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House of Lords

Monday, 22 January 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.

Shipping: Offshore Wind Farms

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Truscott): My Lords, I presume that the noble Lord is referring to the Government’s recent announcement of approval to the London Array and Thanet offshore wind farms. Representations were received on the position of the wind farms in relation to navigation channels, possible effects on shipborne radar equipment and the operational safety of nearby dredging vessels. These issues were discussed with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and have either been addressed or will be further addressed as part of a consent condition.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although it is scarcely reassuring in light of today’s headline news. Why are the Government determined to add to the dangers of navigation in the channel by ignoring the risk that supertankers and other vessels, often sailing under flags of convenience with masters who are not familiar with the channel and whose radar is distorted by the wind turbines, will crash into the turbines and create repeated environmental disasters? Why were consultations not completed before a decision was reached? What distance between the 98 square mile wind farm and the navigational channels do the Government regard as safe in view of the present circumstances?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, the noble Lord asks a number of questions, rather than just one, but I assure noble Lords that Navy safety was a key consideration in the decision-making process. To that end, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is the Government’s adviser in this matter and has overall responsibility for navigation safety, has been closely involved in considering the wind farm proposal.

The Government consulted the MCA on radar reflection, and I am satisfied that the issue can be managed. The noble Lord also referred to manoeuvrability and safety. Very few vessels currently cross the wind farm site, so its presence should not add significantly to navigation congestion.

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The north-west boundary of the wind farm, facing Black Deep, will be in the shallower areas, so mariners will seek to avoid it. There is a minimum of 650 metres between turbines, so we cannot rule out the possibility that some vessels may be able to turn in the wind farm itself, should that be necessary.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, how many accidents, serious or minor, have there been involving offshore wind farms?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I am afraid I do not have that information, but I assure your Lordships that safety is of primary importance to the Government. I have no knowledge of any accidents in this area but I will write to my noble friend if I am mistaken.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for siting the London Array in its present position was because the water is so shallow and the cost of constructing wind turbines in shallow water is a great deal lower? Would not a captain of a supertanker who dared to try and cross the area at the moment be prosecuted for putting his vessel in danger, because he would ground it?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, large vessels can use the Black Deep channel so there is no danger of them running aground. Moreover, the fact that mariners can see the wind farm helps them not to get into difficulties, as they would wish to avoid it. They would also wish to avoid the sandbank in that part of the channel, so I do not see this as a major obstacle.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, does the Minister agree that Germany, which I believe has more wind farms than any other European country, has come to believe that the cost of producing power through wind farms is prohibitive and has apparently decided not to develop offshore wind farms? Bearing that in mind, do the Government consider that the huge cost of building the London Array coupled with a subsidy of £160 million a year is good value for money when the returns are at best 20 per cent of the total supposed power on offer at a minimal saving in terms of CO2 of 0.005 per cent?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord is right when he says that Germany is the leading country so far as wind farms are concerned. My information is that Denmark is the leading country in Europe and we are not far behind. The Government of course want to boost renewable sources of energy. That is why we have suggested having a renewable obligation of 20 per cent by 2020. If we are to achieve that aim and move towards a low carbon economy, we need to boost wind energy, because that remains the fastest growing renewable technology. As of November 2006, the UK has had some 1,963 megawatts of onshore and offshore wind capacity. The development activity is looking at something like 10,723 megawatts of onshore and offshore wind capacity in the current planning system, so I do not see it as such an unpopular or ineffective form of energy.

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Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the UK Marine Pilots Association. Does my noble friend agree that if a large vessel strays from the navigation route specified by a port, whether it hits a wind turbine or sandbank does not make much difference to the end result? Surely, the answer is to put more wind turbines on the sand banks because apart from the birds no one else can use them.

Lord Truscott: My Lords, that is an interesting point. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which has overall responsibility for safety and is the statutory adviser to the Government, has been consulted on this matter throughout and is fully supportive of these wind farms.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, regardless of whether the leading country is Denmark or Germany, the second part of the noble Lord's question about the high cost of wind power was pertinent. Bearing in mind that wind power is intermittent, when will the Government think of constructing nuclear power stations instead of leaving it to the market, which clearly cannot go ahead without the effective support of the Government?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, the Government made it clear in the energy review that they believed that nuclear power had a role to play in the country's future energy mix, but we believe that renewable energy also has an important part to play.

