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House of Lords

Thursday, 24 June 2010.

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Introduction: Lord Gardiner of Kimble

11.08 am

John Eric Gardiner, having been created Baron Gardiner of Kimble, of Kimble in the County of Buckinghamshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Mancroft and Lord Kimball, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Introduction: Lord Maples

11.14 am

John Cradock Maples, having been created Baron Maples, of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwickshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Lamont of Lerwick and Baroness Shephard of Northwold, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Lord Waldegrave of North Hill took the oath.

Lord Sacks made the solemn affirmation.

Government: Savings

Question

11.20 am

Asked By Lord Eden of Winton

The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, the Government have announced savings in the current financial year of £6.2 billion, of which £360 million will be made in the administration budgets of central government departments, and £400 million will be made in the administrative costs of quangos. The Government have also announced in the Budget £3.3 billion of savings from freezing public sector pay for two years from 2011-12 for those earning above £21,000. A portion of these savings will be made within administration budgets. The Government are committed to reducing the administrative costs of Whitehall and of arm's-length bodies by at least one-third. Further details and spending plans will be set out at the spending review on 20 October.

Lord Eden of Winton: That was a good Answer. I suspect that there are masses of people like me who are fed up with the monitoring, hectoring and intrusion by government agencies and quangos. Can my noble friend confirm that every department has been required

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critically to examine the justification of and the value for money of every activity in which they are engaged? Can he confirm that they have been given a clear timetable by which to report, and is he able to say what will be the likely impact on front-line services of any subsequent cutback?

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I want to read some words that my noble friend may recognise:

"I am most concerned about the people who are hardest hit ... They have been trying to deal with their own responsibilities themselves, and ... to take the burden off the State and look after themselves. The wasteful money-spending policy of the Socialist Government has virtually ruined their little nest eggs".-[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/55; cols. 2158-59.]

Those are the words of my noble friend in another place some 55 years ago, so I applaud him for the consistency of his concern that the size of the public sector be reined in. It reminds your Lordships that such reining in has, regrettably, had to be done in the wake of successive Labour Governments. Therefore, this time round, I can absolutely confirm everything that my noble friend asked for. In particular, we will ensure that departments completely meet their commitments on reducing admin spend. This, as I said, will be done by a cut of at least one-third, which is committed so far. That is a starting point and we may look to go further.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: Can the Minister say whether the Palace of Westminster is classed as one of the arm's-length bodies? Will there be a savings of one-third here? What plans does he have for implementing them and what is the timetable? If he does not have such plans, can he explain why?

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I have not been here very long but I know that I would be foolish to get into off-the-cuff answers on admin costs for the Palace of Westminster. Rather than waste time giving the noble Lord a definition of what is included, I shall write to him.

Lord Newby: Will the Minister ensure that, when looking for savings, he does not only do so within departments but seeks to reduce duplication of function between departments and quangos by implementing the principles of the Total Place programme more generally across government?

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that; we will indeed look right across government in the way that he suggested. The definition of what constitutes admin costs will itself be considered in the spending review and reported at that time.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, did the noble Lord see the recent article in the Daily Telegraph which estimates that up to 2,000 Eurocrats are paid more than the Prime Minister? Why do we go on sending some £8 billion in cash every year to support these people, who then go on to inflict such ruinous over-regulation on our economy?



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Lord Sassoon: I thank the noble Lord for his concern about the costs of bureaucracy in Brussels, about which we, too, are of course very concerned. The Government will be taking steps to make sure that the budget contribution to Europe fully reflects the need for Europe to restrain its costs. So far as concerns Eurocrats, we want to make sure that the best-quality British officials play their part as senior officials in Brussels.

Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, what is being done to reduce the number of civil servants of the rank of Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, of whom there are six in number?

Lord Sassoon: My Lords, while there are those six Permanent Secretaries in addition to the Permanent Secretaries in each department, we have over 600,000 civil servants in total. The main question is how we reduce the total number of civil servants, which increased by 28,000 under the previous Government.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, while recognising the need for child protection and health and safety matters, will the Minister also recognise that at present over 4 million volunteers are being lost to the system due to what one might describe as overzealousness in these areas? Can serious attempts be made to focus on what is absolutely essential in these matters, rather than on that which seems to be ongoingly pervasive?

