent to 10 per cent of decisions. At the same time, removals and voluntary returns have increased slightly, but many thousands have been left in the destitution trap to which I referred earlier. What then can be done? I submit that destitution is totally unacceptable as an instrument of official policy. It is morally wrong and is sure to produce even worse evils.

The new asylum model, providing for continuous contact with a single case worker, should enable the Government and the Home Office to ensure that each refused case receives appropriate support while still in this country. In particular, temporary leave to remain should be granted in all cases where the Home Office has no reasonable prospect of achieving removal. Section 95 support should be made available until cases are finally resolved. Section 4 support, with its special conditions, should not be insisted on.

Lastly, there should be a programme for clearing the backlog, based on incentives and humane principles. These include how long a person has lived here and the connections that they have formed with this country. They should take account of a person's language and work skills. They should protect the vulnerable, especially women, children and the elderly. Work and employment should be made possible, wherever that can be done. None of those measures would prevent us having a fair and firm returns policy. Refugee Action has stated:

“We are not opposed to the return of fairly refused asylum-applicants to safe countries, by safe routes”.

Making full use of the talents and skills of people already here would have the extra benefit of reducing our need for still more economic migrants.

I therefore sympathise strongly with the campaign Strangers into Citizens. The Government should examine the campaign’s proposal that rejected asylum applicants and a whole range of other illegal residents should be allowed to remain—subject, of course, to strict conditions. To benefit, they must have been here for five years continuously and have no criminal record. Overstayers now living precariously and not paying taxes would be thus regularised and protected from exploitation. After a further two years of good behaviour, they should be able to become full citizens.

I am proposing remedies for what has become a considerable public scandal. My suggestions address the unacceptable and unintended consequences of existing legislation. I trust that they would reduce acute human misery, despair and social exclusion. They are in line with the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee in 2004 and a recent report from the Public Accounts Committee. On all these grounds, I commend them to your Lordships and to the Government. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has a distinguished record as a staunch advocate of the rights of refugees and his timely advice is more relevant than ever as the Government tighten the screws, making it ever harder for genuine refugees to get through the system, and try to starve those who are unsuccessful into going back where they came from, however atrocious the conditions there may be.

The Home Secretary said that the immigration and asylum system was unfit for purpose when it emerged that 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without consideration of whether they should be deported, yet the Chief Inspector of Prisons had expressed concerns to Ministers in a number of reports going back several years about the absence of a strategy for managing foreign prisoners. Dr Reid's reaction to the tabloid hysteria was to divert resources into detaining all the foreigners who had been released at the end of a sentence, including EU citizens who were not deportable, such as an Irish citizen with health problems and a history of self-harm who had lived here for many years with a British partner and child.

The combustible mix of foreign prisoners, fast-track detainees and young single men in the last few days prior to removal was the probable cause of the disturbance at Harmondsworth which led to the loss of 500 places in the detention system and knock-on effects in all the establishments to which the detainees were transferred. Many, perhaps hundreds, had to be accommodated in prisons, so that the numbers there reached an all-time record of nearly 80,000. When half of Yarl's Wood was destroyed in a previous riot, there was an inquiry by Stephen Shaw, some of the lessons of which obviously have not been learnt. Should there not be a full public inquiry into what happened at Harmondsworth and its causes, considering the damning verdict that it was not performing satisfactorily against any of the tests of a healthy custodial establishment?

The chief inspector reported in July that the average length of detention at Harmondsworth had increased from two to six weeks. At her previous inspection, the longest period anybody had been detained was five weeks, but this time it was two years, with 22 people held for more than six months. No doubt the Minister will explain the reason for the discrepancies between the facts and the story she told the House a week ago. One reason for the deterioration is that experienced immigration officers had been replaced by basic administrative grade personnel with no direct involvement in casework, their only function being to relay messages between detainees and externally based case-holding officers. One detainee, who had been in Harmondsworth for more than 19 months following a short custodial sentence, could not be removed because his consulate refused to issue a travel document. Your Lordships’ Select Committee on the European Union reported eight months ago that there were only four EU readmission agreements with countries of origin, and those were not with countries that generated many asylum seekers. The committee said that more effort should be made to negotiate those agreements, and to promote acceptance of EU travel letters as a substitute for official passports. What progress has been made on these issues?

Last week, the Minister said that she was not aware of problems arising from the merits test and the reduction of legal aid funding in 2005. BID, in its evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, says that the test, which requires a supplier to assess the chances of success to be greater than 50 per cent in any one case, and to achieve a 40 per cent success rate overall, is a major deterrent. Practitioners are bound to err on the side of caution, because if they take on cases that fail, they risk having their contracts withdrawn. What happens when a practitioner goes out of business? Where a firm was shut down because the LSC thought that it had committed some irregularities, hundreds of clients were left in the lurch. No attempt was made to ensure that their cases were dealt with properly by someone else. I was approached one Saturday in February on behalf of one client, a 22 year-old Eritrean who had been detained in Yarl's Wood since 15 September—a period of five months. Removal directions had been given for the following Monday. After numerous telephone calls, e-mails and faxes to MODCU, and to the Minister, her removal was deferred, and competent solicitors came to her rescue. They submitted a fresh application on the basis of new evidence, which was successful. The person concerned is now doing an access course with a view to entering nurse training. Like most Eritreans, she will be an asset to our country and its economy. How many others had just as good a case as this particular individual and failed, because they were not able to get competent advice?

With detainees, the LSC proposes the extension of the exclusive contract model which has been tried out on fast-track detainees, citing it as a successful model of service provision. This is in the absence of any evaluation and despite growing concern about the quality of the fast-track suppliers. Some 55 per cent of the fast-track appellants at Harmondsworth had no representation, because of the merits test, and this together with the speed of the process leads to a very small proportion of successes. At the time of the incident last month, there were 15 Darfurians there, all fast-tracked, who had been abandoned by their representatives from several firms and lost appeals that they had to conduct themselves. Another solicitor picked them up in the nick of time, and one has been granted permission to lodge a fresh application. Two are before the High Court, 11 are awaiting IND approval of their fresh applications, and one, who said that he was a member of the Janjaweed, has I hope by now been deported. Will the Minister issue instructions that people escaping from genocide should not be fast-tracked and should have representation on their appeals?

Sixteen countries are now on the NSA list under Section 94 of the NIA Act, which means that people from those countries have no in-country rights of appeal at all; but while a country may be safe for the population in general, it may still be dangerous for particular groups.

On 24 November last year, an order was passed designating Nigeria and Ghana, but for men only. I asked whether the Government would consider a similar partial designation for countries where rabid prejudice exists against LGBT people, the outstanding example being Jamaica. The Minister, whom I am glad to see in his place, said that he would look into the matter. It was not until a year later and after two reminders, in August and October, that Joan Ryan MP wrote to me saying that she would suggest that the country information on Jamaica be reviewed at the next meeting of the advisory panel in March 2007. That is an inadequate response to the evidence that gays are at risk of persecution and physical harm in Jamaica, and the Home Office should act to remove them from the NSA list.

On Report of the IAN Bill in February, we moved an amendment with government support arising out of a discussion that we had with the Minister at the end of Grand Committee allowing for repeal by order of Section 9 and connected bits of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which provided for the withdrawal of support from the class of failed asylum seeker with family. If those persons did not take reasonable steps to leave the UK, the Secretary of State could certify them, which would mean that support was withdrawn from adult members of the family, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has described. We said that it was an inhumane way in which to coerce vulnerable families but welcomed the increased grants for those prepared to return voluntarily in appropriate cases. The pilots of Section 9, which were then being evaluated, had caused enormous distress and terrible destitution, according to the Refugee Council and others, and had drawn attention to the human rights violations caused by depriving families of support. The JCHR will almost certainly recommend that the Government exercise the power to repeal Section 9. Have the Government published a report on the pilots and will they not act on this before being pushed into it?

When the Home Office launched its new asylum model in January it claimed that by December genuine refugees would be granted asylum quickly and those who failed would be quickly removed. Instead, in the latest Home Office statistics, the number of cases awaiting initial decision is up and 1,200 have been in the queue for longer than six months. The proportion dealt with in less than two months was down and lower than in either of the two previous years. The number removed was down by 26 per cent and lower than any of the previous five quarters. The Home Secretary has been in his job for eight months and it is time for him to take the rap instead of blaming his officials.

My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, in thanking all noble Lords who have provided such a welcome to your Lordships' House, both Members and officers. I look forward to future debates, both to learning from them and on occasions contributing to them. It is a particular privilege to be able to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House on a theme that is so crucial to the life of our country as a hospitable, welcoming nation where every person counts and to do so from the perspective of Leeds as a city that encapsulates those qualities of welcome and hospitality and yet faces major issues in supporting and helping those who seek refuge here from violence and oppression.

Much of this debate is about “unintended consequences”, to borrow the phrase already used by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. That is why we need a coherent asylum code of legislation and practice. The aim has often been to provide a way in which to enable those refused asylum to return to safe countries by safe routes. The result has been destitution, disappearance and fear for adults and children.

There must be a fundamental human right to food, shelter and healthcare. Those refused asylum, many of whom cannot return home, have none of those rights and become dependent on charity. Much work is done by a range of charities such as, in our own case, the Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, but they would be the first to admit that their support is haphazard and inadequate—nor can it extend to those who disappear. Candles shine this Christmas in churches in our cities for members of congregations of whom we now know nothing. Scared of being returned to countries where they have suffered violence, they have simply disappeared. We must not create in our country a legion of the disappeared.

A major concern that I bring to this debate is that of children. We have experienced the case of Antonio, whose father committed suicide in Yarl’s Wood in order that his teenage son should not be deported with him. Antonio went through the whole of that trauma and is now being cared for by a family in south Leeds. But he is not alone. The fear of the 5 am knock on the door pervades many Leeds families. I think of one family that has lived in such fear for three years, which includes a sixth-former studying maths and science. In October, the family were taken to Yarl’s Wood and kept there for five days. The boy missed that part of his schooling and went through that trauma. Then they came back to Holbeck because there was no flight to take them anyway. They are still in Holbeck. The boy is supposed to concentrate on his A-levels, fearing being picked up again at any time.

It is easy to quote specific cases—perhaps it is too easy. But the effect of such cases in south Leeds and many other parts of our country is not confined to asylum seekers themselves. A head teacher writes to me of three boys aged five, seven and nine. They were invited to a meeting in July to discuss accommodation and, without warning, removed to a detention centre where they remained for five weeks. They have been returned not to Leeds but to Manchester, well away from the network of friends that they had built up over the years. The head teacher had to explain to the children in the school that their friends had been taken away—friends whose home is in Leeds.

We spend a good deal of time in our society ensuring that there is care for children in our communities. Schools work on the principle that “every child matters”. How can our children believe what we say when what appears to be true is that every child matters unless he or she is the son or daughter of an asylum seeker? We pour resources into ensuring that head teachers work with social services and healthcare professionals to ensure the welfare of every pupil. When the children of asylum seekers are concerned, the head gets a curt note saying that, as he is not the children's legal representative, he cannot be party to any information about them. Attempts to involve the Children's Commissioner have got nowhere. These children appear to be regarded not as human beings in their own right but simply as adjuncts to their parents—a situation which flies in the face of the principles upon which our society is based. Will the Minister say something about how children can be given their own rights in this particular difficult situation? We cause psychological harm to children in detention and to their classmates, who see what happens to their friends and lose their own sense of security.

On a different point, there is a minority who fear return to their home countries because of their faith. Perhaps it is appropriate to refer to them from these Benches, because that includes countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Some of those people find themselves meeting with suspicion and antagonism at tribunals, having their own faith doubted and being questioned whether it is real—and, in the case of members of my own church, being told on occasion that members of the Church of England would never wish to convert anyone so it must be perfectly safe for them to go back.

I do not believe that anyone actually desires the results of our present practices. Politicians are among those who do most to help in individual cases, but we seem to be unable to create a system that is just or humane. Over the next few days, many of us will hear the story of Jesus as a child refugee in Egypt, fleeing from violence and being given shelter in a foreign land. It is a haunting story that reveals a brutality that is far removed from the words of most of our carols. It also reveals a welcome for a refugee family in a different culture.

This is an urgent issue. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for calling our attention to it. I hope that we shall hear of ways forward now to ameliorate both the hardship and destitution and also that fear which children face who are here, now, in our communities and in our culture.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on initiating this debate. He is in that great tradition of British reformers that started with those who opposed slavery, and he has maintained that great tradition in the most exceptional way. I thank him not only for this debate but for his whole contribution to the House and to the concerns and service of human rights.

The maiden speech by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds was of a quality that is entirely justified by the nature of this debate. He is a man with close knowledge of the north country, having been archdeacon for west Cumbria for some years and subsequently the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. He has concerned himself especially with poverty in his community. I hope that I may say not to his embarrassment that the master of his religion would not be ashamed of what he has said today. It is worth reminding ourselves over and over again what being a Christian is supposed to be about. The right reverend Prelate has brought a strong and eloquent voice to his Benches, which most of us would very much like to hear on many future occasions. We all congratulate him most warmly.

Let me turn from that to an issue that is perhaps appropriate for a politician, since I could not begin to match the eloquence of the right reverend Prelate on the issue of Christian belief. Our system has steadily eroded from one that was just about arguable for, to one that is now shaming to this country. I do not forget—and many noble Lords will remember—the definition given many years ago by Winston Churchill that a civilised country should be judged by the way in which it treats its prisoners; to which most of us could certainly add, “and its refugees and asylum seekers”. By that standard, we are as a country doing very badly indeed. We are a very rich country, and around us, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, so eloquently said, we see the wretched of the Earth in total destitution. They are supported by only a handful of decent people, charities and some churches. The state washes its hands of them, although their demands on the tax system are, to say the least, very marginal indeed.

Secondly, our system began as a genuine attempt to try to define those who were entitled to asylum under international law—people who would receive that asylum perhaps because they came from extremely dangerous countries where they might be persecuted, or perhaps because they showed evidence of torture, or because their lives would be at risk were they returned. Tragically, we have long since slid away from that set of definitions. I remind the House briefly what has happened. We abandoned, some years ago, the principle under which the basic means of living—enough food and enough shelter—were made available to refugees so that they could live until their claim for asylum status had been established one way or the other. That has long since gone. There was a second great battle over the rights of children of refugees, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, in terms of the support that they as innocent children should deserve from a decent and humane state—that, too, has gone.

