HL Deb 07 February 1991 vol 525 cc1288-311

1 Clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out "80" and insert "91"

1AThe Commons disagreed to the above amendment for the following reason—

Because the said amendment affects charges on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.

The intention behind this amendment agreed to in Committee by your Lordships was to substitute 91 per cent. instead of the Government's proposed 80 per cent. as the SSP reimbursement rate for employers from April 1991. As such, it would have had a public expenditure cost of £100 million. The Commons have now considered this amendment and have disagreed with it. The reason for their disagreement is a privilege reason.

It would not be right for me to seek at this time to repeat the Government arguments against this amendment, which I put forward during Committee and which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has given in another place. It is of course entirely a matter for the authorities in that place, and not a matter for the Government, as to whether an amendment made in this House involves financial privilege.

The Government have given careful consideration to all the amendments made in this House, and noble Lords will appreciate that the amendment passed deleting the power to make further changes to the reimbursement rate by order has been accepted. Should any such change be contemplated in the future, it would be necessary to do this by primary legislation.

Although I would not wish to prevent noble Lords from putting their views on the merits of Amendment No. 1 it is inescapable that in the final analysis the matter must be decided on the single point of the financial privileges asserted by another place. I do not think I can usefully make any further comment.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Henley.)

Lord Carter

My Lords, the reason given for the Commons rejection of the amendment which this Chamber accepted may be deemed sufficient on the grounds of constitutional convention. We fully understand that fact. However, it will certainly not be sufficient reason for those employers who will face substantial extra costs while they are struggling to cope with the worst recession in the economy since that induced by this Government in 1981.

We explored all the arguments in depth when your Lordships accepted substantial amendments to the Bill, and I do not intend to repeat them today. Many noble Lords will have seen the joint letter sent to the Secretary of State on 1st February. Perhaps noble Lords on the Benches opposite may care to reflect upon the wisdom of a Bill which unites the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the Association of Independent Business, the Confederation of British Industry, the Forum of Private Business, the National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the National Chambers of Trade, the National Farmers Union, the Union of Independent Companies and also the Labour Party, the Disability Alliance and the Institute of Personnel Management.

The Government have continually claimed—and their words are always chosen with care—that occupational sick pay schemes are used, in the words of the Secretary of State, by employers responsible for more than 90 per cent. of the work force".—[Official Report, Commons, 5/2/91; col. 179.] The implication is that 90 per cent. of the employees are covered. In fact only about 50 per cent. of the workforce is eligible for occupational sick pay schemes, in other words, half the workforce has statutory sick pay only on which to rely in times of sickness. Incidentally, The Times editorial on Tuesday, which your Lordships may have seen, managed to get that point completely wrong. We wish that those who write The Times editorials would have a word with their parliamentary correspondents to explain these complicated matters to them in a way that they can understand.

Your Lordships will also remember that no fewer than 5 million employees have had their entitlement to statutory sick pay reduced by the Government amending the various rates and thresholds in the past two years.

For the last time, perhaps I may deal with the argument that the Bill is necessary to help pay for improvements in other social security benefits. That argument was comprehensively destroyed by the Secretary of State in another place on 5th February, at cols. 176 and 177 of Hansard, although I do not think that that was his intention. Mr. Newton identified three related elements: the reduction of the rebate to 80 per cent.; ending the reimbursement of national insurance contributions on statutory sick pay; and (it was the Secretary of State who linked them together) the reduction in employers' national insurance contributions. As we are well aware, those three elements broadly cancel out in cash terms. To be fair to Mr. Newton—because he is a very fair man—he went on to include in the package the failure to uprate the higher rates of statutory sick pay and the raising of the limit at the lower rate of pay, and that is worth £100 million to the Government. That is where the money for improvements in child benefit and the rest come from.

As a final word, of course we welcome the acceptance by the Government of the so-called Henry VIII amendment, which means, as the Minister says, that the Government will have to come back with a Bill if they wish to change the rebate percentage. I have a funny feeling—I do not know why—that it may be some time before the Government again present a Bill to amend statutory sick pay.

The Bill has been a textbook exercise in how not to introduce and handle legislation. We can only hope that the Government have learnt something from it.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am afraid that I must echo some of the words of the noble Lord opposite when he says that this is a textbook example of how not to handle legislation. I am bound to say that I also agree with a great deal of what he said about the demerits of this measure.

Having said that, I do not believe that your Lordships' House would be wise to press the matter further now that another place has invoked parliamentary privilege. On that point I must agree with my noble friend Lord Henley. I have a word of warning to utter about this matter. Until about a year ago this would not have been a case in which financial privilege could have been invoked, because financial privilege, as I understand it, arises only where one is concerned with a charge on the Consolidated Fund. Until the Social Security Bill of a year ago the charge would not have fallen on the Consolidated Fund at all but on what I used to call the National Insurance Fund, which is now called the Social Fund where, as I understand it, financial privilege does not arise.

On 22nd January last year, when the Social Security Bill was going through another place, my right honourable friend, the present Secretary of State for Social Security, spoke about the change he was effecting. It was a change that provided that in these cases the Consolidated Fund should refund the money lost by the Social Fund as a result of the repayments. I should like to remind your Lordships of what was said in another place on 22nd January 1990: I should make it quite clear to the House that this change does not in any way alter the present or future benefit entitlement of any individual. It will not affect the way these benefits are, administered by the Department. It will not affect the current arrangements whereby employers recoup the cost of statutory sick pay and statutory maternity pay from their national insurance contribution payments. We will simply ensure that the national insurance fund will be reimbursed from general taxation".—[Official Report, Commons, 22/1/90; col. 640.] Assurances were given to outside interests that the change was merely a bookkeeping change. However, if noble Lords look at the matter they will see that it is that change which enables financial privilege to be invoked in respect of your Lordships' amendment. In effect it has only been so for just over a year.

I think that your Lordships will want to be a little vigilant in future to see whether further extensions of the financial privilege of another place—and therefore further limitations of the powers of this House—are introduced. Whether it is deliberate or per incuriam I would not know, but in either case your Lordships might wish to be extremely vigilant in this matter

One other point to which my noble friend and the noble Lord opposite referred was the famous Henry VIII clause. It is a matter of great pleasure to all that Her Majesty's Government have had the good sense to drop it. I hope and believe that the good advice of my noble friend Lord Henley may well have contributed to that happy end.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, sadly my amendment has been rejected on grounds of financial privilege, a point to which both the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred. I think that that is a rather cowardly way of tackling this situation. Your Lordships backed me splendidly when this matter came through, but sadly we cannot repeat the exercise because of the conventions which apply.

