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House of Lords

Monday, 20 November 2006.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Iraq: Withdrawal

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, our position remains unchanged. We remain committed to supporting the democratically elected Government of Iraq and to assisting Iraqi security forces in providing security for the people of Iraq until they can operate without coalition support.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, as these painful processes unfold, is the Minister confident that the Ministry of Defence will be able to offer full safety protection to our forces particularly if, in the end, they have to leave in somewhat difficult circumstances?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, we do everything we can to address issues of force protection, but we need to realise that this cannot be without risk. There is no solution which provides no risk to our forces; this is necessarily a dangerous operation. But in terms of the nature of the operation and its change in the future, we will of course monitor what changes we need to make to our equipment profile as those circumstances unfold.

Lord Garden: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the coalition is now down from the original 42 contributing states to just 23, of which more than half have fewer than 150 troops? What notification has he had from member nations that they intend to draw down further over the next 12 months?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am not aware of the change to which the noble Lord has alluded. I will write to him with full details, particularly in respect of potential drawdown from coalition partners.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is for immediate steps to co-ordinate an early departure of the coalition forces? Does he agree with me that those words are precipitate, pretentious and plain wrong?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for highlighting a serious and important point. Our strategy in Iraq is clear: it is to support the

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development of the democratically elected Iraqi Government and to work with that Government to ensure that the development of the Iraqi security forces can get to the point where we can hand over with confidence. That strategy has not changed.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, what do the Government hope to achieve by the co-operation of Syria and Iran?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, we need to be realistic about the level of co-operation that can be achieved. There is clearly a need, however, to engage all Iraq’s neighbours in the Middle East in the process. The central point, key to the development of peace in the Middle East, is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we can find a solution, that will then engender more support from the moderate Muslim societies and put pressure on Iran and Syria to respond.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, can the Minister enlighten us further on the indications that some Sunni tribal leaders are now giving more support to the Iraqi armed forces, particularly the Iraqi police?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in highlighting that the situation in Iraq is changing really quite rapidly and that recent reports have shown indications of increasing support in certain areas for the Iraqi police. We need to recognise that there are serious issues relating to corruption within certain elements of the Iraqi police which we need to support the Iraqi Government in rooting out. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that tribal leaders in certain areas are working with the coalition forces in supporting the Iraqi police.

Lord Richard: My Lords, my noble friend will no doubt have seen the reports in some of today’s newspapers that the Syrian foreign Minister said yesterday in Baghdad that Syria was prepared to help in trying to resolve the crisis in Iraq. Can my noble friend tell us anything more about that? Was such an offer made? Does he know in what terms it was made, to whom it was made and with what effect?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I do not have details beyond what I have already said in respect of Syria. I will write to the noble Lord and provide him with further information if we have it.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, is not anybody who makes a forecast with any precision about when our forces will be able to leave also likely to be plain wrong?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, we need to be realistic about the development of the situation on the ground. That means looking at the reality in each of the provinces and recognising where we have made progress. We have made progress in handing over two provinces already. We expect to hand over a third province at the end of the year. Operation Sinbad,

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which is taking place in Basra at this moment and which has taken on board many of the difficult lessons which we have had to learn during the past three years, is working. There are indications of progress. We hope that the situation develops to the point where we can look at bringing down the number of troops over the coming months, but it can be done only on the basis of positive developments on the ground.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is it not better to leave undiscussed arrangements for the retreat of our Armed Forces?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, no one is talking about retreat—absolutely not. We have to recognise that the job that our Armed Forces are doing is not traditional in the sense of taking over territory; it is about supporting the development of the Iraq’s own security forces. It is about handing over to those security forces when the conditions on the ground exist to enable it to be done, without creating an increase in sectarian violence. That is our objective. We have a clear strategy to achieve it, and in certain areas we are seeing its implementation work well. We need to be realistic where it is not working well.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, is it not sheer folly, when we are beginning to make progress in a very difficult situation, for some people in this country to cut and run and make it appear as though there is a lack of will? Does that not help the insurgents rather than bring about peace earlier?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to indicate that it is not a simple alternative between staying and cutting and running. It is about making sure that we act in a way which takes into account the circumstances in Iraq, which are complex, but which are also changing really quite rapidly. We see areas where there is real improvement; we see the situation in Baghdad, which is terrible. We need to recognise that the actions that we take must be consistent with our long-term strategy and based on the conditions as they develop on the ground. It is not about cutting and running or retreating; it is about supporting the Iraqis in developing as a democratic state.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the suggestion which was made by Mr Al Aamery, who is the head of security in the Iraqi Parliament, at a press conference here last week that British and other foreign troops should withdraw to barracks and come out to take part in operations only under the instructions and at the request of the Iraqi Prime Minister, thus emphasising the sovereignty of Iraq?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, we certainly see that the Government of Iraq are starting to express their sovereignty—that is a good thing. We are working with them to make sure that we use our forces in parallel with what they are looking for us to do.

