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House of Lords

Tuesday, 23 October 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Royal Assent

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Sustainable Communities Act,

Greater London Authority Act,

Further Education and Training Act,

Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Act.

Terrorism: Charities and NGOs

2.36 pm

Baroness Rawlings asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, to help NGOs and the British public to take informed decisions on where to travel and work, the FCO provides advice on the threat from terrorism or hostilities, primarily through our travel advice and the Security for Information Service for Business Overseas—SISBO. This advice draws continuously from a wide variety of sources, including the local knowledge and experiences of the FCO’s posts overseas and intelligence sources. We also encourage NGOs to avail themselves of the UN and NGO security networks in the countries in which they work.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. In light of the continuing violence in Darfur and the even greater necessity for the unhindered and uninhibited delivery of humanitarian assistance, what are the Government doing to secure the full co-operation of the Sudanese Government in protecting British charities and NGOs from official interference?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to be concerned about the situation in Darfur, where there is a continuous loss of life among relief workers, as there is among the refugees more generally. There is also limited access to Darfur for humanitarian work because of this. I have, during my visit to Khartoum and Darfur, insisted to

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the Government in Khartoum that it is vital both that there is full access to all Darfur for British and other humanitarian workers and that they are safe when they travel. The NGOs are part of a network of NGOs that co-operates closely with the UN on security matters to try to give them as much protection as they can get in that dangerous place.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is in the nature of civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations while working abroad not to wish to be too closely associated with their home Government, and that it is therefore quite correct that the British Government should not lobby primarily on behalf of British NGOs but should work with other Governments so far as possible to help to promote security for all non-governmental organisations working in some of these dangerous areas?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct. We are careful to ensure that we speak on behalf of all international, and indeed Sudanese, NGOs. However, let me again draw attention to the fact that British NGOs are—God bless them—very active in Sudan, and are therefore particularly at risk.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, can the Minister tell us who was responsible for the killing on 17 October of three humanitarian workers working on behalf of the World Food Programme in Darfur to try to deliver food aid there? What does he say to the comment of the co-ordinator of the United Nations humanitarian affairs group that there was a 100 per cent increase in attacks on humanitarian aid workers in August and September? Given that at least 200,000 people have been killed there, 2 million people have been displaced, and 90 per cent of the villages have been razed to the ground, when will an effective peacekeeping operation be put into place in Darfur and Chad?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me if I cannot speculate on exact responsibilities for the deaths of the WFP workers, but I will get back to him with what detail we have. More generally, the violence had receded for a period in Darfur—the statistics that he mentions of 2 million displaced and several hundred thousand dead largely refer to the period several years ago—but it has peaked again in recent weeks, admittedly at a lower level. We believe that that is in the run-up to the peace talks, which will begin on 27 October in Tripoli, Libya, as all sides try to maximise their control of territory in advance of those talks. The Prime Minister made it clear in the other House that the number one task of the Tripoli talks is to consider a ceasefire—and we hope that it will be achieved on the first day.

Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of an NGO called Merlin, which provides medical help in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including Sudan and eastern

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Congo, where I was recently. Does the Minister agree that it is in the nature of many NGOs to operate in places where the FCO, important though its advice is, would strongly advise them not to go? In those circumstances, the crucial thing is that they are able to rely in particular on the United Nations and its organisations to help to co-ordinate the security that they need.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord puts me in a difficult position: it is hard for me to say that FCO advice is not always right. Like him, I have a background in NGOs and I know that sometimes its advice is to be taken and then ignored if you believe that the balance of risk is one that you as an organisation and an individual can bear on behalf of your sacred mission, which is to provide humanitarian relief to people who otherwise would not receive it.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, how are the Government tackling threats to the safety of British charities and non-governmental organisations that are working in Russia?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a difficult question, and I reserve the right to come back with a supplementary answer. This has been a problem for all international NGOs working in Russia, particularly in human rights and democracy building. Many of them have seen new restraint on their action and new law that she is well aware of, all of which is making their position increasingly difficult. We, like they, are fighting to preserve freedoms in Russia, particularly the freedom for international and Russian civil society to operate openly and to contribute to the political debate in that country.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I was chairman of an NGO that had to pull out of one of the Latin American countries during an absolute crisis, when people were not safe at all. Will any thought be given at the meeting in Tripoli to whether it is possible that some kind of identification could be provided for NGO workers? It is accepted worldwide that a person wearing the red cross should be safe, although they are not always safe. Is equivalent thought being applied to something that would be acceptable for humanitarian NGOs?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness is aware, and has implied in her question, that the red cross and, indeed, the blue flag and helmets of the United Nations, have increasingly—sadly—in recent years made them targets rather than protecting them. There is no doubt that when attacks on NGO workers occur, increasingly it is because people know perfectly well that they are humanitarian workers, and that, sadly, in the modern world has made them a political target rather than something to be protected because of their neutrality.