Lord Sassoon: I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. I would stress that by having a target of a one-third reduction in administration costs, which we hope to exceed, we will be able to target the expenditure on where it really matters, including in the ways that he has described.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, given that the cost of compliance with government regulations by the business sector is tax-deductible and therefore a net cost to the Exchequer, will my noble friend seek to bring under better control some of the quangos whose regulatory functions appear to lack both proportionality and common sense? Will he ensure that if they are to continue at all, they are brought under much tighter discipline?

Lord Sassoon: I simply confirm that that will be done, in line with my noble friend's suggestions.

Lord Maxton: My Lords, is not the introduction and development of smart-card technology for all our citizens the best way of improving the quality and reducing the expense of public services generally? If that is so, why on earth are this coalition Government abolishing the ID card programme?

Lord Sassoon: It is a waste of money, my Lords.



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Japanese Knotweed

Question

11.28 am

Asked By Baroness Sharples

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley): A controlled release of the highly specialist psyllid-Aphalara itadori-is currently under way to help control Japanese knotweed. If successful, this should restrict its growth, slow its capacity to spread as vigorously and enhance the effectiveness of management effort. It would not eradicate it altogether.

Baroness Sharples: I thank my noble friend for that reply but is he aware that it is more than 20 years since I first asked about knotweed and nothing seems to have happened since then? Should psyllid be released and the genie is then out of the bottle, how can we ensure that it is safe? Is there not a problem for people trying to get mortgages? When it is proved that they have knotweed in their gardens or on their land they cannot get a mortgage.

Lord Henley: My Lords, we are all aware that my noble friend has been pursuing this matter for about 20 years. This is an experiment worth doing. We have put a great deal of research into the safety of the psyllid that is being introduced to ensure that it will not eat anything other than Japanese knotweed. So far, as far as we know, it does not. If we find any evidence that the psyllid moves off, we will quickly eradicate it to ensure that it does not cause the damage that uncontrolled releases of biological agents can cause.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: What has been done about it over the past eight years?

Lord Henley: My Lords, a great deal has been done about it. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is laughing, because he has had to address these questions before. I am grateful for the work that the previous Administration did in this area in introducing research into the said psyllid, the-let us get the name right again-Aphalara itadori. We hope that it will do the appropriate job in due course.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we on this side wish the Minister well in the attempt to control Japanese knotweed. Will he emphasise that it is not just gardeners and people who own cultivated land who are concerned about it, but our public services? Knotweed represents a heavy cost on our railway system because of the threat that it represents.

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to emphasise the costs, as did my noble friend in her supplementary question. It can cause major structural damage. We estimate that the costs of managing it are about £150 million a year but, as the noble Lord will

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remember from when he had to deal with the matter, back in 2003 the cost of total eradication was estimated at £1.5 billion. Now, obviously, it would be a great deal more. We should wait to see what this psyllid can do and whether it leads to a much better control of Japanese knotweed.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, on her persistence in pursuing this matter over many years-even before I was here. It is now coming to some fruition. If the present small-scale release tests in the real world prove successful, what is the next step?

Lord Henley: My Lords, if those tests are successful, obviously we would want to take it on, on advice from the appropriate scientists, to lead to greater control of Japanese knotweed. I have to say that it will take a considerable time before we know whether it will be effective; it is thought that it could be five to 10 years before we see any evidence of greater control.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Can the Minister tell us exactly what this mysteriously named thing is? Is it an insect, is it like the Hawaiian cane toad in Australia, or is it bacterial?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the psyllid known as Aphalara whatever it was, is a very small bug, of the order of two to three millimetres long. It is difficult to see with the naked eye, and a magnifying glass may be used better to see it. I have some pictures, which I could show to my noble friend after this Question if she wants to see whether she can identify that bug.

