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House of Lords

Thursday, 15 January 2009.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Northern Ireland: Bill of Rights

Question

11.06 am

Asked By Lord Trimble

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government intend to consult publicly on this issue. We will decide on the timing of this consultation, and the form that it will take, once Ministers have given due consideration to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s report.

We recognise that there is a diverse range of opinion on this issue and look forward to hearing all views during our consultation.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I draw attention to the fact that my wife is a member of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The noble Baroness will know that my wife, together with another member of the commission, dissented from its report on a matter of principle: that the commission had failed to abide by its remit to advise on rights that reflected the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and the principles of mutual respect and parity of esteem.

My question is whether, in re-entering the consultation, the Government can ensure that due regard is paid to the views of the dissenting minority and that there is consultation on that, together with the views of the majority. I also hope that, in considering the consultation, the Government will treat with proper scepticism the self-serving statements that will emanate from the various special interest groups on this matter.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord’s wife’s role in the commission and the fact that she dissented. All I can say is that there will be a very wide consultation, in which we look forward to hearing the widest range of views possible.

Lord Laird: My Lords, is the noble Baroness the Lord President aware that, in 2001, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission issued a similar report to the one that we are confronted with today? That was rejected at that time on behalf of the

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Government by Desmond Browne, then a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, for being outside the commission’s remit. Is that the Government’s position today?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am aware of the views expressed by my right honourable friend Des Browne at that time. We have a new report, which we are currently considering. We will be consulting on it in due course.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, will my noble friend join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on the great job it has done for the people of Northern Ireland? Will she furthermore confirm that what it has done is entirely in line with the Good Friday agreement, which said that these rights,

Will my noble friend confirm that that is what the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has actually done?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, many have expressed the view that the commission has exceeded its remit. However, the Belfast agreement did not set a definition of what constitutes the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland, and nor have the Government. The commission has clearly given very detailed consideration to how to interpret its remit and circulated the methodology in June. We have now received the report, for which we are grateful. We look forward to the consultation and to whatever happens in the future.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in praising the way in which the commission has gone about its work. When does the Minister anticipate the Government fulfilling their obligations under the Belfast agreement and implementing a bill of rights in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we made a commitment in the Belfast agreement that we would explore the scope for a bill of rights for Northern Ireland and we are engaged in that process. We have received the report from the Human Rights Commission. We are grateful for the work that it has undertaken and we will consult in due course.

Lord Bew: My Lords, many noble Lords share the concern of the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Smith, to see the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, and I certainly share that concern. However, the concern about mission creep in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission reaches into that group, particularly in the light of the opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, in the case of Child E on 12 November, where he seemed to locate an example of mission creep and inappropriate action by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Does the noble Baroness understand that those of us who wish to see the Belfast agreement fully implemented with respect to human rights also have concerns about mission creep?



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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as I said, the commission’s work has been much praised. However, the way in which it has worked has also received criticism. We are now considering what the commission had to say. We will make our views clear and consult in due course, but I recognise the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bew.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, since there is much mention of the Belfast agreement, does the noble Baroness recall that the requirement for human rights applies not only to Northern Ireland but to the Republic of Ireland, where there has been little progress? Will she make representations to see that the human rights requirement in the Belfast agreement is honoured in both jurisdictions?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I note what the noble Lord has to say, and I shall certainly reflect on it and act accordingly.