Then there was the disgraceful abandonment of the system of appeal, so that now there is only one, often extremely perfunctory, level of appeal. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, rightly said, the first stage in which the main decisions are made—in which, incidentally, something like 99 per cent of those who apply for asylum status are rejected—is now quick, perfunctory and insubstantial. Yet it is at the first stage—we appreciate on these Benches the need to deal with cases relatively quickly—when people should get legal representation and should have their cases properly considered and then decided on one way or the other, with a limited reliance on appeals.

I recognise that in our Home Office Ministers—and, if I may say so, particularly in those who are present in the House—we have people who are deeply thoughtful, civilised and good. The mystery is how a system can be, as it were, seized from all of us and in the end go through as it now is, without being bitterly fought against.

Let me just mention two features of this system. The attempt to set a target for the return of asylum seekers is desperately dangerous. It is unrelated to situations that arise, such as the one in Darfur, which, as my noble friend Lord Avebury pointed out, is now being considered a case of genocide. There is also the situation in Zimbabwe, from where the people who are refugees in this country are among the bravest in the world; they have fought at the risk of their lives against the gradual disappearance of democratic structures in that country and the establishment of something of a tribal tyranny. Those sorts of people are now being sent back to countries where we can and have shown that they will be immediately swept into police power and, in some cases, tortured.

In spring this year, Anne Owers, the outstanding inspector of prisons, called on the Home Office, in her report about Yarl’s Wood, to ensure that cases of torture were properly looked into and argued that people who had been tortured should not be locked up for long periods. That was the inspector of prisons in spring this year, and yet we find in Harmondsworth that people with evidence of being tortured were among those who were detained, sometimes for long periods. Torture is the final lodestone of a decent society. If one is able to go along with it—if one conspires with it—one is in a sense part of it. We have to make sure that people who have been tortured and who have signs of torture on their bodies or on their minds, which is sometimes more difficult to see, are not locked up in solitary confinement as if they were among the worst high-security prisoners whom one could ever hope to meet. It is an appalling stain on our country that that can still happen.

Harmondsworth exploded into a huge riot, with police being brought in from all over the country to put the trouble down. Anne Owers’s report on Harmondsworth showed that the situation was serious and dangerous. It made it quite clear that there had been a dangerous mixture of people awaiting deportation after concluding their prison sentences—in other words, people who had been sentenced as criminals and were then to be deported because they were criminals—with utterly innocent asylum seekers who were having their cases heard, or in some cases had had their case refused but without the slightest implication that they had been involved in offences or criminal actions. That is a very dangerous mixture.

I conclude by asking the Minister, given the terrible track record of Harmondsworth, given the evidence that people were staying for quite long periods, given the much worse evidence to which the inspector of prisons drew attention of the appalling relations between the detainees and the staff, especially the more junior staff, why are we maintaining a contract with a company with that kind of record? If one privatises detention centres and prisons, the level of accountability should be at least as high as it is for a government department. Where we can reject somebody’s bid for renewal of contract because of the level of behaviour and the standard of their attitudes and actions, surely we should take that step. Can we not forthwith end the current contract—perhaps it has been ended—for Harmondsworth, and if not, why not?

My Lords, I do not normally contribute in your Lordships’ House on this subject. As we have seen, many of your Lordships know so much about it and work untiringly to bring to wider attention the dreadful situation that so many people face. However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, has begun a most relevant inquiry, which will,

“consider any significant human rights concerns relating to the conditions of life for asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers in the UK”.

Our focus is on accommodation and financial support, healthcare, the treatment of children, detention and removal, and treatment by the media. We have received a mountain of evidence, and our first two sessions of oral evidence are now available on the parliamentary website in uncorrected proof form.

After these two sessions, my eyes have been opened to much detail that I ought to have known, but did not. The people who work in this field and have come to give us evidence—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who is in his place and is a member of our committee, will agree with this—are so impressive and dedicated, so up against the odds in what they do, that one can only feel admiration and enormous respect for them, together with gratitude that there are so many people who turn a huge sense of outrage into humanitarian work. One of them, Ms Mushaka from Scotland’s Refugee Policy Forum, told us how important it was for her to come to Westminster to give evidence to our committee. She said:

“It is not common for our voices to be heard in high circles like this”.

I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for this opportunity for those voices to be heard in this high circle, and to echo the comments made about him by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

I will touch briefly on some points that have emerged so far from our evidence sessions, and then make a point about the human rights implications. Our witnesses describe clearly a situation where, next to our affluence, a hidden group of people live in want and fear. We were told that people are living in accommodation that is due to be demolished. Nothing has been invested in the building, yet people have lived there for five years. Last February, the Scottish Refugee Council carried out a small survey and found that 154 asylum seekers and their dependants, including 34 children, were destitute. One of our witnesses said that,

“destitution as a coercive tool of policy has no place”.

Indeed, it is immoral, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said.

The Scottish Refugee Council told us of the situation in Glasgow, where 1,000 families who are described as “appeal rights exhausted” live in absolute fear of the knock on the door. They are terrified of being removed from their houses, early in the morning. They go regularly, as they should, to fulfil the requirement to register at the Immigration Service, but they go in terror that they will be detained and not return. We also heard from Scotland about,

“the indigenous community who have taken asylum seekers to their hearts and are engaged in trying to support people and prevent them from being wrenched from the communities”.

That brought a little gleam of light.

We heard many shocking things about healthcare. We heard evidence from Médecins du Monde—an international humanitarian organisation working in places such as Darfur and Afghanistan—which has set up a project in London to improve access to healthcare for vulnerable migrants. I find the fact that we need this in a country with our National Health Service deeply shaming. The people involved in the project told us that they have case studies of people refused access to secondary care, including people who are quite seriously ill and pregnant women. They told us that they, and other organisations, have come across pregnant women who are being asked to pay a 100 per cent deposit for an antenatal package before they can have any care at all. A doctor from Medact—a network of health professionals working with refugees and asylum seekers—told us that, while the Department for International Development campaigns for access to retroviral drugs for all who need them, people here in the UK are refused them because of their status.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has previously raised with the Government, in its reports on the convention itself and on the Children Act 2004, the reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in respect of asylum-seeking children. I remind the House of what our committee was told by a Home Office Minister, who said:

“The UNCRC is not binding on the UK in so far as a matter falls within the reservation, and there is therefore no requirement to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration or to adhere to any other principles set out in it”.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds for making absolutely clear what that means in his powerful maiden speech.

We have heard in evidence that disputes about the age of children can lead to repeat interviewing of vulnerable children. One witness told us that a child had described it as,

“like being in a slave market, because at the airport she was taken to about six or seven different case officers and they were all told”,

to look her up and down,

“and give their assessment of how old she might be”.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that the rights set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 apply to everyone within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. In the treatment of asylum seekers we are seeing violations that are, as one witness put it to us, “very extreme, severe violations”.

The treatment that I have briefly described at the very least comes under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that,

“No one shall be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment”,

under Article 8, on respect for family life, and under Article 2, on the right to life, which applies to measures taken to prevent suicide among people in detention and to the treatment of people who will die without access to healthcare.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is nowhere near making recommendations in its inquiry, although our witnesses so far have made many sensible and moderate ones, as noble Lords have done today. My purpose in speaking was to put before the Minister the serious human rights concerns that arise from the policies that the Government are pursuing, and I would welcome her response.

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for choosing to introduce this debate. It is appropriate that we should look critically at what is probably not only one of the more difficult areas of government but also, sadly, one of the more chaotic. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who has in his maiden speech demonstrated a practical compassion and shown a shrewd understanding of the needs of the less fortunate. I know that that will always be welcome in your Lordships’ House.

One might suppose that, coming from Northern Ireland, one would interface infrequently with the Home Office and immigration authorities. That used to be the case but is less so lately, particularly since the enlargement of the European Union and the United Kingdom’s more general involvement with international terrorism. It would be only the slightest exaggeration for me to suggest that my new experiences in dealing with the Home Office are exclusively unhappy interludes in my life.

I have the unhappy feeling at this sensitive time that the leadership of the Home Office has been inappropriate in so far as the Prime Minister seems to believe that when there is a problem, one simply employs a “bruiser”—a hard man—to resolve it. I think that we all know who I am talking about. That is fine if there is a coherent blueprint for reconstruction, but have any of us seen one? The hard-man approach may work if one is running a nightclub, but it is not the way forward when one is dealing with linguistic, cultural, political and religious differences that can make communication difficult. That requires courtesy and education plus the instincts of a police officer and the patience of a judge. And that does not just happen; it has to be planned and made to happen.

When I hear Secretaries of State talking about what is good and efficient at the Home Office, I despair. It would be much more reassuring if they simply told us what, sequentially, were the difficulties and what were the benchmarks on the way to their resolution. I regret to say that instead we are kept “boisterously” confused by good news stories that ring hollow.

I pose a question: should the criminal elements who find their way into the United Kingdom and operate in a Mafia style here in London, for example, be a problem to be resolved by our police after those elements become established, or a problem to be nipped in the bud when they arrive at our shores? I am currently participating in the parliamentary police scheme, so I know the answer to that question, but I do not know whether there is currently any—shall I call it?—“border security initiative” that seeks better co-ordination in intelligence, policing, customs, immigration, social services and whatever other agencies are necessary.

If we had the sort of co-ordination that actually worked, we could put people before paper. I am neither a liberal nor an anarchist; I am a practical, pragmatic democrat who believes in values and standards and that we could do more for genuine asylum-seeking and economic migrants than simply locking them up—the good and the bad together in a system that is ponderous, unfair and humiliating and that, most of all, does not achieve its objectives. In the Home Office, I see a department of paper pushers instead of “people” people.

I turn to specifics and ask why, in my experience, Christian asylum seekers seem to fare worst of all. On 28 October 2001, in Bahawalpur, near Lahore, a Methodist community worshipping in their little church were attacked by extremist gunmen who shot dead 16 of the congregation and wounded many others. The wife of the minister, Reverend Nemit Masih, was critically wounded, and following urgent representations by me was brought to Manchester for medical care. Sadly, though she survived for more than two years, she died as a consequence of her injuries.

Reverend Masih, his wife and a son—a medical student—were granted asylum, but two daughters and their families were refused permission to enter the United Kingdom during the time their mother lay critically ill. Since Reverend Masih had been a well-known leader of the Methodist communion in Pakistan, those left behind had to live under virtual siege. When Reverend Masih's wife died, the two daughters and their families, again following my representations, were belatedly allowed in for the funeral. They applied for asylum. That has been consistently refused, and after unsuccessful appeal, they have been ordered to return to Pakistan. They are two of the families who live in terror of the five o’clock in the morning knock on the door.

In Pakistan, their homes and church have been totally destroyed, though on 20 April this year, Minister Tony McNulty wrote to tell me that,

“there is no evidence to suggest that Human Rights conditions for Christians have deteriorated in Pakistan”.

I do not know what that means. He continues:

“Therefore it is considered that there is a sufficient protection in Pakistan for Christians”.

What arrant and arrogant nonsense. Because of the Christian witness of the Masih family, because their young children now speak mainly English, to send them back would be akin to painting a target on their foreheads.

Many of us read in the past couple of days about what happened to dozens of young British Muslims sent back to Pakistan to receive treatment for drugs addiction. They were manacled and imprisoned in filthy conditions. If that can happen to young Muslims—and those who have heard me speaking on other topics will know that I am not anti-Muslim when I give this example—what is almost certain to happen to identifiable Christians? Yet our Home Office cannot differentiate between the needs of this family and a situation that permits, say, Russian mafia to stay in the United Kingdom. The Masih family are well educated. They will be loyal to this country. They have language skills that could be usefully employed. They want to work. But they have children who are being condemned by us to become victims or to victimhood.

I ask the Minister: is that what the United Kingdom stands for? Is this country so dismissive of our Christian traditions and values that we cannot see that where we betray those who are the most needy, in so doing, we betray ourselves?

My Lords, this time last week I was present at an immigration tribunal in Feltham. I was there in support of a young man and his family. He had fled from a situation of violence and conflict, traumatised by it, and came to the United Kingdom seeking asylum. He got embroiled in a fight and received a prison sentence. While in prison he was told he would be deported and he appealed against this. That was in 2004. He was a model prisoner and was released early. He accepted all the help that was offered to him to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder and his probation officer's report said it was extremely unlikely that he would ever offend again. He worked in the community as a volunteer with a Baptist church and got a job to support his family.

He heard nothing at all from the Home Office until one day he went to sign, as he did monthly, and was detained on the grounds that his deportation was imminent, which was untrue as the legal process had not been completed; that he was likely to abscond, which was not at all likely as he had a job and was well settled with his family; that his release was not conducive to the public good, although there was no evidence to suggest why; and on grounds of national security—surely an abuse of legislation. He was held in detention for three months—illegally, unnecessarily and expensively—until his legal team managed to get him released. Fortunately, he has good friends and family support and a good legal team.

At the tribunal, which I attended, there was an assumption that the hearing was to be under the 2006 rules, for the Home Office had either forgotten or had ignored the fact that the original appeal had been waiting for two years. We were in the hearing room for two hours, during which we took turns to sit on the few available chairs. We await the outcome.

What shocked me was the remark made privately to me by the barrister who took his case. She said that my presence had made a real difference to the conduct of the hearing in that it was more courteous and considerate than she had experienced before. She asked me to attend on other occasions, particularly to sit in on cases where people are unaccompanied and unrepresented and often find it a deeply depressing and abusive process.

Perhaps I have told this story, with the consent of the young man concerned, in unnecessary detail, but it highlights some of the difficulties experienced. It is not necessarily the law that is at fault but how it is applied: administrative errors and procedural delays are often experienced. I was told of a case where a father was granted British citizenship and his children had the right to join him, but the case took 25 years to be completed, by which time he had died and his children had grown up. I hope that that is an exception.

The law is differently interpreted and administered. For example, there were two brothers whose asylum cases were the same. One was healthy and articulate and he was granted asylum; the other had mental health problems that resulted in a lack of ability to explain himself, and he was refused. A more alarming case was that of a man who was granted asylum and the Home Office then appealed against the decision. The tribunal found in favour of the Home Office, suggesting that the man should return to his country and keep safe by hiding his identity, thus encouraging him to commit an offence there by providing false information when registering. There is also considerable evidence of people being pressured or deceived into signing deportation papers while in detention. It all suggests a process that is driven by a political determination to reduce numbers rather than to pursue justice for those who require it.

