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House of Lords

Wednesday, 14 November 2007.

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

Energy: Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office & Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Jones of Birmingham): My Lords, an open recruitment campaign for the post of chair of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is in train. It is hoped to announce the successful candidate in January.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Ministers have known about this post since February and knew that a new chairman would have to be appointed in the summer? Is he further aware that in April the two-days-a-week post was advertised at £80,000 a year, but no suitable candidates came forward? The post was readvertised in September, offering two and a half times as much—£200,000 a year. I am grateful to the Minister’s office for letting me see the advertisements. Did the Treasury impose the original limit of £80,000? Can the noble Lord, Lord Jones, claim the credit for making it see sense?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me credit that I do not deserve. He is right that my office let him have the advertisements, which I am looking at now. We did not get enough volume of good candidates from which to make an informed and inspired choice. We advertised again, as he rightly said, offering £200,000 a year instead of £80,000, for two days a week. That has attracted many more candidates.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I understand salary levels in the private sector, as noble Lords will understand. From that wider pool, we hope to get someone who can take on a far wider, more detailed and more important brief, as this hugely important subject rightly goes forward in the glare of public scrutiny.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, what volume of candidates did the post attract the first time around? Was the lack of candidates due to the woeful shortage of experts in the field?

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Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I assure noble Lords that under the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the rules do not allow me to discuss such things in public. However, we are confident that the appointment in January will come from a much wider pool.

Lord Christopher: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while private negotiations on the salary were going on, work was being done by the NDA on a business plan, which was published in the past few days and is 66 pages long? Oddly, it was published as a consultative document on many matters that would have been better dealt with in-house. Will he comment on what has happened in the past few days?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, those negotiations, as my noble friend put it, about changes in salary levels were not negotiations, and they were certainly not in private as far as my office was concerned. We are trying to set the market rate for the job to be done. We hope that we will get a much wider pool to apply, and we are pretty certain of that. I am not intimately involved in the business plan, nor do I have enough information to give him the proper answer that his question deserves. I promise that I will get back to him with an answer.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, as a former Member of Parliament for the area that will enjoy a considerable proportion of the budget of this organisation, can I be assured that the person selected to do this job will be recognised through the nuclear industry as competent to do it on the basis of their previous experience?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I assure my noble friend that I would expect no less.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, last winter the noble Lord warned that if there were a cold snap,

He called for action to sort out our “decrepit supply system”. What, if anything, has changed in the past year?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that one thing has changed—actually, it was the year before; she is accurate in what she says, but she is one year out. Business was extremely worried about supply and about making sure that if we had a cold winter the lights would stay on. I am delighted to report to noble Lords that this winter that situation is being averted. It is two years on from when I made the remark. I am glad that I made it, because it woke a few people up. I think it had the desired result.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, given the noble Lord’s experience of the private sector, does he agree that almost invariably there are very long delays before the Government make up their mind on the appointment of major public figures? I suffered from that when I

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was in the public sector. Could he kindly pass on to those responsible that it would have been far better if they had got on with it quicker and made up their minds sooner on what remuneration had to be offered?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I agree. As someone who came into this House to join noble Lords at 24 or 48 hours’ notice, I understand speed. I feel that a far swifter way is needed of bringing talent into other parts of public life. We have one problem—if the process is too speedy it becomes suspicious, unfairly, and then many other vested interests attack the process. Therefore, many people involved in appointments tend to get on the side of caution; that leads to slowness and very much to the objection raised by the noble Lord. He is right in trying to have a more speedy resolution to so many appointments, but he would have to address that to our friends in the media as much as to the Government.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in the light of the presumed qualifications of the successful candidate for the chairmanship of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, is it likely that the individual chosen will subsequently be consulted by the Government on the commissioning of new nuclear power stations?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I would not have thought for a minute that that will be part of the chairman’s brief, but I do not know specifically. What I do know is that we need a decision to be made on new stations after detailed consultation with the public in all their forms. Only then could we decide whether that issue went into the brief of anybody.