Transport: Public Lavatories

Question

11.12 am

Asked By Baroness Greengross

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, arrangements for providing public toilets at stations are the responsibility of station operators and, for rail stations, are governed by a robust code of practice. More generally, the Government have taken concerted action this year to promote access to better quality public toilets for all people, including the publication of a strategic guide and more detailed guidance for local authority partnerships on innovative approaches.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply but this is a long-standing problem. In 1961, luminaries of the day such as Barbara Castle, Irene Ward and Fenner Brockway participated in a debate advocating the removal of turnstiles at lavatories operated by local authorities. It took a further two years for the ban to be approved, but now, 46 years later, they are still in place at some lavatories provided by transport operators, often to the great inconvenience of people with luggage and baby buggies, many women who are pregnant and a great many older people who have immense difficulties. It is rather sad when the noble Baroness is so committed to lifetime neighbourhoods. Does she agree that it is now time to take steps to ban turnstiles on public transport?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised an important issue. I absolutely recognise that a lack of access to toilet facilities at stations is a real barrier to people feeling confident about travelling. It is an issue that we take seriously. I do not think that a ban on turnstiles is the way to speed things up. There

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are three things happening at the moment. First, turnstiles are being phased out as stations are being modernised. Secondly, there is a modernisation programme of £150 million to make stations and toilets more accessible. Thirdly, there is the code of practice that I referred to, which means that licensed train station operators have to observe the code on accessible train and station design whenever they install, renew or replace facilities. That means that they must provide alternative arrangements for passengers who are unable to use turnstiles, that an accessible manual gate should be permanently available, and so on.

I recognise that this is not always satisfactory. If the noble Baroness has examples that she wants to draw to my attention, I can pass them on to the Minister at DfT and we can look again at what is urgently needed.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is aware that when I contested the election against Barbara Castle in 1970, her recent glory was that she had managed to remove the charge for women. This was in the days of British Rail, when men always had free railway toilets, but women had a slot that they had to put a penny in. She ensured that equality of charges, meaning removal of the charge for women, applied. I am aware that now charges are applied. Is the same principle still followed; and do men and women pay the same charge for the use of these facilities at stations?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the loss of the House of Commons was the gain of the House of Lords in relation to the noble Baroness. I am pleased to say that we have addressed the issue of inequality in charging. It was an historical anomaly that enabled local authorities to charge for toilets for women but not for urinals. The strategic guide that we put out last March removed that anomaly, so now local authorities can, if they so choose, charge for all forms of lavatory provision. That is an opportunity for a revenue stream that we hope will provide additional provision and facilities.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords—

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, shall we hear from the noble Baroness first?

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I was mayor of Cambridge I abandoned the payment by women and afterwards was known there as “mother of the free”?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I would expect no less from the noble Baroness. Cambridge has always pioneered a lot of good practice. Now, we are looking to places such as Richmond which have developed community schemes that mean that local shops and businesses also offer free lavatory provision, which makes more choice available for everyone.



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Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, in her answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about railway facilities—we are talking about facilities at transport interchanges—the Minister made reference to the fact that there is a code of practice and said that when stations are renewed things will be improved. The Government have been in office for more than 10 years and we are waiting for many of these improvements to happen. Can it not be made a condition of railway franchises that anyone taking a franchise will maintain good standards of public lavatory facilities?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Lord is so expert in this that I am sure he will know that, if train and station operators fail to follow the code that I referred to, they are in breach of their licence conditions and action can be taken by the Office of Rail Regulation. They can be fined, for example. His point is important. We have in place a programme of additional funding for modernisation, which means that 700 stations have had access to funding to improve access, and there have been high levels of applications for improving lavatories in the latest bidding round. Clearly, this is something that both DfT and the train operators know is of real concern to the public, and they are acting on it.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, further to my noble friend’s previous answer, is she aware that a number of train operators are facing financial difficulties and are announcing the early closure of stations? One of the consequences of closing a station early in the evening is that all the facilities on that station are locked. Does she believe that it is necessary for her colleagues to talk to the Office of Rail Regulation about ensuring that some basic lavatory facilities are maintained, even if the station is unstaffed?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, that is an important point and I will take it away and talk to my colleagues in the DfT about that. Providing information about the location of the nearest accessible toilet is very important. Noble Lords might like to know that Westminster has something called a Sat Lav service, whereby you can text to find out where your nearest lavatory is.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, noble Lords may have noticed that the clock was inadvertently stopped after the first Question. There is a precedent, and we shall start the clock again, so there will be 15 minutes for the final two Questions.