Legal processes within the immigration system seem to operate at a level far below that of other legal jurisdictions in the UK. In a case involving misrepresentation of an unaccompanied minor, a top lawyer said that in any other legal jurisdiction the case would be thrown out and begun again.

Recent alterations to the availability of legal aid for asylum cases mean that a lot of people cannot get legal representation, even if their cases have strength. If people have not been well represented and seek a new solicitor, they are often unable to find one to take the case because too much work is involved for a firm to invest the time and take the risk of not being paid. That leaves the way open for unscrupulous solicitors to take advantage of vulnerable people.

I turn to the financial hardship that so many people experience as a result of a flawed system. This matter was raised earlier, and there are so many reports on it that I hardly need to stress it again. I chaired the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, which reported earlier this year. In the report, we said that it is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool of coercion in dealing with refused asylum seekers, and that all seeking asylum should be allowed to sustain themselves and to contribute to society through paid work.

Yet destitution exists. One young man who had the right to be in the UK and to work while his application for extension of stay was processed was picked up by the police, who contacted immigration. Officials came to the police station and released him because he could not be deported until the legal process was completed. However, on releasing him, they removed his right to work and imposed signing restrictions that meant making a journey which cost £16 every week. He has absolutely no legitimate right to any form of income and there is no funding to pay for the costs of travelling to fulfil the instructions imposed on him. Another woman was released and tagged. Every day she has to sign at the police station, which involves travel costs of £3 per day, £2l per week. She has to pay that out of her weekly money from the National Asylum Support Service which provides subsistence at the rate of 70 per cent of the income support rate.

I turn to possible improvements. The reports of many of the campaigning groups contain recurring recommendations: improve the quality of decision-making; improve access to legal advice; grant leave to remain to people who cannot be removed; allow refused asylum seekers to work; continue support for refused asylum seekers until they can be removed; and improve the response of statutory services to refused asylum seekers. I hope there will be support from Members of the House for the setting up of the independent review of the asylum system, and welcome for the hearings that are to be conducted in different parts of the country in 2007. I hope that the Government will take notice of the findings.

In conclusion I draw attention to the many voluntary organisations, including faith communities, that help the immigration and asylum system to have a human face. It has largely been left to them to encourage respect for human dignity and to provide friendship. The Living Ghosts campaign presented 500 postcards to the Government this week. I hope they are read. Again, I refer to the Faithful Cities report, which speaks of the concept of radical hospitality—hospitality that welcomes the stranger, and is prepared to accept the possibility of being changed in the process.

My Lords, so much has been said this afternoon that I may repeat what others have said. In recent years, the United Kingdom has tried to justify its global actions as a need to go into various situations to relieve injustice and oppression. We were told that we were going into Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban because its actions were making the lives of women in particular totally insufferable, so we went in to restore dignity to the people in Afghanistan. We were told that we should go into Iraq not only because there were weapons of mass destruction—we know how untrue that was—but also to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein. So many people—I think of the Kurdish people—had suffered so dreadfully at the hands of Saddam Hussein and they were to be released from that suffering. We were told to battle against poverty and AIDS in Africa because we have to give people hope and value. History came into it. A week or so ago, the Prime Minister regretted the way in which we had acted in the slave trade in previous centuries. All that was done to give people a sense of dignity and worth.

However, the stories that we are being told this afternoon show that something has gone very wrong here in the United Kingdom. We seem to have lost our hospitality, our welcome, our concern. People come here and are made to feel totally unwelcome. Some years ago, I would travel through Wales and see signs on walls and rocks telling non-Welsh people to go home. Thankfully, I do not think that that happens today. Yet some of our newspapers, some of our people and political parties such as the BNP say, “You are not welcome here”. Hospitality has become hostility.

You see this in the way in which some legislation is enacted. We have heard how people are left without any money whatsoever to meet their daily requirements. I inquired of the British Refugee Council this morning what a single man under 25 would receive. The answer was just over £31 each week in order to meet all his needs. This, as the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, said, is just 70 per cent of the ordinary benefit entitlement. We are treating immigrants as though they can live at a lower rate and in a different way from us. When I think of £31 each week, I think of those of us in this House—of which I am so proud to be a Member—and how we live at a totally different standard, somehow without realising that if we treat people in this way, not only will they be stuck in their cycle of poverty, but they will be resentful. They will turn to ways that are unhelpful to themselves and our community.

I hear, again from speaking to the British Refugee Council this morning, of the way in which we treat those in our centres. I was told that 20,000 children, at one time or another in the past 12 months, were detained in these centres. If you fail your appeal and are not allowed to stay in this country, you lose various rights, including your right to medical care. Let me repeat that. As a failed asylum seeker you are unable to receive treatment for the diseases that are so rife in our society. We treat these folk in a way that not only demeans them, but demeans us.

I will not keep your Lordships very long this afternoon. So many other problems in society arise from the way in which we treat asylum seekers. In 1980 there were around 16,000 people unintentionally homeless in England. Twenty years later that number had doubled. I ask the Minister how many folk—and how many children—are suffering in this way because they have failed various immigration appeals and applications.

The whole picture brings us into disrepute as a nation. If we lose our hospitality, our welcome and the contribution that these folk will go on to make to our society, we are very short-sighted indeed. I was advised not to say what I am about to say, but I know of the warmth of the two Ministers on the Benches opposite. I doubt that they agree with the policy that they are trying to defend on the Government’s behalf. I ask them whether it is not time for rebellion, even among Ministers. I think that many Back-Benchers, including the Tory Back-Benchers, have rebelled already, because they are not here this afternoon. Does that show a lack of concern?

I am so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this short debate, because I hope that it will make members of the Government—even though only two of them are here—consider their position and realise the extent of our unhappiness with the present situation.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Hylton for securing this important debate and for bringing our minds back to perhaps the most excluded people in this country. I share his concern for the 310,000 or so—this is the figure provided by Citizens Advice—failed asylum seekers and their dependants, and the parlous situation that they live in. I also share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the families caught and made destitute by Section 9 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

I shall address myself principally to families. In spring of this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, instigated a welcome review of the treatment of families and children in the system. There was recognition that a few families were spending far too long in detention, that case management needed to be significantly improved in some cases and that statistics were not being properly kept, among other issues. I am disappointed that we have still not moved forward to including asylum-seeking children under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004. That would make an immense difference to their welfare. I hope that the Government can change that soon.

Before talking about improvements in government policy, I shall say a couple of things about the Government’s achievements and the challenges that they face. They have significantly increased investment in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate since 1997. They have significantly expedited the processing of initial applications. I note the caution expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on that, but it is an important step forward to a degree.

In 2003, when she was the Minister responsible, the right honourable Beverley Hughes instigated an inquiry into the National Asylum Support Service and found that it had significant failings. She took action, and additional resources were made available. The senior management team recruited outsiders with relevant experience and the result was a transformation, with great savings to the public. In evidence to the European Union Sub-Committee F’s inquiry on illegal migrants—the report is House of Lords Paper 166—Mr Jeremy Oppenheim, director of the National Asylum Support Service and a former director of social services, said:

“Broadly speaking, however, in 2003-04 the overall budget for asylum support was running at over £1 billion—which struck me as a very sizeable sum of money. In 2005-06, in the current financial year, we have got that down to about £580 million and for the next financial year, subject to approval, we would estimate to spend only just over half a billion pounds”.

That is an important achievement. One challenge is that the Government will of course receive scathing criticism from much of the media whatever they do. I do not envy them that position.

My first concern is that the case owners—as they are now termed under the new asylum management scheme—should receive consistent, good-quality supervision throughout. Can the Minister assure me that steps have been taken to ensure that that is the case? Case owners make judgments on the life and death of children and families. I understand that many of them are enthusiastic about the new model of working, and I have met some in the past. In particular, I spoke with a newly graduated young woman with whom I was very impressed as a case manager. They have a huge challenge in front of them, however.

If, at present, one takes three officers from three different offices, one finds that one officer will have excellent support and supervision, the next will have some and the one after that hardly any at all. We must address the support for these important decision-makers. We must also be assured that their caseloads are manageable. I would appreciate reassurance on that. I have not given the Minister notice of these questions, so if she prefers to write to me, I quite understand.

The Minister will know, as I do, the situation of some of these children—she will recall cases of children from Afghanistan, for instance. One young woman whom I knew over several months was unable to speak English and spoke a dialect for which there were few translators in this country. She was a shy girl living in a mixed hostel, and I arrived one evening to hear from staff the news that her family’s town was being shelled. She had to sit there with no information on their welfare. There was another young woman from Sierra Leone whose sister had been mutilated and killed by the militia there, and a young man whom they had kidnapped and kept in the jungle for several months, who was deeply disturbed by the experience. Among these people there are some very vulnerable individuals.

There have now been three reports in just under two years in which HM Inspectorate of Prisons has expressed great concern about Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. In its first report in the spring of last year, the inspectorate emphasised that social work has a crucial role to play in protecting families and preventing us from making these mistakes with them. A social worker can identify when, for example, a boy has been taken out of school during the school day or a woman arrives bruised having been detained in the community. He can ensure that the mechanisms that the case managers use are reviewed and improved. I welcome the fact that a social worker was appointed to Yarl’s Wood earlier this year, but when I spoke to her she expressed her frustration that she did not have the leverage over the decision-makers to improve their decisions.

A report from the Children’s Commissioner for England again expressed deep anxiety about the conditions for children at Yarl’s Wood. The manner in which these children and families are detained in a community can often degenerate into almost a brutal attack, because it is an extremely hard process to undertake. The removals can be very traumatic for children and families. There are also the child protection issues in the centre. There need to be good processes to ensure that children who are failing to thrive in the centre are removed and made safe.

In her latest report, Anne Owers also expressed particular concern about child protection, and she was not clear how reviews of children influence decision-making. How many cases have been triggered for release as a result of social work assessment? Has the Minister ever refused to authorise continuance of detention after 28 days? Again, I have not given her notice and, if she would prefer, I would be pleased to hear from her in writing. I see that I am beyond my time, so I had better finish. Thank you.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hylton for introducing this debate. His Motion draws attention to,

“the consequences of current immigration and asylum law and practice and to possible improvements in the systems of assessment, care and support”.

For 21 years I was a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, now the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. When I first joined in 1985, we heard very few asylum cases. Home Office figures indicate that for the period 1988-90, it accepted 85 per cent of those claiming refugee status and just over 2,000 claims were refused. The cases we heard related mainly to the primary purpose of marriage, student and visitor visa applications and overstayers, with a sprinkling of conducive deportations of criminals.

After 1992—when the Conservative Government made entry to the UK more difficult for men and women from our former colonies, who traditionally came to the UK to work for a few years and then went home—the number of those who used asylum as a means of obtaining entry escalated rapidly. Also at around that time, there was an increase in the number of internal conflicts in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is hardly surprising that people wish to escape the privations of civil war, poverty, homelessness and hunger or even simple, grinding drudgery. I respect those who try for doing so. However, I also accept that their desperate needs must be balanced against the ability and willingness of the states to which they flee to accept and provide for them.

Having been part of the system for so long, I am conscious of the agonising decisions that must be made at all stages of the process. There were many times when I was acutely aware that if we made the wrong decision, we might be sending someone to his death. I am aware that hearings such as those described by my noble friend Lady Richardson occur, and I cannot condone them. There are tribunal judges who are rude, and some border on incompetence, and, as I am a forthright lady, I used to point out their shortcomings to them if I was sitting with them.

I am a child of the colonies—I was born in Kenya during the Second World War. I recall that my parents and their British friends were for ever extolling the virtues of home, as we called the UK. It is no exaggeration to say that the impression they conveyed was that the streets of London were paved with gold. Since then, the visual power of television has permeated even the remotest regions of the world, and I do not think we should underestimate the persuasive ability of the media to promote the affluence of the West. We have inadvertently created an illusion that must inevitably burst for asylum seekers.

Almost subconsciously, over the past 10 years or so, I became aware that an industry was growing up around finding ways for refugees, be they political or economic, to circumvent our laws to obtain a foothold on our shores. Tribunal members learnt that those appearing before them had often parted with, by their standards, enormous sums of money to get here, that their families would sell most of their assets and impoverish themselves in order to find that money, that there is a network of agents willing to provide false passports and papers in order to facilitate entry to the UK and that refugees are coached in their stories by the agents’ representatives before they enter the UK or afterwards. The asylum seeker is sold a package, much as holidaymakers are sold package holidays.

I became disillusioned by the charade that was played out before the tribunal, week after week. I knew that in the event that we dismissed the appeal—and four out of five cases are dismissed—the likelihood that the appellant would be returned to his country of origin was extremely remote. It seemed that everybody, including the appellant, was aware of that. It is a very cruel hand to deal anyone because, although we do not make very much effort to send people back, neither do we help them to help themselves. As other noble Lords have eloquently said, the law does not allow failed asylum seekers to work, and they get no benefits. They must depend upon their friends to accommodate them. Many have serious physical or mental health problems. If they work clandestinely, they have the constant fear of being discovered, and they are often exploited. With my other hat on, dare I say that our laws to protect our wild, farm and domestic animals are much better than those that protect these people?

So what are we to do about it? First, I believe that prevention is better than cure. If we are serious about reducing the number of asylum seekers, we must start at the beginning. There must be some way in which the media can be harnessed to dissuade economic migrants coming to this country. We must help them make a decent living in their own countries, feed themselves and become healthy. Where possible, those who so callously exploit their compatriots by acting as agents need to be discouraged. Agents must be well known in the departure areas of certain airports and in the arrivals sections of others. Immigration desks at international airports must always be manned. Agents soon get to know, for example, that desks are not always manned in the small hours at Heathrow airport.

I am not alone in the thought that once asylum seekers set foot on UK soil they must feel that they are wading through treacle; so too must those working in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I suggest that when improvements to systems are sought, those actually doing the job might be the best equipped to suggest where and how such improvements might be carried out. There has been a marked increase in the use of outside agencies to conduct surveys and to come up with answers that are already staring managers in the face. There seems to be an all-pervading reluctance to make old-fashioned management decisions without hands being held by someone from outside the organisation. I am sure that staff who are encouraged to discuss problems and to propose remedies, who know that their job is just as important as anyone else’s and see why it is important and who know that they are an essential part of the whole will work with much more enthusiasm than is now apparent. There has been a marked lack of communication and consultation by management in recent years.

