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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many organisations concerned with the welfare of children, including the organisation with which I have been associated, Save the Children, have for some time been concerned about the position of refugee children who have come to this country from societies which have been torn apart by war? What arrangements are made in relation to such children, particularly at the point of entry?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, yes, I am aware of the concerns, particularly with regard to unaccompanied child refugees. This is a matter for which the Government have made funds available to local authorities, but, at a time when there is an increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, we need to look at what we can do and to recognise the problems that some local authorities face in providing care, and funding that care, for those children, particularly in the light of the recent influx of young people from Kosovo. We need to discuss with

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colleagues in the Home Office and the DETR ways in which we can ensure that local authorities are able to support these vulnerable children.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that Section 51 of this Act is extremely widely drawn. It simply says, "at risk of harm". Does she agree that that includes children who are at risk of falling into prostitution or suffering other forms of sexual abuse? Is her department co-operating and co-ordinating fully with the Home Office on this point?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we recognise that there are wide-ranging responsibilities for the needs of children who may be vulnerable and at risk from a variety of factors and that in meeting those responsibilities we cannot take a simple departmental approach. That is why the ministerial task force on children's safeguards was a wide-ranging and interdepartmental one, enabling these issues to be looked at across the board, not only with colleagues in social services departments and local authorities but also with colleagues in the Home Office and the police, who have a major role to play in this area.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, will the Government require local authorities to set out in their children's service plans how they will ensure that a service is available to children who are being abused through falling into prostitution and take preventive action to target children who may be vulnerable to abuse in this way?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, when considering children's services in 1996, local authorities were asked to identify within those plans various groups of children, including children who had run away and who might be vulnerable to falling into prostitution or being sexually abused. We hope that extra momentum to that requirement will result from the work done in responding to the Utting Report.

Lord Montague of Oxford: My Lords, my noble friend kindly made reference to the £1 million being made available from the Children's Promise campaign. I am most grateful to the very many who are supporting that campaign. As we shall raise £1 million to be disbursed for the benefit of children, may we have the support of the National Health Service in making this known to all who work in that very fine service and understand the work that we are doing?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as I believe we all know, my noble friend has done a great deal to make the Children's Promise known to Members of your Lordships' House. I shall certainly consider how we can make it known to people who work within the NHS.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, does the Minister agree that bricks and mortar will not be enough in the provision of homes and that the quality and training of

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staff and their ability to communicate not only with teenagers but with teenagers' parents will be extremely important? In this context, is she aware of the pioneering work of the Caldecott college, to the foundation of which the late Lady Faithfull contributed so much, in the context of working with children in a residential field?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out that we tend to use the word "refuges" as a shorthand and think of them only in terms of buildings. We know from the experience of people who work in this field and the research that has been done that availability of buildings alone is not the problem. Many of these children ran away from buildings that were provided for them because the people and the services within those buildings were not adequate and sensitive to their needs. I go back to my response to the noble Earl, Lord Russell: we need to look at all the factors that cause children to run away, as well as at the appropriate provision for them when and if that occurs.

Public Utilities: Pensioner Concessions

2.59 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have made any representations to the public utilities about granting financial concessions to old age pensioners.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, no such representations have been made, but the Government are very conscious of the difficulties faced by many pensioners and have taken steps to tackle them. The Government have set up a group of senior Ministers to co-ordinate the Government's strategy for helping older people. We have reduced VAT on fuel from 8 per cent. to 5 per cent. We have introduced winter fuel payments. For the coming winter these will give at least £20 to every pensioner household and £50 to those in most need. We have allocated £500 million to enable winter fuel payments to continue for a further three years. We believe that pensioners should share in the prosperity of the nation and that this is the best way to tackle issues such as fuel poverty.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that standing charges are an increasing burden on less well off elderly people and that is why the National Pensioners Convention has persistently called for their abolition in respect of old-age pensioners? Can the Minister explain to the House what is the attitude of the Government on this issue?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as to the question whether pensioners who use prepayment meters are charged too much, gas and electricity regulators have drawn up an action plan to drive down costs and improve efficiency and choice to disadvantaged consumers. That includes action to encourage more cost-effective meters and offer a wider

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choice of payment methods. The Government are also concerned that disadvantaged consumers should have a fair share of the benefits of liberalising the markets and are considering the case for further action through the regulatory system, if necessary, to ensure that the benefits are widely shared.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the developing gas and electricity market very considerable advantage can be enjoyed by those who pay by direct debit but that there is very little advantage, if any, for those with prepayment meters rather than bank accounts?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I take my noble friend's point. Some people have had the benefit of payment by direct debit and in other cases those with prepayment meters have been disadvantaged. But the action that I have explained is related directly to the resolution of that problem and action has already been taken to that end.

Lord Peston: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House why some insist on referring to these bodies as public utilities? Are they not largely in the private sector and is not their only interest first, middle and bottom line making profits? Why would anyone remotely believe that they would have any interest in the plight of poor people in our society?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, all of them are controlled by regulators who place upon them certain duties. Noble Lords will also be aware that the Government are imposing a new duty on regulators to consider the needs of low income customers.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, despite the current fashion for means-testing and the taxing of benefits, does the noble Lord agree that it would not be appropriate for such concessions as were mentioned in the original Question either to be means tested or taxed?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, in this case we are not talking about concessions. In these circumstances no concessions have been asked for. We believe that the way to tackle these problems is by means of the measures that I enumerated not by concessions, for the reason that there is strict regulation of the utilities not to show undue preference to particular groups in setting charges. Any proposals for financial concessions for particular groups are matters for the regulators subject to their duties and the non-discrimination requirements of the legislation. The reason for taking that line is very clear. Any substantial

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concessions to pensioners, not all of whom are poor, would have to be paid for by an increase to other consumers some of whom are on low incomes.


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