I should like to take up the point that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has just been making. Vulnerable to the same process are statutory maternity pay and industrial injuries compensation measures, which were both moved at the same time. I wrote to my noble friend about that matter after the last stage of the Bill. I should be most grateful if he would give us some assurance, when he comments on what we had to say, that the Government have no intention of playing the same sort of trick on industry with those two schemes. It is very important that the Government should learn that one cannot create a situation whereby one asks another body, whether it be industry, as in this case, or other organisations, to help do the job that the Government have to perform and then expect that body not to mind if its financial and administrative contributions are being taken advantage of.

I should be grateful if my noble friend would give us some indication as to whether the Government have learnt that they have used the wrong machinery for introducing the changes which now sadly we have to accept.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I wish to say first, unusually perhaps, how much we agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who warned us of the dangers arising to the position of the House if the Consolidated Fund were not to be used as the source of the invoking of privilege by another place. It is obvious, is it not? that many of the issues which go through the House have financial implications. If they are to be interpreted widely, as appears is being done in this case, then what the House can do by way of amendment will be gradually, but inevitably, severely limited in the future. We should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for pointing out that danger so clearly.

The Government's failure to recognise what they are doing by rejecting our change from 80 per cent. to 91 per cent. shows how little they understand the position of small businesses at present, or business as a whole, because the matter does not just relate to small businesses. This is not a small amount of money. The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that the provision will save the Exchequer £100 million and then say that the sum is so trifling that industry can carry it and not even notice that it has happened. That is a type of argument that cannot stand up for two minutes. It is a marginal charge. At present, when a great many businesses, large and small, are teetering on the brink of going down the drain, that can be the last straw. The Government must not continue to say that it is a trifling matter and that the difference between 91 per cent. and 80 per cent. is of no real significance.

I should also like to challenge again the fact that the change has to be made because the money has to be found for child benefit. That may be a deal that has been done by the Treasury and the department, but at the end of the day those moneys have to come out of taxation in one form or another, as we are all aware. There are many other ways in which the Government could have raised the money to ensure that those charges were not placed in the way that they are, without taking it from child benefit. That is a narrow interpretation of the way in which the financing of this scheme could be done. We much regret that the Government have decided to proceed along the lines that they have.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, perhaps I may say a word about the Commons grounds for claiming privilege, and therefore disagreeing with your Lordships' amendment. The Bill, as your Lordships are aware, is concerned with the reimbursement to employers of the sums that they spend by way of statutory sick pay. The Bill reduces the reimbursement from 100 per cent. to 80 per cent., and that clearly imposes a charge upon the citizens and also—this is the ground of the Commons disagreement —affects charges on public funds.

I venture to think that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who is a formidable expert on financial business, nevertheless takes too narrow a view as to what is the proper sphere of the Commons financial privilege. In my view it extends to charges on individual citizens, but we have in his place today one of the three former Chancellors of the Exchequer who grace your Lordships' House. Perhaps he will feel impelled to intervene at this point—it does not look as if he will at the moment.

I do not believe that it is contested that as of today the claim to privilege is well founded, and so perhaps it is not necessary on this occasion to explore what should be its constitutional limits. However, I wish to say a word about the effect of that claim on Clause 1(2) which was the subject of Amendment No. 5 made by your Lordships. The amendment has been accepted by the other place, but in terms to which I wish to refer. First, I mention the direct effect of Clause 1(2), (the Henry VIII clause). The mere fact that financial privilege is now claimed on the grounds that the provision affects public funds demonstrates how outrageous—I use that term advisedly—it was to introduce a Henry VIII clause, whereby the Minister by ministerial decree (by order) could alter the 80 per cent. upwards or downwards, as he chose. It is not just that: that order was subject only to the negative procedure as to its validation.

Your Lordships are well aware that one of the disadvantages of the negative as opposed to the affirmative procedure is that in the other place negative orders are all too often never reached, and when they are considered, they are often considered at a highly inconvenient hour. Yet, what is now claimed, rightly in my view, as amounting to a charge on public funds was made the subject of a Henry VIII clause, and that, too, subject only to the negative procedure. I hope that we shall never see anything of that sort again.

So I turn to the other question; namely, the effect of the amendment on the Henry VIII clause. When the matter came before the other place, the Deputy Speaker advised the Chamber that all the amendments (Amendments Nos. 2 to 7, and therefore including Amendment No. 5 dealing with the Henry VIII clause) were the subject of privilege. It would not be proper to question that matter. It is a matter purely for the other place. It does not appear in the communication from the other place to your Lordships, although it does appear in the Hansard of the proceedings of the other place and it is reflected on the Order Paper of the other place, it being denoted and signified that the House of Commons waives privilege in the matter.

It should not go completely unobserved that that claim to privilege may not be entirely valid. It is questionable. For example, on the Local Government Finance Bill (the community charge Bill) there was a claim to privilege which was questioned. I believed that the Commons were right to claim privilege on that occasion, but I am far from convinced that it is a correct claim to privilege in respect purely of a machinery provision such as the Henry VIII clause. One can test the matter in this way: as your Lordships are aware, that clause, as originally introduced, was subject only to the negative procedure, but the Government undertook to rectify that in your Lordships' House by making it subject to the affirmative procedure. Is it not rather odd that a matter which was subject to Commons privilege should be rectified in your Lordships' House? Let us suppose that was done, and your Lordships had changed the negative to the affirmative procedure, could it reasonably be said that that was a matter of financial privilege?

