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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the noble Baroness said that Israel will not reoccupy the West Bank. I have it in mind that Israel is occupying the West Bank,

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continues to build settlements and to pour people into it, continues to confiscate Palestinian land and blow up Palestinian houses, and continues not to talk to the elected Palestinian Government. All I can do is reiterate what has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. Why are the Government in any way surprised by events if people are treated like this? We encourage them to behave democratically. They produce a democratic government and what do we do? We say that we will not speak to them. We spoke to the IRA which was not democratic, but we are not prepared to speak to the Hamas-led Government. There is a big chunk of Hamas which, had we talked to it, would have been much more conducive to talking to and dealing with Israel. This is a solely self-inflicted wound for which we, the Europeans, Israel and America are almost solely to blame because of our ham-fisted intolerance of democratic government in that part of the world.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I believe it is wrong to suggest, as the noble Earl has done, that the international community’s position on Hamas or funding of the Palestinian Authority has led to where we are today. Full responsibility lies with those who have chosen violence. As I explained earlier, we have been urging on the state of Israel the need to cease building the barrier on illegal land, to cease the illegal building of settlements and to repay the tax revenues that are due to the Palestinian people. We are aware of the urgent need for these things to be done.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is it not remarkable that despite the threat to Israel’s life which has been issued by Hamas Israel is prepared to distribute medical supplies and foodstuffs? Is it not also remarkable that the Liberal spokesman did not utter one word of condemnation against Hamas, which has threatened the whole existence of Israel, and despite the facts I have mentioned?

Baroness Northover: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am not prepared to give way.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, it is not on to intervene during questions because the time is so limited.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, what is the Government’s view on the cessation of hostilities which was promoted by Israel only yesterday?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I note all that my noble friend has said about the state of Israel and I do indeed think it is remarkable that when a state is under fire all the time from an enemy, it still wishes to discuss peace. However, as a responsible global state, it is right and proper for Israel to act accordingly. One has to bear in mind that Israel has responsibilities to which it is not living up; that is, the building of the barrier on illegal land and the building

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of illegal settlements. While I well understand why Israel wishes to build a barrier, it must not do so on land which does legally belong to it.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the situation now facing the international community is a grim one and that some of the acts that have taken place in recent days are unpardonable, but that trying to allocate blame for what has happened is not the most useful thing to do? Can she tell us that under no circumstances will the Government favour, support or promote any solution that involves the recognition of or dealing with three separate entities and that they will remain firmly committed to a two-state solution? Further, if Israel gives back some of the tax revenues and the international community resumes a structured aid programme with the West Bank, will the Government discuss with President Abbas how it will be made possible for the portions of those moneys which rightfully belong to the inhabitants of Gaza to reach them, and will not simply favour the West Bank at the expense of Gaza?

Will she also be very kind and think a little further about the distinction between being prepared to talk to people and being prepared to support their governmental institutions with aid? Although I happen to think that the policies we have been pursuing up to now have been unwisely rigid with regard to aiding Hamas, I can frankly see no justification whatever for our refusal to discuss things with them. I think we are falling into the same trap as the United States Administration have done with countries such as Iran in thinking that talking to people is somehow a concession you make in return for them making concessions to you. That is not the way diplomacy was practised when I was around.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that it is a grim situation and it is not useful to allocate blame. I am glad to note that the Arab League foreign ministers, when they met on 15 June, agreed to support President Abbas. They condemned all parties to the violence of last week and they too refused to apportion blame.

I confirm that the Government would not wish to have anything to do with a three-state solution, but are firmly supportive of a two-state solution. We have must have discussions about a mechanism to ensure that the necessary proportion of whatever money is repaid to the Palestinian people and President Abbas is given to the people in Gaza. With regard to our relationship with Hamas, I merely note what the noble Lord has said.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, may we have an assurance from the Minister that, whatever the Israelis say they will do, this country will independently monitor the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the West Bank and, if necessary, take independent action to make sure that the people in Gaza in particular are not starving? Will she also assure the House that, now that Israel—backed by the western Governments—has the

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Government it wants in the West Bank, we will see it obey UN resolutions, dismantle settlements and withdraw to behind the 1967 lines?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, this country, along with the global community, the EU and the UN, will monitor very carefully what is happening in Gaza because of that community’s deep concern. We certainly would not take independent action, but we will watch closely to ensure that Israel is acting as it says it is. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that Israel respects the UN Security Council resolutions.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, it is all very well the Minister talking about putting pressure on the Israelis with regard to their record over the West Bank, but does she accept that, in the view of many people, one of the reasons we have come to this catastrophic situation is that over many decades the United States has applied a biased and unfair policy towards that part of the world in favour of Israel? Will the Government consider putting renewed pressure on the United States in the future to pursue a more balanced and understanding policy towards the dreadful situation in which we now find ourselves?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, all the partners in the quartet always strive to find a balanced situation so that the people of Israel can live side by side with the people of Palestine in a two-state solution. That is our intention, and it is what we will continue to work for.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while we all understand the history and the international context in which this latest crisis has arisen, it is an intra-Palestinian crisis, between two sets of Palestinians? Does she also agree that, despite some of the rather excitable language from the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, many Arab states have had great distaste for dealing with Hamas? It has not been exclusively western or Israeli distaste; this issue has been discussed at the United Nations. The Arab states themselves have found it very difficult to deal with or support Hamas in the way we have heard the West should have done.