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Animal Welfare: Wild Birds

2.44 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we continue to work closely with the Commission and member states to develop an EU-wide import regime to apply from the beginning of 2007. That should address the animal health and welfare problems identified in the authority’s report.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I take it from the Minister’s reply that the UK Government will not be supporting the imposition of a permanent ban on the import of wild birds, despite the call for one by the British Veterinary Association and BirdLife International because of the appalling mortality rates and welfare regime—and, of course, because of the added risk of importing disease. How does that fit with the Government’s commitment to welfare under the new Animal Welfare Act and to biosecurity, which is a matter that the Minister himself often raises?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness’s first sentence does not have any validity. She cannot assume as she does from my Answer what the Government’s position is. The position is as I gave it. There are two meetings in November and December of the Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels. The UK Government’s top priority will be animal health and public health and we shall make our dispositions accordingly. I cannot go beyond that, although I wish I could. But I do not think that the situation is as pessimistic as the noble Baroness says.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, aside from the ethics relating to the welfare of birds imported into the European Union, will the Minister support the proposal when his officials go to Brussels to join other organisations to eliminate this transport of potentially dangerous wild caught birds into the European Union and this country, because of avian influenza in particular?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the British Government’s position is being put together around Whitehall as we speak. The report was published only a few days ago. Our top priority is animal health and public health, and we shall operate accordingly; that is what we shall centre our policy on. There are other issues around the report, but we must ensure that, if we take decisions on that basis, the EU and the member states

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do not fall foul of the World Trade Organisation. We are satisfied that we can find an accommodation for this.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, is this trade on the increase or not?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, there is no trade, as there has been a ban for just over a year, since 27 October last year. The importation of 800,000 birds into the EU has not occurred, as there has been a ban in the past year. So the trade is on the decrease. We have to ensure that, whatever happens in future, a black market is not allowed to develop. This needs to be policed—everyone accepts that.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, what number of birds was imported into this country before the ban came into force? Did any court cases occur as a result of wild birds dying in transit?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have no figure for this country, but importation across the EU came to 800,000 wild birds. The report makes it clear that the mortality of those birds, once they entered the EU to get to their final destination, was unacceptably high. There is no question about that. But decisions will have to be based on animal health and public health, so that arguments made on the grounds of trade issues can be rebutted. We are satisfied that we can get a satisfactory solution to this.

Taxation: Green Taxes

2.48 pm

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, Ministers are in regular contact on a range of matters related to environmental policy. Any decisions on taxation are taken by the Chancellor and announced as part of the Budget process.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I am delighted to see that it is a Treasury spokesman answering this Question and not the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, given the rebuff that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs got from the Chancellor earlier. Quite apart from any question of an increase in taxation, given the fact, which the Government now admit, that the life-cycle carbon footprint of new nuclear power is about the same as that for wind power, would it not make sense to relieve nuclear power of the climate change levy, which ought never to have been imposed on it in the first place?

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, so far as I am aware, there are no proposals to relieve nuclear power of the climate change levy. The levy has been an important component of the Government’s approach to achieving their environmental goals. It has ensured that we have achieved carbon savings of something like 28 million tonnes to date, and savings in 2006 are estimated to be around 6 million tonnes. It is important that the levy, as one instrument in our approach, is maintained.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, was unnecessarily unkind to my noble friend Lord Rooker, who has always been very friendly with Treasury Ministers in the past. Is government policy in this regard to punish polluters and raise a lot of revenue or to deter polluters and not raise any revenue at all by having very high levels of tax? It is understandable if my noble friend cannot answer the question, but would he ask the Chancellor to?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I will try to answer the question. Fiscal policy is one component of our approach. The thrust of that policy is to shift the burden of tax from “goods”, such as employment, to “bads”, such as pollution. That is exactly what we did in introducing the climate change levy, where there was a reduction in the employers’ national insurance contributions, which is still of greater benefit to business than the cost of the climate change levy.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, how can the Minister justify the fact that the tax will be removed from renewables, such as wind turbines, but will still be left on nuclear, which does not cause any carbon pollution at all?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, it is not true to say that nuclear does not cause any carbon pollution at all. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, recognised that there is a carbon footprint to nuclear. You have to look at these things over the whole life cycle. However, I acknowledge that nuclear pollutes at a lesser level than some other sources.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, does the Minister agree that any carbon-based tax is really an extension of the ancient hearth tax, which was basically a wealth tax on the number of chimneys that one had? Instead of taxing the chimneys for polluting, we are now taxing the number of cylinders that a householder has in a car, and we are going to tax industry not on the number of chimneys that it has but on the size of them.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, my briefing does not cover some of those earlier levies, and I was not around when they were introduced. The climate change levy, however, is a tax on the non-domestic business, service and public sectors’ use of energy. That is its thrust and why it is constructed as it is.

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Lord Newby: My Lords, given that the Minister has just acknowledged that fiscal measures will play a part in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, will he congratulate Richmond Borough Council on introducing variable taxation of motor vehicles based on their capacity to pollute?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: Again, my Lords, my Treasury brief does not cover what Richmond council has done, but if the outcome of the policy is as the noble Lord suggests, it seems a worthwhile tax.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is no way of securing the continued generation of electricity to the extent necessary to fuel our industry, and therefore our economic prosperity, without nuclear being an important, non-carbon-generating part of that process? Is it not therefore logical that it should never be put at a fiscal disadvantage in comparison with other fuels?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I certainly agree with the proposition that nuclear will be an important component of energy policy going forward. We have to look at the environment in which it operates across the piece, over a whole range of policies, and not just at the fiscal impact. However, I do not see that nuclear is being put at a fiscal disadvantage compared with its main competitors.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, how large an increase in air fares does the Treasury consider will be necessary to achieve the reduction in air travel sufficient to ensure the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from air travel, which is the Government’s declared goal?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I have not seen a figure in those terms, if one has been produced. The right approach to tackling aviation is its inclusion in the European Emissions Trading Scheme, which is the most effective way of pricing carbon in that market. Other things also need to be done, such as the development of new and more effective technologies and of better means of operation, particularly in relation to air traffic control, which can cause emissions to be greater than they otherwise should be.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, can we be assured that the proceeds from any possible new green taxes would largely be devoted to providing incentives to increase energy saving?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Government’s position is that issues such as the climate change levy involve recycling back to business, and any increase or change to that levy would be recycled back to business on an appropriate basis and on the basis of consultation when changes take place.

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