Foot and Mouth Disease

3.08 pm

Lord Livsey of Talgarth asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Animal Health Act 1981, as amended, requires that compensation is paid both for animals compulsorily slaughtered as a result of foot and mouth disease and for property, including carcasses, which is seized or destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading. There is no statutory provision for payment of compensation to farming or other businesses for other losses caused by disease control measures.

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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I have no doubt that that Answer has the full force of the government lawyers and the Treasury behind it. None the less, the Minister’s right honourable friend the Prime Minister stated two weeks ago that he would help sheep producers in any way that he could. Will the Minister acknowledge that the foot and mouth outbreak originated from pollution at the Pirbright research centre, which is licensed, regulated and funded by Defra, and that the collateral damage to the sheep industry as a whole across the UK has halved 2006 prices, all because of necessary movement restrictions, market closures and export bans? Surely he will agree that in this unique situation the Government must pay proper one-off compensation to producers for the £520 million in losses that they have sustained this autumn.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the Answer involves the full force of the law; nothing else. That is what the Animal Health Act 1981 clearly states. That has been the situation with each outbreak of an exotic disease since then, of which there have been more than a handful. There has been no compensation for consequential losses. Compensation is paid for animals that are directly taken to slaughter or those taken to slaughter on suspicion. This is a disaster for the industry. I do not gainsay that; I am just stating the legal position. I cannot comment on any legal action that may occur relating to Pirbright. Our best estimate currently—the situation obviously still continues; for example, there are no exports of live animals—is that, since 3 August, £100 million has gone to the livestock sector. With regard to its relative size, the sheep sector has been worst hit, with the costs so far amounting to about 7 per cent of its 2006 output. The sheep sector has been very badly affected.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, the Minister made it clear that he understands that to suffer loss you do not necessarily have to have the disease or even face a cull. The real damage is from the restrictions on movement and the interruptions to markets. What discretion do his officials have to reduce the hugely damaging impact of these restrictions to individual farmers and are they are being exhorted to use it?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, each of the movement restrictions and the zones has to be agreed by SCoFCAH, the committee of the EU vets. We have not gold-plated anything in that respect. It is true that we had a hiatus when we thought that foot and mouth was over, but we discovered more cases relating to the first outbreak. That was more than unfortunate. We now have the country split into three zones: the foot-and-mouth-free export area, the foot-and-mouth-restricted export area and the foot and mouth area where no exports of any kind of meat are allowed. We are expecting that, by the end of the year or certainly by the beginning of next year, subject to there being no further outbreak—so far, we have every reason to believe that there will not be one—we will be able to allow the export of live animals, if that is desired by the trade; I am sure that it will be.

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Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the real issue is not the Government’s responsibility for regulatory action but their moral responsibility in respect of the Pirbright institute? In 1966, it was shown that the law in this matter was very narrow—that persons could claim compensation only if their land had been invaded by the virus. If the Government were to shelter behind such a narrow interpretation of the law, they would be avoiding a heavy moral responsibility in respect of massive losses that have been caused by the negligence of a government agency.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the situation is not as it was in 1966. I have already said that where animals are taken to slaughter on suspicion—when we have no proof that the virus is present—compensation is paid. The 1981 Act went much further than the 1966 legislation; people are being compensated when animals are taken compulsorily even on suspicion when the disease was not found. On Pirbright, I have said before—I am not playing with words—that it is not a Government-run laboratory. It is run by the Institute for Animal Health. The Government are a customer and a partial regulator along with the private sector company on the site. All the information that we have and all the independent reports into what happened in August have been published. I refer to the Health and Safety Executive report and the report of Professor Spratt. They are clear about where the outbreak originated but I do not think that they are clear about the precise location. This matter will undoubtedly come before the courts; I cannot possibly speculate on that because that would be quite wrong.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, is the Minister aware that yesterday the “World at One” on Radio 4 carried a report in which it was suggested that British farmers should be assisted in growing more food for the UK market and that a spokesperson for Defra responded by saying:

Whatever the legal issues surrounding FMD compensation, and notwithstanding all that the Minister said in our debate yesterday, to which I listened with great interest, does not this Defra statement mean that Her Majesty’s Government continue to take food security insufficiently seriously and are prepared to see the terminal decline of the UK farming industry through the pursuit of cheap food and the concomitant exploitation of UK farmers by the retail food industry?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the precise answer is yes, I am aware, but I think that that statement was quoted out of context.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, in his Statement to the other place yesterday, the Secretary of State said that Pirbright was about to recommence vaccine production, yet the improvement plan for Pirbright has not yet been finished. Is that safe, and who, independent of government, has certified that Pirbright is now safe?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am not familiar with the details of yesterday’s Statement because I was attending the debate here, but it can only be the independent regulators. Presumably, this question would be decided not by Ministers but by the Health and Safety Executive, which would give the necessary approval. However, it has been stated that Pirbright can commence working with live viruses both at the Institute for Animal Health and the Merial laboratories. One knows that Pirbright is undergoing a £120 million investment programme—it is a building site and that will continue for some time. The fact is that the laboratories and equipment have been checked over and, so far as I understand, the regulators have agreed that work can recommence with live viruses. That is important because of the possibility of providing a vaccine for bluetongue disease, and it is one of the three laboratories that could provide that.

Africa: Arms Trade

3.16 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the Oxfam report makes vivid and compelling arguments about the cost of conflict to African development. That is why the UK has committed more than £350 million to conflict prevention initiatives in Africa since 2001 and has led calls at the UN for action to stop irresponsible arms trading that fuels conflict. There is widespread international support for the UN process towards an arms trade treaty. We are determined to work towards the conclusion of a robust treaty.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, will he confirm the findings of the authors of the report that conflict in Africa over the past decade or so has cost a staggering $300 billion and that it is estimated that every year it costs $18 billion—roughly the equivalent amount of money that the rest of the world puts into Africa in aid and development? Does he accept that the flow of small arms into Africa—95 per cent of the kalashnikovs used in places such as the Congo, southern Sudan, Darfur and elsewhere—come from outside Africa? This remains a paramount concern and, unless we get conflict resolution right, all our development programmes will be pretty worthless.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. This is a very well written and, so far as I can tell, well researched report, which arrives at the stunning conclusion that $300 billion has been lost because of conflict, with loss of life and foregone

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economic development, and that that is indeed approximately equivalent to the amount of aid that has been put into the continent. That is not to take away from what that aid has achieved, with the provision of health and education on a scale that otherwise would not have been available, but it draws one to conclude that we must find ways to stop this conflict so that the effect of the aid is felt more fully. In that regard, the treaty that the noble Lord mentions is one key part of the strategy.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, has any further information come to light on the alleged breaches of the UN arms embargo on Sudan by two members of the UN Security Council, as reported by Amnesty earlier this year? If not, do the Government intend to support any further investigation into this matter?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness has surprised me. She will have to forgive me; I will need to get back to her with an answer to that.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, it is estimated that between April and June 1994, 800,000 people died in the genocide in Rwanda, yet a report—a simulation exercise—commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation from West Point said that a mere 5,000 trained military personnel could have averted that catastrophe. What efforts are the Government making to provide with others a rapid reaction force under the auspices of the African Union? What progress has so far been made on that rapid reaction force?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, my noble friend talks of a very important effort under way to try to improve the capacity of the African Union to respond effectively to peacekeeping crises as they emerge. It will be a major subject of the EU-AU summit in December. The European Union is providing a lot of support in training, exercises and funding to AU forces, but as we are seeing not just in Darfur but in Somalia as well, we still have enormous difficulty in deploying effective African Union or even UN forces as quickly and as promptly as we would wish.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in the light of encouraging remarks made by Chinese representatives at the first committee in the General Assembly, and also separately by the US, on the voluntary register of light weapons exports, will the Government consider suggesting to the intergovernmental group of experts on the treaty that signatory states should be required to report all light weapons exports as an obligation under the treaty? Secondly, will they also consider suggesting that the treaty should include a permanent UN monitoring mechanism for light weapons that are retrieved from theatres of conflict?

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