It would be improper on a matter that is not formally before your Lordships' House to question the advice that was given to another place, even if it were consonant with the relationship between the two Houses. However, it should go on record that that claim for privilege might be questionable if it were ever reiterated. I hope that the occasion will never arise as I trust there will be no further attempt to introduce Henry VIII clauses on financial matters.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I hope I may intervene at this stage and apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Russell who unfortunately is on his sick bed. I am sure he would have wished to intervene at this stage. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for his intervention as I believe my noble friend would have wished to make a similar point. He might also have drawn your Lordships' attention to the fact—he is a much better historian than I am—that the last occasion on which a provision of that kind came back from another place to your Lordships' House was in 1642. I understand that that is the previous precedent. On that occasion the House of Lords was very rude to another place and dealt with the imposition accordingly.

We on these Benches are grateful that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has raised this important issue; though that is difficult given the business on the Order Paper. The noble and learned Lord has laid down an important marker in relation to the job that your Lordships have to do with special reference to Henry VIII clauses. I, too, hope this is the last occasion that this situation will arise.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I am not a legal expert, but as a Catholic and a woman I reject anything to do with Henry VIII; just as I reject anything to do with Arabs because they do not have the right approach to women. That is totally irrelevant, but I make those comments as a retort to my good friend who is present today.

There is a certain arrogance about the Commons reason which states: The Commons disagreed to the above amendment for the following reason— Because the said amendment affects charges on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason". I believe the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has shown us that the Government have shifted the boundaries in a year. There is an underlying factor here. This House is constantly under challenge. The press does not help as it describes us as a lot of elderly souls who are half asleep and Members in another place as being full of vitality and youth. We now have a young Prime Minister aged 47. However, there is no doubt that noble Lords in this House are the epitome of wisdom. They have backgrounds and skills in many areas. This kind of amendment epitomises the challenge that faces this House in its relations with another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, knows a great deal both about the monetary and the constitutional aspects of this matter. I have received some marvellous letters from owners of small businesses in which I have been complimented on my pleading on their behalf. It is not for me to tell the Government how to obtain votes. However, this is exactly the kind of behaviour which will lose them credence with those people who are their friends.

I am happy to take issue with the reason given by the Commons for disagreeing with the amendment. I take issue with another place all the time. The reason given is not very convincing. Every Bill that comes before us contains a reference to money. One cannot draft a Bill without indicating how much it will cost. Will the Government continue to shift boundaries, as they have done with this provision? I plead again with the Government to state that they will meet the terms of the provision. If they made such a statement it would be far more valuable to them in terms of good will than in terms of cash.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, I am sure that we should take the advice of my noble friend on the Front Bench and not oppose the wishes of another place on this matter. Nevertheless, this measure will cause further difficulties to industry. Industry is already in a gravely difficult position as it is experiencing a deep recession. Will my noble friend on the Front Bench make representations to his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the effect that this further damage to industry should be alleviated as far as possible in the Budget proposals that will be submitted shortly?

Lord Milverton

My Lords, I hope Her Majesty's Government will take note of what has been said in connection with the effects on small businesses of the statutory sick pay provision. A couple running a small business in Bath recently communicated with me. They are good, honest, hardworking people but they have had to sell their business because of rates and the poll tax. Will Her Majesty's Government not show that they have a greater appreciation of the difficulties that small businesses face? I hope this horrible trend of small and large businesses closing down will stop. If Members of the Government met some of the owners of small businesses who are facing difficulties they might adopt a different approach. As my noble friend Lord Mottistone said, the difference between a 10 per cent. and a 20 per cent. margin for the owners of small businesses is great. A clergyman can appreciate that situation because it is only in recent years that clergymen have started to receive a reasonable remuneration.

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I said, I do not wish to prevent Members of the House from putting forward their views on this amendment. I have certainly listened to everything that has been said but I do not believe it would be worth rehearsing all the arguments that have been put forward. However, I shall make a few comments on the points that have been made.

My noble friend Lord Caldecote asked me to make representations to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sure my right honourable friend will take on board what my noble friend said. It has been argued that extra costs have been placed on industry at the wrong time. That should be put into perspective. As we have said before, we are talking about a figure of £100 million on a total wages bill of £300 billion. That figure represents a mere 0.03 per cent. of the wages bill and should be considered in that perspective.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he not realise that the figure we have been discussing should not be related to the total wages bill but to the profit of the individual companies concerned? That is where the money comes from.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept that point but I repeat that we are talking about a very small figure. We should put that figure into perspective in terms of the total wages bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned the coverage of occupational sick pay schemes. I am sure the noble Lord accepts that it is indisputable that 91 per cent. of employees work for employers who provide occupational sick pay schemes. However, the noble Lord said that only about 50 per cent. of employees were covered in this way. I accept that not all employees are necessarily covered immediately. However, we know that some 50 per cent. of private sector schemes have no exclusion clauses at all. Where there is an exclusion clause, length of service is the most common factor affecting entitlement. The period in question is commonly only three to 12 months. The other most common exclusion clause is hours of work. However, we believe that a significant number of people—and certainly more than the 50 per cent. that the noble Lord referred to —are covered by exclusion clauses.

Lord Carter

My Lords, it would be helpful to know why the Government insist on this curious statistical approach. They always state that 91 per cent. of employees work for firms which have occupational sick pay schemes. The Government then state that the employees are covered by occupational sick pay schemes. The Times has been misled by the Government on this point. Why do the Government not say that 50 per cent., or 60 per cent.—or the figure which they must know—are eligible for sick pay schemes?

4.30 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I said 91 per cent. are covered because 91 per cent. work for firms which are covered by the scheme and will in time receive full coverage once they go beyond the time limit of three months to 12 months or whatever the limit may be.

I turn now to the question of financial privilege. That was raised by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I would not argue with my noble friend on the issue, but again I must stress that whether financial privilege can be claimed is a matter for another place. He took, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, a very narrow view as to how another place should claim its financial privilege. He said that it was only recently that statutory sick pay had been made a charge on the Consolidated Fund. There is a very good reason for making statutory sick pay a charge on the Consolidated Fund and not on the National Insurance Fund. It is not a contributory benefit and therefore should instead not be a charge on the National Insurance Fund but should instead be a charge on the Consolidated Fund.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene? What he said is apparent logic, but why was it for a considerable time—I believe since 1982—a charge on the National Insurance Fund?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot answer that question. All I can say is that because it was not a contributory benefit, it was quite rightly changed from being a charge on the National Insurance Fund to being a charge on the Consolidated Fund.

