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Lord Dubs: Yes, my Lords; the Government agree very much with what the noble and learned Lord has said. The Maze is different because it houses a very large number of individuals who have been convicted of murder or other serious offences, as well as other prisoners who are held on remand for very serious offences. I also accept that there is a danger of intimidation; indeed, we have seen threats of intimidation to prison officers and, regrettably, a number of prison officers have been murdered as a result of such intimidation.

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I also accept that it is important to ensure that the prison is secure, that prisoners are held there and, indeed, that we cut the chance of escape to an absolute minimum. When we implement all the recommendations of the Narey Report and have looked at the Ramsbotham report, I believe that we shall be able to move to a position where we shall meet some of these difficulties with more confidence than has been the case in the recent past.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement at a convenient time in our proceedings today. As the Maze Prison is situated in the constituency of Lagan Valley, which I had the honour to represent until a year ago, I know something about the problems. Indeed, I had several hundred constituents but no votes in that establishment.

However, I am a little disturbed that there has been no mention of a very serious incident some months ago--not all that long ago--when one of the two prisoners mentioned in the Statement was observed strolling on the roof of one of the H-blocks using a mobile phone for a period of about 25 minutes. The observation was reported to the authorities by a senior Crown servant outside the prison, but his warning was ignored. It would be reasonable to expect that the said prisoner was transmitting information, quite possibly instructions, to some of his murder squads outside the prison.

There appeared to be a mention in the Statement of access to the roofs of the prison, and so on. I wonder whether such an incident will be taken into account when deciding any further measures. I also wonder whether a decision in principle could be taken as regards the possession of mobile phones and the ability of prisoners to make free use of them.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I have to be careful how much detail I go into because criminal charges and inquiries are under way and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment too much. However, the apparent ease of access to the roof was looked into as soon as we had reports of that incident. As for the individual on the roof, it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this stage.

I turn now to the oft-repeated allegations that there are mobile phones within the prison and that they are used freely. I can tell the House that it is against prison rules for prisoners to have or use mobile phones. Indeed, when we seek evidence that such phones are used in the way suggested by the noble Lord we are unable to obtain it. However, there is an ordinary British Telecom telephone box for the use of prisoners, operated, I believe, by phone cards. Frankly, even if prisoners did not use mobile phones, there is the possibility that they could maintain contact. Such telephones were installed some years ago. As I said, we do not have evidence and have not been able to find evidence that mobile phones are being used in the way suggested by the noble Lord; or, indeed, that they are possessed by prisoners in the way mentioned by the noble Lord.

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Social Security Bill

4.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins: My Lords, there are two important issues which arise from the proceedings on the Bill in this Chamber on Monday, which I believe it is necessary to draw to the attention of the House. I understand that it is on this Motion that it would be most appropriate for me to raise them. As I said, there are two issues: one rather complex and the other extremely straightforward.

During the course of the debates last Monday (as reported in Hansard at col. 71 onwards) the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, when speaking to another amendment which had nothing to do with the Budget, said that the Government intended in the course of the Report stage of the Bill to introduce new amendments relating to issues which arise from the Budget Statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding the introduction into this Bill of provisions relating to national insurance contributions. Noble Lords will recall that the matter was very much a central feature of the Budget of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have no doubt at all that the Minister was seeking to be helpful; indeed, I fully recognise that fact. However, what is proposed seems to me to raise two important points.

I am not arguing that the amendments which are proposed are outside the Long Title of the Bill. As I understand it, that is not the case. However, I think it has long been the case that the distinction between national insurance contributions on the one hand and taxation on the other has become increasingly blurred, not least because there is virtually no relationship between the amount which is charged in contributions and the amount which is disbursed in benefits. Nonetheless, it has generally been recognised that it is important that we should maintain the so called contributory principle; that is to say, an arrangement whereby people receive benefits only if they have at least contributed something towards those benefits. That, in a sense, gives them the passport to the benefits.

Having said that, as I understand it, the Government in the Budget propose to take action which will undermine that contributory principle. There is little if any distinction now left between national insurance contributions and taxation. Moreover, the Government propose that the responsibility for national insurance contributions should be transferred from the Contributions Agency to the Inland Revenue. That, again, strongly suggests that this is a matter of taxation rather than of national insurance. Overall, there is a strong impression that matters which are central to the Budget are being introduced into your Lordships' House as part of this Bill. If that is so, it raises important issues, which no doubt we ought to consider, with regard to the Parliament Act 1911 and the question of Commons

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privilege with regard to financial matters. That is the first point that we have seriously to consider because, as far as I am aware, there is no precedent for that.