Baroness Quin: My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her persistence in raising the issue. Is it not potentially a good news story that after so long, given the problems and great expense which this has caused to people in both urban areas and the countryside, that some of the cost incurred by this plant may be limited in future? I know that the Labour Government had also commissioned research into another method of control of Japanese knotweed, a leaf fungus, which also did not appear to attack other plants. Can the Minister confirm that that research is continuing and what progress is being made?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to say that it is a good news story. That is why I was trying to offer some praise to the party opposite for the work done, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. We will continue our research on the fungus that the noble Baroness mentioned and, in due course, I hope that I will be able to tell her how that is getting on. I have nothing further to add to what I have said today, but we will continue with both avenues as appropriate.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, would it not be quite a good thing if this bug, the name of which I cannot pronounce either, were to mutate and attack the oilseed rape seedlings that are desecrating our waterways and creating quite a large eyesore around the country?



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Lord Henley: My Lords, my noble friend has a point, but we would be rather worried if the highly specialist psyllid mutated because that could cause considerable damage in areas that we would not be aware of. If we saw any signs of it mutating, we would have to stop these experiments.

Parliament: MP Numbers and Constituency Review

Question

11.35 am

Asked by Lord Roberts of Llandudno

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, Ministers are taking advice on the details of proposals, including on consultation, and, as I said in the House on 15 June, we will of course seek to frame the legislation in a way that ensures that the Boundary Commissions complete their task in a timely, fair and thorough way.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I thank my noble friend for that response. Will the Government assure us that when the Boundary Commissions consider this, they consider not only the electorate size but the geography and the local authority boundaries when reporting on the new constituencies? Will they also discuss thoroughly with the devolved Administrations any effect that the new boundaries for Westminster might have on, say, the Cardiff Assembly or the Edinburgh Parliament?

Lord McNally: My Lords, my noble friend will know that the sole objective of this exercise is to bring greater fairness to our electoral regulations and equal weight to votes. He is right, of course, that common sense and a sense of history and of geography will have an influence on this, and we will consider the implications for Wales and the other nations and regions of this kingdom when we come forward with our proposals.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, is quite right; local consultations, representations and involvement in boundary reviews, particularly this boundary review, are vital. The Liberal Democrats have always been proud of their commitment to local democracy. My question is: will this commitment survive? If promises such as the ones on VAT can so easily be shredded, how can the Minister convince the House that this commitment to local democracy will not be sacrificed in due course?



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Lord McNally: These proposals will strengthen local democracy and enhance the whole quality and culture of our democracy by giving fairer votes and votes of more equal weight.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I congratulate the coalition Government on their plan to reduce the size of the other place in order to achieve economies, but will the Minister explain why they propose at the same time greatly to enlarge the size of this House at considerable cost, and in doing so, as he himself has pointed out, perhaps bring this House into some disrepute in the country?

Lord McNally: My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. If he comes to the debate next week, as I am sure he will, he will hear my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and me speaking at an appropriate length about how we think the numbers and the costs of this House could be radically reduced.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: I suggest to the Minister, I hope without impertinence, that these proposals are spawned by cosmetic considerations and indeed by populism, and that it is utterly absurd to consider a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons to a lower level than at the time of the Great Reform Act when the population of this kingdom was only a third to a quarter of what it is now. Indeed, all that will be achieved is an enhanced distance between the ordinary voter and the ordinary representative, which cannot be good for democracy.

Lord McNally: On the contrary, one of the things on which we can again pay tribute to the previous Administration is the progress that they made in devolution. We intend to carry forward the process of devolution so that more responsibility is given to the Parliaments and Assemblies of the nations and regions of this country. If you do that, it is absurd to continue with a House of Commons of the same size as when it had the responsibilities that have now been devolved. That is part of the sensible consequences of devolution.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, is the Minister entirely confident that it is a wise course on the part of the Government to attempt to reduce the number of constituencies at the same time as introducing AV? Does he accept that it is one thing, and pretty difficult at that, to persuade Members of Parliament to vote for an electoral system other than the one that brought them to Westminster, but that it is an altogether more desperate undertaking to ask them to agree to a game of Russian roulette, which will ensure that for significant numbers of them there will not be a seat in the next Parliament? Will all this not stretch the tolerances of coalition Back-Bench MPs?


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