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House of Lords

Thursday, 23 November 2006.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Lord Rogers of Riverside—made the solemn affirmation.

Conventional Weapons Convention

11.06 am

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Elton, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Government the following Question:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, we met our objective at the recent CCW review conference of achieving consensus among all the main producers and users of cluster munitions on urgently addressing the humanitarian impact of those weapons. That is an essential preliminary step before embarking on any negotiation of a new legally binding protocol. The demand for immediate negotiations at the review conference did not secure agreement. Launching an external process as a reflex response to such a disagreement carries some risk. By leaving out key producers and users, such a process could end up delivering fewer humanitarian benefits.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Obviously any progress on this front has to be multilateral, and we cannot do anything that would put our own military forces at any disadvantage. Nevertheless, does he accept that there is a very strong feeling among nations that there should be progress, that 30 nations want to carry forward the progress of the rather disappointing meeting he described in Geneva, and that the Norwegians have taken an interesting initiative? The Minister says that it might put certain developments at risk, but does he accept the strength of feeling and the need to go forward? Will he reassure us that the United Kingdom Government will do everything possible to make progress on this front and to give support to the kind of process the Norwegians are trying to get going?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I entirely agree that it has to be multinational. I give the assurance that we will use the detailed discussion to achieve the outcome. I make this observation without any disparagement of the Norwegians or those who are co-operating in their exercise—those nations have never used these kinds of weapons, and they do not have any forces, certainly infantry forces, facing armour anywhere in the world.

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They have not had that, and they are extremely unlikely to have that. The people who have difficulty are those who face the military options that this country currently faces.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, given the call by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross for an immediate freeze on the use of cluster munitions, can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will, first, attend the conference in Oslo in February and also negotiate there, in good faith, to protect citizens from cluster munitions, thus setting an example that France, the Netherlands and Italy would be likely to follow?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the Secretary-General has quite rightly urged progress on this. I quote his precise words, as they are of significance:

That is the channel through which we are trying to pursue it. The invitations to Oslo, as far as I know, have not yet been made, but I give an undertaking that we will take them very seriously. We will do all that we can to make progress on the phasing out of dumb cluster munitions and make sure that the major users and producers sign up to this process, because that is what will count. I fear that nothing else will count.

Lord Garden: My Lords, from these Benches, we also urge the Government to support the Norwegian initiative, which is important. The Minister used the phrase that the UK ambassador used at the negotiations, about a ban on “dumb cluster weapons”. There is not general agreement about the definition of that term. If a weapon is not a dumb cluster munition, what is the acceptable level of unexploded munitions that are left after it is dropped? What are the current British cluster munitions? Are they dumb or smart?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, one reason for having a period of intense discussion is to get to a precise definition. I will make a brief attempt to say what I understand the distinction to be, because that may be the most helpful answer. The dumb munition is not directed at a specific target and, if it fails, whatever the failure rate, it remains live—it is not automatically turned off. Where you have multiple weapons of that kind, you can see the nature of the problem. The opposite set of characteristics would produce a more sophisticated system, and that is what people are working on. Weapons of this kind are at present principally, as I have broadly defined them, dumb. That is what we must get beyond.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, have those weapons used in Kosovo and possibly even over the frontier into Serbia been cleared up and made safe? Also, is Israel contributing to the cost of clearing up those used in Lebanon?

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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I can answer for this Government rather than the Israeli Government, and tell noble Lords that DfID has provided £1.5 million to clear up unexploded munitions of this kind in Lebanon, and we are encouraging many others to make their contribution, through the EU and other arrangements. There has been a considerable effort following the former Balkan conflicts to get rid of the remaining weapons; that remains an ongoing task with which DfID is also concerned to ensure the funding.

Lord Dubs: My Lords—

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I think that it is our turn. I understand the humanitarian concern to be that some of these weapons have not exploded. The Minister has made it clear—as has his neighbour, sitting next to him, in reply to such questions—that we consider that our forces may need the weapons. Surely it is not beyond the wit of people to design a mechanism to identify where they remain in the ground. It is a different situation from the landmines, which were put there so that people would not know they were there. In this case, there is no intention that people should not find them; the intention is that the weapons should explode at the time. With new technology, surely something could be built in to make it clear where the unexploded devices are, to simplify situations such as Kosovo.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I have tried to describe some of the changes that we are trying to achieve through research in such weaponry, but I assure the noble Baroness that this possibility is also being pursued. It obviously has considerable merit, in exactly the way she described.

