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Baroness Amos: My Lords, it is important for the House to recognise that the International Red Cross and the UN organisations are in a different position to other NGOs. The UN sent personnel into Afghanistan again from March this year. They withdrew their personnel in October last year. My understanding is that the position will be kept under review. As I said, we have amended our policy slightly to enable NGOs working in Afghanistan to be more effective. They indicated to us that it would be helpful to have personnel going in for short periods of time. We have amended our policy in order to enable that to happen. We shall keep that policy under review, but there is a specific and targeted threat against UK and US nationals which we must take extremely seriously.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, surely we should be trying our best to help NGOs to go into Afghanistan to assist people who are being dreadfully abused by the Taliban and who live in the most appalling conditions. Surely that is consistent with an ethical foreign policy. To ignore their needs seems to me to run counter to an ethical foreign policy.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, the fact that the Government have agreed over £4 million in development assistance to Afghanistan this year--a figure which will increase to between £6 million and £8 million in the coming year--illustrates that they are taking the situation extremely seriously. We appreciate that there is a humanitarian crisis. However, there is also a serious security threat which we must understand and take seriously.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the review of the Armed Forces pension scheme announced in September 1998 is under way. A review of this magnitude, which considers wide-ranging and complex issues affecting a wide range of groups, necessarily takes time. It is expected that the review will report next summer.
Baroness Strange: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her sympathetic, if familiar, reply. I am sure that she is aware that I am speaking about the Act relating to attributable Armed Forces family pensions, with particular reference to the retention of pensions on the remarriage of post-1973 war widows. However, is she aware that yesterday was the Feast of St. Nicholas,
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am very glad that my response is a familiar one; I hope that that at least has the merit of consistency. We shall carry forward this review as quickly as possible. It is a complex issue and needs a considerable amount of work. In a seasonable spirit, I say to the noble Baroness that I believe that there are two reviews which are of interest to those concerned. The noble Baroness is, of course, particularly concerned about war widows. The first is the Joint Compensation Review, which looks at paying compensation to members of the Armed Forces for death, injury or illness which arises as a result of their military service. That compensation review is due to report early next year and we hope to have proposals for public consultation early in the year 2000.
The second review relates to the Armed Forces pension scheme. That is a comprehensive review which will take into account the question which I know is of particular concern to the noble Baroness; that is, that relating to life-long pensions for widows--pensions which are not withdrawn on remarriage. Therefore, there are two reviews which I hope will be of interest to her.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the present pay and issue of service personnel are abated by a percentage to pay for their Armed Forces pension? I believe that that abatement is around 7 per cent. Can she assure the House that a basic assumption has been made in the review that that percentage will not be increased?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the review next year but, of course, the noble and gallant Lord is quite right. There is an abatement of salary of members of the Armed Forces to pay for their pension. In that respect, it is similar to the Civil Service pension scheme and, indeed, to a number of other public service pensions. The abatement reflects the view of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body about what is a sensible level of abatement for Armed Forces pensions. While it is of interest to those undertaking the review, I am sure that that matter will remain also of very great interest to the body itself.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that the review of the Armed Forces pension scheme--not the review about compensation but the second review about which I spoke a moment or two ago--will deal with the question raised by the noble Countess. If there is any reason for me to revise that
Lord Burnham: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether the reply which she gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, about timing with regard to the pension review will apply also to the plans for the revision of the methods of pay for the Armed Forces as a whole. If that is not completed at that time, will there be any disadvantage to the Armed Forces in that they will not receive appropriate pay increases?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, in answer to a recent Written Question, I informed Members of your Lordships' House that the adjustments to be made to the pay of the Armed Forces will now take place in the year 2001. I shall write with further details because the explanation is rather lengthy. The noble Lord could look it up in Hansard, but I shall be very happy to write to him giving proper details of what that involves. However, it is deferred until 2001.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether the review will deal sympathetically with the differential between Gurkha pensioners and those pensioners who belong to Great Britain? Will she tell us something about progress in that sphere?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord will find that the differential to which he refers has in fact been rectified. An announcement was made about three or four weeks ago, but I shall write to the noble Lord with the details.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, perhaps I may ask the Leader of the House if she will assist the House on a matter that has arisen which is, I believe, of procedural importance.
This morning I sought to ask a PNQ on what the Government have been saying to the Government of Russia about the war in Chechnya, where an ultimatum has now been issued to the citizens of Grozny. The Leader of the House declined that PNQ request. She is entitled to do so and I advise the House to accept that.
However, I have asked a PNQ for a second reason in addition to the intrinsic importance of the matter. In the other place there is a procedure known as a Deferred Question. That is a rare procedure. This afternoon the Foreign Secretary has chosen personally to use that procedure to answer an Opposition Question on Chechnya couched in precisely the same terms as my PNQ. The convention is clear: that, when
Therefore, my question to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is this. I believe that, ideally, matters should be dealt with by a Statement. But if they are not and if the Deferred Question procedure is to be used again, how will she protect the right of the House to be offered information given to the other place by the Government? If a matter is important enough for the Foreign Secretary or another senior Minister to use that procedure to inform another place, surely it is intrinsically important enough also to be heard in this House. Does the noble Baroness agree that this is a procedural issue warranting careful consideration? In the light of what I have said, will she consider the case for a Statement to be made at the very earliest opportunity tomorrow on the unfolding situation in Chechnya?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am sure that we all agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the situation in Chechnya is serious. If he considers what he has said and looks at what has happened in another place today, I believe that he will be aware that the request to have a Private Notice Question or Statement was refused by Madam Speaker in the other place. Therefore, the procedures which he quite rightly says are normally followed here do not need to be followed. He rightly points out that we do not have the rather different procedure of a Deferred Question.
He will be aware that Foreign Office Questions have taken place in another place this afternoon. Therefore, the Foreign Secretary was there in order to answer a Question which, as I understand it, was rather similar to the one which was afterwards tabled as a PNQ and, indeed, as I said, turned down by Madam Speaker. Again as I understand it from the other end of the Corridor, the reason is that the Foreign Secretary suggested that that might be dealt with under the rather arcane procedure, if I can call it that, of the Deferred Question simply because he did not want the whole of Foreign Office Questions to be devoted to the Chechnya question, as they feared might happen if he took the Question as originally scheduled in the line-up of Foreign Office Questions this afternoon.
Therefore, I believe that the situation is slightly more complicated than the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition suggested. I suggest to him that the procedure for Private Notice Questions in this House has worked well in the past, continues to work now, and I see no particular reason for revisiting it. At least the noble Lord has not suggested, as I rather feared he might, that we should attempt to change our procedures on this matter in the light of the passage of the House of Lords Act.
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