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Baroness Byford: My Lords, first, will the Minister tell the House more about the discussions that were held yesterday? If I understood his response to an earlier question, he said that the French could hold out until June before fines were imposed. No; I see that he is shaking his head. Perhaps he will clarify the situation.

Secondly, how many discussions have taken place between Margaret Beckett and her opposite number in France in which there was an opportunity for her to lobby on behalf of this country? That would be in addition to the lobbying that has been going on with David Byrne, the Commissioner.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, yesterday's discussions related mainly to the terms of the DBES. We have asked for some modification to that regime to enable more abattoirs to meet the standards that are required to restore British beef exports to Europe. On discussions at the European level, as I said in response, I think, to the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, the Commission allows a reasonable amount of time—usually two or three months. The next move is for the Commission to take the matter to the Court of Justice for a ruling. I hope that within such a timescale the French could begin to comply. However, the complications to which I referred apply. As regards bilateral discussions, my right honourable friend had discussions in the margins on this and related issues, and made the point formally at the Agricultural Council in December.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the Minister has accepted the importance to beef producers here of the export market to France. But what is his comment on the fact that, according to figures produced by the Meat and Livestock Commission, imports of beef to Britain rose by

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another 14 per cent last year? Is he concerned at the ever-rising volume of imports, which are having a detrimental effect on our home market?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there has been a marginal increase in beef consumption within the UK and imports have met some of that demand. I believe it is reasonable to expect that there will be some increase in beef imports. Our concern is that we do not import illegal or diseased meat. We believe that we should be moving to freer trade, and our aim is to increase British exports to match that as well as competing at home.

Zimbabwe: Asylum Seekers

3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will suspend all deportations of Zimbabwean asylum seekers to Zimbabwe.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Home Secretary has decided to suspend removals to Zimbabwe until after the presidential election is held. We shall then assess the country situation and the risks faced by individual returnees and decide whether to resume removals. In the meantime, consideration of individual applications for asylum will continue.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am absolutely delighted that the Government have seen sense at last on this sensitive issue. But why did a spokesman say to the press as late as Saturday night that there would not be a suspension of removals at this point? Was that not calculated to arouse fear unnecessarily among Zimbabwean asylum seekers?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not accept what my noble friend says. It is not fair to blame a spokesman for what was said on Saturday night. At ten past five on Monday this week I made exactly the same statement. Until the policy changes, it remains in place.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that is the reality; that is the way it is. On Monday I also made the point that we were not planning to return anyone on Monday evening. The policy has been under active consideration. It has not gone away over recent months and, contrary to what is said, we have not been working on old information. We have been assessing the situation on an almost daily basis.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I believe that we all appreciate this change of policy and the fact that the matter is under constant review and consideration, and so on. But is the Minister aware of widespread complaints that the Home Office assessments always

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run hopelessly behind the pace of events in Zimbabwe? Is it not disgraceful that politically vulnerable people have been deported and sent back to Zimbabwe when it has been widely known for weeks and months that the country is descending into a police state? That has been perfectly obvious even to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Is there no contact between the Foreign Office and the Home Office? If not, can such contact take place now so that this situation does not arise again?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, what the noble Lord said is not the reality of the situation. The fact that we publish the country assessments only twice a year in April and October does not mean that nothing happens between those times. Our case workers use the most up-to-date information available. When assessing an individual case, either they refer to extra bulletins which are provided following publication of the country assessments or they take advice from people inside the Home Office, the Foreign Office, our embassies and high commissions abroad, diplomats on the ground or others in the country of origin. Each case is judged on its merits. It is simply not the case that we use old information.

As everyone knows, the situation has deteriorated ever since President Mugabe began his attempt to introduce so-called "land reform". But we have constantly updated our assessments and, indeed, we received further advice from the Foreign Office on Monday this week. The policy was announced by the Home Secretary yesterday, but it will not alter individual cases. We shall continue to assess each case on its merits. We shall then assess the situation after the elections have taken place.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, if the CIPU assessments are updated on a regular basis, why cannot they be published on the web so that advisers and adjudicators can see them there? Secondly, what are the Government intending to do about their arrangements following the decision by the Secretary of State yesterday? Will bail be granted automatically to anyone who has been through the appeal process and is now awaiting the presidential elections before the Secretary of State makes a decision on whether to send back that person? Will the Secretary of State now also reconsider the Oakington treatment, which is applied to all Zimbabwean asylum seekers automatically?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are taking legal advice on the position regarding bail. As is known, detainees cannot be removed until after the election has taken place, when the situation will be reassessed. As we debated at length during the passage of the anti-terrorism Bill last year, a different legal situation arises if we know that we cannot remove a person. In such a case, we cannot normally detain that person. However, we are taking legal advice on that situation at present.