I turn to the speculation by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, as to whether another place could have claimed financial privilege on what has been called the Henry VIII clause. I cannot comment on the matter because it must always be a matter for another place whether it claims financial privilege. I noted the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, but I add that in the event there was no need to worry on that account because the amendment striking out the Henry VIII clause was accepted by another place.

Now to some points made by my noble friend Lord Mottistone: I can assure him that I shall write to him as soon as possible. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it quite clear in his up-rating statement that the considerations underlying the. SSP proposals, and in particular the spread of occupational coverage, are not seen as applying equally to statutory maternity pay. Indeed, he said that one advantage of his proposals was that it enabled him to treat SMP on its own merits and make a real increase in the standard rate over and above the normal RPI up-rating, thereby giving extra help to some 260,000 women. Obviously, no Minister can give an undertaking that no consideration will ever be given to further change to the balance of this or any other social provision regardless of all other aims and circumstances. I have dealt with some of the points that have been made.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, in connection with the point that my noble friend has just raised, I asked merely that if the Government consider making changes to statutory maternity pay or industrial injury compensation, they will consult first and decide afterwards. That is all I asked. I did not say that they should never even think of changing the rules.

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend will not expect me to give an assurance on that point. Bearing in mind the opinions expressed during the passage of the Bill through the House, of which I have been on the receiving end, I can say that some note will be taken of the point raised by my noble friend.

I have answered some of the points and later I shall deal with the amendments relating to the concessions to small businesses. In the final analysis, all I can say is that the issue must be decided on the single point of financial privilege asserted by another place.

Lord Elton

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, and arising from what he has just said, can he confirm that his earlier remarks about privilege which sounded rather like strictures—do not mean that Members of Her Majesty's Government in this House feel that when the extension of privilege of another place means the reduction of privilege in this place, Members of this House are not right to keep an eye on the matter and should not be free to comment? I know that his brief, as I remember mine did when I sat in his place, indicates that the word of the authorities in another place is final; but I should not wish that view to extend to the rest of the Members of the House who must guard its privileges jealously.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept what my noble friend said. It is a matter for this House how it reacts to the financial privilege claimed by another place. As I said, in the final analysis this particular matter must be decided on that single point of financial privilege asserted by another place. I do not believe that I can usefully make any further comment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

LORDS AMENDMENT

2 After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

Small employers' relief

".—(1) In section 9 of the Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982, before subsection (2) (meaning of "contributions payments") there shall be inserted—

"(1B) For the purposes of this section, a payment of statutory sick pay which an employer is liable to make to an employee for any day qualifies for small employers' relief if the employer is a small employer who has before that day been liable to make such payments of statutory sick pay as entitle him to relief in respect of that payment.

(1C) For the purposes of this section, "small employer" shall be defined by regulations by reference to the aggregate of the employer's and the employee's contributions payments for any prescribed period, such aggregate to be reviewed annually having regard to the increase in earnings and the effect of any such increase on the amount of contributions payments.

(1D) Regulations shall prescribe the payments of statutory sick pay that entitle a small employer to small employer's relief in respect of any particular payment, and that entitlement shall be determined by reference to the number of weeks for which the employer has been liable to pay statutory sick pay in respect of the employee in question in a prescribed period.

(1E) The first regulations made under this section shall prescribe that the amount of the aggregate of the employer's and the employee's contributions payments, and the number of weeks for which the employer has been liable to pay statutory sick pay in respect of the employee in question shall be in accordance with the following table:—

Aggregate contributions in the previous contributions year Number of weeks before small employers' relief applies
less than £15,000 6
less than £10,000 3
less than £5,000 0

(1F) A statutory instrument containing (whether alone or with other provisions) regulations under subsection (1C) or (1D) above shall not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House."

(2) In subsection (2) of that section (meaning of "contributions payments" in subsections (1) (a) and (1A)) for the words "and subsection (1A)" there shall be substituted the words "and subsection (1C)".

(3) In Part II of Schedule 5 to the Social Security Act 1986 (questions for the Secretary of State) in paragraph (b), after sub-paragraph (v) there shall be inserted the words "or

(vi) the amount of an employer's contributions payments for any period for the purposes of regulations under section 9(1C) of that Act." "

The Commons agreed to the above amendment with the following amendments▀×

2A Line 7, leave out from 'day' to end of line 35 and insert: 'which forms part of a period of incapacity for work qualifies for small employers' relief if—

  1. (a) on that day the employer is a small employer who has been liable to pay statutory sick pay in respect of that employee for earlier days forming part of that period of incapacity for work; and
  2. (b) the aggregate amount of those payments exceeds the entitlement threshold, that is to say an amount equal to
and regulations may make provision for calculating the entitlement threshold in any case where the employee's entitlement to statutory sick pay is calculated by reference to different weekly rates in the same period of incapacity for work.

(1C) If the Secretary of State by order so provides for any tax year, the following subsections shall have effect for that tax year in substitution for subsection (1B) above—

"(1BB) For the purposes of this section, a payment of statutory sick pay which an employer is liable to make to an employee for any day in a tax year qualifies for small employers' relief if—

  1. (a) on that day the employer is a small employer who has been liable to make payments of statutory sick pay for earlier days in that tax year in respect of any employees of his; and
  2. (b) the aggregate of any such payments for those earlier days exceeds a prescribed sum.

(1BC) In any case where—

  1. (a) an employer is liable to make two or more payments of statutory sick pay for the same day in a tax year, and
  2. (b) by virtue of the condition in subsection (1BB) (b) above, none of those payments would qualify for small employers' relief, but
  3. (c) that condition would have been fulfilled in relation to a proportion of the aggregate amount of those payments, had he been liable—
    1. (i) to pay as statutory sick pay for an earlier day in that tax year, instead of for the day in question, the smallest part of that aggregate that would enable that condition to be fulfilled, and
    2. (ii) to pay the remainder as statutory sick pay for the day in question,
    he shall be treated for the purposes of subsection (1BB) above as if he had been liable to make payments of statutory sick pay as mentioned in paragraph (c) above instead of as mentioned in paragraph (a) above.