This Government have done much to weed out the solicitors’ firms and other advisory agencies that were obviously exploiting asylum seekers, other would-be immigrants and the British taxpayer. Most of those who remain try to provide an acceptable service given the financial and time constraints imposed on them by the law and the handicaps that are the hallmarks of an inefficient bureaucracy. The usually excellent Home Office presenting officers are also handicapped—by the late service of papers, lost files, incomplete bundles and insufficient time in which to absorb the details of a case. This is no way to administer justice fairly. It is not fair to the appellant or to the British citizen who must foot the bill. It leads to appeals, which clog up the courts and create further delays. The longer an asylum seeker or other immigrant remains in the appeal pipeline, the more embedded they get into the British way of life and, strangely enough, the more right they think that they have to stay here. Whatever happened to firm, fast and fair?

Ideally, we should put the whole of the current system in the bin and start again, with a totally new, streamlined department using experienced personnel, but I know that that cannot be done. There is no reason why we cannot discuss possible solutions with the experienced people and—who knows?—the answers may surface. An independent review is long overdue.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for this debate.

The Prime Minister said last week that immigrants ought to stay away if they cannot conform to our culture. This remark was dubbed by some as the end of multiculturalism. I would rather see it as the start of the next general election campaign, because the coming two years will see a rise in xenophobia, as a challenge to what the Prime Minister calls the culture of tolerance. The two main parties are bound to take account of it by swinging to the right.

I found one Daily Telegraph blogger responding as follows:

“The eastern European invasion has just about put us under. The excessive numbers of foreign individuals your party has allowed to flow unchallenged into the UK over the past 10 years has changed the face of Britain forever. Our tiny island now has over 60 million people inside its borders. We are sinking fast, from clogged and jam-packed roads”.

And so on.

Such prejudice comes from a small minority, but it must be met head on and resisted squarely with facts. We are not an overcrowded country. Our economy and service industries have gained from the latest EU migration. “Foreign” is an increasingly hard term to define, when many—perhaps a majority—have a foreign origin somewhere. Refugees and migrants have always brought new ideas and new wealth. Of course there are too many illegal immigrants. We are controlling those, or trying to, and reducing the new arrivals, but it is not primarily a numbers game. We need new migrants and we have a duty towards others under the various UN conventions. Let us therefore become the standard bearers of good practice rather than the soft touch, as the attitude is sometimes misleadingly portrayed.

We have not yet got right—something that the blogger will never see—a fair system for asylum seekers. The succession of Bills, and we have another coming shortly, shows that there is an inbuilt official failure to get it right. We have heard many examples from my noble friend Lady Richardson. The latest report on Harmondsworth IRC is a reminder of how many things the Home Office can still get badly wrong, although I very much take the point made by my noble friend Lady Mar. The report is described by the chief inspector as,

“undoubtedly the poorest we have issued on an IRC”,

which is a strong indictment, especially when we remember how high the inspectorate stands in public esteem.

I will use this report to highlight some of the worst grievances, but I shall not ignore the improvements in the new model, which show that the IND is gradually making an impact on the culture of disbelief. One of the most serious criticisms in the report is victimisation and the lack of support for victims from the moment of arrival; 44 per cent of detainees claim to have been bullied or victimised, compared to 28 per cent in the other IRCs, and as many as 61 per cent of detainees felt that they were unsafe. Rule 3 of the Detention Centre Rules states that the very purpose of the centre is to provide for the,

“secure but humane accommodation of detainees … respecting in particular their dignity and the right to individual expression”.

I can hear our blogger protesting at this point that foreigners due for removal have no right to be treated like citizens and should not have access to welfare, television or anything else. The IND has moved well beyond that position, but it needs constantly reminding that even detainees awaiting removal cannot be subject to the vagaries of a prison establishment.

One would expect humanitarian treatment to be an even more absolute requirement for those who have already been the victims of persecution in their own country. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has said and the Medical Foundation knows, too many asylum seekers who allege torture still turn up in fast track at Harmondsworth. Yet, their cases are not always followed up. In the year to June 2006, 131 detainees reported that they had been victims of torture. As a result of this, 57 cases were forwarded by healthcare staff, but nothing seems to have happened. With a 99 per cent chance of refusal and removal, it might not be thought to be worth following up those cases. Could the Government comment on this report?

On the positive side, healthcare and hygiene were generally good. The work of the chaplaincy and the education department were assessed as,

“extremely good … and valued by detainees”.

The cultural and religious affairs liaison officer was obviously making an important impact on race and cultural problems, which contrasts with the somewhat weaker regimes that I have seen at Yarlswood and Oakington. In her introduction, the chief inspector sees these as “pockets of good practice”. Significantly, she adds that the staff felt much less valued by managers than by detainees.

The third part of the report deals with legal rights, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. It is well known, and we discussed it in the previous Bill, that professional legal advice is still minimal. The Home Office is trying to improve it. However, the report says that solicitors often fail to respond because they were not able to take on new cases. Funds were available, but with the high refusal rate many duty solicitors withdrew even though half the detainees had had no legal representation during their appeal in the previous three months. The LSC is trying to address this through a legal advice surgery, but it is painfully slow. What success has there been in putting right this anomaly, by which if a person is already a no-hoper, he or she has proportionally less hope of being rescued?

It is a sad comment on our society when an institution like Harmondsworth should be so neglected that it is not only the subject of the worst report, but even its inmates are forced to riot in protest, causing untold disruption to the current administration and putting back by many months any new-found confidence in the system.

Incidentally, my noble friend and I attended the launch of the Refugee Action report on destitution. Like him I urge the Government to ensure that no rejected asylum seeker is forced into the limbo of destitution. The new asylum model should provide for the support and accommodation they need until they return home. I am planning a visit to Harmondsworth among other centres soon as a member of the Independent Asylum Commission. The commission will set up an association with the Citizen Organising Foundation and it is conducting a nationwide review of the asylum system and will report back in April 2008.

Detention and removal will form part of the inquiry, although the emphasis will be on access to the system. In the mean time we all look forward to the Minister’s explanation of the changes that will have to take place in response to the chief inspector’s report.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this important debate and I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds on the contents of his maiden speech. We are assisted in our discussions by Refugee Action and Amnesty in their excellent report on destitution among refused asylum seekers. There have been 11 speakers so far, and not a crumb of comfort for the Minister. I do not necessarily subscribe to the views of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno when he said that the Ministers and her colleagues should rebel. All I want to make sure is that she will be there in that department to stop some of the excesses that often come about in terms of legislation.

In one year alone Refugee Action has been contacted by more than 46,000 asylum seekers and at least 40 per cent of requests for help have come from destitute asylum seekers. This detailed report backed by evidence from caseworkers requires serious consideration. The report comes at a time when we have also had disturbances at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, a point made by my noble friend Lady Williams. This is the second such incident in the past two years. The first incident in July 2004 was in reaction to the death of a detainee there. Following the recent incident the Home Office has announced that Kalyx has been penalised for allowing conditions within the facility at Harmondsworth to deteriorate to an appalling state.

Surely, following the damning conclusion by HM Inspector of Prisons and riots over conditions by detainees, we should not be employing such contractors. Should they not be sacked for human rights violations? Asylum issues are fairly emotive. Despite the nature and effects of various immigration and asylum legislation, the circumstances surrounding them have always remained contentious. Let me place on the record that every country has a right to determine its immigration and asylum policy and the United Kingdom is no exception. However, a rational approach to our needs and obligations is often overtaken by hostile press coverage accompanied by tough government measures designed to curb immigration and asylum to this country.

It is here that we should call attention to a number of terrible consequences so aptly described by many noble Lords in this debate. It is here that the Government need to demonstrate leadership. The attempts by politicians to get tough on asylum in order to appease certain sections of the public and the media have shamefully made a political football of the issue. That is demonstrated by five parliamentary Bills in the past 10 years and one more to come shortly and we still have not got the system right.

The sequence of immigration legislation has been so predictable that we need not ask what is likely to be contained in the Queen’s Speech in future years. I am sure that asylum legislation will continue to be on the agenda. In 2004 we were told that the government proposals in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill were designed radically to reform the administration of the immigration service to secure public confidence in that service. I am afraid that that has not worked. I said at the time that these were some of the most draconian measures in the name of reform. We were creating a class of people in our welfare services that would cease to be eligible for support. It was not just about asylum seekers, but about their families, who would be ineligible for support or assistance. We have been proved right.

How did we reach this situation? First, let us admit that successive Governments have introduced measures that make it impossible for asylum seekers to enter the United Kingdom legally. The effects have been devastating. The UN convention is rendered meaningless if people in search of protection and assistance are unable to reach territories of countries that are party to that convention.

At the root of our problem is the clear evidence that the culture and operations policies adopted by the Home Office are notoriously inefficient. The case identified by my noble friend Lord Avebury makes that point. Let us put aside that argument for the time being. Let us look at all those who have already sought shelter here. How do we treat them? I have no difficulty in accepting that those who are ineligible for asylum should return to their country provided it is safe to do so, but we must make sure that we do not strip them of their dignity—the only thing left when they finally got to our shores.

Let us look at the reality of what we are faced with. In 2006, a string of reports by the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Scottish Refugee Council, Amnesty International UK and others have sought to draw attention to the hardship and distress faced by many of the 300,000 or more failed asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The human consequences and the wider social impacts are very serious indeed, so what are the Government doing about this? The Home Office has set an arbitrary target on deportations saying that the number of forced removals each month should exceed the number of unfounded applications. It is easy to forget that we are talking about thousands of men, women and children—some genuine and some maybe not—seeking shelter from persecution or wanting to secure a better future. No one condones illegal immigration. That is why it is necessary—and why there is public support—for the system to be designed so that it helps refugees and deals effectively with those who have been rejected.

Within this context we should never forget that immigration and asylum involve basic human rights. We are where we are because of the poor quality of the initial decision-making process by the Home Office. Of course, I can back my arguments with statistics and I have done so in the past, but I shall avoid that temptation because other issues need to be highlighted. All I know is that we are still uncertain about the size of the problem because no reliable statistics are available. I am grateful to the Citizens Advice Bureau, which points out that the homelessness and destitution of failed asylum seekers is not a new phenomenon. For much of the past 20 years or more, most failed asylum seekers have been left in legal limbo without access to welfare support and other essential services such as healthcare yet with no great likelihood of either enforced removal or voluntary deportation from the United Kingdom. In recent years, both the number of new asylum claims and the proportion of refusals have risen and the scale of destitution has increased enormously.

There is an added complication. Those whose cases are being considered are not allowed to seek employment here. Of course, we cannot deny that some people will seek employment simply to survive, however illegal that may be. Equally, despite the uncertainty of their status, there are those who provide valuable voluntary work in the community without any personal benefit. That was confirmed by a story that appeared in the Independent only this week. It concerns Farhat Khan, a failed asylum seeker who, because of her contribution to community work in an advice centre, had been invited to Buckingham Palace and now has an invitation from Downing Street—yet her application is still to be determined.

So let me spell out some of the facts. Home Office research shows that immigrants—and that includes refugees—are a net benefit to the community to the tune of £2.5 billion. Treasury figures suggest that economic growth would fall by 0.5 per cent over the next two years if migration to Britain ceased. At the root of our concern is the provision of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which denies financial support and accommodation to the families whose appeals have been dismissed. No matter how we try to disguise the implication, it is clear that for a local authority to maintain its obligation to the welfare of children of such families, they may have to be placed in the care of the local authority.

Detention of children is also a very serious matter, if they are detained solely for an administrative purpose and without time limits. Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out what is appropriate—that is, the shortest possible time for which children should be detained. Can the Minister confirm that that is now the Government’s policy?

There is also ample evidence about matters relating to healthcare. The report that has been produced by the Refugee Council clearly demonstrated that over the summer people were being denied maternity care, cataract operations and treatment for cancer because of the regulations introduced in 2004. The point that the Government have to accept is that destitution among refused asylum seekers has risen to its present level because of government policy.

Let me cite some good examples of what the Government could usefully do. Islington council has developed a service based on finding resolutions to people’s destitution. For those who have met strict eligibility criteria it provides care support, including accommodation and financial support. It currently provides care support to 64 people who have no recourse to public funds. Since December 2006, it has been involved in a taskforce with the Home Office, working in partnership to find a resolution to 50 of Islington’s cases that have no public funds to support them. It is worth looking at such positive examples, even in a short measure, to see how the Government can help. This is a step in the right direction; it is rather late, but it is important to follow such positive examples in being able to help those who are least fortunate in this country. I commend this to the Home Office.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for giving us the opportunity for this debate today. The subject of immigration and asylum law is one which political leaders find particularly testing. For the past five years it has featured as one of the most important political issues in the minds of the British people, so mainstream politicians must give it serious attention. At the same time they need to do so in a calm and rational way. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was right to remind us of that.

The need for such a tone is obvious. Ill-judged language can cause genuine hurt and damage community relations. Yet one common political response in these circumstances—that of avoiding any risks by playing down the issue—is inadequate. Taking such a course gives rise to a disconnection between politicians and the electorate, which in turn leaves the field wide open to the misinformed, the conspiracy theorists and extremists.

The debate over economic migration is often confused with that over asylum, and we believe that it is important to differentiate carefully and clearly between the two when possible. Noble Lords have concentrated almost exclusively on the asylum part of the title of the debate, but I shall focus on the immigration part. The reason for that is quite simple: my right honourable friend David Davis and my honourable friend Damian Green have recently published our views on controlling economic migration, and I shall use that as the basis for my comments today. We shall be publishing our views on asylum at a later date.

We should note, however, that the system for asylum applications is struggling. There is a sharp fall in the number receiving a decision within two months, which means that delays are once more building up in the asylum system. That is unfair both to genuine asylum seekers and the British taxpayer. I am grateful to all those organisations that have provided such careful briefing on asylum issues for today’s debate. They argue that we are failing the children of asylum seekers in particular. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds today concentrated on that in his most welcome maiden speech. This is indeed a fraught issue, and not one that is easy to resolve. If the Minister can do so today, she will be waving a magic wand.

