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House of Lords

Wednesday, 17 October 2007.

The House met at three o'clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.


Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, three national referendums have been held since May 1997. These were: on 22 May 1998 in Northern Ireland on ratifying the Good Friday agreement; on 18 September 1997 in Wales on the establishment of a Welsh Assembly; and on 11 September 1997 in Scotland on whether to establish a Scottish Parliament and whether it should have tax-varying powers.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. Clearly, it demonstrates that this Government believe in referendums on constitutional matters, and that is further underlined by the fact that the Labour manifesto stated that there was to be a referendum on the new European reform treaty. So one must ask why the Prime Minister refuses to hold a referendum. Initially, we were told that it was unnecessary because it was no different from the Maastricht treaty. I chaired the committee on the Bill relating to that in another place and it is totally different. Then we were told that the difference—

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Naseby: My Lords, I have asked a question already. Then we were told that it was very different from the previous treaty, but Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the others say that it is almost identical. Now, we are told that it is unnecessary because of the red line opt-outs. So what is the exact reason for not having a referendum, not least when the Prime Minister said in May 2004 that we were to have one?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I shall be brief. The reform treaty now being discussed is not the same as the defunct constitutional treaty. The reform treaty guarantees the red lines that the Government have set out. It is now an amending treaty, rather than a whole new treaty and, on that basis, the Government consider that Parliament is the best place to make a decision.

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Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that people who say that there is no difference between the two treaties prove that they have not read either? Does he also agree that, in relation to those who quote overseas leaders, there is no major difference for countries that accept the whole of the new treaty but that for those such as the United Kingdom which have fundamental opt-outs and opt-ins, it is an extremely different treaty, and that there is no incompatibility in our saying that it is different and in other national leaders saying that it is the same?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I find it very difficult to disagree with my noble friend.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, are not Members of Parliament elected for four or five years to take part in running the country? They are not elected for four or five years to hand over the running of the country to others. Is that not in itself a very good argument for having a referendum? We often hear about Maastricht. Is not the difference between Maastricht and the present situation that Sir John Major never promised a referendum? However, he might have done himself a good turn if he had had one, as it would have saved a load of trouble if he had had a referendum and lost it.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the issue of holding a referendum related to the original constitutional treaty. That treaty is defunct and we are now talking about a wholly different reform treaty. It is very different because it ensures that the red lines set by the Government will be preserved.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, which of the three devolved institutions in the United Kingdom have so far debated the desirability of a referendum and what was the decision in each case?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not have that information—I assume that the noble Lord is referring to the devolved Administrations. I am not aware of the debates that those assemblies have had on the reform treaty. If they have such debates, appropriate consideration will no doubt be given to it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does the Minister agree that apart from a referendum, a question arises as to whether we shall ratify either treaty in this House, having regard to the powers extended to the European Court of Justice which have a supranational effect on this country?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord’s second point in the light of what is being discussed in relation to the reform treaty. On his substantive question, Parliament will of course have the final say on the treaty that is brought forward.

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Lord Richard: My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can confirm something for me. When the last treaty was about, various countries had a referendum, including France and including Holland. Am I right in thinking that on this occasion the only country proposing to have a referendum on this reform treaty is Ireland, because it is enshrined in its constitution that it has to have one, and that otherwise none of the countries of the EU proposes having one?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that expresses the position quite clearly. It is a very different treaty.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords—

Lord Dykes: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Liberal Democrats have not spoken on this Question. Shall we give them a turn?