(1BD) If, in a case not falling within subsection (1BC) above—

  1. (a) an employer is liable to make a single payment of statutory sick pay for a day in a tax year, and
  2. (b) by virtue of the condition in subsection (1BB) (b) above, that payment would not qualify for small employers' relief, but
  3. (c) that condition would have been fulfilled in relation to a proportion of that payment, had he been liable—
  1. (i) to pay as statutory sick pay for an earlier day in that tax year, instead of for the day in question, the smallest part of that payment that would enable that condition to be fulfilled, and
  2. (ii) to pay the remainder as statutory sick pay for the day in question,
he shall be treated for the purposes of subsection (1BB) above as if he had been liable to make payments of statutory sick pay as mentioned in paragraph (c) above instead of the payment mentioned in paragraph (a) above.";

and, without prejudice to section 45(1) below, the Secretary of State may by regulations make such transitional or consequential provision or savings as he considers necessary or expedient in connection with the coming into force of an order under this subsection or the expiry or revocation of any such order and the consequent revival of subsection (1B) above.

(1D) For the purposes of this section, "small employer" shall have the meaning assigned to it by regulations, and, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, any such regulations—

  1. (a) may define that expression by reference to the amount of an employer's contributions payments for any prescribed period; and
  2. (b) if they do so, may in that connection make provision for the amount of those payments for that prescribed period—
    1. (i) to be determined without regard to any deductions that may be made from them under this section or under any other enactment or instrument; and
    2. (ii) in prescribed circumstances, to be adjusted, estimated or otherwise attributed to him by reference to their amount in any other prescribed period.

(1E) If and so long as regulations under subsection (1D) above prescribe an amount which an employer's contributions payments must not exceed if he is to be a small employer for the purposes of this section, the Secretary of State shall in each tax year consider whether that amount should be increased, having regard to any increase in the aggregate amount of all primary and secondary Class 1 contributions payable in Great Britain and such other matters as he considers appropriate.'.

2B Line 37, leave out 'regulations under subsection' and insert 'any regulations or order under or by virtue of subsection (1B),'.

2C Line 43, leave out '(1C)' and insert '(1D)'.

2D Line 49, leave out '9(1C)' and insert '9(1D)'.

2E Line 49, at end insert—

'(4) The first regulations made under section 9 of the Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982 by virtue of this section shall—

  1. (a) specify 6 as the prescribed number of weeks for the purposes of subsection (1B) (b) of that section; and
  2. (b) without prejudice to subsection (1D) (b) of that section, define a "small employer" as an employer whose contributions payments for the tax year preceding the one in which the day of incapacity for work in question falls did not exceed £15,000.

(5) Any day of incapacity for work falling before 6th April 1991 shall be left out of account for the purposes of subsection (1B) of that section.'.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 2A to 2E to the Lords Amendment No. 2.

This group of amendments sets out the Government's proposals, as inserted in another place, for assisting small employers who experience abnormal levels of sickness in their workforce. It enables such employers to revert to 100 per cent. reimbursement after an employee has been sick for a specified period.

As the House will appreciate, the amendments make changes to the amendments moved by my noble kinsman Lord Stanley and passed by this House at Third Reading. That amendment in turn had amended the Government's proposals which I put down at Report stage. As I made clear during our earlier debates the reductions in national insurance contributions, which have been weighted in favour of the small employer, will more than offset the extra SSP costs to most small employers providing they do not experience significantly above average sickness loads. Both I and my right honourable friend in another place have given numerous examples of the effects on employers of varying sizes. I do not intend to go over that ground again.

However, the Government recognise that the situation may be very different for small employers who have employees absent from work for a protracted period of sickness. That is why we came forward with an amendment at Report stage in this House aimed at assisting such employers. I explained then that the Government's preference was for a scheme which defined a small employer in relation to the national insurance contributions he had paid in the previous year and which would come into operation once an employee had been sick for eight weeks.

However, because we were also receiving representations on other methods—notably from my noble friend, Lord Jenkin of Roding—we did not rule out alternative possibilities at that stage. At Third Reading therefore I proposed that the Government would consult on different schemes in order to take account of industry's views on the best way forward. In the event, noble Lords decided that they wished to insert precise provisions in the Bill before it left this House. I make no complaint about that. But it did of course radically change the position on consultation. The Government have therefore come up with our own firm proposals; although as I shall explain shortly, we have built in a degree of flexibility which was not present in the amendment passed by this House. The Government's proposals were accepted in another place and the amendment carried by this House has been amended accordingly.

The Government's Amendment No. 2A looks very complicated and it may be of assistance to the House if I concentrate first on the two key provisions. I shall then perhaps spend a shorter time on the detail of the draft amendments.

The first key provision is the definition of a small employer and I do not think I need spend long on that point. As the House knows, the Government believe that the fairest and simplest method is to define a small employer by reference to the level of his contribution payments in the previous tax year. The amendment passed by this House followed that course. The Government's amendment sets the threshold at £15,000 At Third Reading, I gave examples of the scale and the size of workforce that would come within that definition. All told, we estimate that some 700,000 employers would potentially be eligible. The threshold of £15,000 was also the maximum figure in your Lordships' amendment, although subject to a graded system depending on how long an employee had been sick.

That conveniently brings me to the second key provision—how long an employee has been sick before a small employer can qualify for 100 per cent. reimbursement. The Government's amendment now sets this at six weeks, compared with the eight weeks I mentioned in our earlier debates. The House will recall that I gave the cost of an eight week scheme as of the order of £1 million to £2 million. I am able to tell the House that moving to six weeks will cost around £3 million.

Six weeks also featured in your Lordships' amendment but only for small employers with contribution payments of between £10,000 and £15,000. Where the payments are between £5,000 and £10,000 that amendment proposed that the trigger would come after only three weeks, and where it was less than £5,000 there would be no waiting period at all and 100 per cent. reimbursement would apply to all SSP payments.

As I explained during Third Reading, it is this part of the amendment with which the Government cannot agree. My noble kinsman Lord Stanley and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, made the point strongly that in their view very few employees would be sick for as long as eight weeks. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Carter, cited the experience in the small businesses with which he is personally involved. But, the rationale behind the Government's proposals is to assist small employers who have abnormal sickness within their workforce. Setting the trigger at three weeks, or indeed having no trigger at all, clearly goes much further than this.

