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House of Lords

Monday, 22nd January 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

The Lord Bishop of London

Richard John Carew, Lord Bishop of London— Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Chichester and the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Speech Therapists: Equal Value Claim

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, the costs of the respondents' defence so far have been in the order of £400,000. The legal proceedings have taken almost 10 years.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is amazing that so much public money should be spent resisting a claim which the European Court of Justice has decided should be conceded in principle? How much longer will these very committed women—most speech therapists are women—have to wait before they receive justice and equal pay?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, when the speech therapists and MSF (the Manufacturing, Science, Finance Union) set out on that path, they knew that it would be very long and tortuous. From 1988 the Government have not lost a single hearing. I appreciate that it is in all our interests to have this case settled as quickly as possible. But it takes two to tango. I again point out that the Government have not yet lost a single hearing since 1988.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that speech therapists have been making a vital contribution to the recovery of people disabled by strokes or similar conditions, following the first few, who assiduously helped servicemen with head wounds in World War II, as I witnessed when I spent over a year in the ward of a brain surgeon? I should add that in my case he was operating on my back and not examining my head, as uncharitable friends have suggested.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I should like to endorse my noble friend's view. Speech therapists do
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an enormously valuable job, not only among elderly people who have had strokes, but also among children. One only has to consider how very few young people today have stutters or speech impediments. I believe that much of that is due to the work of speech therapists.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy. Dr. Enderby was chairman of that body last year. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government are genuinely seeking a solution of the problem or whether they are trying to save money at the expense of speech therapists by prevarication and procrastination? Is she aware that it is not true that the speech therapist assumed that there would be a very long case? Is she further aware—as a fair person I am sure that she is aware—that speech therapists treat their patients very considerately? Is it not time that the Government accorded the same courtesy to the therapists?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord is right in that Dr. Enderby is an exceptional person. She is somebody of international standing. I believe that that has caused some of the problem in using her case as a comparator with other cases. But, as I said, it takes two to tango. In fact, between 1986 and 1991, it was the applicants who asked for judicial review. They lodged two appeals without asking for the proceedings to be expedited. I believe that that has been the cause of some of the delay.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I should declare an interest in that my wife is a speech therapist, but, happily, she has retired, so there is no financial interest involved. Dr. Enderby is very distinguished. I am absolutely staggered that the Government find themselves on the other side. Would it not be rather more reasonable if the Government were on the side of the speech therapists and if this case had not happened in the first place? Is she aware that I find it doubly puzzling because I know exactly the Minister's views on this matter, which, if she could state them—which perhaps she cannot—would be exactly the same as mine; namely, that it is about time that the speech therapists—most of whom are women—received a little justice in this matter?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord is a little presumptuous in believing that he knows exactly what is in my mind. However, I know that Lady Peston is also a very distinguished person in her own right. I should point out that in this case the industrial tribunal found that the machinery that we have been using to determine pay is completely free of any sex discrimination. Secondly, the counsel for MSF is withdrawing 1,000 cases. Surely that is an admission that for these claims there is no case to answer.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, the Minister said that it takes two to tango. Is she aware that the union would not in the first place have started on that path, eventually leading to the European Court of
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Justice, which, incidentally, found for the union, had it been possible to negotiate decent terms and conditions for these very valuable people at the outset?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, there was an error of judgment in the first place because the speech and language therapists decided not to opt for the pay review body system of pay determination; they decided to stick with the Whitley system. I believe they would now say that it has not served them well in terms of increases in pay compared with other professional bodies. That group, and the MSF who is representing them, were clearly knowledgeable in regard to the tortuous path they intended to take; indeed, when they started they said that they would take it to the highest court, the European Court.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the MSF has had the support throughout the proceedings of the Equal Opportunities Commission?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, this is a long and tortuous case. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and others that the sooner it is resolved, the better. But it is wrong to think that only speech therapists have a case. From the point of view of the Government, this is an important settlement, not only for the NHS and public pay, but also for the whole economy. It is right that it should be contested.

Special Dividends and Takeovers

2.51 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no present plans to change the provisions of the Companies Act relating to the payment of special dividends. However, we are reviewing the law on financial assistance by a company for the acquisition of its own shares. If the noble Lord has a suggestion to make in that context, I shall undertake to consider it. Her Majesty's Government are of course attached to the principle of equal treatment for both parties to a takeover bid.

Lord Spens: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. It indicates an encouraging situation. However, is the Minister aware that the scale of the present proposed takeover by Granada of Forte is £500 million in terms of special dividend? That is way beyond any other type of special dividend paid before. It is distinguished by the fact that it is a hostile situation. In order to pay the dividend, Granada will have to change the board of Forte after it has acquired control. It is that aspect which distinguishes the
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situation. If that position is taken to the extreme, it will soon be possible for one company to take over another without offering any consideration at all. Does not the Minister agree that that cannot be right?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am aware of the broad outline of the bid that Granada made for Forte. However, I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me, at this Dispatch Box, to offer any comment on the terms put forward. I can add nothing further to what the President of the Board of Trade said in relation to the desirability of Granada acquiring Forte's motorway service areas. He is awaiting further advice on that aspect of the bid from the Director General of Fair Trading before making his final decision. As the noble Lord is clearly aware from his professional background in the matter, the special dividend device has been used on a number of occasions recently. The specific example he indicates is an extreme one. As I said in my first Answer, we have no present plans to change the provisions, although I am aware of the arguments advanced for such a change.

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