While briefly referring to asylum, I must mention once again my concern about the fact that the Government have not yet signed up to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. As ever, I ask the Government to explain what progress they have made towards signing up to it. Of course, I acknowledge, as I always do, that there are legitimate concerns about doing so in such a way that provides a pull factor to the UK. I would not wish to encourage traffickers to think that we were helping them in their hateful business. Have the Government yet found a way of resolving that?

The importance of addressing immigration seriously and calmly has been reinforced by the events of 2006 at the Home Office. The public collapse of some of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate’s policies, leading to the sacking of Charles Clarke as Home Secretary, and the unprecedented admission by his successor John Reid that the department was not “fit for purpose”, have reduced public confidence further than ever. That was accompanied by the extraordinary failure of the Government to predict how many people would come to work in Britain from the new countries that entered the European Union in 2004. Last week, we had the spectacle of the immigration Minister giving evidence to the Select Committee in another place admitting that the Home Office has no idea how many people might come to Britain from Romania and Bulgaria when they join the EU on 1 January. Members of another place were right to voice their concern that the Home Office is operating in an evidence vacuum which it is only now trying to fill by setting up an advisory committee to look at the impact of immigration. All of that has occurred in the context of greater strain on community relations than we have seen for decades. Given those strains, it is more important than ever that immigration policy does not serve to exacerbate tension between communities.

The Minister’s honourable friend Karen Buck made the point in the Select Committee in another place that children in her constituency are not getting school places because of the pressure of numbers of those coming to the UK from overseas to live and work. What account have the Government taken of that? When assessing the human consequences of current immigration and asylum law, it is vital to consider the impact of those coming to the UK on the provision of services for all of us; those of us who live here already, those who seek to come here as economic migrants, and those who are seeking asylum. All those groups matter as individuals and as human beings.

The immediate response of the Government has been to toughen their rhetoric again, while promising to bring in a new system that will attempt to simplify the various routes by which people arrive legally in this country. The idea behind that is to make it easier for those with useful skills and qualifications to come here to work. The new system has not yet been launched, and many of the details are still to be decided. In principle, it has some virtues, but it will not deal with many of the underlying problems that afflict the system of immigration law. It will be a long time before public confidence is fully restored, but the first step must be to establish the proper principles to follow.

Our paper on controlling economic migration explores the context in which a modern system of immigration control for Britain should be set. It looks at the economic, cultural and practical issues that arise. It explores the way in which other countries have dealt with the similar problems that they face. Our central argument is that Britain does benefit from some immigration, but not from uncontrolled immigration. We suggest a way of distinguishing beneficial immigration, both in terms of the economic effects and the wider social and environmental effects. We recommend that a better distinction must be made between those allowed to settle here and those allowed only temporary residence. We recommend that immigration policy should not be seen as a discrete issue to be addressed in its own terms. Instead, the approach adopted to immigration should form part of a wider policy that addresses the growth in the number of people in this country overall, the demographic changes that we are experiencing, the distribution of the population, and the balance between the need for a flexible workforce and increasing pressures on public services. That recognises the full benefit that we have received in the past from migration to this country and should receive from it in the future.

We propose that there should be a two-stage process for deciding whose immigration applications should be successful. The first stage would be to make eligible for admission those who will benefit the economy. The second stage would be to control the numbers with regard to the wider effects on society, including the ability of the public services and infrastructure to cope with new arrivals at both national and local levels, the effect on housing, the environmental impact of a rapidly rising population, and the potential effects on community cohesion.

In most years, we anticipate that the plan would result in a positive, upward level of net immigration. However, the exact figure would be calculated only after an annual consultation exercise with a number of bodies, including local authorities and housing and public providers. Of course, that figure could not include the numbers of those granted asylum, which must be able to respond to the ebb and flow of international crises. To make the system work, we would introduce better enforcement methods, based on a specialist border police force, which would be trained and empowered to concentrate on those who overstay and the backlog of those working here illegally.

The immigration debate needs to be conducted calmly and rationally, and those conducting it need to remember who suffers most from an out-of-control immigration system. The immigrants themselves, whether coming here legally or illegally, are more likely to find themselves in a hostile environment if public confidence in the system is low. They are the obvious victims. In addition, those living in the poorer areas of our big cities often experience the immediate dislocation of badly planned migration. A compassionate approach to politics entails a rigorous approach to immigration law, and to the policy that directs it.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on securing this debate and on his powerful presentation of a number of important aspects of our immigration system. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, says that we must have this debate in a calm, rational and reasoned way and I absolutely agree. The exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, exemplifies how that can be done. I also compliment and congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds on his extraordinarily thoughtful and moving maiden speech. He exemplified the compassion for which his office has come to be known. I congratulate him on that.

It is clear from all the speeches in the debate that there is a real feeling, understanding and concern for those who migrate to this country whether in pursuit of asylum or for other, economic reasons. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was right to say that we must look in the round at how it influences all of our citizens.

Whatever the shortcomings of our present immigration control system, it would be right to say that it has three overwhelmingly important characteristics. It is fully subject to the rule of law; it delivers crucial, practical benefits in security, prosperity and social cohesion; and its principles enjoy overwhelming public support. There is virtually no lobby for abandoning our controls and none of your Lordships who spoke today suggested that we should do so. But if we are to have controls, they must be based on rules that are clear, amenable to challenge, fair and just. The corollary is that we are entitled to expect that people will abide by them and that, where necessary, those rules should be properly enforced.

I take this opportunity to thank the noble Earls, Lord Listowel and Lord Sandwich, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for complimenting the Government on some of the beneficial changes that we have brought about. This was not a debate without balance regarding those achievements. But it is right to recognise that the challenge remains.

Much that has been said today focused on one aspect of our immigration system, the asylum system, and that constituted by far the biggest part of the debate. In terms of the numbers involved, however, it is not the biggest part of the immigration system. Those who come here for legitimate economic reasons or to join their families by far outnumber those who are granted asylum. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that this country has enjoyed huge economic and cultural benefits as a result of migration. That should never be forgotten. I reassure the noble Earl that multiculturalism is very much alive and kicking and is evidenced in at least one place—your Lordships’ House.

We need to debate these issues, and I can assure your Lordships that the system we operate is based on the principle that all applicants should be treated with respect, that each case should be considered on its merits and that we should never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with individuals whose lives are fundamentally affected by the decisions we make. I very much welcomed the comments of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in that regard, and her contribution clearly demonstrated the challenge with which we are faced. There are those who wish to come and utilise our procedures and distort them. She described clearly how that is done—that although there are many excellent legal advisers, there are those who, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made clear, are not worthy of that title and have not always given the best service to the migrants who are most in need of their care and support. I hope that the efforts made to improve the quality of advice and to increase the opportunity to get sound advice will be warmly welcomed.

My Lords, perhaps I may compare what the Minister has just said with the fact that, as I pointed out, the vast majority of people who are fast-tracked, including 15 people from Darfur, are not represented at all at appeal. I hope she will cover that point.

My Lords, I shall come to the legal aid point. I was referring directly to the comments that the noble Lord made and taking the opportunity to agree with them. I did not wish to recite the whole of the speech made by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I simply wanted to agree with it and say that the historical issues she outlined were set out correctly. I know that the noble Lord may not have been in his place when she made her speech but I am sure that we can deal with that in a while.

Our system for granting asylum is, like that of all other western countries, based on strict adherence to the requirements of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which places heavy obligations on signatories. It requires that asylum be given to all those with a well-founded fear of persecution who fall within the criteria of the 1951 convention. Where asylum is refused, we will always give consideration to whether a grant of humanitarian protection or discretionary leave is warranted. That, in conjunction with the European Convention on Human Rights, requires the provision of a system of public assistance for those who seek asylum—a system of full judicial oversight over administrative decisions.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I appreciate that she wants to make progress. It is difficult to reconcile the statement she just made—in good faith, I am sure—about our desire to conform with the Geneva conventions with the fact that, in the past couple of years, we have returned to Zimbabwe asylum seekers who have been refused asylum. In some cases people have been immediately returned to police stations in Zimbabwe and tortured. That seems to me as a lay person completely in contravention of the Geneva conventions.

My Lords, as I said and the noble Baroness will know, each application is considered on its merits. There has never been a wholesale policy to return. She will also know that, at the moment, returns to Zimbabwe are not being enforced. She will also be aware, having participated in and generated a number of debates, of how the position in Zimbabwe has ebbed and flowed. The Government have continually reviewed the situation with each country, and reviewed it again, to ensure that our behaviour is always consistent with the international obligations placed on us. We are therefore able to say that we are compliant. I absolutely understand the noble Baroness’s concerns. She has occasionally heard Ministers at this Dispatch Box express similar anxieties and concerns about various countries as these issues arose. I understand, too, what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, about the importance of holding human rights.

Despite the immense pressures on the system caused by a huge increase in numbers of asylum seekers at the beginning of this decade, we have remained firm in these principles and sought to adhere to all of them. People have responsibility to take steps to comply and voluntary departures are always preferable to enforced departures. But people have to facilitate such voluntary return. If we have a system that is fair, the procedures have been complied with and there is a decision that there is no entitlement to remain, then enforcement of that decision must take place. The changes in our policy and processes have emphasised that, with compliance and co-operation, that can be dealt with smoothly, humanely and efficiently, making sure that those involved receive appropriate support.

While I am touching on that point, I should deal with an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who referred to the fact that applicants receive 70 per cent of the income support level. I remind him, as I am sure he will remember, that although the rate is set at 70 per cent of income support, the amount that asylum seekers receive does not include accommodation costs, utility bills, council tax and the like. In practice, if you put those together, the amount is comparable. Children, of course, receive 100 per cent of the income support rate.

When individuals do not comply and do not leave there is a need to enforce removal; otherwise there would be no point in having the rules at all. That view has a number of consequences. The first is that rejected asylum seekers cannot be allowed to take employment in the United Kingdom. In many cases the hope of being able to take employment in Britain will have motivated the rejected asylum seeker in the first place, and to allow people to work would fatally undermine our contention that they should leave the United Kingdom on the rejection of their claim.

It also follows that people whose claims have been turned down should not be entitled to public assistance until they have been forcibly removed. But that is very much predicated on their failing to engage with the authorities. We will need to provide assistance to failed asylum seekers who are complying with the removal processes, or who are too ill to travel, or for whom there exists no safe route to their home country. In addition to people who are on Section 4 support, we also provide ongoing support to failed asylum seekers with dependent children. We do not find that a satisfactory situation. What it means in practice is that such people are able to live at public expense and ignore their obligations. I am, however, pleased to see that the compliance issue is very much more to the forefront. We hope that we will have a better opportunity to engage with those who are in that position. Two years ago, we introduced measures on this matter, but I think that the situation should be seen in the context of the developments that we inherited in 1997.

We inherited an asylum system that was in crisis. In 1997, initial decisions took an average of 22 months. That could not be seen as fair to those seeking asylum—only to those seeking to abuse the system. Now, with the reforms and investment that we have put in place, the overwhelming majority of initial decisions—69 per cent in the third quarter of 2006—are made in two months or less. We have done that without compromising on the quality of the decision-making. Indeed, that continues to improve through our work with UNHCR. In 2005-06, 90 per cent of cases sampled by external assessors were found to be fully effective or better, but I agree with noble Lords that improving that initial stage of the process is very important.

We are not complacent and continue to strive to improve the quality and efficiency of the asylum process—in particular, through the new asylum model. I very much welcome the supportive comments about that model. The IND review commits us to conclude 90 per cent of new asylum cases within six months by the end of 2011, either by granting leave or by removing the applicants concerned.

The Government recognised in the IND review that we must deal with a legacy of older cases that have yet to be fully resolved. We plan to do that by July 2011. All such cases will be dealt with on their individual merits. In the first instance, we will prioritise those who may pose a risk to the public, and we will then focus on those who can more easily be removed, those receiving support and those who may be granted leave.

A number of noble Lords—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds being foremost among them—criticised the way in which the asylum system operates in relation to unaccompanied children. It is of course right that we offer support and protection to those who are most vulnerable. The vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children retain eligibility to some form of support for a period after they turn 18—for example, from their local authority under leaving-care legislation. It is true that these avenues of assistance do not continue indefinitely, and I have already set out why that policy was developed. However, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the new models that the Home Office, together with practitioners, is seeking to evolve is a real way forward. We are engaging practitioners across the piece to try to ensure that the reforms that we put in place will be humane and effective and that they will give the right level of support.

We need to ensure that the planning is right. We are helping local authorities to provide clarity about the long-term future of those young people and about what will be expected of them. We plan to publish proposals on these and other matters very early in the new year.

The Government are also committed to tackling trafficking in human beings—a matter mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on a number of occasions—both domestically and internationally. They are determined that the measures taken bring the criminals responsible to justice, protecting the victims of trafficking without undermining our ability to control our borders.

Full consideration is currently being given to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and to the level of risk associated with these provisions. We are considering how we might implement them safely without placing more vulnerable people at risk. I remind the noble Baroness that, although a number of countries have signed the convention, only three have ratified. She will know well that we signed and ratified. We hope that that full consideration will be productive.

So far, I have concentrated on responding to the criticisms of our immigration system, but there is much to be positive about. It is widely acknowledged, including by the voluntary sector, that the system is improving rapidly, and I am glad that that was commented on by others today. The new points-based system will transform our ability to manage economic migration to the benefit of this country. The system of dealing with asylum claims is rapidly improving, due in no small part to the introduction of the new asylum model which will be fully in force by next spring. Against a background of declining numbers of people seeking asylum over the past few years, the new asylum model is based on simple and effective principles—in particular the assignment of individual applications to one caseworker who will remain in charge of them from initial claim to final outcome. We are already seeing the benefits of that approach in time spent waiting for decisions, a reduction that benefits both asylum seekers and taxpayers. We have transformed the system for providing support and accommodation for asylum seekers, entailing high standards in the dispersal system while ensuring that the new contracts represent good value for money and take account of the wider needs of asylum seekers.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that I absolutely understand the need for training and support. I have a very long and good answer for him but I doubt I shall have time to complete it tonight. I shall write to him on those matters. He makes some very important points.