Lord Dykes: My Lords, that is most gracious—characteristically, too. Does the Minister agree that 19 sacred, sovereign countries have already ratified the original text let alone those that are now enthusiastically ratifying this one? Do the anti-Europeans in this country not have any regard for sovereignty? It is an important matter for all these countries, including ours, and their parliaments.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that all sides on this ongoing and exciting debate will have regard to the decisions made in all the countries of the European Union. I can assure the House that, at the end of the process, Parliament will have an opportunity to make the final decision.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we are obviously not going to agree on these opt-outs to which the Government are clinging as their reason for the treaty being different. However, the European Scrutiny Committee in another place has said that the two treaties are “substantially equivalent”—those are its precise words, which I have with me—and it further pointed out that the opt-outs “leak like a sieve”. Is that not at least a reason for careful consideration before stating unequivocally that this is a different treaty? It turns out that everyone else thinks that it is very much the same.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Select Committee report requires careful attention, and we do not agree with the interpretation that the noble Lord has placed on it. The Select Committee actually said that the new treaty produces an effect that is “substantially equivalent” to the constitutional treaty for the countries that have not requested derogations or opt-outs. We have requested them, and we have secured our red lines.

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Middle East: Democracy and Human Rights

3.08 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the forthcoming Saudi state visit and associated Two Kingdoms Dialogue are important opportunities to take forward our dialogue with Saudi Arabia on a wide range of issues, including human rights, democracy and reform in the Middle East.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that statement. I note that this is the fourth Saudi state visit under our current monarch, which puts Saudi Arabia up with France, Italy, Germany and Norway, among those most privileged in that respect. We recognise that the Saudi Government are being extremely constructive on the Middle East peace process at present. We are also, however, aware that Saudi money continues to support particularly narrow interpretations of Islam in many countries around the Middle East and beyond and that if we are committed to modernisation, human rights and democratisation in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia represents one of the most problematic countries. Can we be reassured that the Government will make those points strongly during the state visit?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that we have a close relationship with the Saudis. They are indeed constructive on the Middle East and supportive of our policy towards Iran, which is terribly important. Noble Lords can also be assured that in all our dialogue with the Saudis, at every level, we are frank and honest about some of the problems we perceive that they may have on human rights.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the Global Opportunities Fund was deliberately set up after 2001 to counter terrorism throughout the Middle East. Can the Minister explain what it is now being used for? For instance, is it helping King Abdullah’s important new reform programme to provide employment and training for young Saudi men and women?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, yes. Work with young men and women, to ensure that they are employed, is exactly one of the things that the Global Opportunities Fund is funding. The work it undertakes with women is especially important. It also funds work with civil society, to ensure that people in Saudi Arabia can participate fully in civil society and nurture it in that state.

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The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, to follow up the supplementary of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is the Minister aware of a recent letter to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, among others, signed by a large number of Muslim scholars, including some from Saudi Arabia, encouraging Christians and Muslims to,

Given, on the one hand, the welcome—indeed, irenic—tone of this letter and on the other, by contrast, the adamant refusal of the Saudi regime to allow anything resembling freedom of religious practice, can the Minister assure the House that this incongruity will be raised with the Saudi monarch during his forthcoming visit?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I was aware of the excellent and constructive letter. I am also aware of the situation in Saudi Arabia and will certainly ask my colleagues in the Foreign Office to try to ensure that this issue is raised during the forthcoming visit.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I declare an interest as a representative on the Two Kingdoms Dialogue and on the business council between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is currently going through a process of development. It may seem pretty slow in some respects—politically, economically and in terms of civil and human rights—but it is none the less progressive. Can my noble friend confirm that the Two Kingdoms Dialogue will encompass, for the first time, a forum between Saudi and British youth? In my experience, that will mean some pretty frank exchanges. Can she also confirm that there will be discussion on matters of particular interest to women?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, my noble friend is much more experienced in these things than I am. I can confirm that these issues will be discussed at the important Two Kingdoms Dialogue. We warmly welcome the process of development that is taking place in Saudi Arabia—albeit, perhaps, too slowly.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, the Minister will perhaps be familiar with the International Crisis Group report on Saudi Arabia, describing it as a country which stifles pluralism, nurtures intolerance and prevents the organisation of political and social interests. What is more, while we are talking about its constructive position on the Middle East peace process—as the Minister has—it wilfully exports insurgents to other countries. In the light of that, and recognising the necessity for a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, will the noble Baroness reassure the House that she will raise the case of the Saudi intellectuals who have been arrested and imprisoned merely for signing in only February of this year a petition suggesting a transition to constitutional monarchy? Progress is indeed slow.

