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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there are disturbing reports about many different public servants in Russia not being paid. I refer not only to those working in the nuclear industry, but also to some members of the armed forces and to school teachers. Steps are being taken to try to safeguard the position with regard to nuclear weapons. We have been discussing with our counterparts in Europe the steps that we can take to help the Russians to make their nuclear installations safer. The payment of public servants in Russia is a very much more widespread problem. The Russian Federation must address it by having a far better organisation in the future in terms of economic stability and fiscal programmes.
Lord Moynihan: My Lords, can the Minister say whether in the light of the improvements that she has described, Russia would now support military action by NATO against Serbia in the event of a failure by President Milosevic to comply with the demands of the contact group, given Russia's previous opposition to such use of force?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am unable to answer that question at the moment. As the noble Lord knows, we are concentrating now on trying to get all the parties to the discussions that are scheduled for this weekend. The Russians have been very supportive, as members of the contact group, in pressing for all sides to participate in the discussions.
Lord Milverton: My Lords, will the Minister be able to encourage the Russians to agree that the Latvian Government have gone quite a long way, and are still doing so, in order to make the Russian minority in Latvia--a large minority--feel more at home? I have a slight interest in the matter because I am chairman of the all-party British Latvia Group. It ought to be acknowledged that the Latvian Government are continuing to go a long way towards improving the situation.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Russians have acknowledged that there has been progress in Latvia, which last year fulfilled the last two recommendations on citizenship of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. However, Russia still claims that there is discrimination in other areas, including on the proposed new language law. We recognise that work remains to be done in ensuring that the Latvian language and labour laws conform to international law. We support Mr. Van der Stoel's efforts to help bring that about.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the controls exercised by the Russians over exports of conventional weapons to the third world? Moreover, can she say whether there have been any discussions between the European Union and the Russian Federation about the harmonisation of codes of conduct between the two entities?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have been doing our best to discuss questions of nuclear weapons with our friends in Russia. However, at present we are particularly anxious to ensure that the Duma goes ahead with the agreement on Start II. That was meant to be ratified by the end of last year, but we hope that it will be done this spring. Our next priority is to secure agreement this year on the fissile material treaty, which we regard as the absolute priority in international terms on nuclear disarmament.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, if ways and means could be found of achieving full membership in NATO for Russia, does the Minister agree that many problems would be solved and that the alliance might become one which embraces the whole of the northern hemisphere?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the fact is that Russia has not applied for NATO membership. However, it would be foolish to say that Russia never will apply and that, in the right circumstances, such an application would not be considered seriously. Indeed, I believe that it would be. At present we are working hard to ensure that the Founding Act works properly, that the Permanent Joint Council works properly and that the military links we have forged with Russia can be made to work well.
We shall see the establishment of a NATO commission in Moscow over the course of the next few months. This incremental, step-by-step approach is a sensible one. It is one which is building confidence between Russia and NATO. The longer-term programme is one to which we shall look forward.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, we have honoured our manifesto commitment to retain the basic pension and to increase it at least in line with prices. We also said that we would give priority to the poorest pensioners. That is exactly what we are doing with our minimum income guarantee.
Lord Islwyn: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. However, has she stopped to compare this meagre claim of pensioners with what is happening in Ystradgynlais in South Wales where 750 jobs are to go at Lucas Varity, the very lifeline of that Welsh community? In the meantime, Mr. Victor Rice, the chief executive of Lucas SEI and the man who authorised the sackings, is due to pick up £17 million. Is that not an indication of the re-emergence of the unacceptable face of capitalism? Can my noble friend tell the House what the Government's attitude is over these issues?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, much though I might enjoy this in a different forum, it is not for me to comment on the award to an individual former chief executive or director. I believe that most people would find it excessive, to say the least. However, in terms of my noble friend's original Question, it is important to remember that, whatever excrescences there may be as regards extraordinary large awards at a time when other people are losing their jobs, the major problem facing pensioners in this country is the fact that so many of them still have incomes at or below income support level. That is why we are taking action by way of the minimum income guarantee; and that is why we are trying to ensure that this problem is not repeated for future pensioners by making sure that they have access to decent jobs through the New Deal and that, while working, they enjoy a good second pension. That is our policy.
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, far from being better off under Labour, is it not true that independent figures show that after two years of Labour government pensioners are worse off when the net effect of all the tax changes is taken into account? Therefore, would it not be a start to tackling pensioner poverty to raise the measly 25 pence a week--barely enough to buy a
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I assume that the noble Baroness is quoting figures which appeared in the Daily Mail, and which, in turn, may have been mentioned by her honourable friend in another place, regarding what has been happening to pensioner incomes since the Labour Party came to power some 18 to 20 months ago. It is true--and the figures were given by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place--that poorer pensioner households have, on average, increased their income by £140 a year by virtue of the reduction of VAT on fuel and winter fuel payments. In addition, the poorest pensioners (the 20 per cent. or so eligible for income support) will see their incomes rise by £160 a year from this April, which means a total increase of £300 a year. I should have thought that the noble Baroness would have welcomed this increase in income--indeed, rejoiced over it--for the poorest pensioners in the country.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, as we on this side of the House have given a firm assurance that we will not means test the basic state pension in the next Parliament, why have this Government not done the same?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord can make whatever statement he likes about what his party would do in the next Parliament without necessarily being held to account by the British electorate. However, having said that, I should point out that the Prime Minister and the Government have made it absolutely clear that the basic state pension is a keystone of our pension policy. It will not be means tested. It will rise at least in line with prices. But--and this is a basic point--if we are to ensure that all our pensioners enjoy the prosperity that they should, they need a decent second pension. That is why we are developing a state second pension which will give to those earning between £3,500 and £9,000 a year a pension as though they were earning £9,000 a year. That would do more to lift those on lower earnings and intermittent earnings than anything we have seen since my noble friend Lady Castle introduced SERPS 20 years ago.
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