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House of Lords

Tuesday, 13 November 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Truro.

Introduction: Lord Wallace of Tankerness

Lord Wallace of Tankerness—James Robert Wallace, QC, having been created Baron Wallace of Tankerness, of Tankerness in Orkney, for life, was introduced between the Lord Steel of Aikwood and the Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope.

Armed Forces: Insurance Premiums

2.43 pm

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as an honorary air commodore to No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron and as president of a charity that provides houses for veteran service men and women with an element of disability.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take steps to ensure that the cost of necessary insurance premiums to British men and women serving in the Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will be met.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, service personnel receive good death-in-service benefits from the Armed Forces pension scheme and compensation for injury in service through the Armed Forces compensation scheme. For those who wish to have additional insurance, schemes are available. The Ministry of Defence already contributes towards inflated life insurance premiums paid by personnel on operations or in high-risk occupations. Beyond that, it is not planned to meet the cost of extra insurance premiums paid by service personnel.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister to her first Oral Question and I wish her well in her arduous new role. While the present system has been ongoing under successive Governments, does she agree that what has changed markedly over the past five years is that the risk of death or severe injury has greatly increased? In those circumstances, is it not right that the Government should consider giving greater support to the men and women of the armed services who are putting their lives on the line for our country?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we must always give great support to those who put their lives on the line. The available benefits have been increased significantly, most notably in 2005, when the death-in-service benefit was extended from three times pensionable salary to four times. The Armed Forces compensation

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scheme, introduced in 2005, for the first time provided a new benefit of a lump sum payment for in-service compensation of up to £285,000. That was a new payment, and there are guaranteed income payments for the most seriously injured. Those are very significant steps forward, although we should always be conscious of the need to do everything that we can to support those who have been injured and those families who have lost loved ones in the course of their duty.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I welcome the Written Statement issued yesterday saying that support for our forces would be looked at again, including provision for further improvements. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that the matter that has just been raised should be looked at also. Can she confirm that future remunerations and payments will be covered by the present Comprehensive Spending Review?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence indeed said that there would be a Command Paper setting out our existing support for those in the Armed Forces but also creating a vision for further support. We would want to consult on that and to take into account the opinion of others with experience in this field, but I would not want us to lose sight of the significant improvements that have been made in recent years in how we provide assistance for those in the Armed Forces.

Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the perception is that these insurance payments are seen to be necessary for those serving in action? The fact that those payments are being increased leads to the impression that we are basically asking those in the services to fund their own future.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, no, I do not think that we are asking those in the services to fund their own future. I point out to the House that the Armed Forces pension scheme and the Armed Forces compensation scheme are non-contributory. Since 2005, the benefits available for those unfortunate enough to have been injured or for families who have lost people in the course of duty have been seriously higher than at any stage in the past. Of course these issues will always be kept under review and we have said that we are looking at aspects of the compensation scheme, but I reject the idea that there is no concern at all for those who are injured in this way.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, if an insurance company seeks unilaterally to change the terms of a life insurance policy of a serviceman deployed on operations to avoid paying out for death or injuries, will that change have effect and is it fair, because that is precisely what happened to me when I was deployed on Op TELIC in March 2003?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the details of the situation in which the noble Earl found himself. Obviously, insurance companies that provide extra insurance will

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review their premiums from time to time. Perhaps the noble Earl is thinking of the PAX company, which raised its premiums once in 2003 and is discussing further increases. Those are subject to negotiation, but I am afraid that I cannot comment on any individual case.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, can the Minister advise the House whether, from her point of view, anyone taking out supplementary insurance is doing it to complement what they receive from the Armed Forces arrangements, not to compensate them for what they are not receiving?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right, which is why I was at pains to emphasise the two existing compensation schemes—death-in-service benefit and lump sum benefit—and the guaranteed income payments that go with them. Those are non-contributory benefits, as I said, and provide very significant assistance for those who need them.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, will the interests of civil servants in war zones be taken into account? I declare a slightly grim interest as the mother of a Treasury official injured in Iraq.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I do not know the details of the scheme, but I know that special arrangements are made when civil servants undertake dangerous postings.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, the Minister referred to voluntary contributions in reply to the last question from the Labour Benches. About two years ago, I asked a question about the TAs, who at that time were greatly disadvantaged, as they did not have access to the same scheme as the people in the full-time forces and had great difficulty in getting independent private insurance. Will the Minister tell me their position now?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Baroness the detail of the situation, but I know that significant progress has been made in the new scheme, which will ensure that everyone who is involved in operations is covered. Previously many were refused any insurance at all. There is a new scheme, but so far the take-up has not been significant.

West Papua

2.51 pm

Lord Harries of Pentregarth asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we do not plan to raise Papua in the United Nations Security Council. We respect Indonesia’s territorial integrity and do not support Papuan independence. We believe that full implementation of existing special autonomy legislation is the best way to proceed towards a sustainable resolution to the internal differences and the long-term stability of Papua. The best way to resolve the complex issues in Papua is through promoting peaceful dialogue between Papuan groups and the Indonesian Government.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, does he agree that the British Government’s attitude in 1968-69, as now revealed under the 30-year rule through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office telegrams, could only be described as brutal realism? Commercial links with Indonesia were allowed to stifle totally the legitimate claims of the indigenous West Papuan people to independence. We therefore have a particular responsibility to let the voice of these people, who are suffering massive human rights abuses, at least be heard in the councils of the UN.

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord refers to the time of the so-called Act of Free Choice when 1,000 pre-designated or selected Papuan representatives made a decision on behalf of the Papuan people. There has subsequently been much dispute whether they made that decision objectively and freely of their own will. Nevertheless, it was endorsed by the United Nations at the time and since then there has been no international doubt that Papua is part of Indonesia.