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Civil Service: Retirement Age

2.44 pm

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, no one in the Civil Service is compelled to retire on age grounds before the age of 65. For the senior Civil Service the retirement age is 65. That is in line with the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations default retirement age. Departments set the retirement age for their staff below the senior Civil Service, but the Cabinet Office encourages them to adopt a no-retirement policy or to have plans to do so.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer, which is fine as far as it goes. However, there seems to be a laissez-faire attitude as regards government departments. Would it not be better for the Government to give a lead to all departments, and by implication to staff in this House as well, that there should be no retirement age for people in these positions? Why leave it to the whim of each department?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we have sought to decentralise decision-taking in the Civil Service as its tasks vary enormously and the departments are best able to judge their own requirements. However, my noble friend is in danger of underestimating the progress made. There is no compulsory retirement age for more than half the civil servants below the senior civil servant grade.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, in view of the Government’s sensible policy that there should be a regular flow between the public and private sectors and the fact that retired senior civil servants frequently find remunerative employment in senior corporate positions, is there not a case for making even more effort to retain such expertise regardless of age?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord has a point, and these issues are still very much under consideration. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will review all these issues in 2011 and the whole of the Civil Service will come within the framework at that stage. As he will recognise, however, it is important for the authorities to be able to retain control over employment policy for those in senior Civil Service positions. But of course I recognise the validity of his point that some senior civil servants—not all but some—go on to posts elsewhere.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, is it not clear that medical progress has been expanding at a very great rate and that, over the next 10 years, it is likely that very large numbers of people will be well into their

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90s and even older than that? As there will be such a big expansion in the number of people in this position, should the Government not be thinking about dealing with these aspects accordingly?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right: those are the trends, and the Government are thinking very much along those lines. He will recognise the progress already being made, and we expect that progress to continue. As I indicated, 2011 is a significant date. It is when the department will look at the whole question of regulations on retirement age. We are moving in line with the trend that my noble friend rightly identified.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, did the Minister see the article in Monday’s Guardian which suggested that despite the Government's proposals to introduce a single equality Bill that covers the existing nine areas of discrimination, age discrimination was still not being taken as seriously as the other issues? Would he like to take this opportunity to deny that and to confirm what I think he has already indicated—that as all of us are living a lot longer, it is in all our interests, when we are healthy and so forth, for employers to keep our skills and expertise in practice for as long as both sides think it makes sense?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I did have the benefit of seeing that article, which made a powerful case that age discrimination was the last area in which legislation did not obtain to control its impact. This House has a great interest in these issues, and I am pleased to reflect the obvious fact that the Government intend to introduce legislation to examine these issues in the near future. Work is being done on it. I have not the slightest doubt at all that this House will be a powerful voice for radical change in this area in recognition of this growing trend.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend not think that the Liberal party ought to be made aware of the changes going on in this field?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, in considering these issues the Liberal party is showing the far-sightedness that we expect from it. If the rest of us are in the first decade of the 21st century, it may be that it is still in the last decade of the 20th.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, from what the noble Lord has said, I am not absolutely clear what the Government’s view is. Is it that older people in the Civil Service are a good or a bad thing?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I indicated that at least half the people employed in the Civil Service are not governed by a compulsory retirement age. We are gradually moving towards that degree of freedom of choice for older civil servants coming up to retirement age and that process is bound to continue. As I indicated, there is a significant date in 2011 when the Government will take a definitive stance on this question of retirement age.

