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House of Lords

Thursday, 12 October 2006.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.


Lord Jay of Ewelme

Sir Michael Hastings Jay, Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George, having been created Baron Jay of Ewelme, of Ewelme in the County of Oxfordshire, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Jay of Paddington and the Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone.

Armed Forces: Cluster Bombs

11.12 am

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, we have no such plans. Cluster munitions are legitimate weapons when used in accordance with international humanitarian law. They provide a unique capability against certain dispersed and wide-area military targets, for which other munitions are not necessarily practical. However, we remain committed to improving the reliability of all munitions to achieve lower failure rates and to leave less unexploded ordnance in order to minimise the humanitarian risk.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, although I find his Answer somewhat disappointing. Will he confirm that, in the Lebanon, as a result of the use of cluster bombs, there are hundreds of thousands of unexploded munitions, causing intolerable risks and dangers to the civilian population? Surely it is time to put cluster bombs in the same category as anti-personnel landmines and ban their use.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, as I said in my first Answer, we believe that there is a legitimate force-protection use of these weapons. As to the Lebanon, it is for the Government of Israel to respond to the allegations, but we expect them to investigate any well founded allegations of the misuse of munitions by their armed forces, just as we would in the United Kingdom. Our embassy in Tel Aviv is pursuing a further response to the allegations from the Israeli authorities, and we will continue to monitor the situation, studying carefully any authoritative reports that emerge.

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Lord Garden: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, replied to a Written Question from me on 19 June, explaining that the BL755 cluster bomb would be out of service by the end of the decade—that is, in three or four years’ time—and there are no plans for the Royal Air Force to replace it with cluster munitions. Given that, will the Minister talk to his colleague and see whether it would be possible to advance the date on which the bomb is taken out of service and use that as the launch pad for the UK to take the moral high ground over the banning of cluster munitions?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, there is no difficulty in talking between the departments: that is for sure. My understanding is that constant work is being done to improve the munitions so that there is not a failure rate. Although the failure rate is at the same level as that of other munitions, of course it has a greater impact due to the greater number of these munitions that are used because of their very character.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, does the Minister agree, despite the assurances that he has given about the care that will be taken in the use of these weapons, that as well as a debate about the legality there is a genuine debate to be had about the morality of the weapons? By whatever criteria we reach moral decisions, can there really be any moral justification for the production and deployment of such weapons, which are unable to distinguish between civilians and combatants and which in their effects are often indistinguishable from landmines? Where is the moral consistency in banning the one and legitimising the other?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I truly understand the concern, but I do not think that it is true to say that they are the same as landmines. Landmines are left around so that when people or vehicles come into contact with them they explode and damage those people. These munitions are intended to explode on or slightly before impact. I have asked the question: do they make a legitimate difference? The answer that I am provided with is that they do. They offer a capability that means that, when troops are about to advance, there is a chance that the engagement that they will have with a wide-area enemy, particularly an armoured enemy, is not as fierce or protracted and that they do not suffer as many casualties.

I say this to the House, with the greatest respect to all those who have expressed the ethical concern: are the issues of the protection of our troops, which come up so frequently—quite rightly—in your Lordships’ House to be real considerations, or are we to abandon those considerations when it appears to be convenient?

Lord Elton: My Lords, the sub-munitions that we are discussing are about the size of a child’s hand and look rather like a toy. We delivered ordnance containing 98,000 of these in the Basra area during our campaign to capture that city during the recent war. I understand that the Government claim a failure

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rate of 2 per cent; observers seeing the same elements deployed in the Lebanon have observed 10 per cent; and the United Nations claims a failure rate of 40 per cent. How effective and complete has been our effort to clear Basra of these lethal, child-killing weapons?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am not in a position to say how effective the operation to clear the weapons is, but I know that we attempt to deploy them in very strictly managed terms that comply fully with international humanitarian law obligations. For those reasons, I hope that we would try to clear up unexploded munitions on the same humanitarian basis.