Can my noble friend please tell us a little more about what happened at Friday’s meeting of the Arab League Foreign Ministers in Cairo? She spoke of their support for President Abbas. Those of us who know Salam Fayed will want to support him; he is a good and just man, with no taint of any wrongdoing in the past. What constructive views have come out of the Arab states in their desire to deal with what is essentially an intra-Palestinian crisis?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that very important basic point. This is indeed an intra-Palestinian crisis, and the fighting in Gaza is inter-factional.

The Arab League agreed to establish a fact-finding committee, made up of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Qatar, to engage with the parties and report back in 48 hours. This, we believe, would serve

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to pressure the parties to return to the dialogue. However, 48 hours have passed, and we do not yet have any further information. When we receive it, I will inform noble Lords.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, was it not just a little perverse of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, to make no criticism whatever of Hamas and to criticise the West and the European Union, which has paid unprecedented sums to the Palestinian Authority? In the light of the initiative of the Arab League, is it the Government’s view that any outside force has any serious leverage or influence over Hamas, be it the Arab League or individual Arab countries, which have had their own problems with Hamas?

There have been reports that Hamas has threatened to storm the compound where it believes Alan Johnston is being held, which could cause grave problems and danger. Are the Government concerned about these reports, and what credence do they give them?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, my noble friend is right about the importance of the Arab League. We believe that it is through dialogue in the Arab League that real dialogue and reconciliation can be brought about between Fatah and Hamas, because the Arab League, rightly, has much more influence than we have. Its members live in the region and are the most affected by the situation in the Middle East.

I regret that I cannot comment on my noble friend’s point about Alan Johnston, but we are doing everything possible to ensure that he is released swiftly and unharmed.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is appropriate to have a post mortem about the events leading to the collapse of the national unity Government? As I understand it, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, leading some Arab states, brokered this. There must be dismay that something has gone wrong in the understanding that other people had in welcoming the Saudi initiative a couple of months ago, which we all thought would lead to progress. We are back to the Sinn Fein analogy. Can my noble friend comment on the fact that, if the Arab states want closer co-operation in this respect with the European Union, the European Union should be ready to respond?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is of course important to examine what has happened and why, but, at this very moment we have to concentrate on the situation in Gaza and the humanitarian needs of its people. The economic situation of the Palestinian people is extremely important. We have been working, and will continue to work, to ensure that Palestine becomes a viable economy. Unless it does, it cannot be the strong partner that it needs to be to ensure a two-state solution. I am glad to say that my right honourable friend the Chancellor has been working on these issues.

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Social Security, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2007

7.15 pm

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope rose to move to resolve, That this House calls upon the Government to revoke the regulations laid before the House on 2 May (SI 2007/1331).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am pleased to move the Motion to revoke standing in my name on the Order Paper. I propose to confine my remarks to two separate areas and hope that I shall not detain the House too long.

I hope that the ministerial team will agree that this is an important debate. It is necessary to give people who watch these matters outside this place comfort that the Government are taking careful note of everything being said and done, and that the elaborate and well established processes for consultation and scrutiny are being honourably used and considered in the Minister’s department.

There are important checks and balances on government powers. Ministers have profound powers to amend regulations, and they should do so only with appropriate care and concern. They should make changes only when their arguments are compelling and there is evidence that requires the change.

The House owes a debt of gratitude to a series of stakeholders—to use that terrible jargon word—in these matters. The provenance of the regulations which the Government have brought before us is the Bhakta case and the judgment originally made by Mark Rowland, a distinguished commissioner. He, with all his experience, noticed a synergy with Regulation 13 of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Amendment Regulations 1992 in terms of the ability to make an advance claim and advance award within three months, subject to discretion and other considerations. Commissioner Rowland therefore allowed the advance claims test and award to be homologated into his decision in Bhakta.

Having read through the papers at the weekend, I think that it is important to note that the case, which, in the way in which Commissioner Rowland brought it forward, provided an interesting conjunction of powers and events, was encouraged and supported by the Court of Appeal. I think that people would rather cut their grass at the weekend than study Court of Appeal judgments in some of these matters because the law is not easy—in this short debate I shall certainly not stray into habitual residence and the merits thereof at any great length, the Minister will be pleased to know. The Court of Appeal was very encouraging of Commissioner Rowland’s approach. That influenced me, because the Court of Appeal is careful about how it supports or otherwise new developments that come to it from decisions made by commissioners at a lower level in the process.