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So far as concerns the bulletins, I understand that they are available. They are not published in the way that the country assessments are published in April and October, but extra bulletins are indeed available. I cannot say how quickly they are put on to the web.

In relation to the question about Oakington, the answer is: no. We shall maintain the Oakington situation and I shall give noble Lords two good reasons why. Since the beginning of this year—it is now only the 16th of the month—there have been at least two cases, among others, of people arriving in this country from Zimbabwe. The two people in question—one arrived on 2nd January and the other on the 5th—went to Oakington for fast-tracking. They were interviewed on 7th and 9th January. Both were granted asylum. In other words, there is another side to the coin: people from Zimbabwe are passing through Oakington and being granted asylum. The idea that everyone is rejected is nonsense. The vast majority are rejected, but noble Lords may have heard the interview on the "PM" programme last night of the official on the ground from the MDC in Zimbabwe. He spoke about people—the vast majority of whom were not MDC activists—buying MDC letters and coming to this country. Thus, noble Lords will see that there are two sides to the argument.


3.7 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow rose to call attention to the problem of overstretch and equipment failure in the British Army; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to crack on, so crack on I shall. This year I have been very privileged to be a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. That scheme was introduced to show Parliament how the Armed Forces function. Those of us who did National Service millions of years ago know a little about it, but most Members of both Houses—fewer in your Lordships' House than in another place—have little knowledge of how the Armed Forces function and work.

I joined the scheme because a million years ago I had been a rather unsatisfactory subaltern in Her Majesty's Life Guards. I believe that it is reasonable to say that the Army—or, as I jokingly call it, the "brutal and licentious"—is infinitely better than it was in my day. I qualify that remark only in one way—that is, they are much less smart than we were. The quality of the soldiers is excellent. Therefore, my criticisms are made because I want an excellent institution to be super-excellent; the criticisms are in that rather than another mode.

I start with Exercise Saif Sareea, which was the expedition to Muscat and Oman. We sent a half-armoured brigade there of 68 tanks, a half battery of guns and a battalion of motorised infantry. The object of the exercise was to get all those people half way

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round the world, land them in the desert and let them play soldiers for a while. They arrived, beautifully organised. The staff worked well and the supply worked well with one or two minor faults. But then none of the tanks worked. None worked because they did not have proper sand filters. If the staff had not known about that, I suppose that that would have been acceptable. But an appreciation of the situation was given to Whitehall which stated that, unless the tanks were desertified, they would not work in the desert. Someone—it may have been at political or army level, I know not—decided that too much money had been spent. Therefore, they crossed their fingers and hoped that the tanks would work. They did not. Seventeen tanks were sent back before the exercise started. That left 51. Fifty-one tanks of the Royal Dragoon Guards went out on a night exercise. Three arrived back in working order.

The Challenger 2 tank is probably the best tank we have had since the second battle of Arras when Haig broke through and caused Ludendorff to say that it was a black day for the German army. It is a smashing tank. The technology was there to make it right, but we did not allow it happen. That must be penny wise, pound foolish. The track pads were designed for swamp conditions in northern Europe. The Army had not realised that the desert is stony. All they would have to read is the book of Exodus, which tells us that the desert is stony. The right track pads were not put on the tanks.

Half a battery of guns were sent. The fire extinguisher on one of the guns did not work. The fire extinguisher on a gun works with explosive. Aircraft regulations state that explosives cannot be flown out in passenger aircraft. In wartime the fire extinguisher would have been sent by military transport. Because it was peacetime, it was not sent. The gun was sent half way round the world. It was left there while its gun crew sat in the shade playing poker, or doing whatever idle soldiers do; we all know what idle soldiers do. That was penny wise, pound foolish. The sadness is that so much of what was done was excellent. However, we must not allow such petty-minded accountancy to ruin the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar, if one can say that about the Army in the desert. That is what happened.

The Army decided, perfectly reasonably, to live in tents in the desert. What happened? The tents went out in one container; the tent poles in another and the tent pegs in a third. I do not expect the Ministry of Defence to learn from the failure of the French in the Franco-Prussian war when the same mistake—not over tents; I believe it was over rifles—was made. But at least the Army could have considered what happened to Lord Raglan in the Crimea when the right boots went out in one ship and the left boots in another. One ship was wrecked in a storm off the southern peninsular of the Crimea. The poor, wretched soldiers went, "Left, 'splock', left, 'splock'" because all their right boots had been sunk. Those were mistakes which should not have been made.

I shall touch briefly on the question of discipline. Courts Martial legislation has made minor military discipline difficult to enforce because the procedure is

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too complicated. A commanding officer said to me, "I am a little worried that 'behind-the-sheds thumping-up' is taking place instead of putting a soldier on a charge because that has become so complicated". I hope that the Minister will consider that.

We saw several extraordinarily efficient, competent young ladies at captain rank—

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