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House of Lords

Monday, 6 November 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Afghanistan: Taliban Casualties

Lord Trefgarne asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, we do not formally track the number of Taliban killed, as it is not a sound measure of our progress in Afghanistan.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In that case, I apologise for tabling the Question, because I thought that I had seen several reports emanating from his department on the numbers of Taliban who have been killed on various occasions. Be that as it may, will he say how it is possible to distinguish between the Taliban and innocent bystanders when such figures are published in the press or elsewhere?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, we take every effort to minimise collateral damage and the effect on the civilian population. However, we are up against an enemy that hides among civilians, that uses women and children as human shields, and that deploys suicide bombers in the middle of markets, all of which makes our task and that of our soldiers much more difficult. We must retain a sense of reality and perspective when we talk about the effect on the civilian population.

Lord Garden: My Lords, if the Minister cannot say what the figures are overall, does he have any figures for the numbers of deaths and injuries to the Afghan people that have resulted from the unexploded bomblets left by the 248,000 cluster sub-munitions that were dropped during the 2001 campaign? In the light of those figures, does he agree with his colleague the Secretary of State for International Development that the time has come to ban these weapons?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, cluster munitions are a legal weapon and fulfil a legitimate military role that cannot be performed by other means. However, they are not indiscriminate weapons, and we use them absolutely only in accordance with our obligations under international law. Nevertheless, my

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right honourable friend is right to raise important issues relating to cluster munitions, particularly the so-called “dumb” cluster munitions, which have a high failure rate. We should see what we can do further to ban such dumb cluster munitions and to ensure that we get the balance right between the military need and the effect on the civilian population.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, pursuant to my noble friend’s Question, what is the provenance of the casualty figures among the Taliban that we read in the press?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, as I have said, we do not formally track Taliban casualty figures; it would not be practical for us to do so. However, ISAF has released details of fatalities, where they have been known to occur in certain firefights, to aid proper understanding of the context in which those fights have taken place and in recognition of the fact that the Taliban commanders have developed an increasingly sophisticated information campaign to undermine the Government and the activities of ISAF. Obviously we have to counter that.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, what proportion of cluster bombs have failed in recent operations?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the typical failure rate of cluster munitions used by the United Kingdom is in the region of 5 per cent. According to the trials that we carry out, 95 per cent of cluster munitions used by United Kingdom forces operate as they should and are reliable.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, what assurance can the Minister give that we never use cluster munitions that are out of their shelf life?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I do not have the full information on the shelf life of cluster munitions; it is not a matter that I have studied. I will look into it and write to the noble Earl.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, the Minister was perhaps being uncharacteristically and unusually evasive in his Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. Will he explain the precise methodology whereby our forces presumably go into the battle area after the battle has finished and count the number of Taliban bodies?

Lord Drayson: No, my Lords. I am not being evasive; I am describing the situation. It is not practical for our forces to go into the situation that the noble Lord describes to count bodies. The nature of the operation does not allow that. It would put our forces under increased risk. We do not do it. However, my Answer was given on the basis that, where it is known, ISAF has described it.

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Lord Dubs: My Lords, to go back to the point made by my noble friend about cluster munitions, does he agree that when there were arguments about anti-personnel landmines exactly the same defence was put forward as he is putting forward about the use of cluster munitions? Is there not a point when the right of civilians not to be killed years after a conflict is more important than the slight military justification for having these weapons?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making the comparison between cluster munitions and landmines, because he is correct. When a cluster munition does not operate correctly, in effect it becomes a landmine. Therefore, the analogy is fair. However, it is important to recognise that this is not a small military issue. There are situations where the safety of our Armed Forces depends on commanders being able to deploy this weapon in those circumstances where it is the only weapon that meets the need. We should not remove that option from our forces, but we should ensure that cluster munitions work.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords—

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords—

The Countess of Mar: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is the Cross-Benchers’ turn.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that when members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces go into battle, they might expect to be injured or killed, whereas little children going into fields to play or to help their parents do not expect to be killed and maimed? Is that not the difference?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble Countess. We absolutely agree that we must do everything we can to ensure that when cluster munitions are used, as I stressed, under international law, they do not create such a danger as the noble Countess has described. That is down to the effectiveness of the munitions. As my right honourable friend has said, we need to go further to encourage the international community to ensure that such so-called dumb munitions are not used.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords—

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are into the eighth minute.