EU: Turkish Accession

2.44 pm

Lord Giddens asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the Government believe that Turkey’s accession is of strategic importance to the United Kingdom and the EU and we will work hard for sustained progress. We are pleased that negotiations will continue. However, the December General Affairs and External Relations Council agreed that eight of the 35 chapters of the EU acquis will not be opened, and none will be closed, until Turkey implements the Ankara agreement protocol. The screening process will continue and chapters for which technical preparations have been completed will be opened.

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate the Government on their very positive attitude towards Turkey’s potential membership of the EU. However, what does he think that the consequences will be if Turkey’s accession process stalls in the light of, for example, the murder a couple of days ago of a prominent journalist and the potential division of the country into nationalist and Islamist forces of the right and the modernising forces linked to the EU? It is a very disturbing possibility.

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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I start by expressing my condolences to the family and friends of Hrant Dink, who was killed on 19 January. He was a peace-loving man of integrity, a credit to Turkey’s diversity and a positive force for freedom of expression in the country. I utterly condemn his murder. The other part of my noble friend’s question is very important. We believe that the prospect of joining the EU is transforming Turkey and it is important that this continues to move forward. The reverse—if it did not continue to move forward—would unquestionably be the consolidation of rightist nationalist forces and, we believe, a considerable impediment to the overall progress of that country. We have great interest in ensuring that this enlargement takes place.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, while there are certainly some underlying forces and ugly events, to which the Minister has just referred, both inside Turkey and in the European Union that are working to make Turkey’s accession more difficult—and these forces may be growing in strength—is not the immediate cause of difficulties the issue over Cyprus and Turkey’s refusal to conform to the Ankara protocol? Is not the issue behind that the fact that the Nicosia Government—the Greek Cypriot Government—have persistently vetoed and blocked all attempts to resolve the Cyprus situation in an EU context, leading to Turkey’s retaliation? Is not that where the pressure should really be applied now?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I think that we have to make progress on all fronts. There is plainly a difficulty with the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, but I have taken some heart from the intervention by Mr Gambari, the Under-Secretary-General, to try to renew the prospects of negotiations and to ensure that the economic isolation of the north Cypriot Turkish community is brought to an end. That should help to stimulate significant changes. But the fact remains that the Ankara agreement must be honoured—and all this against the background of trying to achieve this enlargement, which is certainly in the interests of the progress of Europe.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, what commitments did the Government receive that the 25 chapters that can be proceeded with now will be proceeded with without the abusive blocking that occurred in the run-up to the European Council in December? What negative consequences might arise for a member state that blocked the renewed attempt to open up trade between north Cyprus and the European Union?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do not believe that it would be productive today to look at the sanctions that might arise. The decision taken at the GAERC meeting was unanimous and I expect that those who supported it, and supported the unanimity, will draw the conclusion that they must work through the consequences. Any other step would be quite dishonourable.

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Lord Dykes: My Lords, notwithstanding the truly shocking assassination of Hrant Dink on Friday and the fact that Turkey is still proceeding somewhat sluggishly in its progress on the various EU criteria, does the Minister not agree that Turkey is a very important country and that there seems to be broad support for its membership of the European Union in the long term? With that in mind, will the Government encourage the resumption of chapter-by-chapter negotiation?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, it is important that Turkey, too, should meet the obligations or agreements that it has been a signatory to—I do not think that there is any way out for any country in that respect. I hope that what I have said on behalf of the Government indicates our desire to see progress on all these negotiations and a successful conclusion to this enlargement.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, the first Armenian church in this country was founded in Manchester. Will the Minister advise Members of this House where the Government stand in relation to discussions with Turkey over the Armenian genocide, when those discussions were last held and whether the Government have any intention of raising the matter further during the negotiations for Turkey’s entry into the EU?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I start with the most significant part of the right reverend Prelate’s question. For this Government, recognition of the so-called Armenian genocide is not a condition of Turkey’s membership of the EU. I wish to be straightforward and clear about that. Neither this Government nor previous British Governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be characterised as genocide under the 1948 UN convention on genocide.

