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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, my noble friend is right. The Government do everything they can to oppose torture wherever it is occurring. They receive information from both government and other sources such as Amnesty International. Our embassies abroad regularly discuss our anxieties on human rights with countries which are believed to practise torture. The United Kingdom also plays an active role in the United Nations in supporting and developing international initiatives aimed at the prevention of torture. The United Kingdom also contributes to the United Nations voluntary fund for the victims of torture. I repeat again that the Government deplore the use of torture and would never knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, perhaps I may acknowledge what the noble Baroness has said on behalf of our Government and applaud it. Having said that, does she agree that there are cunning, terrible people who, despite the laws of our country, do these horrible things? Would it not be possible for our Government to see that their honourable policy is totally and thoroughly maintained at all times?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the Government are doing exactly that.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, what the noble Baroness has said is very interesting. But does what she has said about not exporting such terrible pieces of equipment apply also to electric shock batons?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: Certainly, my Lords. No companies or individuals in the United Kingdom currently have authority under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 to manufacture, possess or deal in electric shock batons.

Lord Peston: My Lords, the answers given by the noble Baroness sounded most forthright to me and very much committed the Government to neither producing nor exporting weapons of torture. I take it that I am right in interpreting what the noble Baroness has said as being categorical. However, perhaps I may ask her--this is not a trick--whether her answers depend on the definition of the word "weapon". Could other items which are made in, and exported from, this country be used for torture? Can the noble Baroness assure me that she meant to say that no "instruments" of torture--if I may use that word rather than "weapons"--are made here or exported?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I would never assume that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, would ask me a trick question. Innumerable ordinary domestic and industrial products can be misused for improper or objectionable purposes for which, clearly, they are not intended--for example, DIY power drills, woodworking clamps and even toothpicks and cigarettes can be misused. I hate to think of all the possibilities. It is not practicable to seek to control trade in perfectly legitimate goods. The export of weapons and of restraint weapons--that is what we were talking about--is controlled by, as I have already said and I repeat forcefully, some of the toughest export controls in the world. I repeat that we shall act on any credible evidence that those controls are being evaded.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Baroness says that we would not permit United Kingdom companies to deal in implements of torture. Does she recall that the Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme cited the example of a person in the United Kingdom buying implements of torture from Mexico and exporting them to a third country? Is that unlawful? Have the Government drawn the attention of the police to that particular instance of export via a third country?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, that programme certainly made such allegations; but the Government are not aware of any such cases. The United Kingdom does not have extra-territorial jurisdiction in respect of dealing in goods for which an export licence from the United Kingdom would be required. However, the Government are considering whether to cover such offshore sales--that is what the noble Lord is referring to--in the forthcoming consultation on a range of export control matters following the Scott Report.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government consider leg irons to be implements of torture?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, leg irons are restricted articles for which export licences would not be granted.

Noble Lords: Next Question!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, this is an important subject in which the Government's veracity is at stake--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: Oh yes, and I have to pursue it, if noble Lords will forgive me, by saying this--

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: By asking a question, then. Is it the case that the Government are stating their intention without enforcing it in practice? If that is the case, and since one cannot pursue the matter further at Question Time, there seems no alternative but to pursue it in another way by, say, an Unstarred Question or a short debate.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord does not accept what I am saying. I repeat that the Government deplore the use of torture and would never knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes.

Late Payment: Assistance to Small Firms

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the Government are aware of the impact that late payment of commercial debt can have on small businesses. We are working with the business community on this issue. A significant package of measures was announced in 1994. In addition, the Prime Minister announced on 11th March this year new measures to tackle late payment, including consultation on whether public companies should be required to publish their payment performance.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but is he aware--I am sure that he is--that where payment is not made, unemployment will often result because the small firm cannot afford to keep its staff? Is he also aware that the suggestion that, for example, interest should be claimable on late payment would not necessarily help small companies because they would then become worried that they would not get another contract if they were awkward? Is the Minister aware that there is legislation in, I believe, the United States under which small firms have immediate access to the courts if they cannot get the payments that they are owed?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as is evidenced by the fact that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister raised the issue as recently as 11th March, we are certainly concerned about the question of late payment. I agree with the noble Baroness about a statutory right to interest, but in our consultations eight of the nine small firms' representative organisations voiced their opposition to statutory interest for fear of the detrimental effect that that could have on a small firm if the company were to say, "If you are going to charge me interest, I will find another supplier for my next order".

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if the interest was mandatory after the credit term had expired and if everybody was subjected to such provisions, there would be no such competition between small businesses or fear of a contract being taken elsewhere because any company with a contract that was then transferred to another company, small or large, would be subjected to the same fine if payment was made late?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, that may be true, but both large and small companies--small firms are not very quick to pay their bills either--could easily say, "Before I give you my business, can I have an extended term of credit from 30 to 60 days or from 60 to 90 days?" I believe that such provisions could be circumvented in that way.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, are government departments paying their bills on time?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the President of the Board of Trade are very keen to ensure that government departments pay their bills on time. Every government department is asked to make a return annually on the speed with which it pays its bills with relation to the 30 working days limit. Looking at the table of those returns, I am happy to say that there have been considerable improvements and that the great majority of government departments manage to pay over 90 per cent. of their bills in that period. In addition to government departments, local authorities are important to small businesses in this way. We are discussing with the Audit Commission what could be done to ensure that local authorities pay their bills on time.

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