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Ministry of Defence: Freight by Rail

2.45 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, following a review of our operational rail freight movement requirements in the light of the Strategic Defence Review, the Ministry of Defence has no current plans to reduce the present level of the use of rail for the movement of its freight.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. I thank the Minister for that positive statement. He will, of course, be aware that the MoD is one of the departments taking part in the Government's green initiative. May I ask him, therefore, whether he has any plans as to how the MoD might play the greatest part in that initiative? Will the MoD investigate a means of increasing the proportion of freight carried by rail in the future?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, on the green initiative, my noble friend is quite right; the Ministry of Defence has plans in that direction. I am glad to say that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has been very understanding of some of our temporary difficulties, in so far as we do not know precisely how many buildings we will be retaining in, for example, central Europe, as a result of property disposals consequent upon the defence review.

As regards increasing our shipments by rail, my noble friend will no doubt take pleasure from the fact that in 1998 alone we opened a new railhead at East Dereham in Norfolk and revived four existing railheads. We are expecting to reduce the number of depots. We are undertaking studies to ensure that any future depots are linked with the rail network.

Lord Gladwyn: My Lords, the Ministry of Defence is clearly committed to a number of green policies in

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respect of the environment. Several involve added costs to achieve high standards. Will the Minister concede that, in respect of carriage of freight by transhipment between rail and road, added costs should likewise be acceptable?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right that there are additional costs from time to time when carrying goods by rail. That is not always the case but, as with all our other procurement decisions, we strive to give the taxpayer value for money.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Wensleydale Railway Association. I hope that the Minister is aware that the Ministry of Defence railhead into Wensleydale is crucial to the reopening of that railway line. I trust that the MoD will take such local considerations into account in its current discussions.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have no difficulty in giving the noble Lord the assurance that he seeks.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the concern of citizens throughout London about the transport of nuclear waste by rail through heavily populated areas, particularly Camden, Stratford, Cricklewood and Kilburn, and about the fact that such trains are "parked", apparently unguarded, over weekends and for longer periods? Can the Minister do something to offer some consolation to residents of those areas, who are extremely worried?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I discussed that precise question this morning in the MoD. I can tell my noble friend that one of the reasons we ensure that the transfer of nuclear warheads between points in this country is conducted by road is precisely to attend to the matters that he has raised. We make sure that those loads do not go through built-up areas. However, where we are talking about nuclear waste, I can tell the House that the risk to the public is very much diminished. As I am sure my noble friend is aware, the amount for which the MoD is responsible is a very small proportion of the nuclear waste transported generally within this country.


2.50 p.m.

Lord Moynihan asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made in implementing the Holbrooke package in Kosovo and in facilitating talks between President Milosevic, the ethnic Albanian leadership and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the OSCE is continuing its work to establish a ground verification mission in Kosovo. An HQ is being established in Pristina and there are already about 100 mission staff in Kosovo, in addition to the approximately 300 international monitors already on

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the ground as part of the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission. These will be folded into the OSCE mission. Since 17th October NATO's Air Verification Mission has made regular overflights of Kosovo. The UK continues actively to support efforts led by US Envoy Hill and EU Special Envoy Petritsch to secure agreement on an interim accord for Kosovo.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, given that the Holbrooke package was agreed in mid-October, can the Minister say why some seven weeks later only a fraction--indeed, the Minister said some 300--of the 2,000 strong OSCE verification mission has been deployed? Further, can she say what assessment the Government have made of fears that the Balkan winter has helped to check violence in the province for the time being but that it could well break out again in the spring? If more monitors are not on the ground soon, it may not be possible to contain the violence sufficiently for the parallel negotiations on the future of Kosovo to succeed.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we believe that we are making steady and proper progress. There are already some 500 international personnel in Kosovo, including the 300 monitors who were attached to the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission. It is important for us to realise that this is an unprecedented task for the OSCE, but the establishment of the headquarters in Pristina and the fact that the first contingent of verifiers is being put in there--some 23 of whom are from the UK--are important steps forward. In view of the urgency, the UK put in over 50 additional personnel in November to boost the additional Kosovo diplomatic mission. Those people have to be trained in their task, which is a serious and important one. However, we believe that steady progress is being made.

As to the difficulties over the Balkan winter, although a few months ago there were about 50,000 people without shelter in Kosovo, I am happy to say that I believe all people who have been looking for shelter have now found it. It is to be hoped that the devastation of the Kosovo winter will not be so tragic in its effect.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the Government are keeping a wary eye on the behaviour or Prince Leka--the claimant to the Albanian throne--who, although resident in this country at one stage, has also been resident in South Africa and is now believed to be in Albania. Is he helping the KLA? Do the Government have any information about his present whereabouts and behaviour?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not have any information about that particular individual. However, in relation to the KLA in general, the Government's position is quite clear; namely, that the basis of the Holbrooke agreement applies to all parties in Kosovo and not just to some of them.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the agreement reached by

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Mr. Richard Holbrooke, there was a date of 2nd November for the commencement of discussion about the future autonomous status of Kosovo and that it was suggested that talks between Mr. Milosevic and the Kosovan authorities should begin? Can the Minister give the House any information about where, if anywhere, those talks now stand?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. Belgrade has committed itself to seek agreement on a framework document for an interim settlement based on the Contact Group-endorsed proposals. We fully intend to hold them to their word. Therefore, we are continuing actively to support the ongoing diplomatic efforts which are being spearheaded by US Envoy Hill and EU Special Envoy Petritsch to try to bring the two sides together in agreement. This is certainly a very long, difficult and drawn-out business. However, both envoys are actively engaged in discussions with both sides. Her Majesty's Government are supporting them in their endeavours.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while many of those who have been seeking shelter have now found shelter of a sort, the situation which confronts them is pretty bleak? Does she also agree that there is a tremendous need to ensure adequate medical and food supplies? Further, as winter takes a grip on the area, can my noble friend say anything reassuring to the House about the supply of humanitarian relief and access to it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I reported to your Lordships a few moments ago, UNHCR has reported that all displaced people previously living in the open now have access to adequate shelter. I believe that that is a tribute to the very hard work of UNHCR in that respect. Much assistance continues to go into Kosovo directly from Her Majesty's Government. Moreover, the Department for International Development announced a £2 million contribution for humanitarian assistance to Kosovo, in addition to £1 million provided earlier this year and a further £1.5 million allocated for longer-term peace-building activities. Indeed, that is in addition to the European Union assistance which amounted to some £13 million over the period. We believe that the humanitarian assistance is getting through. Of course, there have been reports of some difficulties in particular areas but, on the whole, the reports now coming through are mostly positive in that the assistance is getting to where it is needed.

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