Internationally, we are working with our partners to reduce the need for forced migration. The United Kingdom has led the world in the drive to promote good government, stability and probity, which has led to international efforts to combat poverty and disease as well as violence in many of those countries which have traditionally been sources of large numbers of asylum seekers.

I should like to deal with some of the other significant issues that have been raised, such as the report on Harmsworth. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the figures I gave in the Statement were incorrect. I am told that they are not. I am happy to write in detail on those matters. Harmsworth, as noble Lords will know, is being scrutinised very carefully indeed. The controls put in place to ensure that the contract is complied with are being gone through with a rigour that hitherto was not present. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, highlighted some positive issues regarding education and children which we hope will be favourably considered.

My Lords, will the position of the current contractors be looked at very carefully with a view to considering whether the contract should be renewed?

My Lords, the contract has been looked at very carefully and is being monitored with a new rigour. Changes are now starting to happen, and I can reassure the noble Baroness that that will continue. Reference has already been made to the penalty that the company had to pay for its failure to comply. If we felt that it did not have the ability to address and redress those matters we would consider the position very carefully. The noble Baroness should also remember that one of the main people driving this forward is the new director of the centre. Prior to his appointment he was one of the inspectors responsible for looking at how to make these things work better. Those levers are very important and we will continue to look at them.

I am conscious that I have not had an opportunity to answer the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, and a number of other noble Lords. Bearing in mind that my time has well and truly run out, I undertake to write to all those to whom I have not had an opportunity to give a full and satisfactory answer.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that UK applicants do not receive 100 per cent of benefit as they do not pay council tax and so on? So there is still a 30 per cent gap.

My Lords, I am given to understand that the benefit is not exactly the same but there is rough parity. I am very happy to write to the noble Lord on those matters. I was seeking to deal with his suggestion that the only amount they receive is slightly over £30 and they were in receipt of no other support. That is not quite the picture because accommodation and some other expenses are paid for them. I understand how the difficulty may have arisen. I shall write to the noble Lord on all those matters. I apologise for not being able to cover fully all the interesting issues that were raised. I should have congratulated the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on providing us at last with an outline of what the Tory party actually thinks.

My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all those who have spoken in today’s debate. I particularly welcome the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. As I told him earlier, I, like so many others, knew his predecessor, and it is clear that he is treading nobly in his footsteps. I also greatly value the support that I have received from my noble friends on the Cross Benches and from almost the whole of the Liberal Democrat party.

The debate has clearly expressed the concern felt throughout the House on the subject. It has highlighted our feelings about the treatment not only of adults but of children, who, as many of us feel, should be considered as persons in their own right, in accordance with the United Nations convention. Of course, we all want a just and humane system. The Minister enunciated some wonderful principles, but I noticed that she did not move very far from the rather hard line taken by Governments over a long period. In particular, she did not respond to me on the urgent and serious matter of destitution. I have no doubt that we shall have to come back to that.

I look forward to the Government’s proposals, which will appear in the new year, as I do to the work of the independent commission on migration and asylum. I hope that both pieces of work will concentrate on improving administration at every point along the line and on incorporating best practice into how we administer these matters. Neither did I hear much about regularisation of those who are here illegally. I hope that that is something on which the Government will concentrate some effort. With these words and with deep gratitude, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Petroleum Act 1998 (Third Party Access) Order 2007

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 November be approved [Second Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order before you makes certain amendments to the Petroleum Act 1998 and should be seen in the wider context of the UK’s security of supply and diversification of supplies agenda.

Noble Lords will be aware that earlier this week the order was debated in Committee in the other place. During that debate, the Minister of State for Science and Innovation reminded the Committee of the strategic importance of the Langeled South pipeline from Norway, which flowed first gas to the national grid in October this year. The pipeline has capacity to meet up to 16 per cent of the UK’s winter demand for gas and is a very welcome addition to the UK’s import capacity at a time when our reserves of oil and gas are declining. We are fortunate in having a long history of close partnership with the Norwegians, who have proven to be stable and reliable partners and suppliers.

The purpose of the order—the Petroleum Act 1998 (Third Party Access) Order 2007—is to make certain amendments to the Petroleum Act 1998. The amendments are consequent on provisions agreed in the 2005 UK/Norway framework agreement on cross-boundary petroleum co-operation and, in particular, provisions that relate to the Langeled South pipeline.

The 2005 framework agreement was an innovative umbrella agreement to streamline the processes for approving a variety of projects in the future, but it also laid down specific provisions in respect of this major gas pipeline to the UK. When we negotiated it, it was agreed that the Norwegian regulated access system, where shippers are subject to published tariffs and terms, would apply to the whole of the Langeled South pipeline, which forms an integral part of the Norwegian offshore gas pipeline network.

The regulated access system differs from the United Kingdom’s offshore system, where access terms are a matter for negotiation between individual shippers and the pipeline owner, with subsequent determination by the Secretary of State only if negotiation proves unsuccessful. The provisions in the framework agreement thus avoid the complexity of different access systems at points along the pipeline length.

There are safeguards built into the agreement that allow a measure of joint agreement between the Norwegian and UK authorities. In particular, both the Norwegian and UK authorities must agree on the entry tariffs charged to UK companies seeking access to the Langeled South pipeline and the points at which access is to be made to it. In addition, should a UK company claim that the terms of the Norwegian regulatory system are not being fully and properly complied with, the framework agreement provides for joint determination of the dispute by the UK and Norwegian authorities. The need for an amendment to our law to ensure that it is consistent with provisions agreed in the framework agreement was signposted in the Explanatory Memorandum that accompanied that agreement when it was laid before both Houses in May this year.

I shall take your Lordships through the key points of the order. First, it amends the Petroleum Act 1998 to remove any pipeline that, under the terms of the framework agreement, is to be subject to the Norwegian regulatory access system from the scope of Section 17F of the Petroleum Act 1998. That category includes Langeled South. In the absence of the amendment, Langeled South would have remained a controlled pipeline within Section 17F. As I am sure all noble Lords know, Section 17F makes provision for application to the Secretary of State for the right of access to pipelines on the UKCS following failure to agree between the person seeking access and the owner of a pipeline.

Secondly, the order establishes, under two new sections—17GA and 17GB—a new category of dispute that the Secretary of State, jointly with the Norwegian authorities, may resolve under the Petroleum Act 1998. The new sections provide that, where access to Langeled South has already been awarded to a third party under Norwegian regulatory rules but that third party subsequently claims that the owner or operator of Langeled South has not complied with the terms and conditions under which access was awarded, a determination is made jointly by the Secretary of State and Norwegian authorities.

The changes to the Petroleum Act 1998 are required before Her Majesty’s Government will be in a position to notify the Norwegian Government that all the internal procedures are complete and that the framework agreement can enter formally into force. The Norwegians have completed all their internal procedures. I therefore commend the draft order to the House and beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 20 November be approved [2nd Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee].—(Lord Truscott.)

My Lords, we welcome the order, and I thank the Minster for explaining it. It seems not only sensible but important.

As the Minister says, at capacity, the Langeled South pipeline is capable of meeting some 20 per cent of our current gas requirements. It is good news that it will no longer be necessary to negotiate separate project-specific agreements. Equally, it is essential that the correct regulatory framework is put in place. As your Lordships would expect, therefore, I have a few questions for the Minister.

I would be grateful for clarification of the interplay between the Norwegian and UK authorities. The Explanatory Memorandum helpfully explains that, as things stand, the Secretary of State is entitled to determine third party access to controlled petroleum pipelines, but he may not act jointly with the Norwegian authorities. It goes on to say that the draft order provides for third party access to pipelines such as Langeled South to be determined under the Norwegian system rather than the UK one and for the Secretary of State to act jointly with the Norwegian authorities in determining disputes. Can the Minister explain in simple terms how the Norwegian access system will differ from the existing system? Why will the Secretary of State be involved at all, as set out in subsection (6) and subsection (8), which require him to determine applications jointly with the Norwegian authorities? In practical terms, it seems that he is inexorably going to have less control over time. In that context, what mechanism is there to resolve situations where he and the Norwegian authorities disagree?

I understand that the development of the pipeline project is headed by a joint Norsk Hydro/Statoil team, which I believe means that it is partly state-owned. As the Norwegian authorities will be regulating access, how will that potential conflict of interest be handled? What consultation has taken place over the order generally with the UK gas industry? Given the particular importance of the pipeline in contributing to the security of gas to this country, what progress is being made to increase the UK’s gas storage capacity, which is of course of equal importance to supply itself?

In looking forward to the Minister’s responses to these and other noble Lords’ questions, I confirm that we will not stand in the way of the order.

My Lords, we also welcome the order, which, although it is called a petroleum order, is of course about a gas pipeline. The pipeline is going to greatly help the security of supply of gas to this country to the order of 20 per cent.

I have a question on one aspect of gas supply that is perhaps outside the order. Do we not need to increase onshore gas field supply security? Even with the Langeled increase in the supply of gas, we still have a very short supply of reserve gas.

My Lords, I shall respond immediately to the point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale: the new Langeled pipeline is today operating at around 60 million cubic metres per day—close to its full capacity of 70 million cubic metres. I also recently attended the opening in Bacton of the BBL line, a new source of gas for the country. In addition, we will be seeing the opening of new capacity in Teesside in the new year and later on in Milford Haven. There is going to be a considerable increase in gas storage capacity in the UK over the next few years. I think that I am correct in saying that we are doubling capacity between now and 2010.

I return to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley. The regulated access system differs from the UK’s offshore system, where access terms are a matter for negotiation between individual shippers and the pipeline owner, with subsequent determination by the Secretary of State only if negotiation proves unsuccessful. If there is a failure to agree on disputes, for example over access to Langeled, the framework agreement establishes a framework forum of representatives from the UK and Norway to exchange information and informally resolve disputes arising from the agreement. The agreement also establishes a conciliation board, to be used in the event that the framework forum is unable to agree a dispute, which also includes members from both states and a third country. Decisions of the conciliatory board are binding on both Governments. That is an example of the dispute framework being well worked out and quite comprehensive.

On other disputes and the question of whether the UK has given up powers to determine access terms, I would say that we have not given up all our powers of dispute resolution. With the Norwegian system, tariffs and terms are published, and in the framework agreement we agreed with the Norwegians that, in the unlikely event of a dispute with a UK third party as to whether the owners or operators of Langeled South had fully and properly complied with the terms and conditions in the regulated access system, the dispute would be jointly determined by both Governments along the lines that I have already suggested.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, mentioned consultation. Oil and gas companies were fully consulted at the drafting stages of the agreement.

If I have inadvertently missed any questions, I shall write to noble Lords.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Order 2007

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 November be approved [Second Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to establish a new Science and Technology Facilities Council under the Science and Technology Act 1965. The Act requires that a draft of the Order in Council declaring the Science and Technology Facilities Council to be a research council and specifying the new body’s objects must be laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. The draft royal charter under which the new body will be incorporated has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses as background to this debate.

The aims of the new council will be: to create a more integrated approach to large scientific research facilities, including international negotiations, for long-term projects involving several countries acting together; to obtain more value from the knowledge and technologies that are developed as a result of the new council’s programmes; and to deliver those goals using the two science and innovation campuses at Harwell and Daresbury as identifiable knowledge-transfer centres that host UK-based large-scale international facilities.

The new council will be created by the merger of the activities of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the transfer to it of the nuclear physics research activities of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The proposal will give the council the scope to carry out those activities.

The proposals to create such a council were subject to public consultation following the 2006 Budget. There was wide support for the creation of a unified council dealing with the large facilities previously managed by the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and for keeping the research and postgraduate training powers of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council within the new council. That is how we propose to proceed—noble Lords will notice that we are not shortening the names of any of the research councils involved.

Professor Keith Mason, the chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, has been appointed as chief executive designate of the proposed new council and is leading the necessary transition work at the councils. I am grateful for the leadership he is providing. All the staff, assets and liabilities will be transferred from the existing councils concerned to the Science and Technology Facilities Council under the terms of a further order made under the Science and Technology Act 1965 using the negative resolution procedure. It is planned that the council will start work on 1 April 2007. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 November be approved [Second Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee].—(Lord Truscott.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this order. We note that the Explanatory Memorandum states that,

“a few respondents argued for the status quo but, in view of the fact that no adverse impact is expected in either the private or public sector and that there is overwhelming support”—

despite the memorandum having stated earlier that only two-thirds of respondents were “broadly supportive”—

“it has been decided that a new Council should be created”.

Can the Minister explain that justification more fully?

Among the risks acknowledged in the regulatory impact assessment of option 1, which has been adopted, is the risk that,

“funding may be diverted away from grants to support facilities management and that Universities could be disadvantaged in favour of Government-run facilities as a result”.

Could the Minister expand on what is being done to mitigate those risks?

As a matter of interest, should we not also expect administrative savings as a result of amalgamating the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council? I look forward to the Minister’s responses.

My Lords, the Explanatory Notes for this order talk about the facility of providing funding for large-scale facilities. While we support such work as the Large Hadron Collider fission research taking place in France, might money going into this new research council be directed into such large projects overseas?

My Lords, this debate reminds me of my first lecture in Birmingham Central Library, talking about the importance of science. That evening was a bit like the House of Lords—the audience was zero, although we are a bit better than that here.

This is an important statement from the Minister, but one of the features of UK science is the limited degree of publicity supporting these major facilities. Recently we had the Mars Lander project. It is important that this new research council brings together both the science and the support of these big systems. This is a major part of demonstrating science and encouraging a greater involvement of science. The public education aspect of this new research council is important. That is part of its remit. Has the Minister any comments?

The Explanatory Notes had a rather different emphasis from the Minister’s remarks. He commented on these facilities being part of an international network, which I very much endorse, but the document focused on the United Kingdom. However, all these facilities operate effectively only when they are part of an international network. The EU has systems and large-facility integration, and transatlantic international and bilateral arrangements are important as well. My point, which has not been made elsewhere, is to repeat what I asked the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, four years ago. When you apply for a research grant in the UK, you have to comment on whether the research is going to add to economic development and quality of life, and my question was whether that involved just the UK or if it applied globally. The noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, said emphatically that this was a global concern. Following that, there have been many research grants, which had been turned down, but which were allowed to proceed because they were focusing on global issues. All government remarks have been that all the big scientific issues are global. So the remarks made in the text—

“contribute to the economic competitiveness of our United Kingdom and the quality of life of its people”—

are narrower than the interpretation of the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, three or four years ago. Would the Minister like to comment?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, asked about the consultation. More than 120 responses were received by the close of the consultation on 16 June. Those in favour of the merger outnumbered those against by a margin of two to one, while the proposal to transfer PPARC’s grant-giving functions to the EPSRC were opposed by a margin of about three to one.

