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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. As a matter of fact, it is a year tomorrow since I first rose in this House to make my maiden speech. Until today, I never thought that anything could be more terrifying than that.
The type of theft to which my noble friend refers tends to come in clusters because it is carried out mainly by organised gangs who attack one area rather than stealing random signs miles apart. While not wishing to tempt fate, I can advise my noble friend that we have made inquiries of West Sussex, which was affected by this plague last summer, but which now reports nothing further untoward. We hope that that is due in part to improved methods of fixing the signs, as well as in part to the activities of the police, who, I understand, have apprehended some suspects and investigated the activities of various scrap metal dealers.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, perhaps I may echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in welcoming the noble Baroness to the Dispatch Box. I wish her well during what may be a relatively short tenure of office because, as I think that the whole House will agree, we have taken to her. Reverting to the Question, which is my job, is there any truth in the speculation that seems to be rife that it is the Government who have been organising gangs of people to go round the country stealing metal signs in order to flog them off to make way for tax cuts as part of their equally burdensome programme in relation to Railtrack?
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box. Although I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for only a short time, I appreciate that I cannot call the noble Lord "my noble friend" from here although in another theatre I am pleased to do so. The noble Lord's question is interesting, but there is no truth
Lord Ezra: My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to West Sussex, in which I drive fairly frequently. Although many signs there have been missing for a long time, fortunately I know my way so it is no hazard to me. However, can the noble Baroness say whether the local authorities will soon replace such signs and perhaps not only fix them more securely, but have them prepared in some material that will not tempt the robbers?
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I understand that West Sussex has replaced the signs that were stolen. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord said, and will obviously bring it to someone's attention. Clearly the Government are concerned that the theft of signs should not result in danger. Highway authorities have a statutory duty to maintain safety on the roads within their jurisdiction.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, perhaps I may join in welcoming the noble Baroness to the Dispatch Box. Does she know whether plastic has any scrap value, and whether there is any reason why plastic should not be used for road signs?
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the noble Lady's question is interesting. Aluminium obviously has the highest scrap value, which is why more aluminium signs are stolen. Plastic does not have the same scrap value, but on the other hand it is not suitable for many of the signs.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed Answer. We are talking about £30 million, which is a large sum of money. What were the criteria upon which the Secretary of State for Scotland advanced £30 million to something that must have had a dubious future, as against putting the same £30 million into the NHS in Scotland where it could have been well used?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear that the financial support offered to HCI came from inward investment and not the health budget for Scotland. While the original financial support package amounted to some £30 million, its main component part was regional selective assistance, the offer of which was made originally in April 1988 when the Scottish Office acted upon the independent advice of the Scottish Industrial Development Advisory Board. Subsequently, a further sum was advanced with the approval of the Treasury and of the Department of Health and Social Security when there was a European Court of Justice ruling on VAT which resulted in an unbudgeted increase in cost.
Lord Wigoder: My Lords, was not the private sector unanimous in its opinion at the time that the project to use foreign capital to build a hospital of up to 500 beds to cater primarily for foreigners who might wish to fly into Glasgow airport and have medical treatment was non-viable right from the very beginning? That proved to be correct--did it not?--because the average occupancy has turned out, I believe, to be about 20 since the hospital was built. Before any public money was invested in that project, were any steps taken to find out what informed opinion was saying about it, and, if not, why not?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, as I said, independent advice was offered to the Secretary of State. That is a technique that would be applied to any type of inward investment project attracting regional selective assistance. While it is unfortunate that the hospital has not proved, at the present time at any rate, to be viable, it is worth recording that when it was first established the concern in Scotland was not that it would not be viable but that its viability was such that it would attract too many nurses and clinicians from the NHS, and that the resources of the Scottish Blood Transfusion Service would be stretched unhappily. It was against that background that a series of stringent conditions was attached by the department.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I do not believe that the Irish Government were being foolish, because in 1983 they said that they were very much in favour of the concept and offered HCI significantly more substantial equity investment if it were to go to Ireland. However, despite that express support for the project in Ireland, the company decided to come to Clydebank in Scotland because it considered that greater advantages were to be secured there, not least the quality of the staff that might be obtained there and its proximity to Glasgow Airport.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does not the hospital's failure to attract patients illustrate the fact that it takes years to build up an international reputation of excellence enjoyed by famous hospitals such as Stoke Mandeville, the Hospital for Nervous Diseases, with its institute, in Queen Square, Great Ormond Street and St. Bartholomew's? Is that not a reason why we should keep our specialising units?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the hospital was established to attract patients from overseas. The circumstances in which any patient coming from the NHS might have finished up there were limited. It is unfortunate that thus far HCI has not managed to secure a viable basis upon which to proceed, but the company's receiver is taking active steps to secure a new purchaser. The quality of the provision there is probably as good as any to be found in the UK. It is a state of the art hospital with a hotel attached to it. It is to be hoped that the receiver will be successful in his task.
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