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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Government are always considering ways to improve health protection. The evidence of the British Coal health surveillance, especially its programme of X-ray screening, showed that the introduction of the Coal Mines (Respirable Dust) Regulations 1975 have brought substantial improvements. However, we are concerned to ensure that the prevalence of this disease, which has reduced dramatically, continues to decline further in the future.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, should not the House be appreciative of the compassionate and just arrangements that the Government have adopted in this matter? However, would it not be possible to extend such consideration by perhaps not separating emphysema and bronchitis victims from those suffering

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from pneumoconiosis? Does my noble friend accept that there still is a residual despair which was generated in the last Parliament when enormous resources appeared to be devoted to delaying this matter as much as possible? Can my noble friend tell the House how much was spent on combating and delaying the just and deserving case which this Government have accepted?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, we have moved with all speed since the High Court judgment. We have, of course, had to make a clear distinction between the different groups of people involved as considerable differences apply to them. Since we have been in power every step has been taken to rectify a situation which had gone on for far too long without corrective action being taken.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract: My Lords, I appreciate the present Government's efforts to assist in this problem. However, I cannot understand why the Government and Ministers cannot pay industrial injuries benefits to the men who have already been assessed. These men have undergone examinations and have been awarded industrial injuries benefits. For the life of me I cannot understand why the Government cannot accept that these men have no need to undergo further medical examinations with all the delays that that will cause. Also, some of them will die in the meantime. It seems to me that there is a simple way out; namely, to pay these men immediately. I cannot understand why the Government will not concede that request.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Government would like nothing better than to make immediate payments to these people. However, one has to appreciate that the High Court settlement is specific as to the conditions that have to be fulfilled with regard to this matter. We can see no way to conduct this matter fairly and in line with the requirements of the High Court without a medical assessment process. Until that is done we cannot reach a settlement without it being subject to further legal action, which I do not think would be in anyone's interests.

Public Library Services

3.1 p.m.

Lord Bragg asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to ensure that local authorities fulfil their statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport wrote to library authorities on 19th February 1999 emphasising the importance of annual library plans in helping him to exercise his statutory duties, and requiring 15 authorities that had produced poor plans to resubmit them. He emphasised that after the best local government settlement for seven years, unjustified cuts to library services are not acceptable, and that he would

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be taking immediate steps to investigate a number of authorities where significant cuts were being contemplated.

Lord Bragg: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. However, is he aware that for many people local libraries are not just a corner-shop university and not even just an educational source, but a vital asset inside a community? Is he aware that for many people they bind a community together--people from all generations and from all kinds of backgrounds? Is that taken sufficiently into consideration when the axe is swung--as it is being swung now--on so many local libraries? This is not just a matter of closing down local libraries but of helping to close down communities.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right about the importance of libraries. The Government are seized of that fact. The local authority financial settlement will add £2.6 billion to local authority finances in the forthcoming financial year. That is a 2.9 per cent. real increase. The real increase in the environmental protection and cultural services block which provides the funding for libraries is 3.8 per cent. Therefore there is no good justification for the kind of cuts which my noble friend rightly deplores.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in supporting the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, to the Minister, I ask the Minister whether he is aware of the research that points to a link between those children who truant and subsequently become involved in crime and the high levels of illiteracy among those children, and the remarks of the Secretary of State for Education yesterday that 75 per cent. of those who are in our prisons today have a reading age of only 10. In those circumstances does not the Minister agree that the Government's initiatives in promoting, for instance, literacy hours in our schools--which I strongly welcome--are being undermined by those who make a mockery of such policies by promoting the closure of public libraries as part of their public expenditure cuts this year?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was not aware of the specific research to which the noble Lord refers. Indeed I should be grateful if he could point me towards it. Certainly the conclusions are not surprising. It is true that illiteracy and poor reading are closely associated with social exclusion and, of course, with crime. As I said in my previous answers, the Government are determined that library authorities should fulfil their statutory responsibilities. I hope that that determination has the support of the noble Lord.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I fully support the answers which the noble Lord has so far given, but can he assure

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the House that the Secretary of State has statutory power to compel local authorities to do what they are required to do in the event of default?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Secretary of State's powers are set out in Section 1 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. It requires the Secretary of State,

    "to superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service ... and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of [their] functions".
That does not entitle the Secretary of State to take over their library services except in the most extreme circumstances. This Government and preceding governments have always taken the view that the precise way in which local authorities discharge their responsibilities should be a matter for local decision.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, is not there a strong case for the statutory obligation to be more tightly focused? Furthermore, is the noble Lord aware that in Lambeth there is considerable public outcry at the moment about the closure of small libraries on the basis that they are uneconomic, whereas the facts appear to indicate that that council has neglected buildings, mismanaged book provision and messed around with opening hours? It appears to me to be a classic case of asset stripping.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the position is not quite as simple as the noble Viscount suggests. There is a balance to be drawn between the statutory obligations on local authorities to fulfil certain functions and the need for local determination of priorities, which I hope those who are seized of local democracy and subsidiarity will support. I do not want to make any comments on Lambeth in particular. However, I caution against thinking that the closure of libraries is the only way to make cuts. Libraries must have a network, of course, but they also have to have decent opening hours, good book stocks and adequate staff for the purposes of information management which is what libraries are about.

Further and Higher Education (Scotland) (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

3.7 p.m.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to amend the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992 in respect of Scottish university fee arrangements and grants for Scottish students attending higher education institutions in the United Kingdom. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.-- (Lord Selkirk of Douglas.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

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Business of the House:

Debate this Day

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House I beg to move the Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper.

In moving this Motion I ought to take the opportunity to thank the usual channels for agreeing that this important piece of delegated legislation should be discussed today even though the Joint Committee has not yet reported on it. This is necessary given the timetable for the discussions arising out of the Belfast agreement. I recognise that Business Motions such as this are unusual but I hope that in the circumstances of this particular subject the House will feel able to approve the Business Motion today.

Moved, That Standing Order 70 (Affirmative Instruments) be dispensed with to enable the Motion to approve the draft North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 to be taken this day notwithstanding that no report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on the draft order has been laid before the House.-- (Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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