Has the whole exercise been about cost savings? No, it has not. We are seeking to strengthen the UK’s long-term position in access to large facilities. Research councils already have high-quality efficiency programmes, set up following the Gershon review, which will be unchanged by a decision to create the STFC.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and my noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton asked about European or other international commitments. The STFC will be a member of a number of major international collaborations—CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Institut Laue-Langevin. Involvement in all those enterprises will provide the organisation with access to research facilities essential to achieve its mission and will account for a sizeable part of its overall expenditure. The Government have responded to the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures road map by asking Research Councils UK for advice on how the UK should get involved in such priority projects.

Will there be a representative of the particle physics, nuclear physics, space and astronomy communities? No decision has been made on that. The department aims to have members from a mix of backgrounds able to command the confidence of the science communities that it serves and to provide strategic direction to the new council. In essence, I can confirm again that this is not a cost-saving measure. The intention is that the council will have an important domestic and international role.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

BAE Systems: Al Yamamah Contract

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a Statement which relates to the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into BAE Systems plc concerning payments made in relation to the Al Yamamah programme with Saudi Arabia. This afternoon, the Serious Fraud Office has announced that it is discontinuing this investigation. Its statement says:

“The Director of the Serious Fraud Office has decided to discontinue the investigation into the affairs of BAe Systems plc as far as they relate to the Al Yamamah defence contract. This decision has been taken following representations that have been made both to the Attorney General and the Director concerning the need to safeguard national and international security. It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest. No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest”.

Given the intense interest in this issue and its market sensitivity, I have decided to inform the House this afternoon of this decision and to give a further brief explanation. The SFO has divided its investigation of these matters into three periods. The first period, which it has termed phase one, runs from the mid-1980s until the coming into force of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. This Act extended the pre-existing law of corruption to the bribery of overseas officials. The view of the SFO in relation to these payments is that no prosecution should be brought before the coming into force of the new Act. That is a view with which I concur.

The other phases concern the period after the coming into force of the new Act. Phase two covers payments made at about the time of the termination of the arrangements under which payments had previously been made by BAE. Phase three covers a longer period in relation to which at the moment there is little hard evidence that payments were made. In the SFO's view, there is no guarantee that this investigation would lead to prosecution and there are real issues to be determined. In order to complete this investigation, significant further inquiries would be necessary, which would last in the SFO’s judgment a further 18 months. It accordingly has concluded that in these circumstances the potential damage to the public interest which such a further period of investigation would cause is such that it should discontinue that investigation now. I agree that there are considerable uncertainties that a prosecution could be brought; indeed, my view goes somewhat further as I consider, having carefully considered the present evidence, that there are obstacles to a successful prosecution so that it is likely that it would not in the end go ahead.

As to the public interest considerations, there is a strong public interest in upholding and enforcing the criminal law, in particular against international corruption, which Parliament specifically legislated to prohibit in 2001. In addition I have, as is normal practice in any sensitive case, obtained the views of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries as to the public interest considerations raised by this investigation. They have expressed the clear view that continuation of the investigation would cause serious damage to UK/Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic co-operation, which is likely to have seriously negative consequences for the United Kingdom public interest in terms of both national security and our highest priority foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. The heads of our security and intelligence agencies and our ambassador to Saudi Arabia share this assessment.

Article 5 of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions precludes me and the Serious Fraud Office from taking into account considerations of the national economic interest or the potential effect upon relations with another state, and we have not done so. Noble Lords will understand that further public comment about the case must inevitably be limited in order to avoid causing unfairness to individuals who have been the subject of investigation or any damage to the wider public interest. It is also appropriate that I should add that the company and individuals involved deny any wrongdoing.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I should like to say how much I appreciate the speed with which the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has acted in coming to your Lordships’ House following the decision of the Serious Fraud Office. It is important to stress at the outset that that decision has been made by the prosecutorial authority and by that authority alone. It is true, of course, that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has supervisory powers over that authority and will have given that authority the benefit of his views when asked, but the decision is its alone; it is not a political decision.

In coming to a decision about a prosecution, the prosecuting authority always takes two factors into account. First, what are the chances of success? Secondly, is it in the public interest to go ahead? As to the chances of success in the post-2001 circumstances, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has found himself able to agree with the judgment that the prosecuting authority has made about the likelihood of success, in particular in the context that it would take at least another 18 months before a final view could be taken about the likelihood.

There is, however, the further matter of public interest. In such an international matter, assessing public interest is inevitably complicated, and many diplomatic and other factors are taken into account. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has outlined those factors in making the Statement this afternoon. They are inevitable factors, which are within the unique knowledge of executive authorities. I am in no position to make a judgment about them and it is right in our constitutional system that, unless we have compelling reasons to believe otherwise, we accept the judgment made by the Government. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General is, after all, accountable to Parliament for making that judgment, and there the matter should rest.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General for bringing this matter before us so swiftly following the decision of the director of the Serious Fraud Office. However, I protest that the public interest in the prosecution of international corruption is of the highest order and, if we permit international corruption to continue in any way, or seem in any way to be giving a go-ahead to a large British industry, however much that may be in the economic interests of this country, we are damaging international relations in the broadest sense. Companies such as BAE Systems are in competition with foreign firms. If we get into a situation in which corruption is permitted or allowed to continue, there will be competition about the size of the bribes that can be offered internationally. In the broadest sense, that cannot be in the interests of this country.

The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said that any serious damage to UK/Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic co-operation would have seriously negative consequences for the United Kingdom public interest. But how can that not be forbidden by Article 5 of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, which says that you cannot take into account the potential effect on relations with another state? The two statements are contradictory.

I appreciate that the director of the Serious Fraud Office has taken this decision, but I assume that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General conveyed the views of the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries to the director of the Serious Fraud Office. Again, that is no doubt permitted to an Attorney-General, but it puts enormous pressure on the director to take the decision that she has taken.

I respectfully suggest that the decision is premature. This is not the moment to decide whether the prosecutions would succeed or fail. A further 18 months of investigations, having regard to the amounts of money allegedly involved, is not a huge amount of time in this sort of investigation in criminal law, with which I am familiar to a degree. I appreciate the speed of the Statement, but we on these Benches must protest at the decision and the way in which it has been made.

My Lords, I first thank both noble Lords for welcoming the fact that the Statement has been made. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for what he said. He is absolutely right: this is a decision by the prosecutor. It is not a political decision, as he rightly said. In his final words, he took the view—which I strongly endorse—that there the matter should rest.

Given the speed with which everything has happened, the noble Lord is not in any sense to be criticised for this, but I should draw a distinction: he said that the SFO had taken a view about the likelihood of success. The SFO has taken the view as set out in the Statement that there is no guarantee that there would be a successful prosecution, that there are real issues to be determined and that it would take a long time to reach that point. However, the assessment of whether it is likely to happen is mine, not the SFO’s, which made the decision on the basis that is set out.

I turn to what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said. I absolutely agree that the fight against international corruption is a very important issue, and I imagine that everyone in this House would agree with him. We do not in any sense want to permit or condone corruption; I want to make that plain. As the end of the Statement says, the particular company involved has denied any wrongdoing. Nothing that I say should be taken as a different view. However, the prosecutor has a tough decision to make. It is unrealistic to say that, faced with the risk of serious damage to UK national security and wider international security issues, it would be right to wait for 18 months and see all that damage take place, when at the end of the day there might not even be a prosecution.

I have wanted to go further, because I have wanted to look very carefully at the matter. I have spent days with the investigators and lawyers, examining the detailed briefing in trying to form a view, as best one can at this stage, on whether it is likely that there would be a successful prosecution at the end of the day. That is an exercise that I thought it was important for me to undertake to help in this assessment, and the view that I reached is there set out.

I understand the importance of what has been said. The decision has been taken by the director, having very carefully examined the matter and not under pressure in any sense. Yes, the views have been conveyed in terms of what has been said—and the director and officials were able to talk and listen directly to our ambassador, whose assessment helped to form their judgment on the balance that is being struck. At the end of the day, it a very difficult balance to strike. The short statement from the SFO makes that clear by saying that it has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest.

My Lords, I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has said. I have two brief questions. First, if, as appears to be the case, further investigation is being stopped because of potential damage to security, intelligence and diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, does not that really amount to blackmail by Saudi Arabia to prevent this matter going further? That must be the case. Saudi Arabia is using every weapon in its hands to block the investigation.

The second question arises out of that. What about future dealings, by BAE or any other company? Does not this decision potentially give a green light to them to go ahead with submitting to requests for bribes from Saudi Arabians on the grounds that any investigation into that process will lead to further blackmail from Saudi Arabia?

My Lords, I would not agree with the formulation that the noble Lord gave in his first question. The decision to discontinue the investigation has been based on an assessment of the case as a whole, including from my point of view the evidence and the likelihood of a prosecution and the law, coupled with a consideration of what I have no doubt are legitimate public interest considerations in proceeding with an uncertain investigation. This is not at all an easy issue for the SFO or for anybody, for just the reasons that all noble Lords have raised.

As to the noble Lord’s second question, I do not agree that the decision gives a green light in any sense. The decision sets no precedent of any kind. The Government’s commitment to tackling international corruption is reflected not only in the new law introduced in the 2001 Act but in the steps that have been taken to increase the capacity to deal with international corruption in different ways. As for prosecutors—the SFO or any other prosecutor concerned with the matter—I will consider any such cases robustly and independently, on the basis of the evidence and the public interest.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the Saudi authorities have exerted undue pressure to avoid any prosecution? They are able to say that the relationship between the UK Government and Saudi Arabia will be irretrievably damaged if that advice is not heeded. I hope, therefore—and I look to my noble and learned friend to say this—that those sorts of pressures, which are undesirable, have played no part in the consideration of this issue by the Government.

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend, first, I want to make it plain, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said, that it is a decision for the prosecutor, not for the Government. The decision by the prosecutor has been based on an assessment of the case. It has involved an understanding of what the public interest consequences would be with continuing against the overall uncertainty of the case and the length of time that a further investigation would take.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an adviser to Transparency International on the prevention of corruption in the official arms trade. Listening to the complexities of the legal arguments going to and fro, I am left with a very uncomfortable feeling and a question in my own mind as to whether we are talking about the national interest. Presumably, as a result of this decision, we will be left uncertain about whether the accusations were true or false.

The United Kingdom has a slightly iffy reputation on the use of money to facilitate defence contracts. I should have thought that it was in the national interest to clarify that. If—and I say if—commissions are paid in a corrupt way, it makes for an inefficient defence industry, so we pay more at home for our defence equipment, and it undermines Governments overseas, so we reduce our security. In the wider international security interest, we need to be sure that we have measures in place to prevent corruption in the official arms trade. What are the Government going to do as a result of this decision to help to clarify the unfortunate reputation that we are gaining among other arms exporting countries?

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the importance of taking steps to prevent corruption in significant international trades, including the arms trade. The noble Lord asked me what steps will be taken as a result of this case. I will need to write to him about that. I am not in a position to answer that today, given that the event has just occurred as we speak.

The noble Lord’s point comes back to the same basic point that other noble Lords have raised, which is that it is a very difficult issue. It is necessary to balance the strong public interest in the rule of law and in prosecuting crime, including international corruption, but not with national economic interest. There has been a certain amount in the press about particular economic interests. Those are not, as is made clear in the Statement, the reason for the decision. Whether contracts are going to be placed is not balanced in the decision. It is a question of national security and intelligence, given the particular relationships that there are between this country and Saudi Arabia in relation to that.

I hope noble Lords will understand that, as I said at the end of my Statement, I have to be somewhat cautious about what I say publicly to avoid by what I say doing damage to the wider public interest myself.

Technology Strategy Board Order 2007

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23 November be approved. Second Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in a competitive global economy, innovation and the successful exploitation of creative ideas are increasingly necessary to business success, productivity and long-term economic growth. United Kingdom business is often criticised for its failure to develop and exploit to the full technology and new ideas. The Technology Strategy Board Order will help to address that problem.

The order establishes the Technology Strategy Board, under the Science and Technology Act 1965. Its operational approach will, however, be very different from research councils created so far under the Act in that it will have a very strong business focus. The Act requires that a draft of the Order in Council, declaring the Technology Strategy Board to be a research council and specifying the new body’s objectives, must be laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House. The draft royal charter under which the new body will be incorporated has been placed in the Library to provide a background to our debate.

The present Technology Strategy Board has made an impressive start as an advisory body. Since October 2004, it has advised the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on business research, technology and innovation priorities for the UK, the allocation of funding across those priorities and the most appropriate ways to support them. The board has been instrumental in the success of the Government’s technology programme. More than 600 projects have been supported, mobilising over £900 million devoted to research and development in many areas of the UK economy.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced to Parliament on 1 November 2006 that he had decided that the best way to build on the success of the current board and ensure that the programme of technology support continued to be delivered efficiently and effectively was to create a new Technology Strategy Board as an executive arm’s- length body. Its primary location will be Swindon.

The new body will work closely with Ministers in achieving its objectives. It will promote and support research into and the development and exploitation of science, technology and new ideas for the benefit of business, in order to increase economic growth and improve quality of life in the UK through the delivery of key products and services, as agreed with the Secretary of State.

The new body will have executive responsibility for delivering programmes of government financial support to encourage business investment in and use of technology across all sectors of the UK economy. These programmes will include continuing support for collaborative research and development for business investment, and the use of technology, in both manufacturing and service industries. The aim will be to achieve increased innovation in sectors where the UK economy is strong; the development of new sectors, through the creation and growth of research and development, of intensive small and medium-sized enterprises; and support for the use of technology in areas important to the future of existing and emerging sectors in the UK.

The Technology Strategy Board will also support knowledge transfer networks. These are national over-arching networks that aim to improve the UK’s innovation performance by increasing the breadth and depth of knowledge transfer of technology into UK businesses. The establishment of the new body will provide improved strategic focus, better operational flexibility, and greater consistency and coherence in the delivery of the Government’s programme of technology support.