Debt: Interest Rates

Question

11.21 am

Asked By Lord Higgins

Lord Brett: My Lords, the Government share concerns over excessive interest rates charged by some lenders, and we have strengthened the regulation of credit

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markets to address them. We continue to monitor the issues closely, including latest research. However, we are not currently persuaded of the case for an interest rate cap, which risks forcing low-income consumers into the hands of illegal lenders. Experts, including Citizens Advice, supported this position during the passage of the Consumer Credit Act 2006.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer, but it appears that in the existing situation people are being exploited. Before Christmas, leaflets were put through people’s letter boxes offering loans of between £50 and £500 at an interest rate not of 100 per cent, but at a typical APR of 189 per cent. Does he agree that this is extortionate and likely to lead to serious problems for vulnerable people? Is this being done by people who are not licensed and, if so, are they being prosecuted? Or is it being done by people who are licensed, but the licensing authorities impose no restriction whatever on lending of this kind?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the form of credit that we are talking about is home credit or doorstep credit; shorter-term credit is also offered through Money Shop and the like. It is not always clear which type we are referring to. Basically, if lenders are unlicensed, they can be prosecuted. We strengthened through the 2006 Act the ability to do this. We created the ability to make complaints through the ombudsman for finance and of course we are trying to do all that we can to support laws in such situations.

One has to be careful about the APR. It looks extremely high, but companies that lend for very short terms argue that the cost is quite high. The APR can be deceptive. For example, if the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, were to loan me £25—that is not a request—and in two weeks I were to repay him and offer to buy him a pint costing £2.50 in the bar, on the grounds that that would be a reward, that would look quite reasonable, but it would be an interest rate—an APR—of 4,000 per cent. We have to be careful about this, but we have strengthened regulations and we will continue to monitor the situation.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House what the Government are doing to support the spread and development of credit unions, which, where they have been established, are very valuable for people who are poorly served by conventional sources of finance and which in present circumstances could have a particularly useful part to play?

Lord Brett: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The Government strongly support the use of credit unions. In 2004, we set up a growth fund, which is spending some £80 million up to 2011. It has made 120,000 loans, amounting to more than £52 million. Credit unions are a major source of low-interest loans, relative to those that we have been talking about, and we hope that that area of activity will expand considerably.



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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, if the Government’s declared policy is to try to make available more credit at as low a rate of interest as possible, why are they persisting in charging penal rates of interest for their own provision of credit to the banks?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Lord uses the pejorative term “penal”, but it has been explained in the other place and here why those rates of interest are being charged—they are part of the Government’s response to the credit crunch. In that sense, I doubt whether many people who are borrowing money from lenders in this area are too worried about the situation in the major finance industries. With all due respect, I think that the noble Lord’s question goes a little off the area of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Newby: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the MoneySense advisory board. Are the Government satisfied that enough action is being taken on financial literacy among children and adults so that they understand interest rates and so that, when they are given the opportunity to purchase various sorts of financial services products, they can take an informed view of what they are buying?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point: we need greater financial literacy among the whole population. In the past, people received an offer of finance, in a leaflet or other form, but had no way of finding out whether it was the best offer on the market. That situation changed in October last year with the launch of lenderscompared.org, a new website that allows individuals to make a comparison. Although children may not be as financially literate as we would wish, they are all, so far as I can see, IT literate and they will therefore be able to make use of that site.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with more and more families falling into debt through no fault of their own, there is the strongest possible case for a thorough review of how the position of the vulnerable debtor can be further protected? Will the Government give particular attention to the possibility of extending the powers already vested in judges to strike out or amend unconscionably unfair and unjust provisions in loan agreements? I support the point about credit unions; at this moment, the most important contribution may well be to take more and more people out of the clutches of pawnbrokers and loan sharks by way of credit unions.


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