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House of Lords

Thursday, 18 October 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Introduction: Lord Janvrin

Lord Janvrin—The Right Honourable Sir Robin Berry Janvrin, GCB, GCVO, having been created Baron Janvrin, of Chalford Hill in the County of Gloucestershire, for life, was introduced between the Lord Fellowes and the Lord Jay of Ewelme.

Introduction: Baroness Garden of Frognal

Baroness Garden of Frognal—Susan Elizabeth Lady Garden, widow of Timothy Lord Garden, KCB, having been created Baroness Garden of Frognal, of Hampstead in the London Borough of Camden, for life, was introduced between the Lord Roper and the Baroness Neuberger.

Energy: Caythorpe Gas Storage Facility

11.18 am

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, following the close of the public inquiry on 11 May 2007 into the related appeals and orders for the Caythorpe gas storage proposal, the Government are actively considering the inspector’s report and inquiry evidence. Although this planning case is not one with a set statutory timetable, we are acutely aware of the need to ensure that the decisions are taken as soon as possible.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, that is all very well, but is the noble Baroness aware that in May 2006, her colleague, Alistair Darling, then Secretary of State at the DTI, made a Statement about the imperative need to provide new onshore gas storage in the UK in which he said that former gas fields,

That exactly describes the Caythorpe project. Mr Darling also called for swifter planning decisions. Is the noble Baroness aware that, although planning consent was refused by the local authority as long ago

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as July 2006, the promoters are still waiting for planning Ministers to reach decisions on their appeal? Does that not make a mockery of Mr Darling’s ambitions?

Baroness Andrews: No, my Lords, that is why we are introducing the Planning Reform Bill, to which I know the noble Lord is looking forward, to streamline the planning and consent regime for major infrastructure projects. The Caythorpe appeals procedure is very complex, as he knows. There have been three separate appeals and three different consent regimes. The date of the appeal was set for April because that was the first time that all the people involved could meet. I assure him that we are serious about increasing gas storage and streamlining the whole process.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the planning process nowadays has become immensely complex. It is obliged to consider almost every relevant and sometimes irrelevant issue that can possibly be assigned to a planning application. The process is gone through thoroughly during the original consideration of the application by the relevant planning authorities. It is then gone through thoroughly and in even more detail a second time during a planning inquiry. In those circumstances, is there not a case for suggesting that there should be a limit on the time that the Secretary of State has to consider the issue, given that all of the relevant facts are already known?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the planning process has been under tremendous strain in recent years because of the increased numbers of planning cases and appeals. A few years ago, only 20 per cent of local authorities were meeting their statutory deadlines of 13 weeks. Now it is 80 per cent. As for putting a time limit on Ministers, every part of this process is scrupulously dealt with. I am sure that the noble Lord would not want to reduce accountability in any way. I assure all noble Lords that we will attempt to expedite the Caythorpe decision as swiftly as possible.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, given that local authorities have now achieved the Government’s objective of speeding up their side of the planning process, will the Minister explain why it takes the Planning Inspectorate an average of nine months to determine minor local inquiries and what the Government intend to do about that?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we are looking at all parts of the appeals process and the consultative document that we have brought forward looks at how we can improve all the processes. We have the most efficient and scrupulous team of planning inspectors. The fact that they are able to cope with increased volumes of work is a great tribute to them.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister talks about expedition in this case and she is quite right; it should be expedited. But have the papers actually reached the desks of either of the Secretaries of State involved?

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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the process is under review. The fact that I am telling the House that we will be expediting it as swiftly as possible and that officials are looking at the case suggests the answer.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, considering that the field in question was a gas field from which the gas was removed, what is the difference between pumping gas in and then pumping it out again from its original use of pumping it out of a natural gas field?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am no expert in this matter. I have read the basic document on gas storage, which is interesting, but I do not have the answer to that question. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, this planning appeal is extremely complex even though it is using what is already in place. It is not a fresh installation, but it is still complex because of the consent regimes and because of the stakeholders involved.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I did not hear an answer to the question about whether the papers in this appeal have yet reached the private office of the Minister who will make the decision.