The new body will be business focused, with a business-led board. It will work closely with departments and agencies of Her Majesty’s Government, with the devolved Administrations, the regional development agencies and the research councils. It will collaborate with these bodies and businesses on technological developments and innovations of importance to the UK and to government procurement. A key role of the new body will be to support close working between Her Majesty’s Government and business in developing and exploiting new technologies through its programmes.

In its advisory role, the new body will alert the Government to areas where barriers exist to the exploitation of new technologies. It may be asked to make recommendations on how those barriers can be removed, but responsibility for the overall direction of innovation policy will remain with Ministers.

These proposals were subject to informal consultation in the middle of this year and they received wide support from key stakeholders, including the devolved Administrations, the regional development agencies and the CBI. There was general support for delivery of the board’s remit at arm’s-length from central government. It was felt that an arm’s length relationship would provide a stronger focus and greater effectiveness in delivery and clearer accountabilities for performance. Stakeholders also believed that such a relationship would enhance the influence of the Technology Strategy Board across the Government.

Graham Spittle, the present chair of the Technology Strategy Board, has agreed to chair the new body. That will help to ensure that the successful work of the board is carried forward through the transition period. Mr Spittle has a tremendous record of driving innovation in business and I greatly appreciate the leadership that he has provided to the Technology Strategy Board in its current form.

All contracts, assets and liabilities to be transferred from the Department of Trade and Industry to the new Technology Strategy Board will occur under the terms of a further order made under the Science and Technology Act 1965, under the negative resolution procedure. I expect the new body to be formally inaugurated in the first half of the 2007-08 financial year. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23 November be approved. Second report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Truscott.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this order. We on the Opposition Benches welcome any action to stimulate innovation in business. However, we do have certain questions about this order.

First, can the Minister explain what the relationship will be between the Technology Strategy Board and the RDAs, the research councils and the equivalent EU bodies under the Seventh Framework Programme for research? How will he ensure avoidance of duplication? The Explanatory Memorandum states that the Government believe that the right way to build on the success of the TSB and to ensure that a programme of technology support continues to be delivered in an efficient and effective way is to create an executive arm’s-length body. It portentously states that its objects and approach will, however, be different from research councils created so far under the Science And Technology Act 1965. The first thing it then says, as if this is the most important thing, is that its primary location will be in Swindon. I hope that the Minister can assure your Lordships that this is not just jobs for the boys.

The regulatory impact assessment states that the costs of delivery will not exceed current costs of delivery within the DTI and quotes an annual figure of £178 million. I may have missed it, but I cannot see a reference to the initial costs of the merger and the establishment of the Technology Strategy Board. Can the Minister enlighten us?

I understand the assertion that the encouragement of experimentation in research can be undesirably frustrated by demands for justification of every cent of expenditure. On the other hand, there is a considerable danger that the remoteness of decision- making on spending from the ultimate provider of funds, the hard pressed taxpayer, can lead to insufficiently rigorous justification of such spending decisions. What safeguards are there to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted?

Efficiency gains are stated in the regulatory impact assessment as being anticipated, but the basis on which such savings are expected, and the amount, is not given. Can the Minister enlighten us?

Under the heading “Risks”, and as part of the case for change, the RIA states that an advisory TSB does not optimise strategic focus. We have no way of judging the business case, so can the Minister expand on why the proposed structure will optimise strategic focus?

The RIA states rather baldly that the creation of the TSB is expected to be positive both in terms of improved communications and joint working. We should hope that that is the case. It then gives a long list of categories of public sector stakeholders, followed by a single category of private sector stakeholder. I hope that that is not a demonstration of the Government’s priorities.

The RIA states that the proposal is expected to have a positive effect on small businesses pursuing innovative ideas. However, it gives no explanation of the basis for that statement. It appears to be there simply because of the requirement of the small firms impact test for such a statement. There was a suggestion by the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the other place that small businesses could be overlooked by a grant-awarding body manned exclusively by people with big business experience. I could not see from Hansard that the Minister there had responded to that point. Perhaps the noble Lord can do so.

The RIA goes on to state that the Government will monitor the impact of the measures presented. How will the Government do that and, in particular, how will they monitor the performance and success of the TSB itself?

The RIA states that the TSB will produce an annual report. That is a step in the right direction and we will want to look closely at it. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that it will be widely available. I look forward to his responses to my points.

My Lords, we on these Benches give our general support for the establishment of this board and we, too, look forward to that report, so that in a year or two we will be able to monitor it and, if any changes are needed, they might be introduced then. Otherwise, we support the order.

My Lords, I should first declare an interest: I am a professor at University College, London, and I am chairman of a small company. At University College we work with the insurance industry in the Lighthill Risk Network. One of the problems in dealing with industry and research that has been focused on more this year than normal is the extreme difficulty of industry obtaining data from UK research organisations. I am sure that noble Lords are familiar with the fact that in the United States, data from its research community are pretty well freely available. In the UK they are not, because guidance is given by Government to their research establishments to charge for their data. They often make it very difficult and there is no general data policy.

I am chairman of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and part of its remit from the Government is to ensure that it charges for the data that come from its establishment. I support that in the frame with which it is done but I believe there is considerable conflict and confusion in this area. If you really want UK research to get out to small industries, you have to change dramatically the whole structure in which data are made available. You will find in the world of the environment that it is absolutely normal for most people to give up trying to get data from the UK research community. You have to go to the United States or elsewhere. This is an extremely serious position.

A very welcome point about this document, which has been a progressive change by this Government and I understand is now welcomed by the Conservatives and the CBI, is the role of procurement by government agencies in helping industry. When I ran the Met Office, I was told by the then Government that it was not the job of a UK government agency to support small industry through procurement. That was something that they did in France, I was told. I am glad we now do this in the UK but is it possible for UK government agencies to procure new technology under EU rules or will it have to be done on a competitive basis across Europe? It was not at all clear from the statement to what extent it will be possible to focus these activities on UK small industry, as opposed to actually sponsoring research across the whole of Europe.

My last point, which involves the text of the document, is that one of the ways in which the Government can help small industries—that is beginning but much more could be done—is to publicise UK companies working for the UK Government. Many foreign organisations comment that where excellent work is being done by UK small businesses, the UK Government do very little to publicise it. We well know that the UK Government are very good at publicising the Shells, BPs, BAEs and Rolls-Royces of this world, but they are not very good at publicising the very small companies. My noble friend Lord Sainsbury once commented upon that point. I very much hope that you will encourage this and I look forward to some new initiatives and the wider use of the internet for that purpose.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for his very welcome support for the TSB. I will have to write to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, on his points on the data. But I can comment on the points that he raised on how the new TSB will work with organisations such as the European Institute of Technology and other European bodies: the TSB will certainly collaborate with the European Institute of Technology when this is established and the Technology Strategy Board will seek to collaborate with all bodies—international, national, regional or local—with an interest in promoting innovation in the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, mentioned collaboration—the relationship between RDAs, the TSB and so on—and the need to avoid duplication. The TSB will have a duty to collaborate with all these bodies but it will be tasked with having a special care to avoid duplication.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, again raised the question of the move to Swindon and whether, in his words, this was “jobs for the boys”—and perhaps the girls as well. I could say a lot about Swindon but I will say that it was selected following a wide-ranging review of 14 possible locations against a set of objective criteria and specific sites proposed by the regional development agencies.

The criteria covered the local skills base, transport links for the board’s stakeholders and quality of life indicators. Swindon became the strongest candidate because of the following: its geographical situation, given that the body of stakeholders will be coming from government and business; the accommodation immediately available in Swindon, with back-office functions shared with the research councils; the proximity of those research councils; and the likelihood of more existing DTI London-based staff transferring and thus reducing relocation and redundancy costs. It was also felt that a move to Swindon would create benefits, including enhanced efficiency and service delivery, together with social and economic benefits for the surrounding area. So, generally, a move to Swindon was thought to be a very good idea.

I was asked about the nature of the relationship between the department and the Technology Strategy Board. Day-to-day decisions will be taken independently by the board. However, the board will be appointed by the Secretary of State and, under its charter, will be obliged to spend its money in accordance with any directions issued by the Secretary of State. The relationship between the board and the department will be set out in a management statement and financial memorandum, which will specify the detail of the department’s controls over the board.

I was also asked how much the change will cost and what the financial benefits will be. The costs associated with the delivery of the technology programme through the new TSB will not exceed the current costs of delivery arrangements within the DTI, based on a programme spend of £178 million per annum. However, we expect efficiency gains over time in respect of the administrative work that is presently outsourced. In addition, the new body is expected to result in improved effectiveness in delivery of the programme. It is true that transitional costs will be associated with setting up the TSB, but it is currently not possible to give precise costs for the transition process as the organisational design and business processes of the new body are not yet completed, and those will obviously impact on any reorganisation costs.

Again, I shall write to noble Lords to cover any points that I have not dealt with in regard to the Technology Strategy Board being an arm’s-length body. The current board is purely an advisory body. The idea behind that is that the new TSB will have an executive status. That will enable the future board to deliver functions currently carried out within the DTI, including taking over the delivery of the £178 million technology programme, which I mentioned. That includes grants for collaborative research and development and support for knowledge transfer networks.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Employment Act 2002 (Amendment of Schedules 3, 4 and 5) Order 2006

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23 November be approved [Second Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, noble Lords will recall that the Government introduced, in the Employment Act 2002, a framework designed to improve the way in which disputes between individual employees and their employers are resolved. The intention of the framework is to encourage disputes to be resolved through a better dialogue between employers and employees.

The Act provides that, in most cases, the parties should follow a three-step statutory procedure. First, the employer must set out the circumstances of the dismissal or disciplinary action, or the employee must set out the grievance, in writing. Secondly, both parties must meet to discuss the dismissal/disciplinary action or grievance. Thirdly, the employee may appeal against the employer’s decision if he or she is not content. If there is an appeal, certain steps must be followed.

A failure to follow the three-step procedure may have consequences for the party at fault, should the employer’s action or employee’s grievance then be the subject of a formal complaint to an employment tribunal. Where employers fail to follow the statutory procedures, a tribunal may increase the amount of any award to the employee. Any award may also be increased where it becomes evident, during the course of such proceedings, that employers have either failed to provide a written statement of particulars of employment or where it is incomplete or inaccurate. Failure by an employee to observe the procedures could result in the tribunal not hearing the complaint. In addition, in cases where the complaint is heard and the employee is successful, the resultant award may be decreased.

It is also important to note that the statutory procedures do not apply to all jurisdictions automatically. The statutory procedures and the requirement for the tribunal to consider the claimant’s written statement will apply only to any complaint under the jurisdictions listed in Schedules 3 to 5 to the Act. The order seeks to add three recently created jurisdictions to Schedules 3 to 5. Each jurisdiction is similar in nature and I therefore propose to highlight their broad similarities rather than discuss them separately. Under each jurisdiction, there is a requirement for the employer to consult, or in some circumstances to negotiate, with employees or their representatives. Each jurisdiction contains provisions protecting employees or representatives from detrimental treatment by their employer when exercising their bargaining or consultation rights. At present, the jurisdictions listed in the draft order are not subject to the statutory grievance procedures or the written statement penalty provisions because they are not included within Schedules 3 to 5 to the Act.

Article 2 of the order will rectify that by listing those parts of the regulations that provide protection against detriment within Schedules 3 to 5 to the Act. This approach is consistent with the treatment of similar jurisdictions; for example, they already provide that employee representatives of a European co-operative society, who have suffered detriment, should follow the statutory grievance procedure.

We propose that this order will come into force on 6 April 2007. The Government are making the amendment now—more than four months in advance of that date—to ensure that businesses and employees have plenty of notice of the change. The DTI carried out a three-month consultation about the draft regulations between May and August this year. There were 12 responses, including representations from the CBI and TUC. A clear majority of respondents agreed with our proposals. They noted that this was a minor change that would not be burdensome. The order will ensure that the three jurisdictions will be treated in a consistent manner with similar jurisdictions. The amendment will therefore make things simpler for employers and employees alike. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23 November be approved [Second Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee].—(Lord Truscott.)

My Lords, noble Lords will be relieved to hear, due to the lateness of the hour, that we welcome the order, which is intended to ensure that the dispute resolution framework set out in the Employment Act 2002 will apply to the three stated new areas. We welcome any measures that will encourage more employers to engage in information and consultation activity. We believe that voluntary measures like this one allow the flexibility which is so helpful in dispute resolution.

However, concerns with the overall cost of the statutory dispute resolution procedure have been raised with us by various business leaders. So we welcome the Government's decision to review the framework for settling dispute resolution, as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement last week. The Government admitted in that statement that,

“changes to the various components of the current system could produce real benefits for businesses and individuals, by reducing the time, cost and stress involved in settling disputes”.—[Official Report, 7/12/06; col. WS 139.]

To do that, they are reviewing the dispute resolution procedures 2004. That is welcome news, although the Institute of Directors and indeed the GMB, both of which had good reasons for saying so, suggested waiting to implement these regulations until after that review has been completed. Perhaps the Minister could expand on the Government’s reasons for going ahead.

The North Western Local Authorities' Employers' Organisation claims that it will take two hours for managers to understand the effects of this order, but the Government have dismissed that claim. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will provide information about the implementation of this order to businesses in language that is easy to understand? As I said at the outset, we welcome the order. I look forward to the Minister's responses to these few points.

My Lords, this must be a wonderful day for the Government, when the three parties of this Parliament all agree. On behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches, I welcome the order.

My Lords, I am exceedingly grateful for the support and constructive comments of noble Lords this afternoon. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley. I shall deal with the couple of points raised by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about the burden that some employers, particularly small businesses, may face. There will be initial costs associated with putting procedures in place for some firms. In the longer term, business stands to gain from the better management of disputes, timely settlement and a more efficient tribunal service.

Why should the Government not wait for the outcome of the review before making this amendment? It is necessary for the Government to make the amendment at this stage for two reasons. First, while the Government would not wish to prejudge the outcome of the review, it is highly likely that any replacement procedure or modified procedure would have to refer to the jurisdictions listed in the current schedules in one way or another. Secondly, any potential amendments to the statutory dispute resolution procedures resulting from the review are unlikely to be made for some time, which would create considerable delay. It therefore makes sense to make this amendment now.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at 6.11 pm.