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House of Lords

Tuesday, 26th November 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Biological Weapons

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have plans for an alternative regime to encourage compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention if the fifth review conference fails to reach agreement on a monitoring protocol.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I am happy to say that the fifth review conference reached unanimous agreement on a way forward. The agreement is based on an international programme of work for the next three years, aimed at strengthening the convention. This programme includes work on a number of alternative ideas contained in the Government's Green Paper on the threat from biological weapons, published in April this year. The Government warmly welcome this successful outcome.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that cheering news in a sometimes depressing world and I appreciate how hard the Government have worked to bring it about. Will she place a copy of the new proposals in the Library? May we assume that the American Administration are now persuaded that if they want to discourage other countries from proliferating weapons, it is counter-productive to practise proliferation themselves, and that in any event co-operating with the international community is more rewarding than sitting alone in a corner?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am pleased that I am able to give a more cheerful report after this international meeting than I have been able to do previously on these issues. I have already asked for the proposals to be put in the Library. I hope they are there already, but if not they will certainly be there during the course of today. I hope the United States will feel able to enter fully into the discussions that we are proposing in 2004 on the adoption of international measures and mechanisms that will strengthen the convention. They may also then wish to put forward their own suggestions after the completion of the programme of work.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, what is the Government's view about lax security arrangements for biological stores in the CIS?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government's view is that security arrangements

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anywhere—in saying this I am not signing up to the noble Viscount's allegation about lax arrangements—should be very firm and should be properly enforced.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in these dangerous times in which we live, the Government are to be commended on the work they are doing on persuading the United States Administration to understand that the well-being of their own people, no less than that of people elsewhere in the world, depends on effective multilateral co-operation in these areas?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree that these are very dangerous times. I am grateful for the opportunity to commend the work undertaken by officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by Ministers, who engaged fully in bilateral discussions before the meeting on 15th November, not only with the United States, but with other countries where perhaps there was not a full commitment to signing up to the programme of work that I have outlined to your Lordships. A great deal of work was undertaken and I am happy that it has had such a cheerful outcome.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, do the Government recognise that one of the most difficult issues on biological weapons is the problem of foreign research students and foreign researchers in British, American and other universities? Does the Minister also recognise that it is very important that we encourage the development of an international community of well informed and reliable scientists so that other states are well informed about the dangers of biological warfare? Does joined-up government in this case mean that the Foreign Office liaises closely with Britain's scientific community?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord will be pleased when he sees the work that is to be undertaken in 2003 on the adoption of necessary national measures to establish and maintain security and oversight of pathogenic micro-organisms and toxins. He will also be pleased that the work outlined for 2005 will include work on the content, promulgation, adoption and enforcement of codes of conduct for scientists.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the positive news that the noble Baroness brings about biological weapons discussions and the efforts to strengthen the convention is welcome. Does she agree that the American concern with the traditional convention procedures and the way they were not operating was well justified and that the Americans were right to bring forward a much tougher protocol than the original one, which was not agreed? Will she undertake to ensure that we back the very tough American proposals? As we are on the subject, how does the

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recent Russian use of nerve gas against terrorists—not by terrorists—fit into the overall approach, given that Russia is a signatory to the convention?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we are sympathetic to the views put forward by the United States but we do not share their concerns to the extent that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, believes. I have had discussions with my opposite numbers in the State Department, particularly with Mr Bolton, about the concerns that were put forward and have tried to explain to him why the United Kingdom Government took a rather different position on the protocol. However, we have accepted that we need the United States on board in the matter; hence our willingness to try to secure the programme of work that I outlined to your Lordships.

As regards the Russians using nerve gas in the recent Moscow siege, on that occasion a terrorist outrage had occurred that we believe could have resulted in the loss of a great deal more human life than was already unfortunately the case. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government understand the position that the Russian Government were in on that occasion.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, does the Minister agree that by any objective assessment—for example, that reached by the International Committee of the Red Cross—these commitments fall well short of meeting current and potential new threats from biological weapons?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we would have wished the protocol to have been adopted. Let there be no misunderstanding about that. I have argued for that in your Lordships' House. That was the ideal position. However, we should not let the best be the enemy of the good. We have a good understanding with the other states parties on a way forward. We can work with that. We can work to strengthen what is happening within countries in the way that I described to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. We can also work for better international understanding on the matter. The outcome is not ideal but, my goodness, it is a great deal better than I have been able to report to your Lordships on previous occasions.

Private Finance Initiative

2.44 p.m.

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will clarify further the use to which the private finance initiative can be put.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government use the private finance initiative where there is a clear value for money case to do so. The Government will continue to encourage partnerships

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to modernise public services and to ensure that the private sector is properly accountable in order to provide a real incentive to deliver services on time and to budget and a clear level of service locked in for the life of the contract at a fixed price. Specific procurement decisions are a matter for individual departments concerned.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I also thank him for his apology in a Written Answer on the final day of the previous Session in which he stated that on the previous occasion he responded to me on the matter he was slightly wrong when he said that the cost of PFI was an extra 0.25 per cent rather than between 1 and 3 per cent. I take it from his Answer today that his apology did not cover the rest of his response in which he indicated that the sole criterion for the policy was not to take liabilities off balance sheet but rather to obtain value for money. But, surely, it is not possible to say that. Is it not more sensible for my noble friend to accept that the Government select PFI projects primarily to increase public services and public expenditure? That is not an unreasonable thing to do.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my Answer made clear that value for money is the primary consideration, not whether a matter is off or on balance sheet. I have said that before and I repeat it now. But in one respect my noble friend Lord Barnett is right. The private finance initiatives that we are undertaking are additional to an increased programme of public sector investment. As my noble friend suggests, the total of PFI and public sector investment constitutes an enormous increase in investment in the public sector.

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