The Court of Appeal’s judgment and consideration were supported by the consultees from whom the Social Security Advisory Committee solicited comments. There were not a huge number of respondent consultees,

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but they all sat neatly in line and in point with the decision by the commissioner and the resultant argument in the Court of Appeal.

In addition, the Social Security Advisory Committee, a distinguished body of experts in this, with a positive relationship with the department—that is valued—took the view that there were arguments to be made with regard to the consultation that the department sponsored on these regulations. The committee found that the case was well founded. The new Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee has done us all a service in drawing these regulations to our attention, and the House owes it a debt in that regard.

I hope that the Minister is not surprised that this debate is happening tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, on the Conservative Party Front Bench, and I both came to the conclusion that there was something here to debate. If only he and I thought that, it would be quite important, but the people to whom I have just referred are all of the same view: that the regulation is otiose and unnecessary. It should be noted that in the whole scrutiny and consultation process the Government failed to win a single friend, which is significant. It does not always happen, though sometimes it does, but they are without friends in this case. The Government get high marks for going through the process. It was all done impeccably, but they did not win any of the arguments. The House should pay attention to that.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the Government did not completely ignore what was said. That was very valuable, and it is important that the commitment to improve the information flow is applauded. That was absolutely right. An awful lot of false steps can be prevented at the appropriate time if information is provided—not just written information; sometimes it needs to be oral advice and support, too. Information is essential to ensure that people understand what is going on, because the regulations essentially affect people coming from outside the United Kingdom, who are sometimes a bit bewildered about all the circumstances in their life. Subjecting them to the rigours of the habitual residence test without support and help is unconscionable and I warmly welcome the statement that the Government have made in that regard.

Not everyone studies these detailed areas of social policy law as closely as the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Official Opposition and my party, but advance awards are not common in any benefit and never have been. Regulation 13 was developed in the run-up to the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Amendment Regulations 1992. That was done for the mutual benefit of the department and the claimants, at one and the same time. Those taking advantage of the provision would mainly be DLA-type claimants, when foreseeable circumstances can be seen changing clearly over a three-month period. The provision is now established, but it is a minor part of the provisions to support people in the benefit system.

We do not know—the House may like to know, because it is a factor—but I strongly suspect that we are not talking about significant public expenditure, either direct or indirect, in opportunity costs, extra

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bureaucracy or anything of that kind. If I am wrong about that, I should like to be told. If the Minister does not have the information readily to hand, I am sure that both Front Benches would like more information on that. There cannot be many cases, and I do not think that it would cost a lot if this regulation were left unamended.

The Minister himself has a role in this. I know that he has been snowed under with legislation, and I really do not envy him his task, but I hope that he is still there in a fortnight, otherwise we will have to start again with somebody different, and we do not want that to happen. If I can put in a word for him at any point, he just needs to give me a ring. Ministers have a role in this, because the policy-makers have a very different responsibility in the department for trying to keep things tidy, if I can put it that way and not be too pejorative. Ministers have a wider duty: they have to demonstrate good faith and act in the interests of claimants.

It may be cheeky to say that this is one that I would have sent back, but it is a matter for the Minister and his conscience. Knowing him well enough, I know that he will have thought about it, but I think that he has got this wrong. I fear that, because people from abroad are such a sensitive subject, there may have been some pressure in the advice that he has had and that the tabloid press, which does not like people from abroad, may have had something to do with that. I hope that is not the case. The Minister will make his own arguments in a moment.

I want to say two or three things about the merits of the legal case, because they are intrinsic to the decision facing the House this evening. I will not get drawn into the habitual residence test, because it is ineffably complicated; I do not think that would serve the interest of the House this evening. We are dealing with what Commissioner Rowland put his finger on when he asked whether “the mere passage of time” amounted to “a change of circumstances”. I think he found correctly on that point. I do not think that the mere passage of time is necessarily a change in circumstances. That is what led him to homologate Regulation 13 into the Bhakta case, and that is why the Government decided to make the change that they have this evening. The Bhakta judgment determined that an advance award was not precluded for that reason, and that was sound reasoning.

As the House may know, the habitual residence test involves two different elements. It must demonstrate settled intention to reside and an appreciable period of time. Those are easily understood Queen’s English concepts, but at law they are endlessly contestable. The point that I want to make about the habitual residence test is that it is beyond doubt that a series of detailed personal individual circumstances have to be gone into. There is no doubt about that in my mind. I have only done one or two cases, because in my former constituency of south-east Scotland I never had a big caseload in this area. If all the facts of each individual case are relevant and necessary, a rigorous examination, which is already required for that reason, is perfectly capable of making a judgment about the potential for change over the next three-month period. That is

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basically what the Court of Appeal found, and that is why there has been so much opposition to the Government’s move to revoke the regulations.

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