I, too, have seen the range of figures. Of course, the figures that are produced on some occasions are when there is controlled use and it is possible to look at the immediate aftermath. Most of the conditions in Basra or the Lebanon are not such controlled conditions. In addition, there are different kinds of cluster bomb, and I understand that they have different failure rates. We must take all these matters into account in making sure that we protect our troops properly, as I have urged that we should, and comply fully with humanitarian requirements.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that 30 sovereign states have stressed humanitarian concern about cluster bombs, largely because of the high failure rate which rather makes them perhaps more like landmines than my noble friend suggested? Belgium has banned them; Australia and Norway have declared a moratorium; and the German Government have decreed that they will stop using them. Does my noble friend think that they are all wrong?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am aware of the anxieties in several countries. All I can say is that a number of military authorities, including our own, believe that this is a legitimate force-protection method, if used in accordance with international humanitarian law. I am dubious about trying to double-guess the best advice given by military commanders on how to ensure that British troops are kept safe while pursuing their difficult tasks.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, are not cluster bombs and humanitarian law very nearly a contradiction in terms? The Minister has heard the widespread concern expressed this morning about the use of cluster bombs. As anti-personnel landmines have been banned, does he accept that he would have very strong support in this House in all parties if he were to pursue international arrangements for banning these horrific weapons which, as unexploded bombs, are continuing to kill children in Kosovo, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and many other places?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I repeat that I share the anxiety that has been expressed in the House. I believe that the United Nations discussions on the protocols that cover these weapons are likely to be inclusive, involving both producers and users. If there are

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further reforms, that is the best way of making sure that there is an inclusive discussion that then incorporates and embraces everyone.

Afghanistan: NATO Forces

11.21 am

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force—ISAF—has helped the Government of Afghanistan extend their authority beyond Kabul and into the provinces. This, in turn, has created the conditions under which Afghanistan has transformed from a pariah state into an emerging democracy with a legitimate government and parliament and enabled economic development, including improvements in education and healthcare provision.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, a couple of days ago my noble friend Lord Onslow drew attention to the fact that German planes in Afghanistan were not allowed to fly at night. The noble Lord said in reply to his point that those restrictions, of which there are many from different countries, were matters for each country separately. Does not that make matters much more difficult for commanders in the field who have to make those distinctions? Also, am I right in understanding that the response of member countries to the recent appeal of commanders for reinforcements has been at best lukewarm? Are these matters being considered by the NATO ministerial council so that they do not harm the effectiveness of NATO as a coherent organisation?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to say that the national caveats that some countries place on their forces create additional complexity that needs to be managed by NATO force commanders. That has always been the case in NATO operations; it is not a new situation. If we go back into history, this has always been an issue that NATO commanders have had to manage. However, there is no doubt that, if we can move to a position where those caveats become more harmonised, it will lead to a significant force-multiplier effect across NATO.

On the issue of support, NATO operates under a process whereby force commanders set out a list of their requirements for undertaking an operation and NATO countries then volunteer to provide resources to meet those requirements, and it leads to some capabilities not being provided. That is of real concern to us. As the noble Lord indicated, we are lobbying very hard at a number of levels to address that issue. As I said in the House 24 hours ago, it is important that in Her Majesty’s Government we recognise our responsibility as a NATO coalition partner to provide our forces with the equipment that they need to do their job.

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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, has the Minister read the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and why does he think that history will not repeat itself on this occasion?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am not clear about which particular history of Afghanistan the noble Lord is referring to. However, I have studied Afghanistan’s history and think the important point is that the Soviet campaign and the campaigns of the British Empire were absolutely different in nature from what we are undertaking. We, with our coalition partners, are supporting the development of a democracy in Afghanistan, with the complete support of the people of Afghanistan as expressed in their democratic elections. That is completely different. That point was made clear to me recently when I met the defence Minister of Estonia, who mentioned the people of his country who were sent to Afghanistan as a form of punishment under the Soviet empire. That small country of a million people is making its contribution to the NATO force in Afghanistan because it absolutely understands the importance of this mission and why it is right to be there.

Lord Garden: My Lords, I have twice this week in our discussions on Afghanistan raised the question of overlapping areas of responsibility. Ministers gave no answer in those debates, so perhaps I may ask the question again. Will the Minister explain how NATO can have authority over the whole of Afghanistan while 8,000 Operation Enduring Freedom US-led forces and their supporting air power continue a different agenda over the south and the east of the country?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, since the noble Lord has raised the question I have made sure that I fully understand the point. He raises a good question as the command structure in Afghanistan is changing. Let me make it crystal clear: we have an operation where ISAF, the NATO force under the command of a four-star general, General Richards, is responsible for the efforts to support the Afghan Government in reconstruction and the establishment of security. Running in parallel is Operation Enduring Freedom, which is under the United States and consists, as the noble Lord says, of 8,000 troops. The majority of those troops are engaged in training and developing the capability of the Afghan national army, which is the US lead. A small proportion of those troops are engaged in security operations to hunt terrorists. I am confident about the way in which the command structure operates. Last Friday I was speaking to General Richards, and he said he believed that this system would be robust. It is deconflicted and will work.