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the International Crisis Group report is deeply disturbing, and I will ask that the case raised by the noble Baroness in relation to the intellectuals who have been imprisoned is raised. The fact that municipal elections have taken place is welcome and we hope that women will be included in the next elections. So there is progress, but it is extremely slow. We are never slow to raise these difficult issues with the Saudi Arabians.

Channel Tunnel: Rail Freight

3.15 pm

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, on 29 June 2007, the British Railways Board, English Welsh & Scottish Railway, the French rail operator and Eurotunnel signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the development of open access for cross-channel rail freight traffic and freight pricing. The Government welcome continuing progress towards a more commercial and liberalised regime but, ultimately, rates and services through the tunnel are a commercial matter for the parties concerned.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. However, when we debated this issue in the House after my noble friend Lord Dykes raised it, four freight trains a day were going through the Channel Tunnel, whereas there is now one train a day. There is space for 40 trains a day, while 200 trainloads of traffic go up the motorway, some of which should go by train. Can the Minister explain what is obstructing this? I am sure that it is not simply price. Some institutional obstacle must be causing prices to be artificially high.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s concern. It is for that reason that the Government have been working with their partners, in particular through the intergovernmental commission, to try to secure, encourage and facilitate more freight going through the Channel Tunnel. In general, the record of increased use of our railway network for freight over the past decade has been phenomenal, with a 5 to 6 per cent per year growth in that method of moving goods and services.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Channel Tunnel will play an important part in meeting the welcome commitment in the high-level output statement to double the volume of rail freight over the next 30 years? Will the Government use their best endeavours to achieve a more satisfactory commercial agreement of the sort that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, described to ensure that volumes going through the Channel Tunnel are increased? Will they talk to the owners of the Channel Tunnel rail link to ensure that freight trains can use the new line as well?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we will of course continue the dialogue to try to ensure that the new track can be used. The noble Lord is right that we must do more here, but in the end the growth in freight can only be based on market pressures and there has to be robust commercial underpinning to the system. However, the Government are keen to secure more use of the railway network for freight.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, last December, the Government announced a £6.5 million environmental grant because of the reduced carbon emissions on rail freight; we would all agree with that. However, the figure had been £26 million, so one wonders how the Government reduced it to £6 million. Was it because of some European regulation that we could not give as much as we might have liked to encourage rail freight transport?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have given considerable rail freight subsidy, as the noble Lord is well aware. Over the past 12 years, the rate has been fixed at £26 million per annum, as he said, and we have contingency to extend that. We have already extended the support once. The time-limited state-aid extension expired in November 2006, but of course we continue to support the rail freight industry through subsidy.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, further to the Minister’s correct assertion that it is mainly the companies and the markets that determine these matters, Eurotunnel mark 2 plainly needs the additional revenue that will come from extra freight trains. Will the Government undertake to discuss this further with the French Government, because it needs a bilateral agreement and a new text?

There are many indications that there is a certain amount of resistance in the French department for transport, whereas some members of the National Assembly and the Senate are very keen on Eurotunnel having far more freight trains, as my noble friend Lord Bradshaw indicated.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I can assure the House that we have been discussing these very issues with SNCF and the French Government directly. We recognise the potential for rail freight growth through the tunnel. As has been said this afternoon, this is clearly an area of potential growth, which is in the commercial interest of the operators. So of course we will continue to do that.

Lord Snape: My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that we have not spent billions of pounds building the Channel Tunnel in order to run one freight train a day between the respective countries? Although the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, as ever, was too polite to say so, there has been a great deal of obstruction from SNCF, the French railways, against anybody else running trains in its area. Why do we in the United Kingdom always gold-plate EEC regulations while the rest of the EEC appears to ignore them?

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