NHS: Hospital Food

2.43 pm

Baroness Neuberger asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, the better hospital food programme has improved the quality and availability of hospital food. Patient environment action team scores show that hospital food has continued to improve since 2001. We will continue monitoring via PEAT inspections, the annual health check and patient surveys. The continuing use of protected meal times enables patients to concentrate on eating and staff to give the help that they need. Eighty-three per cent of patients say that they get the help they need all or some of the time.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I thank him particularly for making reference to the patient environment action teams. They were given a target of establishing ward housekeepers in 50 per cent of NHS hospitals by 2004, which was met. Given that success, why have the Government stopped at 50 per cent and when do they expect to introduce ward housekeepers in the remaining 50 per cent of hospitals to help people to eat?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the ward housekeeper scheme came out of the better hospital food programme, as I think the noble Baroness knows. That programme has now been moved into the mainstream, with the money delegated locally. It is down to people at the local level to make the best use of the experience gained from the scheme and to put ward housekeepers in place when they think it is appropriate.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that much of the problem arises from the widespread use of contract catering and that it is high time to look at the extent to which brought-in groups are running hospitals? They do not do it as well as if it were done in the hospital.

Lord Warner: My Lords, there is no evidence to support the noble Lord’s assertion. The better hospital food panel, which looked at this matter during the five-year period in which it was in existence, found consistency between in-house and contracted-out catering, as did the PEAT scores. The position is the same irrespective of the contractor.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, whether they are called housekeepers or nurses’ aides, it is very important for someone to see whether patients have stopped eating altogether? Very often, nurses are too busy to take this in. Trays are taken away and no record is kept. A nursing aide is needed rather than a housekeeper.

Lord Warner: My Lords, the noble Baroness may not have picked up my drawing attention in my Answer to protected meal times. This Government introduced them to enable elderly patients in particular to be given more support and help by nursing staff in a more peaceful environment during meal times.

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Lord Winston: My Lords—

Baroness Greengross: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is this side’s turn.

Lord Winston: My Lords, my noble friend is very courteous. Will the Minister address the issue also of patients, particularly those in wards for the elderly, who are often not given the specific diet which they need, especially if they require halal, kosher or vegetarian food? Those requirements are often neglected among geriatric patients. Is this matter addressed within the NHS’s plans for better food in hospitals?

Lord Warner: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. We gave much more emphasis in the better hospital food programme to ensuring that a wider range of meals was available to meet ethnic needs of one kind or another. At the same time, patients are meant to be assessed for nutritional needs when they are admitted. Evidence which we will collect through the patient environment action teams will show how effective that assessment is.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a huge problem of malnutrition in the hospital population, particularly among frail, elderly people? It is even more of a problem when one considers that more than 90 per cent of malnourished, frail, elderly people are in the community and not even in hospital. Will he assure the House that the Government will develop a strategy to deal with this very serious problem?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right: this is a difficult issue. We know that some patients who enter hospital are malnourished. That is why an assessment is made by dieticians on admission; that is why we want to make sure that the assessment is made everywhere; and that is why we want protected meal times to be introduced to ensure that patients get help with meals when they need it.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, will the Minister comment on an article in Which? last week about inquiries by environmental health authorities, which found examples of filthy cooking equipment, out-of-date food, mould, mice and cockroach infections, and lack of hot water and soap for hand-washing in NHS kitchens?

Lord Warner: My Lords, if those were found, it is right that one should be shocked by them. The report has been made available to the NHS, and we would expect those findings to be investigated thoroughly.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is widespread ignorance even among nursing staff of the availability of special diets

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over and above the normal provision of hospital food? Would he care to comment on the role of dieticians in this regard?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the British Dieticians Association is an important part of the agenda in taking forward the reforms from the better hospital food programme. NHS menus are checked by dieticians and are perfectly capable of providing a balanced diet.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I recognise that good nutrition for patients is extremely important but is it not important for hospital staff to have access to good food as well? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that good and nutritious food is available at all times to hospital staff, especially junior doctors who work long and often unsocial hours when the canteens may be closed? They should not have to rely on takeaways, which many of them often do.

Lord Warner: My Lords, this is down to the local trust being a good employer and making sure that good quality food is available to its staff. I do not think the noble Earl is suggesting that the Government should try to control this from the centre as I suspect we might be accused of being a nanny state.

Employment: Access to Work


Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, from 1 October 2006 ministerial government departments took on responsibilities from the Access to Work scheme for funding workplace disability adjustments. This will allow a greater focus of the scheme on small businesses.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the ending of funding in government departments for Access to Work is regretted by some people and resented by many more because of the damage it does to jobs for disabled people in government departments? Does he not feel that disabled people who work in government departments are entitled to the same help with their work as people elsewhere? If so, he should withdraw this change in policy because it means that disabled people are going to suffer very greatly. Will he explain to the House how the Government reconcile their view that this change is necessary with their definite policy statement that 1 million disabled people should be taken off incapacity benefit and put into work?

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