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6 May 2003 : Column WA131

Written Answers

Tuesday, 6th May 2003.

Interpreters: Spoken Languages and BSL

Lord Harris of Haringey asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they intend to achieve the widest possible availability of fully qualified interpreters of spoken languages and British Sign Language for those seeking services from government departments and other public agencies.[HL2373]

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): The Immigration Research and Statistics Service, within the Home Office, has commissioned a consultant to conduct a mapping exercise which will focus on the use of interpreters by government departments and other public agencies.

The remit of the exercise is to look more carefully at how public services provide interpretation/translation services, where they are adequate, where they are not, what they cost and best practice.

With regards to the availability of fully qualified interpreters of British Sign Language (BSL), I refer my noble friend to the written ministerial statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on 18 March, Official Report, Commons, col. 41WS, in which he announced a discrete programme of initiatives to support the Statement. Among the priorities identified are raising awareness of the communication needs of deaf people who use BSL, and increasing opportunities for people to learn BSL to a professional standard and to become interpreters. We will be consulting organisations of and for deaf people about how the additional funding of £1 million should be allocated.

Home Improvement Agencies

Lord Williams of Elvel asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will set out their intentions for the development and reform of the home improvement agency sector.[HL2719]

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published a consultation paper, Home Improvement Agencies—Development and Reform, jointly with the Department of Health, last September. The paper set out proposals for reforming the home improvement agency (HIA) sector in order to equip it for future challenges.

The Supporting People programme, through which the sector will receive a substantial proportion of its funding from 2003–04, will bring new responsibilities and ways of working. In addition, there is a need to make HIA services available more widely if the sector's

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potential to make significant contributions to the delivery of health and regeneration objectives is to be realised. The Government's aim in publishing the consultation paper was to invite views on the best way of improving the capacity of the sector to meet these challenges.

The paper sought endorsement of the Government's view that the sector should settle local commissioning models and structures during 2003–04, and work towards national coverage by the end of 2004–05. Recognising that additional resources would be needed in order to support the development and reform agenda, I announced last October that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister would be providing an additional £5.2 million over the next three years to support HIAs' running costs, and that the Department of Health would be providing £9.5 million over the same period, earmarked for agencies, so that they can become key players in the provision of services to older people on discharge from hospital.

In parallel with the consultation exercise, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister appointed Foundations, the national co-ordinating body for home improvement agencies, to investigate and recommend optimum structures for the sector, and to recommend optimum commissioning models for HIA services within the Supporting People arrangements. Foundations has recommended that the goal in restructuring should be a network of arca-resourced HIAs based upon the territories of the Supporting People commissioning bodies, combining a central management function and local delivery points. Foundations has also made a number of recommendations designed to secure the role of HIAs within the decision-making procedures of the commissioning bodies.

The majority of consultation responses supported the Government's overall approach to the future of the sector. Of those who expressed a view on the Government's proposed timetable for restructuring and expanding geographical coverage, about 80 per cent were supportive. On the future of the national co-ordinating body, 88 per cent of those who expressed a view believed that the Government should continue to fund such a body after the expiry of the current contract with Foundations on 31 March 2004.

The Government is grateful for the consultation responses. We note the view of a number of respondents that full national coverage of HIA services may not be achievable, and we recognise that the provision of such services is a matter for local decision in the light of need and other factors. Nonetheless, we believe that there is considerable scope to expand the sector's current geographical coverage with the co-operation of local authorities and other agencies.

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In accordance with EU competition rules and government procurement policy, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will shortly begin the tendering process for a new contract with a national co-ordinating body to be funded centrally.

We accept the recommendations of Foundations on future structural and commissioning models, while recognising the value of existing centres of excellence and taking care to avoid losing the essentially local character of the services that agencies provide. We will fund a structure support team to work with agencies and their partners to agree and implement organisational changes where these are shown to be necessary. This team will be established by Foundations, in collaboration with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, under an extension of its existing contract. HIAs and their partners will be notified when the team is ready to start work.

2004 Local Authority, GLA and European Parliamentary Elections

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What response has been received to the consultation paper Combining English Local Authority, Greater London Authority and European Parliament Elections in 2004. [HL2720]

Lord Rooker: I have today placed in the Library of the House a summary of the responses which the Government received to their consultation paper Combining English Local Authority, Greater London Authority and European Parliament Elections in 2004.

A total of 364 responses were received to the consultation exercise. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor's Department have analysed these responses very carefully.

The consultation document sought views on five issues.

The first issue was whether respondents agreed with the proposal to combine the local and GLA elections with the European parliamentary elections in 2004. Of those expressing a view, 172 of those responses agreed with this proposal, while 138 disagreed.

The consultation document secondly asked what practical issues respondents foresaw in combining most effectively the local (and where applicable parish) elections with the European parliamentary elections, and thirdly what practical issues they foresaw in combining most effectively the GLA elections with the European parliamentary elections. Respondents raised a range of different practical issues, relating to the operation of the elections themselves and council business more widely, such as the terms of office of members and the date of annual meetings.

The consultation document asked fourthly what action should be taken to address any practical issues raised. Respondents, including electoral administrators, have put forward a number of suggestions. Having considered the nature of the

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practical issues raised and the range of solutions available, the Government believe that there is no practical impediment to the combination of local, GLA and European parliamentary elections in 2004.

In the light of this response to these four issues and the Government's analysis of the issues raised, our current intention remains to exercise the order-making provisions we are seeking in the Local Government Bill, if these are enacted by Parliament, to allow the combination of local elections in 2004 with the next elections to the European Parliament, which are due to take place on 10 June 2004.

The fifth issue on which the consultation document sought views was on whether to move elections to a weekend. Of those expressing a view, 74 were in favour of this proposal; 66 respondents supported further pilots or testing of weekend voting, and 91 were against.

In the light of this response, the Government intend to take forward further pilots of weekend voting in view of potential benefits to electors, and taking into account the costs involved. A series of practical difficulties were raised about proceeding with nation-wide weekend voting in 2004. In particular, the Electoral Commission did not support wholesale mandatory weekend voting in 2004. Therefore the Government remain of the view that in 2004 local, GLA and European parliamentary elections should take place on Thursday 10 June.

International Human Rights Instruments: Interdepartmental Review

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to the Written Answers by Baroness Scotland of Asthal on 21 October 2002 (WA 75) and 8 April 2003 (WA 26), when the interdepartmental review of international human rights instruments began; and what were the reasons for changing the time-scale for completing the review from spring to summer 2003.[HL2520]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): The first interdepartmental meeting of officials took place on 15 May 2002. The work has progressed broadly to the expected timetable and recommendations will be made to Ministers for consideration shortly. We will report the outcome in due course.

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