Baroness Andrews: No, my Lords, they have not reached the private office. They will very shortly.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, France has 14 days of gas storage in an emergency, Germany has 11 and practically every country in Europe has considerably more than the UK, which has only three days, having relied on the North Sea. Given the urgency of this matter and the fact that storage under the sea is much more successful and does not involve planning problems of this type, could it be that we are looking in the wrong place?

Baroness Andrews: No, my Lords: £10 billion of investment has been put in place and 10 outstanding new facilities are for gas storage. By 2010 we will have those facilities, which are at various stages of pre-planning and post-planning. We expect to double gas storage capacity from 2005 by the early years of the next decade. The investment in gas storage, which we need because gas imports are increasing, is very much in hand and goes along with increasing our import strategy, as discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, on Monday.

Aviation: Air Quality

11.25 am

Lord Tyler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Department for Transport received a letter on 18 August 2007 from a Professor Winder of New South Wales. The department responded on 6 September making clear that the 1993 papers Professor Winder enclosed with his letter, in relation to agreements between commercial parties, were matters for the parties concerned, two of which were Australian airlines which no longer exist.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is not just a matter for the airlines concerned? The document to which he refers is an agreement between British Aerospace Regional Aircraft Limited and two Australian airlines, but it gives most extraordinary evidence of the way in which the company has sought to keep a secret the considerable problems that affect the BAe 146 aircraft, which is used extensively in Europe and the United Kingdom, not least by the Queen’s Flight. Does the Minister accept that the most extraordinary revelation in this document is that BAE paid 750,000 Australian dollars to keep this deal secret? Does he accept that for more than 14 years pilots, air crews and passengers of the BAe 146 aircraft have been denied vital information about this problem? What is the Government’s reaction to the fact that BAE seems to be more concerned about the leak of this document than about the leak of toxic fumes into aircraft cabins and cockpits with potentially disastrous consequences?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I can accept very little of what the noble Lord has said. I do not think that this matter is one of great secrecy, nor do I see a conspiracy or a cover-up. The documents that we received were matters of public record and were placed, as I understand it, in the Senate Library, in Australia.

On the potential presence of fumes in cabins and cockpits, your Lordships' House has a very good track record through its Science and Technology Committee for investigating those issues and matters, and further research has been commissioned. The committee on toxicology has looked at these issues as well. It needs to be remembered that only one in some 2,000 flights experience what is described as a “fume event”. The numbers of people who respond saying that they are unwell as a consequence of this are very small.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, can I press the Minister perhaps to meet the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and myself again—his noble friend Lord Davies met us on a number of occasions—to discuss this matter? It really is serious and the incidence is much higher than that which the noble Lord has demonstrated.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am more than happy to meet the noble Countess and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, at any time to discuss these matters. I know that my noble friend Lord Davies met colleagues on earlier occasions. I am more than happy to discuss some of those issues. We need to stick to the science, which is the way through. As yet, I see no evidence to suggest that this is a major problem, but we are taking the issue very seriously, which is why we have commissioned further research.

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Lord Haskel: My Lords, my noble friend mentioned your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee. Is he aware that that committee is currently taking evidence on this matter? Trials are taking place to capture samples of cabin air for analysis, which I hope will shed a lot more light on this matter.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was aware of that, hence my earlier reference to the work of the Science and Technology Committee. Yes, these trials and the undertakings of sampling will feature strongly in any future findings of the committee.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, in respect of this problem, is the Minister as confident about obsolete aircraft designed in the 1960s and 1970s such as the VC10 and Tristar aircraft operated with difficulty by the RAF?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for drawing those particular aircraft to the attention of the House. Most of the problems that appear to have arisen are with commercial aircraft, principally the BAe 146 and the Boeing 757. The Civil Aviation Authority has introduced mandatory action for the BAe 146, and similarly action has been taken with regard to the Boeing 757. There it was discovered that the primary cause was related to engine oil servicing procedures. Those procedures are being revised, and beneficial results are already being shown.

Iraq: Withdrawal

11.30 am

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Drayson): My Lords, first, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Sarah Holmes, who died on Sunday from injuries received serving on Operation TELIC.