I have already made reference to the advantage small employers will get from the reduced national insurance contributions. The Government cannot accept that it is right to ignore this factor. Setting the trigger for 100 per cent. reinbursement at six weeks—and the House will appreciate the Government have moved from eight weeks—is in our view the right level to pitch it. I will give an example. An employer with five employees all earning £170 per week who had one employee away for six weeks (that is twice the normal average of sickness) would have a total extra cost in SSP of £164.82, but his savings in national insurance contributions over his workforce as a whole would be £176.80; thus he would still be £1198 to the good. And that assumes not only 80 per cent. reimbursement of SSP but also that the employer makes up the difference between the lower and higher rates of SSP. It therefore looks at the most costly scenario from the employer's point of view. As I have said, this employer would be just under £12 in profit after an employee had been sick for six weeks. But he would go into deficit if SSP lasted more than six weeks. That is when the Government propose small employers relief and 100 per cent. reimbursement should apply.

I have spent some time over this, but I recognise that the number of weeks of sickness was the major element which was worrying the House on our previous discussions. I will now try to go a little more quickly through the somewhat daunting amendments on the Marshalled List. The amendments to subsection (1B) in Amendment 2A set out the formula for determining whether a small employer is entitled to small employers relief. At first glance this may seem complicated, but it is in fact quite simple.

By multiplying the prescribed number of weeks, which as I have indicated it is proposed will be six, by the weekly rate of SSP, this ensures that all days of SSP, including odd days, count towards the calculation. I would also like to mention one additional refinement, which does not appear in your Lordships' amendment. This is that by relating the provision to periods of incapacity for work, that enables linked spells of SSP not separated by more than eight weeks to be taken into account in calculating the six weeks. This will, of course, prove particularly helpful to the employer who has an employee who is away for a number of comparatively frequent short spells of sickness.

Subsection (1C)—which I appreciate looks even more complicated—will not in fact be used at all when the scheme first comes into operation. Indeed it may never be used. It provides an alternative approach to the system of triggering small employers relief by relation to how long an individual employee has been sick.

As the House will readily recall, my noble friend Lord Jenkin proposed a system which would be triggered by the amount of SSP in the workforce as a whole rather than an individual employee. As I mentioned earlier, the Government had originally intended to consult on the merits of the two approaches. In the event, the amendment which your Lordships passed at Third Reading ruled this out. But we think it worthwhile retaining the power to substitute that method should experience suggest that it might have been the better approach. It is that flexibility which subsection (1C) gives us. The House may be relieved to know that I shall make no further attempt to explain it.

Subsection (1D) contains the power which enables regulations to define a small employer by relation to contribution payments. The House may also wish to note that the power contained here will enable us to make special provisions for new employers to ensure that they get the benefit of small employers relief even though they were not trading in the previous tax year. I am sure the House will agree that this is an important consideration for small employers just starting up.

Subsection (1E) meets the point made during Third Reading about the need to review the contributions threshold. It requires the Secretary of State to consider annually whether the threshold should be increased.

Subsection (1F), to which amendment 2B is a minor amendment, reproduces the requirement that all regulations should be subject, as we agreed earlier, to affirmative resolution. Amendments Nos. 2C and 2D are drafting amendments, and finally Amendment No. 2E lays down that the first regulations, as I have already confirmed, will provide that the prescribed number of weeks for which SSP is paid shall be six, and the contributions threshold set at £15,000 in the preceding year.

My Lords, I fear I may have spoken somewhat too long, but it has certainly been made very clear to me how strongly many of your Lordships feel about the need to get this provision right. The Government have listened to the representations made and we believe that Amendment No. 2, as amended in the other place, does just that by concentrating the help on small employers who experience abnormal sickness. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 2A to 2E to the Lords Amendment No. 2.—(Lord Henley).

4.45 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, may I begin by saying that we welcome the flexibility that the Government have shown with subsection (1C) which enables them to consider the alternative approach that we have discussed in the course of the Bill. One can only say that if only the Government had shown the same willingness to listen from the beginning, perhaps they would not have been in the trouble that they have been with the Bill.

Having accepted the principle of small employer relief as a result of the powerful arguments developed in this House, the crucial element in the government amendment is the coverage it will give to small employers—how many will benefit. The Minister makes the point that 700,000 employers are eligible if we measure on the £15,000 national insurance contribution scale. But then of course the coverage is substantially reduced by prescribing six weeks as the qualification period of sick pay.

The Minister has explained that the cost now is some £3 million as compared to the £2 million with the Government's previous approach. I have to say that that figure clearly indicates that the benefit to small employers will be minimal. Perhaps I may say in passing that it will be more than swallowed up in this year's increase in the unified business rate alone.

I do not apologise for returning to a point that I made at Third Reading, and I know that other of your Lordships have made. Very few employees will experience a period of sickness over six weeks. In the two firms with which I have been involved, one with a payroll of 30 employees and one with a payroll of 40, we can only think of a handful of employees who have been sick for that sort of period. I do not think that it is an abnormal sickness pattern that the Government are describing; I think that, if there is such a thing, it is a super-abnormal sickness pattern.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would give way? Has the noble Lord taken account of the quite significant change that the Government have made of allowing separate periods of sickness to be linked if the gap is eight weeks or less? It seems to me that that represents an improvement which goes half way to meeting the points that I think the House has made. I wonder whether in his own two firms he has looked at it in that light?

Lord Carter

My Lords, that certainly helps, but if we return to the cost of it, which is £3 million, that surely sets the scene of how much it will benefit, because that is the cost to the Government of the scheme. But of course that is a flexibility that will help in the measurement of the period of sick pay.

It is a clear sign of the haste with which the Bill was presented originally, and the lack of consultation, that the Government had to come forward now with this extremely complicated amendment at this stage of the Bill. However, this House can be content that it has at least secured something, however minimal, for the small employer, even if I may quote from the Forum of Private Business note, which I received this morning, which says: the Government's alternative to the Lords' small business relief amendments to the SSP Bill is expensive, complicated and only of limited benefit to a small minority. The Forum: anticipates that the benefits of this concession will be outweighed by its cost, complexity and likely level of take-up by the small business community. I fear, my Lords, that that says it all.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, when your Lordships discussed the small employer amendment at Third Reading, I believed, and indeed said, that it was correct for your Lordships to send the clause back to another place for their further consideration, not least because I have always understood that one of the main purposes of your Lordships' House is as a revising Chamber. It is not your Lordships' job always to follow slavishly the directions of my noble kinsman the Chief Whip, or indeed any other Chief Whip, despite their crocodile tears or not crocodile tears at certain times.

