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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with respect, we are pumping out a great deal of information. The Government spend about 100 million per year on treatment and advice on problems associated with alcohol abuse. We shall continue to do that. As I have said on many occasions during this series of exchanges, part of the purpose behind the Strategy Unit's report

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is to ensure that we get that message over because we obviously need to repeat it and to ensure it gets to the right place.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we drink rather less than the French? In my youth there was an advert in the French underground, which stated, "Jamais plus d'un litre de vin par jour", which was put up by M. Mendes-France, the then Prime Minister. For the Labour Front Bench, who possibly do not speak such appalling French as I, that means, "Never more than one litre of wine a day". But that is an enormous amount of wine to drink. Even our binge drinkers on average do not drink that much. Is he also aware that when Garibaldi's British contingent went to Italy, they had to be sent back for binge drinking because they always got totally off their trolleys? There is nothing new about the British behaving in this disgusting way.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am always taken apart by what the noble Earl has to say on these matters. He has great historical knowledge and wisdom in that respect. I was not there during the time of Garibaldi and did not have the good fortune to read the adverts on the Paris Metro, but I think that we must take binge drinking seriously. It is a serious subject, even in your Lordships' House.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister accept the figure produced by the British Crime Survey that 40 per cent of serious crime in this country is committed by people while under the influence of alcohol? Could he identify whether specific projects are being run in our prisons to address that particular problem?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right: it is undoubtedly the case that alcohol has a very important relationship with acts of disorder in our community and society. It is for that reason that the Government have taken swift and keen action with their range of anti-social behaviour measures. I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that prison education includes an element on abuse of drugs and drink.

Northern Ireland Assembly: Elections

3.24 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether elections will be called to the Northern Ireland Assembly, in view of the shortage of time now available to the Secretary of State in which to announce a date for such elections.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, as the Prime Minister said yesterday in another place, we accept that elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly should go ahead, but it is much better that they do so on a basis which offers a real

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prospect of resumed devolved government. Intensive discussions have been continuing between the Government and political parties with that object in view.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I am slightly disappointed because statements by the Government are beginning to get all the credibility of a Billy Bunter postal order. Does the Minister agree that procrastination of this kind is now leading to a very serious loss of momentum in the political process in Northern Ireland, not least as permanent staff are leaving Stormont because of the hiatus? Does she also agree, as the Government espouse, that elections really must be held in the very near future?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think the noble Lord will accept that this is a very sensitive time with respect to the discussions in Northern Ireland. We want to see Assembly elections go ahead as soon as possible, but it is much better that those elections go ahead on a basis which offers a real prospect of resumed devolved government. That is why intensive discussions have been continuing between the British and Irish Governments and the political parties. That is our objective.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, can the Lord President of the Council tell the House what progress has been made in the work of the Monitoring Commission, which was set up, as I understand it, to secure the acts of completion on both sides, which were regarded at that time as a prerequisite of any return to government by the Assembly?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, work is ongoing with respect to the Monitoring Commission. The noble Baroness will know that the political parties in Northern Ireland have had differing views on this issue. I shall check the latest position, and will write to the noble Baroness if there have been any improvements to the Answer that I have given.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, given the importance of these decisions, particularly in regard to the dates of the election—which, after all, I need not remind your Lordships were decided by this House—would it not have been prudent to have invited all the political parties in Northern Ireland to join in, and not just two of them, given that one of the partners in the discussion is a sovereign independent nation?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. We stay in touch with a range of political opinion. The SDLP met with the Prime Minister last week. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saw a range of pro-agreement parties during the past week. I must say that it is right that we should try to facilitate the process of building trust and confidence and in particular an end of paramilitary activity. Our efforts are directed towards that.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I, and certainly my party, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of