23 Oct 2007 : Column 978

Taxation: Business Taxes

2.52 pm

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the UK economy continues its longest unbroken expansion on record with 60 consecutive quarters of growth. Building on this strong and stable economy, the Government are committed to continuing to create conditions that support business, encourage enterprise and attract domestic and foreign investment.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, the Government accept that there will be a fall in the rate of economic growth next year. Presumably, they are also aware of the general concern about our prospects as a country. In that light, is it not foolish on the Government’s part to depress the economy further by increasing the tax burden on business, especially by changing the capital gains tax regime in a way that will sap enterprise, discourage small businesses and take approximately £2 billion away from businesses over three years?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord ignores the fact that the Government are also cutting the corporation tax rate and reducing the impact on business. We ought not to talk our prospects down. Next year’s growth is not predicted to be at the same level as this year’s, but it will still be a healthy 2 per cent and reflect the fact that we will be one of the faster growing economies among the leading world economies. Therefore, there is strength and momentum in the economy for us to be confident about the immediate future.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare a personal interest in the capital gains tax issue. I would not normally speak on it but it is too serious. Is my noble friend aware that our right honourable friend the Chancellor has made a serious mistake? As I am sure he is aware, before the Chancellor put his proposition to us, many small companies were floating on the AIM market to raise millions of pounds of capital to the benefit of the UK economy. That has been put in serious jeopardy by the proposals. I suggest that he ask the Chancellor to reconsider the issue with a view to deferring implementation to a new date to give time for the kind of widespread consultation that he obviously could not have had before announcing a major tax proposal. In that time, he might come up with a more beneficial and less damaging alternative.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I hear my noble friend’s representation, which fits in with those made by significant leaders of business and enterprise in the country directly to the Chancellor yesterday in what was described on all sides as a cordial meeting. I do not accept for one moment that the Chancellor has made a mistake. However, business leaders are identifying

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areas in which support for enterprise could be encouraged by a government strategy additional to the ones we have in hand. The Chancellor indicated that he welcomed the opportunity of the meeting yesterday and that he would continue these consultations up until the presentation of his Budget in 2008.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I shall pass over internal Labour grief and return to the Question. Does the Minister agree that it is always difficult to debate these matters with the Conservative Opposition when they never make detailed proposals other than with regard to inheritance tax? Does he also agree that he ought to show sympathy to both opposition parties at this stage of the electoral cycle in that whenever we bring forward detailed tax proposals, the Government pinch them and portray them as their own?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government are always open to representations from whatever quarter. From time to time the Liberal party manages to make successful representations and should delight in that. The noble Lord might reflect on the fact that capital gains tax under the last Conservative Administration was set at 40 per cent without a taper. That the Conservatives are outraged that it is at 18 per cent at present suggests that they have short memories and little wisdom.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, we know that the Minister has a little trouble with OECD statistics, but he cannot have missed last week’s OECD report that Britain is now among the 10 most taxed countries in the OECD, and of course the overall tax burden is set to rise even further. When will the Government wake up to the fact that our declining tax competitiveness is going to drive more businesses away and therefore harm our long-term growth prospects?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on the question of statistics, the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report placed the UK 10th out of 125 countries in its ranking of international business competitiveness. I want to reinforce a point that I was able to correct yesterday. The British economy is strong, with some of the lowest taxes in certain areas in the G7; it is below the average found among the noble Baroness’s chosen illustration, the OECD countries.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, while I understand the problem with capital gains tax, the noble Lord will be aware that there is another tax increase, on national insurance contributions, which will hit small business people and those earning between £34,500 and £40,000 a year. That will result in extra payments of £357 for small business people and £500 for employees. Is that not a grave disincentive and a stealth tax?

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