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House of Lords

Wednesday, 31 March 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, before business begins, may I take the opportunity to inform the House that I will be undertaking a ministerial visit to Leicester on Monday 19 April? Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

House of Lords: Select Committee Reports

2.37 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked the Leader of the House:

    How she will ensure that adequate and suitable time is made available for the House to debate Select Committee reports.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the usual channels do their best to offer time to committees, but it is partly in the hands of the committee chairmen. If chairmen want prime time, it will require flexibility. This Session, prime time was offered to committees that no chairman took up.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for her reply, but I am a little disappointed by it. I understand that the usual channels are responsible for making arrangements for debates to take place at convenient times, but I had not appreciated that the chairmen of committees were also involved in agreeing the time.

Given that scrutiny cannot be lifted until after a debate in your Lordships' House—particularly with regard to the European Union sub-committees—will the noble Baroness use her good offices to prevail on the usual channels and the chairmen of committees, if it comes to that, to make sure that the debates are held in good time, so that scrutiny can be lifted and Ministers can go to the European Council and deal with matters appropriately?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I recognise the concerns that are being expressed by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I know that the noble Countess recognises that there is no such thing as government time in this House. Everything is done by agreement and, of course, in consultation with the relevant chairmen of the committees. It requires flexibility. Of course, I will use my good offices with the usual channels, but we also require the chairmen of committees to be flexible.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, does the Lord President of the Council agree that it is extremely

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satisfactory that important reports from the committees and sub-committees—I declare an interest as a member of Sub-Committee D—are never reported in the House? One of the consequences is that some of the responses from government departments are wholly inadequate. A recent response from Defra to Sub-Committee D is an example. Would not government departments take the reports more seriously if they had to defend their position in the House?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my understanding is that the Government agree to respond to committee reports within a reasonable time. There have been occasions on which those responses have been late but, once the responses are received, there is an agreed debate in which Ministers will defend the Government's position. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord that there is no opportunity for the view of the committee to be put and for the Government to respond on the Floor of the House.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, unless things have changed in the past two or three years, the first Answer that the noble Baroness gave is not entirely accurate. The chairmen of committees can hardly be blamed for the fact that the Government Whips' Office can never find enough time for such matters. I know that the Government have a heavy programme, but Select Committee reports get squeezed into the gaps between government business. The Government are not in control of all the business but, for all practical purposes, they are.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, there may be some confusion. I am speaking about the chairman of the committee whose report is to be debated. Recently, for example, a five-hour prime time slot was offered to committees and was not taken up.

Lord Peston: My Lords, the Economic Affairs Committee has just had a response from the Government. My noble friend the Chief Whip is looking far too happy on the Front Bench: I have just written him a letter saying that I must have a debate right this minute and lasting at least five hours. As my noble friend knows, I am the most flexible and reasonable of chairmen.

I am not sure that this is an easy problem to solve. We do not debate the reports until the Government produce a response. One of the problems with the subsequent debate is that the Government, having produced a response, feel that they must stick to their response, rather than listening to the voice of the House and saying, "Maybe the committee was right". It is not clear what we should do. Does my noble friend agree that we ought to find a way of not allowing the

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Government to get entrenched in a position in which they find it impossible to be sympathetic to the views of the House?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend recognises that this is a caring, friendly, flexible Government.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, was not the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, right in saying that the Government must bear more responsibility for this? Is it not also true that in the first two Sessions of the Labour Government all but four of the published Select Committee reports were debated? However, by the end of the Session last year 13 were left undebated and already in this Session seven are awaiting debate, three of them from before the Summer Recess.

Under the experimental procedures that we are currently undertaking, there was an agreement that if more Bills were debated in Grand Committee, there would be more time on the Floor of the House for this sort of prime-time debate. There were a record number of Grand Committee sittings last Session and there are a record number this Session. Should not the Government start to fulfil their side of the bargain?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I do not think that we have a bad record on debates this Session. We have had two full days on Select Committee debates, plus two part-time, prime-time debates on Select Committee reports, with another one planned for 22 April. I am aware that if you look at the Minute, there can be a perception that some Select Committee reports have been waiting for a long time. But in at least one case, the committee does not want the report to be debated until it has done some further work.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, while I support the noble Countess, Lady Mar, I recognise the difficulties of the usual channels—and will probably recognise them even better in the future. Does the Minister agree that because many of these reports are very well seen outside the House, the possibility of more debates on the Floor of the House—and I understand the difficulties—would be good for the reputation of this House?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, first let me congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I look forward to working with him in his new role. The noble Lord is quite right that the work of the Select Committees in this House is taken very seriously. However, I draw the noble Lord's attention to the fact that the average number of speakers in this House on the debate of a

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Select Committee report is eight. We really need to look at the interest that is being generated around specific issues.

Lord Acton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is to be the new Convenor of the Cross Benches? A lot of people sitting around me do not know that.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, that was the reason why I congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Williamson.

Medicines and Foods: Interaction

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What information is given to patients and carers to enable them to identify drug interactions and interaction between drugs and certain foods.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, all medicines must be accompanied by a patient information leaflet, which sets out any recorded interactions between the medicine prescribed and other medicines or foods. The Government are continuing vigorously to encourage manufacturers to provide clear and accessible information about their products to enable them to be used safely and correctly. In addition, a range of advice will be given to patients at the time of prescribing and dispensing.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her Answer and give special thanks for her hard work. I declare a personal interest as my husband has had exceedingly complex and difficult problems. He is on warfarin, and his INR blood coagulation has gone over 10 twice. It is today very dangerous indeed. Is the noble Baroness aware that he was on antibiotics, which can result in problems, and also on grapefruit juice?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am sure that everyone will want to send their best wishes to the noble Baroness's husband for a speedy recovery.

Warfarin is a powerful anti-coagulant; there are some known interactions with certain antibiotics. There is also a potential reaction with cranberry juice, which has come to light very recently, and doctors have been informed about it. But I can assure the noble Baroness that the patient information leaflet, which should be provided with every medicine prescribed, should give all information about known interactions, so the doctor involved should also be able to give that information.


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