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Clifton, and the Government that elections must happen. If they do not happen soon there may never be elections for devolution again. What kind of programme do the Government have? Are they thinking of having elections and maybe not summoning the Assembly until Sinn Fein/IRA has delivered? The Prime Minister, my party, the Ulster Unionist Party and others have demanded that before Sinn Fein is admitted into the Executive, it must deliver that which we all understand as total decommissioning and a total end of the war. Perhaps the noble Baroness can help me on that issue.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord will understand if I am not able to answer directly the question with respect to a programme and to give details of it. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on Monday that we believe that the omens for progress are good. We will continue to work towards the goal of elections to restored institutions. Intensive discussions are happening to deliver that end. I am sure that the House will understand that I cannot speculate further on the potential timing of an election while we are at such a sensitive stage of discussion.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that it is essential that all paramilitary groups disarm and cease using terror tactics?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, we have been working towards ensuring that paramilitary groups give up their weapons. That is a key part of our strategy.

Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill

3.29 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 40 [The Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 209:

    Page 15, line 33, after "the" insert "Independent"

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 209, I shall speak also to rather a lot of other amendments. I do not know whether it would be for the convenience of the Committee if I read them out, but I shall take them as read: they are the amendments listed in the group.

We move with, I suspect, something of a sense of relief to Part 2 of the Bill and the issues relating to the creation of the new Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection and the Commission for Social Care Inspection. I begin by once again making clear that, in broad terms, we welcome what the Government are doing by creating those bodies. Indeed, we have long advocated that the acute sector of the NHS and acute private hospitals should be subject to the same inspection and monitoring regime and the same set of quality standards. Bringing together the existing

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Commission for Health Improvement and the relevant functions of the National Care Standards Commission is a decided step forward. But those new organisations need to be set up correctly.

One of the main themes of our debate during this part of the Committee's proceedings will be the need to ensure that both CHAI and CSCI are truly independent in their operation—independent, that is, from Ministers, government and Whitehall. The amendments to add the word "independent" to the names of the two bodies are symbolic of that theme, but they are also intended as signposts to wider and deeper issues. The independence of CHAI and CSCI must be a cardinal feature of how each body performs its functions. In particular, I shall be arguing that each should be the guardian of the standards that it promulgates.

If both bodies are to command public confidence, they should not be seen as mere tools of government. Regrettably, that is how CHI, for all its splendid people, is sometimes perceived. The star rating system is one example of that. It was introduced by the Government as a means to rank NHS trusts against each other. The system has been discredited, but it is CHI that must implement it at the Government's behest.

It will occasionally be necessary for CHAI and CSCI to speak out and be critical of government. The precedent of the Audit Commission, part of the functions of which are being absorbed into CHAI, is valuable. I am well aware that being criticised is uncomfortable for Ministers, but it is healthy and we should not fight shy of it. That measure of independent action on CHAI's part requires it to be independent on several levels: operationally, financially and in the manner of its executive appointments. We have tabled amendments to address all three of those levels. Earlier this year, there were distinct signs that Ministers wanted to water down previous guarantees of CHAI's independence. I state in the clearest terms that any such watering down is unacceptable.

Turning briefly to other amendments in the group, under Schedule 6 there are various provisions for the Secretary of State to involve himself with the people who will be running CHAI. He appoints and removes the chairman and members under Paragraphs 3(1) and 3(2); he can make regulations about the appointments and removals from office under Paragraph 3(5); and he can set pay, pensions and compensation for loss of office under Paragraph 4. There are similar provisions relating to CSCI in Schedule 7.

Several of my amendments in the group would replace the Secretary of State with the NHS Appointments Commission for CHAI; others would do the same for CSCI. They refer to the special health authority designated to perform the appointment functions for the regulator, CHAI and CSCI under the new clause relating to the regulator that we debated during our first day in Committee. That is probably the NHS Appointments Commission, but a special

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purpose health authority could be set up. The important point is that the appointer is not the Secretary of State.

It may appear unusual for pay and pensions to be settled by the appointments commission. Again, it would be possible to set up a more independent mechanism. The important point is that real distance should be placed between the Secretary of State and the chairman and members of CHAI and CSCI. That is the purpose of the amendments. I beg to move.

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