Lord Tugendhat: My Lords, on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, does the Minister agree that a number of other member states are hiding behind the Cyprus Government to hold up the negotiations over Turkey? It is important not only to press forward with these negotiations but to try to ensure that the disruptive tactics of some of the larger member states that are hiding behind the Nicosia Government are fully exposed.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, there is no question about the fact that there is no unanimity about Turkey’s accession, but there was not unanimity through many of the processes leading to the most recent accessions and there are still significant discussions about the western Balkans and other potential accession countries. But generally speaking, as we have worked through the problems, those objections have decreased as the advantages of EU membership, and the transformation of those states, have come to be recognised. We will most certainly argue for that outcome.

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Lord Monson: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we are well into the 16th minute.

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

2.51 pm

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the Government believe that the final document of the sixth review conference represents some very positive steps for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. States parties reached an agreement that reaffirmed the prohibitions against biological weapons and took decisions on further collaborative work to strengthen implementation of the convention. The Government believe that the outcome of this conference represents a significant success for multilateralism in the non-proliferation and disarmament field.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging Answer. Can he confirm that the contrast with the obstructionism encountered at the previous review conference in 2001 is due in very large measure to the patient work of the United Kingdom team? While I welcome the long-awaited implementation support unit, does not the fact that its functions are specifically listed and its mandate expressly confined to those functions indicate that there is still some distance to travel? Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will persevere in their well doing?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his comments. The contrast between the previous conference and this one could not be more stark, and it has occurred because we have been very persistent in seeking this success. The programme for the next few years, which was well defined at the most recent conference, offers a great deal more prospect for further successes. We shall pursue them with the greatest rigour.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, can the Minister explain what measures the Government have taken to ensure that biological agents and toxins, which are dangerous and relevant to this convention, are protected and safeguarded to prevent their falling into the hands of potential terrorists? Can he also say what legal constraints are presently available to control access to and handling of such agents and toxins?

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Lord Triesman: My Lords, in this country the handling of such agents and toxins is very well constructed under current legal provisions. We feel that we have as high a degree of security as we can achieve, but we obviously want to see that extended internationally. Consequently, in the follow-up to the agreements of this conference, further discussions will take place internationally in 2007 on ways and means of enhancing national implementation of those very questions elsewhere, including the enforcement of national legislation, strengthening of national institutions and co-ordination among national law enforcement institutions. Success in these areas in this country could be less than adequate if others do not follow the same path.

Lord Roper: My Lords, in the Statement that the Minister repeated to the House on 8 January on the sixth review conference, he reported that agreement had been reached among the states parties to make a concerted effort to persuade other countries to join the convention. What are the Government doing to implement that, particularly with respect to the 12 members of the Commonwealth which have not yet become parties to the convention?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, as one of the depositories of the convention we have consistently, under all Governments, regarded it as a responsibility to argue if necessary with those in the Commonwealth and elsewhere who have not yet signed. We have urged the other two key players in this respect, the United States and Russia, to do the same. I suspect—without being unkind to others—that we are the most vigorous and vociferous in pursuing that objective.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, was any progress made at the review conference towards agreeing, or making progress towards, international verification procedures to ensure that people are actually sticking to the obligations that they entered into? Does he agree that without such procedures it is a very fragile construct indeed? Was any progress made towards developed countries being in a position to help developing countries in the case of a biological warfare incident afflicting them?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, both the United Kingdom and the European Union remain ready to support a verification mechanism, but I have to acknowledge that there are no signs that the international climate has changed enough to permit universal agreement on verification. I greatly regret that. That was certainly the case at the review conference, which, as noble Lords will know, operates by consensus. On the second question, there has been a good deal of agreement on how scientists in individual countries can co-operate in dealing with emergencies that arise. That kind of technical knowledge may very well prove critical in such an event.

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