The second point is very much simpler. Were this Bill at an early stage in the House of Commons it might well be convenient--indeed what is now proposed is convenient from the Government's point of view--for the Commons to debate these proposed clauses at Second Reading; to debate them in great detail in Standing Committee upstairs; and then to debate them downstairs at Report stage. The Commons would have had an opportunity to do that. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Shore, and the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, are nodding assent. However, a central part of the Chancellor's Budget--it was very much at the centre of the matter--is being introduced into your Lordships' House not at Committee stage but at Report stage and will, if the clauses are approved, be returned to the Commons. The Commons will be able to debate those amendments. But that is vastly different from the Commons being able to discuss the matter in Committee and at Report stage before it reaches your Lordships' House.

There is a final point which I raised on Monday; namely, these are complex matters and those outside interests which are concerned about them will not have much notice at all of what is now proposed. The provisions will proceed much faster than would have been the case had they been included in the Finance Bill, or indeed if they had been included in primary legislation in the House of Commons and proceeded in the normal way. As I said, I understand it is appropriate to raise the matter at this stage, but we shall have to consider extremely carefully the appropriate way in which this matter ought to be considered. That is important as regards both the aspects I have mentioned. I hope that on reflection the Government will consider that this is not an appropriate way of proceeding.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for giving me notice that he was going to raise this issue this afternoon. Had he not given me notice, I think I might have been rather wrongfooted, given the push of his argument. The noble Lord is quite right to say that it is unusual for substantial issues to be introduced to a Bill after its Commons scrutiny. It is unusual, but of course it is not unknown or even rare. I spent many years on the Opposition Benches and I have seen that happen to Bills that I "shadowed". Governments must respond to changing circumstances during the passage of legislation. We do so in the way that seems most appropriate. Often when I sat on the Opposition Benches Bills that had passed through the Commons then had matters added as they proceeded through your Lordships' House. Those matters had not therefore previously been discussed by the Commons. Sometimes we were not slow to make the same points as the noble Lord has made today.

The issue of "privilege" in relation to the introduction of new measures on national insurance was considered before the announcement of my noble friend Lord Haskel on Monday. Our advice was clear.

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Contributions payable into the National Insurance Fund are the subject of Commons privilege, but it is a privilege that they are able to waive. They will be invited to do so when the Bill returns there. After the changes announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget on the restructuring of national insurance contributions--which of course followed the Committee scrutiny of this Bill--we decided that the Bill was the most effective legislative vehicle to implement those changes. The national insurance changes have been broadly welcomed. We must legislate in this Session to give businesses the time they need to be ready to operate the new system from April 1999. Introducing the measures into this Bill is the best way of achieving that.

The new clause on directors' liability has also been widely welcomed. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State announced to the Committee in the other place on 25th November last year that this measure was to be introduced into the Bill as soon as the consultation concluded. This is what we have done. The new clause was first published on 2nd February, and reprinted with a minor amendment on 25th February. Therefore I believe that reasonable time has been made available to noble Lords to be able to consider those proposals. However, I accept that this is not the usual way, and certainly not the preferable way, of handling such matters. I appreciate the noble Lord's concern. When he raised this matter with me, I immediately offered him a meeting with officials--that invitation was extended to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who is also involved in these discussions--to enable them to pursue the kind of issues they might otherwise have wished to have pursued at Committee in a more interrogative way, as it were. I hope that that offer to discuss the substantive issues will be taken up and will prove helpful.

I believe that these are worthwhile additions to the Bill. It is regrettable when things have to be done at short notice. However, when that is the case, I have tried to write to noble Lords opposite with a full explanation of the background. We were caught out by the timing of the Budget which came between the Commons stage and the Lords stage of this Bill. It has been made clear to us that businesses need this provision to be brought in as quickly as possible to expedite their arrangements. That is why we are under time pressure on this matter. I hope that I have been able to reassure your Lordships that no discourtesy to this House was intended, or has occurred. I take on board the noble Lord's concerns. We are trying to address them as best we can.


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