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Lord Kennet: My Lords, will the Government consider enlarging the remit given to the advisory committee--I refer to the group of four, including Dame Jennifer Jenkins and Sir Jocelyn Stevens--which is at present confined to advising the Secretary of State on the desirability of those who come forward; that is, the nine applications? Will the Government consider enlarging that remit and charging that group with forming an opinion on what are desirable uses and what are desirable classes of persons to have Greenwich, so that the Secretary of State can then actively seek them instead of sitting back and waiting for anyone who comes along?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I believe that the advisory group already has that remit very much in mind. The group was set up to advise my right honourable friend on the expressions of interest which we received in mid-November on the future use and management of the Royal Naval College. The members of the group have been asked to give particular attention to the extent to which the proposals are sympathetic to the status of the building and its wide enjoyment by the public. I believe that they will be conscientious in fulfilling that remit.
Earl Howe: My Lords, we are proposing a lease of 150 years. It is necessary to have a long lease to give predictability to a future occupant who may need to invest considerable sums of money in the site. However, if no suitable non-defence use comes forward, we have a longstop. The Defence School of Languages has been identified as a suitable occupant. However, we are keen to find a non-defence use to enable much greater public access and enjoyment, not least the possibility of opening up the grand axis. That vision was very much in the mind of Dame Jennifer Jenkins when she prepared the Royal Parks Review.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that the Government may propose, but Parliament in this matter will dispose. In view of the fact that your Lordships have not yet had a chance to debate the particular clause in the Armed Forces Bill, why are the Government forging ahead on something which may well not pass your Lordships?
Earl Howe: My Lords, the final decision as to who should occupy the Royal Naval College rests with my right honourable friend as sole trustee of the Greenwich Hospital Charity. However, I am well aware that, as the noble Lord stated, the Armed Forces Bill contains a clause to widen the scope for my right honourable friend to take that decision. I do not believe that any action that the Government have taken to date pre-empts parliamentary consideration of that clause.
Lord Mowbray and Stourton: My Lords, my noble friend said that the National Maritime Museum was one of the parties which had shown an interest. Wearing my DoE hat of a decade or so ago, I have seen what a wonderful museum that is. Do the Government agree that, if it is interested in doing so, the National Maritime Museum would be the ideal body to look after those buildings?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I quite agree with my noble friend that the National Maritime Museum is to be congratulated on the way it has looked after the buildings in its care. However, I cannot give it any preferential treatment.
Earl Howe: My Lords, for this reason. There are nine expressions of interest for the whole site and three for part of the site. It would be wrong for me to pre-empt the full and considered advice of the advisory group. However, I note my noble friend's remarks, and I am sure that they will find sympathy throughout the House.
Lord Gibson: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government regard this group of buildings as one of the noblest and most historic of its kind in this country and possibly in Europe? Will he also confirm
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am pleased to take this opportunity to emphasise that the Government are firmly committed to finding an occupancy for this magnificent site which is sensitive to its heritage status and which will allow public access.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in that case, can the Minister reassure the House that the phrase "unrestricted purposes" on the Order Paper is not a fair reflection of what the Secretary of State has in mind?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, because that is a point that I had not yet picked up. It would be quite wrong to suggest that the options for the use of the Royal Naval College are unrestricted. There are real constraints, such as those of Grade I listed building status and its status as an ancient monument, which will protect the fabric for the future. There will be major planning constraints on any future use. In addition, my right honourable friend, as trustee, would not hesitate to put appropriate constraints--such as the need for public access--in a lease. That, again, is a real restriction on the uses to which the site can be put.
Lord Kennet: My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that the Secretary of State has not yet placed any restrictions on the intended use beyond those of the law in general which apply to any development anywhere? Will he also agree, on reflection, that he did not answer my first supplementary question, which was not about whether the advisory group was likely to stick to its terms of reference but, on the contrary, whether those terms of reference could be changed and widened?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am sure that it is quite possible for my right honourable friend to request the advisory group to expand its remit. Of course I will ensure that my right honourable friend takes note of the noble Lord's comments. However, it is perfectly correct that to date no constraints have been placed on the advisory group in relation to the expressions of interest. Those expressions of interest are considered by the group pari passu, and we shall have to wait and see what the advice is at the end of the day.
The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Even allowing for exaggerations in recent reports, if there is a biological change of the type suggested, that raises all kinds of questions, as I am sure the noble Baroness will agree. It has been suggested that excessive amounts of chemicals are being released into the environment. Can the Minister say whether that is likely to have an effect on male fertility? Secondly, it has also been suggested that the large amounts of female hormones which are being released into the water supply have resulted in the creation of what are called hermaphroditic fish. Is that likely to extend to human beings?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, perhaps I may answer first the question concerning the excessive amounts of chemicals. At the moment we are very unsure about this issue. A great deal of research is being undertaken by the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Medical Research Council and the Health and Safety Executive. In addition, a working group is exploring what more should be done in other areas. The answer that I have just given also applies to hormones in the water supply. Research is also going on in that field.
Lord Winston: My Lords, I wish to support the Minister totally, on this occasion at least. Is she aware that while there is no evidence of a decline in human male fertility in this country, smoking, drinking, excessive sleep and sitting on leather benches for long periods of time--all of which are prevalent in your Lordships' House--are certainly causes of male infertility?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, as the noble Lord will be well aware because he is an expert in this field, this issue is partly age-related. I understand that those men born before the 1960s have a much higher sperm count--and looking around at your Lordships--
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, your Lordships should be aware that today is 29th February. Noble Lords should be very careful that on this occasion noble Baronesses do not pick their Peer.
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