Iraq and Afghanistan: UK Forces

11.13 am

Lord Trefgarne asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is there to do three things—support the Government of Afghanistan, facilitate development and reconstruction, and improve security. The multinational force in Iraq is there to assist the Government of Iraq in maintaining security, to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces, and to facilitate work aimed at development, reconstruction and economic regeneration.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. In the light of the Foreign Secretary’s recent announcement that British forces are shortly to begin leaving Iraq in some numbers, can we assume that the objectives in Iraq at least are now complete?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, it is important for us to be absolutely clear about what the Foreign Secretary

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said. It was not that British forces would shortly be leaving Iraq, but that we hope that the situation on the ground, particularly in Basra, develops to the point where our forces could change their posture to one of operational overwatch. They would still have to be in the region—in the country—but they would be performing the role of supporting the Iraqi forces themselves doing the patrolling. We hope that that position could be achieved by the spring. It is important for us to recognise that the process of handover does not necessarily mean that our troops will immediately be able to come home. That requires us to get to the point of strategic overwatch.

Lord Garden: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the planned handover of the ISAF headquarters function from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps will take place in February 2007? Will he also confirm that that will mean that some 900 UK troops can be removed from theatre at that time?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I can confirm that it is expected that the ARRC will change at the point mentioned by the noble Lord. We are looking at the force posture that we have at that time for the next roulement around the spring of next year. That is being reviewed; it is going through the planning process at the moment, and no decisions have yet been taken.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I was concerned to hear the Minister say, in answer to the supplementary question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, that there was no question of withdrawing forces from Iraq next spring. The Minister has already acknowledged that we are overstretched and committed well beyond defence planning assumptions. How long can the British Armed Forces continue in this overextended posture?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is right to raise the issue of the pressure that is placed on our Armed Forces in our continued operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We, together with the chiefs, monitor the situation very closely indeed. I want to make it absolutely clear to the House—because it is important for people to understand—that we see grounds for optimism in Iraq in areas that we have talked about, such as the handover and transition of provinces. As we have heard, we expect to transition one province at the end of this year and we hope that we will be able to hand over Basra in the sense of patrolling in the spring of next year. But that depends on the conditions and it does not necessarily equate with our forces being able to come home. We must recognise that this long process by which our forces are having to stay in these operations puts us under pressure. We have to manage this very carefully and we are doing so.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, will the Minister answer the question that I put to his colleague on Monday but which the Foreign Office

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Minister did not have time in his wind-up to answer? Does the final decision on keeping British troops in Iraq rest with the Iraqi Government or with Her Majesty's Government?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, let me be absolutely clear about this—I believe that I have answered this question before. The final decision rests with Her Majesty's Government. They are our troops; it is our decision. We have stated our policy clearly, which is to support the Iraqi Government in the progress that they are trying to make. Our troops are fundamental to that. We have said that we will not cut and run, or let the Iraqi people down. That is our policy and we are seeing progress. But the final decision is down to Her Majesty's Government based on the conditions on the ground that I have described previously.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, pending their recall as soon as possible, dependent on circumstances, is the Minister now confident that our forces, who are a precious asset to this nation, have the right ammunition, the right protective equipment, the right armour, the right vehicles and the right helicopters in Iraq?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, one thing that I am absolutely confident about is that we are doing everything that we can to ensure that our forces have what they need to do the job. But we do not live in a perfect world and it would be unrealistic for me to give a cast-iron guarantee that everyone has everything all the time. I know that the House recognises that, but I say most sincerely that we are doing absolutely everything that we can to make sure, first, that we properly understand the way in which the threat is changing and evolving, that we respond to that in the type of equipment that we provide to our troops, and that we are adept and agile at doing so. I think that we are getting considerably better at that. Secondly, we must ensure that we have the resources to back up our troops to give them what they need. As the Prime Minister said again yesterday in the other place, we will make sure that our troops have what they need to do the job.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, will the Minister also answer the question that I asked in the debate and that it was not possible to answer at the time? The Prime Minister said in Pakistan that British troops had not been fighting properly, but that they now were and needed to do more. Could he explain what the Prime Minster meant by that?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I saw that that was reported, but could not find where that comment came from. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. There is no question in anyone’s mind, certainly not the Prime Minister’s, that our troops have not been fighting properly. Frankly, I just put it down to the quality of the reporting. There is no doubt that our troops have done a superb job in both theatres. I know from conversations with Members of this House that all sides of the House absolutely appreciate that.

