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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, I particularly welcome the commitment in the gracious Speech to replace the present undemocratic House of Lords with a wholly or partially elected House based on proportional representation, as long as the system chosen is the single transferable vote, and not the iniquitous list system which exists in some other countries. It will take more than one Session to implement all the policies in the coalition's programme, but I was disappointed to see that, although there are 25 Bills in the gracious Speech, as has been mentioned, there is no implementation of the promise to take action to promote public health and encourage behaviour change to help people live healthier lives.

Everybody knows about the increasing burdens that are being laid on the NHS by the misuse of alcohol. Without effective means of combating this self-harm, further significant increases in spending will be needed in the future to cope with alcohol-related ill health. One of the main reasons why the prisons are bursting at the seams, as my noble friends Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Dholakia pointed out, is the large number of people who are there because they committed offences related to alcohol misuse. The only measure in the gracious Speech that I can see which deals with this problem is the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which is aimed at alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour. Surely it far better to discourage people from drinking irresponsibly first, than to deal afterwards with the problems they cause. The interim analytical report on alcohol harm of 2003 hit the nail on the head when it said that the two main supply-side levers that influence alcohol use are price and availability. That advice was ignored, so the problem got worse over the past seven years under the Labour Government.

The coalition is to increase-or, at least, to review increasing-taxes on alcohol, which will have the double advantage of reducing harm and at the same time increasing revenue, though it may not fully address the cheap deals being offered by supermarkets. Duty increases in the past three years of 9 per cent, 10 per cent and 5 per cent have not prevented Tesco offering 24 cans of Carlsberg Export for £16. If we had minimum pricing, instead of above-cost pricing, at 40p per unit of alcohol-the lowest which has been suggested-this offer would have to be increased to £21. Perhaps a combination of minimum pricing and an increase in taxation would be the answer.

A third of the 14 million people a year who attend A&E departments are there because of a condition related to alcohol consumption. In 2005 the Department of Health allocated £32 million to be spent on screening A&E patients and brief interventions. There is a large study now underway across A&E departments, primary healthcare and criminal justice settings to determine the most effective and cost-effective screening method. Will the DoH continue to fund this programme and provide money for alcohol social workers to conduct brief interventions, using any of the screening methods discussed in the SIPS report? The University of Sheffield's review of the effects of alcohol pricing found that a 10 per cent increase in the price of alcohol would cut hospital admissions by 50,000 a year and reduce criminal offences by 65,000. If these price increases were achieved by taxation, the extra revenue generated would be of the order of £1.5 billion. Will the Government ask the University of Sheffield to verify this arithmetic or make its model available to other researchers who could do the calculation?

The coalition programme-but not the gracious Speech-promises concerted government action to tear down the barriers to social mobility and equal opportunities to build a fairer society. It talks about increasing the focus on the neediest families under Sure Start. These excellent principles would be undermined in the case of the neediest and most disadvantaged of all minorities in the UK-the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker-by the undertaking to adopt the Conservative Green Paper, Open Source Planning. We and the Conservatives both called for the abolition of regional spatial strategies, but the Liberal Democrats added the qualification that,

"we are not intending to disturb the plans already in place for providing Traveller sites".

If this is not accepted, provision of lawful sites will cease, and that seems to be the intention with the announcement yesterday of the decision to cancel the Gypsy sites grant. Worse still, the article "Gypsy Sites Crackdown" in last week's SundayExpress says that there are plans summarily to evict Travellers from land they own and occupy without planning permission.

The existing plans for eliminating unauthorised sites, on which one in four Traveller families live because there is nowhere they can stop legally, were to determine what number of pitches were needed in local authorities in England and Wales, and then to designate land for that purpose under the planning system. Does not the Conservative proposal mean leaving it to the unfettered discretion of 368 lower tier local authorities to decide where Gypsy sites shall be located? Does it not mean that Circular 1/06 and the laborious process of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessments, and the public inquiries which follow them, extending over many years, will be scrapped? Local authorities are not going to court the unpopularity that invariably results from designation of land as a Gypsy site unless there is a national framework to which they can point as the reason for their decision.

Equalisation of the responsibility for provision of the land is an essential feature of the present system and enables the settled population in one local authority area to see that what they are being asked to approve is fair. If there is no mechanism for sharing, people will not be able to see that others are pulling their weight and that their contribution is a necessary part of a plan to eliminate unauthorised encampments.

I hope that the children in Traveller families will benefit from the additional resources that are promised for disadvantaged pupils in the coalition programme because they show serious and chronic underachievement at every stage of education, both compared with all other ethnic groups and with the national average. Perversely, the future of the Traveller education support services within local authorities was already in doubt since their funding was already no longer ring-fenced. How are we to ensure that local authorities continue to provide the non-school based services that were provided by the Traveller education services such as support for families to make them informed and active participants in their children's education, liaison across boundaries to ensure continuity of access to services, inter-agency partnerships to address issues across the Every Child Matters spectrum, distance learning, mediation and mentoring? I have forwarded to my noble friends a copy of an e-mail from the National Association of Teachers of Travellers on the need to maintain the specialist services and the consequences of not doing so.

A fair society is one that takes special care of the weakest and most vulnerable sections of the community, and in the case of Gypsies and Travellers it looks as though we are doing the very opposite. I beg my noble friends not to spoil an otherwise excellent start for the coalition by this perverse contradiction of an essential principle.