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House of Lords

Thursday, 13 December 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Introduction: Baroness Afshar

Baroness Afshar—Haleh Afshar, OBE, having been created Baroness Afshar, of Heslington in the County of North Yorkshire, for life, was introduced between Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws and Lord Harries of Pentregarth.

Royal Assent

11.12 am

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 Act:

Consolidated Fund Act 2007.

Immigration: X-rays

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, we have been consulting about various proposed changes to the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children system, including whether there is scope to use dental X-ray analysis to assess age. We plan to publish the results of the consultation early in the new year.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in the changes to the rules that have now been published there is no mention of medical examinations. Does that mean that, apart from the weighty arguments that have been received by the Government from many expert bodies, such as the BMA, the BDA, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and so on, the Government also agree with the opinion expressed by Mr Nicholas Blake QC that it would be unlawful to subject persons claiming to be minors to ionising radiation as, it appears, would have been permitted by the original draft of the rules? I thank the Government for apparently coming to the right decision about X-rays, but would it not have been better to have consulted those professional bodies of experts before publishing the draft?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we have been following a consultation process. We issued the paper Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children in March this year. The consultation period finished at the end of May, and we hoped to publish a response and a summary of what

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individuals thought, including medical opinions, in October. However, the timetable has slipped because it has taken rather longer than we expected, particularly with regard to funding and local authority funding. We are aware of the opinion of a number of learned doctors. My honourable friend Liam Byrne was invited to speak with a team of them before Christmas, and that will be part of the consultation leading to where we go from here.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, how accurate is dental age profiling perceived to be? Does the Minister agree with the Children’s Commissioner that such X-rays have a margin of error of about two years, which might produce fairly inaccurate results on children seeking asylum?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. In about 95 per cent of cases it is within plus or minus two years, but this technique, combined with a social worker’s assessment and other techniques, can narrow down the possible range of ages. It is therefore a useful tool. People sometimes use dental X-rays to try to prove their own age. They are also used by many EU countries. However, it is because of the concern that has been expressed that we are having further consultation. The technique is part of a package of measures that will enable us to identify the age of immigrants.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a general opinion that X-rays that are not advisable for medical reasons should be discontinued?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we are aware of the point raised by my noble friend, although all the experts we have talked with agree that the risks to health from this radiation are negligible. It is a common procedure in dentistry.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the Minister said that it was plus or minus two years. When you are trying to establish the age of an unaccompanied child for immigration purposes, that is very unsatisfactory. Have not two local authorities piloted other procedures which are satisfactory? Is the Minister aware of them?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as I stated, we use the X-ray technique in conjunction with other measures such as social workers talking to these people and assessing their age by other means. When these are put together as a package it is very useful. We are talking about significant numbers of people coming in and claiming to be of this age. About 3,000 unaccompanied children come into the country every year and in the region of 1,000 to 2,000 people claim to be of this age. There are very serious issues here. If we put an adult into the children’s arena it raises serious child protection issues when he gains access to their support, accommodation and so on. It is extremely important to try to narrow down the age.

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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, if the margin of error can be as much as two years, can we be assured that no decisions will be taken on these matters exclusively on the basis of such data?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, that is correct. Indeed, we bend over backwards to ensure that the error tends to be the other way. That is why I am concerned about these child protection issues. The number of children who have been returned to any country is very small. We are careful not to use X-rays as the sole data, but they are useful. We are still consulting and this might not be the final outcome. We must wait until the paper comes out in the spring.

Lord Colwyn: My Lords, I have been trying to read dental X-rays for about 40 years. Once the wisdom teeth have been removed it would be impossible to tell how old a patient is from looking at dental X-rays.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I admit I am not an expert in reading dental plates but I am assured it is plus or minus two years. As I say, in conjunction with the other methods we use, it is a useful tool. This is why we are continuing the consultation. It would be wonderful if there was a magic bullet which allowed us to identify age exactly. The cost of dealing with these people who are not children is about £140 million a year—which is quite a lot of money—and there are also these risks to youngsters. We must push on to try to do the best we can on this.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, is it a fact that all our immigration controls now go to Brussels as a result of the Lisbon treaty?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, that is not correct. We are not fully part of the Schengen agreement. Although the EU has issued a procedures directive there is further work to be done. We have not yet decided fully that dental X-rays are the right procedure and therefore we do not think it is wise to include those EU changes in our rules at the moment. We shall have to wait until we have further consultation.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the statement on the changes in the immigration rules has just been published and is now law. The original draft of Rule 352 included the possibility of medical examinations with a view to establishing age. In the final version of Rule 352, that does not appear. The conclusion that was drawn by all the agencies was that the Government had dropped the proposal. If they go ahead with dental X-rays, do they intend to publish yet another statement of changes in the rules?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, may I return to the noble Lord with detail in writing? I am slightly unsighted on that.

