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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I accept a great deal of what my noble friend says. Not spending money in a timely fashion on maintenance certainly causes future bills to be much higher. That is why we took the decisions we did in regard to reversing the downward trend of investment in maintenance. It is a question for the previous government as to why the work was held up in the past; they cut the road maintenance programme.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments in relation to trunk roads. However, does she accept that that is only part of the problem? Local roads in many parts of the country are just as bad, if not worse than trunk roads. What do the Government intend to do about them?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I accept that cuts made by the previous government affected local as well as national roads. We have taken priority action on the national road network because damage to roads is done predominantly by heavy goods vehicles and although the network comprises less than 4 per cent. of all roads it carries more than 50 per cent. of such vehicles. We are examining the issues and many local authorities are looking at funding for maintenance in their own areas where the same considerations in regard to investment apply. We are considering these matters in the context of the current comprehensive spending review.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the effect on safety of bad and deteriorating road surfaces is sometimes underestimated. It does not just affect cars or lorries; it affects cyclists and pedestrians as well.
Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, we are encouraged by the announcement of government spending on the trunk road network. However, can the Minister explain why the standard spending assessment for highway maintenance by local authorities is set to fall next year by 3.5 per cent? The vast majority of roads are under the control of local authorities. The National Road Maintenance Condition Survey says that approximately 5,700 kilometres of major roads need urgent structural repair: the County Surveyors Society says that that figure underestimates the extent of the problem. Are there any plans to review the workings of the National Road Maintenance Condition Survey?
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the methodology of the survey to which the noble Lord refers was considered by the Transport Research Laboratory for the County Surveyors Society. Its conclusion was that it was sound, although it suggested some minor changes, particularly in the presentation of the data. We are certainly taking that on board.
As to the noble Lord's point on the condition of local roads, I said in my previous reply that we had to consider what the priority was. We decided that the priority was the national road network, particularly because of the increased damage to that network caused by the large amount of freight traffic on it. However, we are looking within the comprehensive spending review at what the standard spending assessment for road maintenance ought to be for local authorities for the future.
Lord Stallard: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that expected reply. Although this issue has been debated on a number of occasions in both Houses of Parliament, government replies have been more or less the same. They have been very consistent over about two decades. Age Concern is very worried about this matter, as are we all. There is still an arbitrary cut-off point in many government departments--the DSS, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry. Recent surveys show that 3.4 million people are discriminated against in healthcare. Forty per cent. of heart attack rehabilitation units operate an upper age limit; 7 million people have been discriminated against in insurance services; 3.5 million have been discriminated against in the benefits system; and 4 million people have been discriminated against in education and training. While we hear much, and rightly so, about the shortage of skilled labour--I welcome and applaud the actions being taken to train youngsters--we are at the same time discriminating on the basis of age against thousands of skilled men and women who have the skills we require as a nation.
Does my noble friend accept that while voluntary action and codes of practice are welcome they have been condemned by the DfEE's valuation, which recently said that they had had little or no impact? Will she now reconsider her reply and agree that legislation is urgently required if we are to reverse the situation whereby thousands of capable men and women are condemned to a life of vegetation, vegetation, vegetation?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my noble friend has made a long speech. As the only granny in the Government, perhaps I may say that I agree with quite a number of the things he said about the importance of avoiding discrimination on grounds of age. The Government are very aware of the need to deal with some of the issues he raised. However, I disagree with what he said about a code of practice. The Government think it is right to develop a code of practice and to do so after consultation with all the parties concerned, including those involved in supporting older people in our community, and with the CBI and the TUC. In that way we shall develop a voluntary code which we have every intention of ensuring produces good results.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the downsizing in industry which took place under the previous government resulted in large numbers of people having to accept early retirement, which they did not want, at the age of 50-plus? What is being done to ensure that such people, who are still capable of making a contribution, are not excluded from the labour market?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I agree very much with my noble friend. Many people over the age of 50 have the skills, experience and wisdom to make a major contribution in a wide variety of areas. It is true that under the previous government large numbers of people in their fifties were displaced from the labour force. Some 30 per cent. of people now economically inactive are aged between 50 and 65. This Government, by a variety of measures, including through the proposals in the White Paper on lifelong learning to be issued in the near future, are determined to ensure that people's skills go on being developed right up to the age at which they retire.
Earl Russell: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 1995 the number of people over 50 and under 65 who were excused from the actively seeking work rules because they had not worked for the previous 10 years was 2.594 million? Has that figure increased or diminished since then? If she does not have that figure to hand, I wonder whether she will write to me.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I have a figure not quite as precise as the one the noble Earl has just given. It is that there are 2.5 million people who are economically inactive at present. Employment among those aged 50 to 64 has been growing at an above average rate over the past couple of years. That is a good sign. However, there is still a lot more we have to do and a long way to go in providing gainful employment for large numbers of people in this age group.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that a good deal of age discrimination takes place in the public sector? Is she aware that public sector workers over the age of 50 are often singled out for early retirement? Can she say whether the Government themselves operate any age bar in ministerial appointments; and if so, what is that bar?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I do not think I would be occupying this position if there were an age bar against people over the age of 50; or indeed over 55. I may perhaps be allowed a little poetic licence. It is important that we do not discriminate on the ground of age. What matters is merit and whether people can do the job. I am not aware that the public sector has a worse record than the private sector in that respect. Both have records that could be improved. And that is something we have to do.
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