My Lords, there is no legal or procedural impediment to raising the question either at the General Assembly or in the Security Council under Article 35 of the charter. Is it the Government’s position that genocide should continue while the international community looks on? If so, what has become of the ethical foreign policy?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord raises two separate points. First, while we are concerned by continuing human rights abuses in Papua—we have highlighted them in this year’s Foreign Office and government human rights report and raised them through our embassy in Jakarta—we nevertheless believe that they are of a relatively small kind and do not in any way constitute the level of gravity that has just been implied. Secondly, because we do not accept that Papua should be independent, we would not consider it appropriate to raise the issue in the Security Council or General Assembly.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the so-called Act of Free Choice was nothing of the kind? If that is so, is it not at least worth asking the Indonesians to consider the similar case of Aceh, where there has been a free election for an autonomous government of the territory? Might that not be the best way forward, rather than total independence?

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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. Aceh offers us hope that Indonesia is now trying to deal with these issues within a framework of autonomy and self-government within that. Indeed, the Act of 2001 offers such arrangements for Papua. We are disappointed that, due to political disputes between the Government and local Papuan groups, the implementation of that special autonomy arrangement has not gone further at this stage.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, sitting here, it is very difficult to discern from the answers that have been given what is the attitude of Her Majesty’s Government?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord misunderstands. I look at this as one of the clearest answers by a Minister: that the Government do not accept that Papua has a claim to independence and believe that it is part of Indonesia. The noble Lord will accept that that is an unusually clear statement by a government Minister.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, surely the Question does not relate specifically to the independence of the state; it refers to the conditions within the state, which are really those of Darfur on a smaller scale. During the last debate on West Papua, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said:

Does the noble Lord agree with that statement and, if so, why are we not bringing the matter to the attention of the United Nations?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord will be pleased to know that a United Nations human rights envoy, Mr Nowak, is currently in Indonesia and is looking at the case of Papua, among others. However, first, we believe that the Government who took power in Indonesia under President Yudhoyono are a much greater respecter of human rights than the Governments who preceded them. Secondly, whenever we get credible reports of human rights abuses in the province of Papua, we investigate them. Officials at our embassy in Jakarta visit Papua regularly and meet local officials, academics, journalists and NGOs, and, as I said, we raise cases of concern with the Government. I utterly dispute the characterisation of the situation in Papua as a mini-Darfur.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, with the historically relatively recent searing experiences of East Timor, we must be very careful lest an institutional complacency overtakes a real objective assessment of what is happening and of what is the real position of the people of this country? Does he also agree that, as permanent members of the Security Council—a privileged position enjoyed by only five nations in the world—we have a special responsibility not just to our bilateral relationships with Indonesia but to the principles of the United Nations, and the application of those principles, for everyone across the world?

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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as always, my noble friend makes a powerful plea for the proper role of conscience and, indeed, for the ethical foreign policy that falls on our shoulders as a permanent member of the Security Council. I can only assure him that, both through our annual human rights reporting and through our embassy, we believe that we are vigilant in following the situation. In the past few weeks at the Third Committee of the General Assembly, the European presidency, on behalf of the Union’s member states, registered a statement on human rights abuses, which included a reference to Papua. However, again, we insist that it should not be bracketed with major abuses such as Darfur, Zimbabwe or Burma.

EU: Directives

2.58 pm

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the UK is committed to the EU better regulation agenda, including agreement to cut administrative burdens by 25 per cent by 2012. The November 2006 report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, on over-implementation of EU legislation in the UK identified and made recommendations on 10 specific examples of over-implementation. The departments concerned are implementing these recommendations in their simplification plans next month. We have also updated our transposition guidance in the light of the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, for future implementation.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. I have a specific question, of which the Minister’s office is aware, and a more general one. First, when news of the Northern Rock problem arose, the Governor of the Bank of England said that he was unable to take preventive action because his legal advice was that it would be contrary to a European directive. This was immediately denied by those in Brussels. It appears that the conflict arose because the Treasury had gold-plated the directive and gone beyond what was necessary. Was that true and, if so, are we going to amend the present situation? More generally, what is the Government’s policy on gold-plating directives?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the noble Lord’s specific question, the Government are obviously looking closely into the events around Northern Rock to ensure that action was not impeded by disclosure requirements either from Brussels or our own legislation in London. The market abuse directive certainly does not bite on central banks, but requires firms to disclose inside information to the market. The more general problem is that, in an age

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of greater transparency, we have not yet managed to reconcile that objective with the ability to act swiftly and firmly. That is not particularly a Brussels issue, but a problem with Governments and markets that we and other central banks need to resolve.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, these issues were vividly aired nearly a year ago on 12 December, when the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, described the balance in the UK as “reasonable” and the European position as “fair and proportionate”. Bearing in mind that Commission directives have become somewhat fewer in number since then and are, increasingly, broad outline framework directives, as the Europeans are doing well on this front, why do British civil servants continue to have to be more European than the Europeans?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Government are trying to ensure that we are not more European than other Europeans. We are therefore reviewing all these issues to ensure that there is no additional gold-plating.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, in his reply to my noble friend, the Minister did not seem to give a clear answer. I understand that my noble friend had given him notice of his first question. Was the answer to my noble friend intended to be “Yes”, “No” or “Dunno”?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord puts me under an unreasonably forensic spotlight. This is Europe; it is much harder to give clear answers.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I said that the Northern Rock situation—which we had been given prior notice that the noble Lord would raise—does not yet lend itself to definitive answers in this Chamber because we are investigating the circumstances surrounding it.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, has the Foreign Office considered the possibility of having a referendum on gold-plating? That might satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, if nobody else.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I have not quite finished. Does my noble friend accept that hyping up the problems of banks is not helpful either to the banks or their customers at any time?

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