Afghanistan: Hearts and Minds Campaign

11.20 am

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, if Afghanistan is to see the peace, security and prosperity that its people desire, it is vital that they understand and support the aims of their democratically elected Government. It is equally key that there is broad support for international efforts. Recent polls show the majority of Afghans continue to feel that their country is headed in the right direction. Support remains high for the presence of international forces, with national approval ratings of between 60 per cent and 67 per cent in recent polls.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, that is an encouraging Answer. We heard in the Statement yesterday that the international community is redoubling its efforts towards national security and front-line services. But what about individual security and the rule of law? What about access to justice and conditions in the courts and in prisons? Has the Minister seen Amnesty’s report on the ISAF detainees who are being handed over to the Afghan authorities and need protection from ill treatment, torture and the general conditions in those prisons?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Earl draws attention to an extraordinarily important point. There will never be confidence in the new democratic Government of Afghanistan if they are not able to bring justice to their people. The Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, are developing a national justice sector strategy, which sets out their priorities for the period 2008-13. There is a significant amount of international support for this strategy. Pledges were made of some $360 million, of which the UK committed $4 million, at a rule of law conference. This is well understood as a key priority in the hearts and minds campaign to which the noble Earl’s Question refers.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, do the Government accept that paying people money to change sides from the Taliban in the conflict, or to stop growing opium, may win minds briefly but will not win hearts, and if it works at all, will work only very temporarily?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Government are interested in the issue of whether they can provide economic support for growing those alternative crops to people currently growing opium. They are also interested in more aggressively disrupting the infrastructure of the drug trade. But there is no suggestion that the Government are paying money as some direct compensation to make people switch sides.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, Ministers regularly refer to alternative crops when the subject of opium growing in Afghanistan is raised, but I have never yet heard which crops.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, there is a variety. Let me just say that work is currently being done by DfID, with the World Bank, to identify specific crops that are not only viable in terms of the agricultural conditions, but for which a market exists internationally

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at a level which will make growing them profitable. Beyond crops, a number of Afghans point out that Helmand is also rich in marble and that marble mining is a major economic possibility.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are dealing with hearts and minds in Afghanistan. We have to face the problem that the stretch of the Afghan state has not extended over the whole of Afghanistan for a very long time, if ever, and that a number of regional lords are deeply engaged in the drugs trade and corruption. How can the international community help the Afghan Government to extend more effective and less corrupt administration across the country?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, first, the Afghan Government must help themselves by much more aggressively singling out and attacking with all the legal means at their disposal those prominently associated with the drugs trade, who are also thought by the people of Afghanistan to have links to the Government themselves, a matter raised in the House yesterday. Secondly, through ISAF’s activities in targeting and attacking laboratories as well as through financial means, we can seek to identify and sanction the leaders of this trade and bring them to justice.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, the noble Lord prayed in aid poll figures of Afghan support for their Government’s present activities. Has he seen the recent map published by the NGOs showing how much less of Afghanistan is now safe for them to travel? Can he explain how this polling is done and say which parts of Afghanistan it is done in?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, there were two major recent polls, one by the BBC and the other by the Environics Research Group. Both have polled over several years in Afghanistan and show very high findings that 67 per cent of Afghans support the presence of international forces and that 75 per cent thought that it was a very good thing that the Taliban had been brought down by foreign forces in 2001, and so on. However, I very much agree with the noble Lord that polling should be treated with some caution in the case of Afghanistan; Afghans have also indicated in answering polls that they are reluctant to criticise the Government. But it is a nationwide poll. In that sense a lot more of the country is accessible than was the case in the NGO poll of the Senlis Council, to which I think the noble Lord refers and which we do not accept.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, the Minister talked about crops, crops and more crops but what my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale asked for was the name of the crops.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, a number of crops have been looked at, from basic foodstuffs to more complicated and higher value added crops. As the World Bank will report on this to us next week, I do not want to pre-empt it.

Noble Lords: Oh!

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Lord Malloch-Brown: No, my Lords; we have not seen it. I shall be happy to put in the Library the World Bank’s recommendations on which crops it tells us next week are most viable.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, is the Minister aware of any specific initiatives to win the hearts and minds of Afghani women? What specific initiatives are there to tackle the ever-increasing problem of self-immolation—women setting themselves alight because of the severely frustrating circumstances in which they find themselves despite our invasion?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the condition of women in Afghanistan, as the noble Baroness knows, has markedly improved under this Government. There is much more opportunity to participate; Afghanistan has one of the highest numbers of women MPs in the world; and a lot of girls are in school. However, there are the remaining and difficult social issues to which she refers, and we continue to press the Afghan Government to address them.

Health: End-of-life Care

11.29 am

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My Lords, as part of the new National Framework for NHS Continuing Healthcareand NHS-funded Nursing Care, we have published a fast-track pathway tool to help clinicians make a decision on the need for urgent continuing healthcare for end-of-life patients. The framework was published in June and became mandatory in England on 1 October. We will review the framework in September 2008.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. That fast-track tool is really the basis of my Question. Can he confirm that the primary care trusts are using that tool or an equivalent, speedy and effective process, as they have a choice? We were told that a document would be published in December—an end-of-life strategy—and we are now told that it has been delayed. Can he confirm whether it has been delayed and when it will be published?

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