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Government Departments: Judicial Review

11.21 am

Lord Trimble asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith): My Lords, high standards of candour are expected of government departments faced with judicial review. The requirement is set out in guidance for all those in government involved in litigation and is reinforced in a number of ways, including training for government lawyers. Further, the Ministerial Code and Civil Service Code require individuals to act honestly and not to deceive or knowingly mislead.

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. While I have no intention of going into the details of the recent judicial review application by Mrs Downes against the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I am sure the noble and learned Lord will acknowledge that it is quite exceptional for the judge in the case to call for a high-level inquiry into the conduct of the Secretary of State and his senior officials and then to publish a list of 67 questions that must be answered.

I have seen press reports that the Attorney-General intends to have an inquiry into the matter. Can he tell us anything about the progress in setting up the inquiry, how it will be conducted and when he expects to have its conclusions? Does he think it might be useful in the interim to circulate both of Mr Justice Girvan’s judgments to all Permanent Secretaries in the United Kingdom?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, it is absolutely right that the learned judge has raised a number of concerns and put them to me, not as a Minister but, as he rightly says, acting independently of the Government and in the interests of justice. I have therefore decided that I should inquire into the issues raised by the judge and have concluded that that is best done by appointing an independent person to carry out a review and report to me. This has not yet been finalised. I must identify the right person and see that they are available to do it. Once that is done, however, I will ensure that this House and the other place know of it.

The noble Lord asks whether the judgment should be circulated in the mean time. At my request and on my authority, the director-general of my department is writing to all heads of legal teams throughout Whitehall to draw this case and my review to their attention and to remind them of the importance of ensuring an awareness of the duty of candour both by lawyers and clients.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord assure us that if an inquiry is set up, the person appointed will have the power to summon witnesses and call for documents? As he knows, that is

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the only way in which an effective inquiry can be carried out, particularly when a judge has described the subject of the application as motivated by an improper political purpose.

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I have no doubt that the department in question and the lawyers involved will fully co-operate with the review. I have no doubt that that will take place. If, for any reason, the person appointed to carry out the review expresses concern, I will of course reconsider the situation.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, on the question of the duty of candour, what happens where a civil servant refuses to reveal material that might well be helpful during the course of these proceedings? Is there a disciplinary procedure and what is it? Have there been cases of complaints because of the refusal of civil servants to hand over information or documents? What has happened in those cases?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I am not entirely sure whether my noble friend is referring to cases where civil servants in the course of official reviews or inquiries have failed to hand over information—I do not know of any situations of that sort—or whether he is referring to litigation in which there is an issue about handing over material. Generally speaking, it would be for the court to determine whether material ought to be handed over. I cannot think of any occasion on which an order has been made by the court to hand over information and that has not been complied with where the person holds the information as a civil servant or other government official.

Lord Laird: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General satisfied that there is a high level of knowledge among the Ministers of the Northern Ireland Office about how the High Court works in this country? I include in that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. If he is satisfied that there is a high level of understanding, will he explain how, when a judicial review earlier this week found against the Minister who is in charge of water services, costs were awarded against him and the judge said that he was sending a health warning with any legislation to do with water charges when that legislation comes back to this House, the Minister was then able to issue a press statement saying that the Government won the judicial review?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I do not know any details of the case to which the noble Lord refers and it is therefore difficult for me to comment on it. On the basic question, as I said in answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, candour in judicial review proceedings is important. Significant training and other guidance is given to government officials and others about how they must respond to their responsibilities in judicial review and other litigation circumstances.

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Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said that the inquiry will take the form of an inquiry by an independent individual who he is in the process of choosing who will then report to him. Can he undertake to this House that the report that is made to him will be made public in its entirety?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, in principle, it is my intention that the report should be published. However, I have to recognise that issues may arise that might limit or delay that; for example, if for any reason it were to lead to disciplinary or other proceedings following from it.

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