As a result of your Lordships' decision, the Commons have been able to look at this Bill again and have produced, as noble Lords have said, the series of compromises which we have before us. I believe that, having performed our constitutional duty to send it back, we should let the matter rest.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, half a loaf is better than no bread, and we are glad that the Government have gone some way to meeting the points put forward. I still believe that the Government are confusing the fact that there is an average gain to employers through the adjustments to national insurance, but that does not do a great deal to help the small employer with six people who has half his staff out, which will be a very expensive business indeed. Although it is an important change, that the Government have allowed the number of days' absence to be spread over a period of time —I think it is a year—

Lord Henley

My Lords, if I may intervene, it will be under the existing rules for periods of incapacity to work. If the distance of time between the two spells is greater than eight weeks, they will get a separate period of incapacity. But if the period between the two sicknesses is eight weeks or less, they will be linked.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, that is an improvement on what we had before. Even so, if you take it for a whole year, that is 30 days of sickness absence. That is far above the average and a very great many small employers will pay the whole amount and get no benefit. This is better than nothing, but it is a very great pity that the other place was not able to accept the amendments put forward by your Lordships' House.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in public life one must be used to being grateful for small mercies. Probably this amendment comes under that heading, for it is an improvement, but a very small improvement, which will give only a moderate degree of relief in an area where noble Lords in all parts of your Lordships' House thought that this Bill would cause great trouble; that is, the area of the small employer. But one must be thankful that the Government have moved at all in that direction and we are grateful for it.

The one aspect that troubles me still about it is its complexity. Will the ordinary small employer understand the provisions embodied in this amendment? They are important to him and there may be many who will understand. But I can think of some small employers of my own acquaintance who may have great difficulty in understanding the amendment. I should be grateful if my noble friend could say whether the Government contemplate giving some explanation—for example, a simple explanatory leaflet—to be circulated to all concerned, so that they will know when they can take advantage of the concessions embodied in this amendment. Otherwise I fear that it may be a gesture of goodwill, which will have very little practical effect, because it will not be understood and the proper application may not be made. Perhaps my noble friend can deal with that point when he replies.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, it is a very happy fact that at the last stages of this Bill I am able to endorse every single word that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has said. I am grateful for the concessions that have been made. I am particularly grateful that the Government have retained the power in subsequent years to move to the aggregate basis of the threshold, because I still believe that that must be the right way of proceeding. But like my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, I am very concerned indeed about the complexity argument.

Ministers have relied heavily on the fact that 25 per cent. of employers never claimed the additional 7 per cent., despite massive efforts to draw their attention to it. The reason was explained to me very firmly by the chairman of the Forum of Private Business which, may I say in parenthesis, has done an absolutely magnificent job in advising Members of both Houses on the effect of this change, and in putting forward a variety of possible solutions for overcoming the difficulties.

But the complexity of the rules goes beyond the ability of small businesses not just to understand, but to get to the point of trying to understand. The whole thing looks so complex that it is not worth trying to understand, and employers may prefer to go out and sell a few more widgets, or try to find a few more customers. That is a much better way of spending their time and the exercise becomes pointless.

Nevertheless valuable concessions have been made and the linking and the proposal of eight weeks are welcome, so far as they go. But I very much endorse what my noble friend has said. This change has to be explained to small employers in as simple and straight forward a way as possible.

I hope that Ministers will instruct their officials, who handle these matters in the local offices of the department, to acquire the skill of explaining it in person—and perhaps a number of visits will be necessary—so that employers can try to get the best advantage of the reliefs that have been offered. Otherwise one will feel that it is just another chalk-up, with another administrative hassle, that the Government have put on small firms. Having said that, I welcome the concessions and I hope we shall accept the amendment which has come back to us from another place.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the Minister for small mercies for there is something here. But there are two points which I should like to make. One is that this is so complex. The other is that, as the amendment is worded, there is no room left for consultation with those who understand this subject, such as the CBI and the many other organisations that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned earlier, who are supporting it. As I understand it, the only time when consultation is possible will be in a subsequent year, by which time all sorts of damage may well have been done.

As we are now talking at the end of the first week in February and this is to come into force in about six weeks' time, it would be very reassuring if there could be room for flexibility. There could then be consultation with the people whom the Government have already consulted. My noble friend said, the last time he spoke, that there was to be room for further consultation. If that were possible, we might be able to improve on what stands now. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give us an indication that that is possible.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am most pleased that noble Lords are grateful for the concessions with which we have come forward. If I may touch briefly on the question of complexity, raised by my noble friends Lord Boyd-Carpenter and Lord Jenkin, they have both had responsibility for social security legislation in the past and they will know that such legislation is by definition complicated.

Obviously, at no point do we expect small businesses to be able easily to make sense of the amendment as drafted. That is a job for lawyers. But we will certainly issue a leaflet to businesses explaining how this works, and I hope that we shall make sure that the document is comprehensible.

Perhaps I may just blow my own department's trumpet. Although in the past there have been complaints about the comprehensibility of social security documents, we won an award from the Plain English Society a little over a year ago for one of our documents. So that shows that some of them are comprehensible. I also stress that my department has an employers' panel on which businesses, both small and large, are represented. They come to us to give advice on documents and say how easy they are to comprehend.

The document that I have in mind will be distributed towards the end of the month, along with other material on the changes in contribution and SSP rates.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that the relief will be minimal and implied that £3 million was nothing. The provisions in the amendment are intended to apply to those who experience abnormal levels of sickness. Those who do not will benefit from the reduced employers' contributions. The relief is needed only by those who experience abnormal levels of sickness.