The Prime Minister announced last week in another place that we expect to be able to reduce the number of British forces in southern Iraq to around 2,500 from spring 2008. Decisions on the next phase will be taken at that time. We will continue to make such decisions based on conditions, and in consultation with the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners, rather than timescales.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, we wish to be associated with the remarks of condolence from the Minister. Is it any wonder that Des Browne decided not to accompany the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Iraq? Can the Minister promise at long last that no further needless loss of life by British military

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personnel will be incurred, particularly in view of the vulnerable physical nature of Basra airport and the inadequate equipment there to defend our forces properly? Is it not now time to accelerate the action of withdrawal?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I really do not accept the noble Lord’s point relating to the Secretary of State for Defence; as I am sure the House is aware, the Prime Minister was accompanied on that visit by the Chief of the Defence Staff. With regard to the loss of life and the need to protect our troops as they carry out the very dangerous mission we ask of them in Iraq, we are doing absolutely everything we can to ensure that they have what they need to provide that protection. I am sure the House will accept that we have made real progress on the strategy which we set out several years ago for supporting Iraq on its path towards democratic government and for the security of the country to be handled by its own people. On the basis of that progress, we have been able to reduce the number of our troops. We expect that to continue, based on conditions as they develop.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we also send our condolences to the family of Lance Corporal Sarah Holmes, mentioned by the Minister. Two days ago in the other place, my honourable friend the shadow Defence Secretary raised concerns that personnel serving in Kuwait on Operation TELIC are not entitled to the operational bonus. The Secretary of State said that this was not true, yet a Written Answer sent last December to the Member for the Forest of Dean stated:

Can the Minister clear up this confusion? Are all personnel serving in Kuwait and the Gulf entitled, like their American counterparts, to the operational bonus? If not, are Her Majesty’s Government looking at ways in which this could be rectified?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I should point out that we have not specified the location of the support troops that we have in the region down to a particular country, so I cannot comment on the location of troops in Kuwait or other places, but I shall certainly be able to look further into the noble Lord’s point on the definition of the operational bonus. I will write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, the noble Lord says that he is not able to comment about troops in Kuwait or elsewhere, but can he give the House an indication of the number of service men and women who are in that theatre of operations? We keep hearing about the numbers in Iraq, but it would be helpful to everyone to know how many troops are involved overall in that theatre.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the number varies, but it is approximately 500 troops.

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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, can the Minister explain what the troops stationed at Basra airport are going to achieve?

Lord Drayson: Yes, my Lords, I am very happy to do that. They are there primarily to support, mentor and train the Iraqi security forces, particularly the 14th Division of the Iraqi army. They are also there to provide back-up if required in extremis to the Iraqi troops.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, looking further ahead, can the Minister tell the House whether there are any plans to re-establish the Iraqi air force? Are any of its former planes still serviceable? What has happened to its former pilots? Are we likely to be involved in any training, in the UK or in Iraq?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, a small team from the United Kingdom contributes to a coalition effort to redevelop the Iraqi air force to enable it to carry out counter-insurgency operations. The Iraqi air force currently has about 1,200 personnel and operates 50 aircraft. We are seeing real progress in that former members of the Iraqi air force are now rejoining, the flying training centre has been re-established, capability is increasing and they are flying an average of about 180 sorties a week.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lord, can the Minister give any indication of the incidence of violence in the Basra area and whether it has increased or decreased since our troops have been concentrated in Basra airport?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the violence has decreased significantly. Of course we need to monitor the situation carefully, but the violence in Basra itself and in Iraq as a whole has decreased significantly from its peak last December. In figures, the levels of attack in September, for example, were about one-tenth what they were in the previous months.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, can the Minister say whether there has been progress in securing the co-operation of the neighbouring states? Is it not essential to have that for the future stability of Iraq?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord is right: the relationship between the nation-state of Iraq and its regional neighbours is fundamental. It is encouraging to see the way in which the Iraqi Government are establishing those relationships and the focus which they have on their relationships as a nation. In particular, the relationship between Iraq and Iran is fundamental. The UK Government are acting to encourage that relationship with, in particular, our forces making sure that the border between Iran and Iraq is properly policed.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, further to the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord on the Conservative Benches, can he explain exactly what our troops will be doing at Basra airport each day they are there?

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