Lord Bramall: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the operation in Helmand province, as distinct from the improvements around Kabul, was entered into without sufficient forethought or consideration of the threat inevitable with the consistently turbulent history of that area, initially without enough troops on the ground, and with an ongoing shortage of

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helicopters and logistic backing to allow even those the requisite flying hours? Is it not clear that those shortages have been the result of cut-backs made over the past five years? Will the Minister, with all his expert knowledge of funding and procurement, tell us how soon—when the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister airily promises everything that the troops want—these blockages and shortages can be corrected, provided and deployed in the operational area where they are so badly needed?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I recognise the noble and gallant Lord’s experience in this area. Earlier this year we discussed the concerns that he and other experienced ex-chiefs had about this operation. I do not believe that the planning for the operation was done incorrectly. I was there at the time and saw the way in which it was done. I do not believe that there was a deficiency on the part of the Ministry of Defence. I believe that we have been up against a more determined and persistent enemy and, despite that, that we have inflicted a tactical defeat on it. It is not about cut-backs. As I have said, the budget is provided from the Treasury reserve.

In response to the noble and gallant Lord’s question about how soon, I can say that the next roulement will be in May of next year. It is my focus as the Minister for Defence Procurement to make absolutely sure that the force generation and equipment needed by May next year is provided.

Passports: Interviews

11.28 am

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, good progress has been made to establish the 69 passport interview offices: 21 interview offices have been delivered and provision of the remainder is on schedule; 454 staff have been recruited and a campaign to fill the remaining 151 positions has started. Positive and productive discussions have taken place with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive, and work has started to agree locations for the remote communities service. Acceptance testing of the IT system to support the new offices is under way.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. On 24 April this year the Minister answered me by saying that iris scans and fingerprinting would not be introduced until 2008. That is only 15 months away. Do the Government still intend to introduce those measures in 2008? How will remote areas be able to have information on fingerprinting and iris scans by webcam?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the second question is clearly more detailed and technical, and I should prefer to write to the noble Lord about it. It is our intention to meet our deadline. It needs to be remembered that the EU deadline for the inclusion of finger scans in passports issued by member states is mid-2009, and we intend to meet that deadline.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the new passport arrangements will not affect the business of post offices, particularly rural post offices?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the current service operated by the Post Office will not be affected by the new arrangements.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, can the noble Lord say how many facilities there are in Scotland and where they are situated?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have a map of the new facilities in front of me. They are in Wick, Inverness, Aberdeen, Oban, Dundee, Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-Tweed—that will no doubt serve both areas—Kilmarnock and Dumfries. If the noble Lady would like, I can provide her with even more detailed addresses.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, do the Government recognise that, desirable though more secure biometric passports are, it is perhaps even more important to improve the security of existing passports? What steps are in place to ensure that the passports of deceased persons are returned to the Passport Agency rather than being diverted to illegal use?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the passport service takes fraud very seriously, which is why there is a plan to introduce biometric passports. The law governing the issuing and return of passports and abuses and breaches of the regulations is very clear, and a proper investigative facility is available to enforce the legislation as it exists. For good reasons, I would not want to go into more operational detail than that.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the cost of a passport is already high and is likely to rise because of the biometrics that will be involved. Have the Government undertaken an impact assessment of the cost that will be involved, particularly for people who have to travel to an interview from a rural area?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have taken careful account of cost in establishing and building up the network of office locations. Our assessment is that fewer than 4,000 people in the more remote areas are likely to be more than an hour away from one of the new office locations. In most cases, people will be no further than 15 minutes or half an hour away from the new passport interview locations. We have taken careful account of the potential costs. We think that travel costs will probably be no more than roughly £3 or £4 for each individual which, when one considers the value of a passport, is a very small sum.

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