I turn to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Mottistone. Clearly there will be no time for consultation this year. We drafted the clause as it stands in order to provide room for consultation about whether in future years it might be better to use the aggregate level of sickness as opposed to the individual employee's level of sickness. We shall consult on that matter and take note of the advice of industry about the system it finds easiest to use. I hope that I have dealt with all the points raised in this short debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Radioactivity in Sheep) Order 1991

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Radioactivity in Sheep) (England) Order 1991

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Radioactivity in Sheep) (Wales) Order 1991

5.1 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington) rose to move that the three orders which were laid before the House on 11th January be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords with your permission I intend to move the three orders en bloc. They have the effect of consolidating and replacing, with amendments, previous orders relating to post-Chernobyl sheep controls in England, Wales and Scotland. The same provisions apply throughout Great Britain and in Northern Ireland, although the Northern Ireland order is subject to separate statutory procedures and is not therefore being debated today.

The main difference between the present consolidated orders and their predecessors lies in a rationalisation of mark and release arrangements by the introduction of a fixed timetable for what is now a routine annual cycle of releasing particular cohorts of marked sheep from slaughter restrictions. While these arrangements follow a broadly similar pattern each year, the exact timing of the changeover from one colour mark to another has tended to vary depending on market conditions and demand for remonitoring. However, experience of operating mark and release over the past four years has indicated that the adoption of a fixed calendar of colour changes would be both practicable and helpful to all concerned. Since radioactivity levels in sheep fall very quickly once they have left the designated area, we are now, after applying a cautious safety margin, able to allow all animals in each colour cohort to be block release three months or more after being marked and leaving the restricted area.

Since January this year, therefore, the three different colour marks will be applied during three fixed, four-month periods each year; for instance apricot from January to April, green from May to August and blue from September to December inclusive; and Article 6(2) of each order lays down a fixed timetable for release from slaughter prohibitions throughout the United Kingdom. Under this timetable any apricot, green or blue marked sheep is automatically released from slaughter restrictions three months after the date when that particular colour mark was last used. Owners wishing to have marked sheep released sooner, however, must still apply to have them re-monitored and ear-tagged in the usual way.

These arrangements apply to sheep permanently leaving the restricted areas. However, we also use a fourth colour, red, to mark sheep temporarily leaving these areas for breeding or over-wintering. As this colour is in constant use, and because red marked sheep may re-enter the designated areas and thus become re-contaminated, red marked sheep are only released after being individually re-monitored and ear-tagged.

As I have already indicated, the differences between the new orders and their predecessors are largely technical. There is, however, one very welcome change of substance; that is, a reduction in the size of the English, Welsh and Scottish designated areas themselves. Since 1986 we have been keeping a very close watch on radioactivity levels, both by special monitoring surveys and by studying data from sheep live-monitored under mark and release. I should like to put the scale of the problem with which we are dealing into perspective. In England and Wales the number of animals failing the live-monitoring test under mark and release is now very low indeed. For example, in Cumbria in 1990, less than 0.2 per cent. —or 160 out of 106,000 sheep—failed the live-monitoring test. These figures, together with our regular scientific surveys within the designated area, confirm that only a relatively small number of sheep is now responsible for the continuing need for restrictions. The problem, however, is that these failures are not concentrated in a few individual flocks but are fairly widely scattered throughout an area of open fell with few natural or man-made boundaries, making it very difficult to devise any simple system of progressive derestriction.

However, I am pleased to say that our systematic approach to the collection of live monitoring and special survey data has enabled us to identify two well-defined sub-areas within the Cumbria restricted area which have produced no mark and release failures in the past two years and, therefore, no longer justify continuing restrictions. A similar situation exists in Wales and Scotland. To be absolutely sure that this conclusion was not dependent simply on current marketing practices by the farmers concerned, agriculture departments undertook an extensive scientific survey of all sheep in those areas in the months last summer when radioactivity levels would be highest. Testing was carried out within 24 hours of the animals being brought down off the fells and demonstrated that radioactivity levels were now low throughout these areas and that restrictions could safely be lifted from 23 complete and 16 part holdings in Cumbria, six complete and 12 part holdings in Wales; and 10 complete and three part holdings in Scotland. These holdings and parts of holdings have, therefore, been excluded from the areas designated by Section 3 and Schedule 1 of the orders now before your Lordships' House.

Since the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, the Government have retained the strictest controls over the movement and slaughter of sheep from those upland areas most heavily affected by radioactive deposition. As noble Lords will recognise, our major aim has been to ensure that consumers remain fully protected at all times. At the same time, affected farmers have benefited to date from nearly £8 million paid in compensation to offset the economic effects of the controls. This is in addition to the considerable investment which we continue to make in Chernobyl-related scientific research and shows how seriously and responsibly the Government take all questions relating to the safety of our food supplies.

In conclusion, I should like to acknowledge the help and co-operation which we have received and continue to receive from people in the farming community. The present reduction and streamlining of controls is a positive development for them and one which I hope noble Lords will welcome. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Radioactivity in Sheep) Order 1991 laid before the House on 11th January 1991 [7th Report from the Joint Committee]; the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Radioactivity in Sheep) (England) Order 1991 laid before the House on 11 th January 1991 [7th Report from the Joint Committee]; the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Radioactivity in Sheep) (Wales) Order 1991 laid before the House on 11th January [7th Report from the Joint Committee] be approved.—(Baroness Trumpington.)

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining in detail these three orders, which continue to reflect the Government's considerable effort to deal with the grave problem which arose following the accident at Chernobyl. If my comments are brief, that does not minimise our appreciation of what the noble Baroness has said or, indeed, our acceptance of the improvement which is now reflected in these orders.

In that these are consolidating orders, we have no comment to make. However, we particularly welcome the reductions in the size of the designated areas to which the noble Baroness referred and, similarly, we welcome the easements in all three countries described at paragraphs (b) and (c). We join with the noble Baroness in expressing our appreciation to the farming community for the manner in which it has dealt with what must for its members have been a major disaster. We appreciate also its co-operation with the authorities in dealing with the problem in order to protect not merely its members' livelihoods but also their reputation as good sheep farmers.

Finally—and I am sure rather unfairly—I should like to ask the noble Baroness whether she cares to hazard a guess as to the date on which we may see the termination of all restrictions on the assumption that present rates of progress are maintained uninterrupted.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for the welcome which I hoped he would give. I should not like to hazard a guess because I believe that through our caution we have been totally prudent and have had regard for the safety of consumers. It would be a mistake perhaps to give an absolute date. However, this limited derestriction is encouraging.

On Question, Motion agreed to.