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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, I have the pleasure of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, on his powerful maiden speech. The noble Lord joins your Lordships' House after a most impressive career in the other place from 1979 to 2001, having taken the seat from Teddy Taylor. He is well qualified to speak on the BBC having served on the National Heritage Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the other place from 1992 to 1997. As the noble Lord mentioned, he served with Donald Dewar as the Opposition Front Bench spokesman on Scotland from 1985 to 1992.

Among his many other interests he is a keen athlete and sportsman. I shall be recruiting him into the House of Lords swimming team for our swim next year against the House of Commons.

I entirely concur with the noble Lord on his vision for the BBC, especially with the advent of the broadband revolution and the move to the digital world. Certainly the BBC is well positioned to expand its footprint across the world. I look forward to hearing a lot more from the noble Lord in your Lordships' House in the months and years to come.

Turning to the gracious Speech, the first paragraph states:

"My Government will continue to pursue policies which entrench economic stability and promote growth and prosperity".

Clearly, this is a key objective as we approach the next general election, which is commonly believed to be on 5 May next year. Rather than make a general comment on our Government's economic policy, I should like to focus my remarks on three issues. First, what measures are being taken to stabilise the housing market?

Secondly, the gracious Speech referred to our Government's commitment to,

"reducing bureaucracy and the costs of Government", and to the goal of promoting more efficiency. Here I should like to make a brief reference to the implementation of the Gershon report.

Finally, a central theme of the gracious Speech was security. I am particularly concerned by the increase in e-crime—that is, electronic crime—over the Internet and the impact that this is having on British business.

On the state of the housing market, the Financial Secretary, Ruth Kelly, in her foreword to the consultation paper in March this year on promoting more flexible investment in property, started with the words:

"A healthy and stable property market is a key element in any successful economy. In the residential market this is of crucial importance to individuals, not only as a place to live, but also as a form of long-term security and savings".

Over the past decade, we have seen a steady increase in the price of residential property, but we are now experiencing, if we are to believe what we read in the media, the start of what could be a major correction in property prices, particularly in the residential market.

In contrast to the rather bleak outlook for the residential market, we are seeing a steady flow of investment into commercial property. This is, in part, driven by the reasonably stable yields but also in expectation of the Government's proposal for a form of REIT—a real estate investment trust—or, in the Chancellor's words, a "property investment fund"—a PIF—which would change the tax treatment of property and make it more attractive to institutional investors.

As I am sure your Lordships are aware, REITs are all over the world; not only have they been a major spur to investment in commercial property, they have also been a huge boost to low-cost housing which is currently one of the major challenges facing our Government.

Consultation responses to the Government's proposal for the introduction of PIFs, as they are now referred to, were sought by 16 July this year. Can the Minister elaborate on the Government's timetable for considering these responses and say when a formal announcement will be made to move this much needed initiative forward? Can the Minister also elaborate on how the initiative will benefit not just the commercial property market but also the residential property market?

On the reference in the gracious Speech to our Government's commitment to,

"reducing bureaucracy and the costs of Government", can the Minister elaborate on what measures are being taken to implement the findings of the Gershon report? Among the report's many findings, Sir Peter Gershon believed that £15 billion a year could be released in efficiency savings by more efficient procurement and by government departments, councils and health authorities combining back-office functions. It appears to me that one of the greatest challenges facing the OGC—the Office of Government Commerce—in delivering the savings and achieving greater efficiencies is breaking down the many silos in national, regional and local government, let alone all the different silos among the National Health Service trusts.

Sir Peter also believed that another £5 billion could be saved in productivity gains from better use of information technology and more support staff in schools, policing and health. Controversially, he recommended that some 80,000 Civil Service jobs could go, as back office functions are merged, and purchasing improved, with additional job savings in the wider public sector.

The Chancellor has confirmed that he is seeking £20 billion of savings to spend on frontline services by 2008. The OGC has been tasked with delivering these savings. The Government have set out a very ambitious e-government programme, with 2005 the deadline for e-enabling public sector services. The "e" in "e-government" does not just stand for "electronic", it also stands for "efficiency" and "effectiveness". For the e-government initiative to be truly successful, there needs to be far more customer-centred government service and more efficient technology-driven processes. I certainly do not believe that the public have any idea of all the various benefits that are being driven through the e-government initiative.

There needs to be a lot more experience-sharing between the public and private sector. E-business is all about changing processes as well as changing technology. The noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, spoke eloquently on the importance of business embracing technology and the need to promote more investment in technology commercialisation as well as knowledge transfer in the sciences. I entirely support his wishes.

Finally, I make brief mention on the theme of e-security and e-crime. At a time when more and more businesses are reliant on broadband and e-mail, e-crime is becoming a major threat to the success of both private and public organisations. Recent statistics have revealed that over 50 per cent of home computers are subject to hacking and over 70 per cent of all e-mail consists of spam. It is estimated that spam costs British business between £3 billion and £4 billion a year.

Recently, many businesses have suffered what are called DDoS attacks—distributed denial of service—by what the National High Tech Crime Unit at Scotland Yard refers to as botnet armies. In one of its recent reports, the Gartner Group claimed that the greatest security risk facing large companies and individual Internet users over the next 10 years will be the increasingly sophisticated use of social engineering to bypass IT security defences. Time precludes me from elaborating on this subject. I simply recommend that the Government give serious consideration to the recommendations of the recently published report of the All-Party Parliamentary Internet Group on the revision of the Computer Misuse Act. The report makes some 24 very powerful recommendations on this subject.

In conclusion, these days of debate following the gracious Speech are, in my opinion, a classic example of the value of your Lordships' House, with its multidisciplinary talent pool. If only the public had more exposure to the works of your Lordships' House. With the election forecast for 5 May next year, I wish the Government good luck with their long list of legislation.