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House of Lords

Monday, 21 January 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.

Iraq: Refugees

Lord Fowler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Vadera): My Lords, we remain very concerned about the humanitarian situation of an estimated 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries and 2.2 million internally displaced people. We continue to work on improving security, which is the main cause of displacement and which also restricts access to assistance that could be provided by NGOs. In addition, we have targeted £15 million in 2007 and £132 million since 2003 directly to assist displaced Iraqis.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I return to a Question I first raised in this House in April 2007: how many Iraqis who have been employed by the British as interpreters have now been resettled here? The local guidance being issued warns that places are limited and that the process may take until the summer of 2009. Is that the right priority to give to Iraqis who may be in danger of reprisal for no other reason than that they have helped this country?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, on behalf of my department and all the others, I express our gratitude to locally employed staff, whose vital contribution has assisted us and the Government of Iraq. As noble Lords are aware, two schemes were announced in October last year by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and explained to this House by my noble friend Lady Ashton. The gateway refugee settlement scheme has already started. We have received 910 applications, of which 404 were rejected for showing no visible connection to British work. Ninety have been passed on to the Home Office, and 24 have been passed altogether. We estimate that the target cap of 600 is manageable, particularly because new forecasts show that there was a spike in December suggesting that the number will be adequate and manageable.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, there must be many Iraqi refugees in the UK who are here with exceptional leave to remain or other, more indeterminate, status. Is it the Government’s view that many will now return voluntarily? If not, how many have actually been forced to return? Is it the Government’s view that all parts of Iraq are now sufficiently secure for refugees to return, save in exceptional circumstances?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, we have a clear policy on asylum seekers. The numbers of applications from Iraq have remained relatively stable. We assess them on individual merit, according to the refugee convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. To give your Lordships a sense of the estimates of the people accepted and returned, for the first nine months of 2007 we had 1,105 applicants. One hundred and five were granted refugee status, 15 humanitarian protection and 70 discretionary leave. The rest have returned or will be returning. We make the assessments about return individually, to ensure that individuals are protected. Return is also based on our assessment, and on that of others, of areas that are safe, so that asylum seekers are returned only to such areas.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in view of the fact that we are jointly responsible, with the United States, for the disastrous situation in which these 4.2 million people are displaced from their homes, does not the noble Baroness agree that we should cough up a larger proportion

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of the UNHCR’s appeal for 2008 than the measly 4 per cent we gave in 2007? Bearing in mind that only one in five of the 21,000 people whom the UNHCR put up for resettlement in 2007 was accommodated, and that another 20,000 are coming down the track this year, will the Government get together with our partners and make sure that the offers that we jointly make with them match the size of the need?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I understand that the funds targeted appear disproportionately small, given the scale of the refugee situation, but I do not think that that takes into proper account the factors in Iraq. It is very difficult to identify Iraqi displaced people within the neighbouring countries and within Iraq because they get absorbed into the host community and are very hard to identify. Only 3 per cent of refugees and IDPs live in camps. As a result, we cannot provide assistance in the targeted way that the noble Lord is suggesting. The best way to provide assistance is to the whole community into which the IDPs and the refugees have been absorbed. We therefore think that the issue is about the reconstruction of the system in Iraq for basic services. Funding is therefore not a problem— there has been more than $30 billion of oil revenue in the past year, and less than a quarter of its capital budget was used. The issue is capacity. Of the £680 million that we have disbursed in reconstruction, our efforts go towards creating the capacity of the Iraq Government to provide services.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following the sums of money mentioned by the Minister, what support or money is DfID offering to neighbouring states such as Syria and Jordan to assist with the Iraqi refugees?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, we provide our funding directly through UNHCR and ICRC because we believe that that is the best way to target refugees. However, we also provide assistance through the EC—for example, most recently, €30 million was provided for health systems in Syria.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, given the number of persecuted Christians who have left the country and are now in Syria, will the Minister confirm that the Government are making every effort to press on the Iraqi Government the necessity of preserving the right of Christians to worship and exist in Iraq?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I agree that Christians and other minorities are a particular target of sectarian groups. They make up a disproportionately large number of refugees, and we continue to work with the Iraqi Government and neighbouring countries to ensure that they are allowed their rights.

Lord Acton: My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the sum of £15 million for 2007 for 2 million refugees and 2.2 million internally displaced people. If my maths are correct, that works out at just under £4 a head. Can we look to a rather more generous settlement than £4 a head for refugees and internally displaced people in 2008?

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Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I believe that we can. However, I shall go back to my overlong answer, for which I apologise. The issue is to ensure that the host communities have access to services, not just the internally displaced people who have been absorbed into them. Therefore, our overall reconstruction funding of £680 million must be included.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the light of our shared responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and for others who feel themselves in danger all the time, there really has to be a more generous response? Does she accept that if I were currently living in Afghanistan and asked to support or work with the British forces there, I would give very careful thought even to considering that, given my feelings about how those in Iraq had been treated?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, we have announced a package of assistance for former and current employees, including a direct entry scheme for all current employees and a financial package of assistance. It is interesting to note that the latter appears to be more attractive than entry into the UK for current employees.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, one major concern about the treatment of refugees and displaced people seems to be the lack of a co-ordinated approach from the United Nations, the operation coming partly out of Baghdad and partly out of Jordan. Is the United Kingdom in any position to help improve co-ordination of the humanitarian effort and, if so, what can we do?

Baroness Vadera: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s observation that poor co-ordination and fragmentation have been a real problem. We have therefore successfully secured the post of a new UN humanitarian co-ordinator, at least partly based in Baghdad. We welcome the arrival of David Shearer, who has experience in the region, as well as in humanitarian issues. He will be launching his first consolidated UN appeal, involving NGOs, in mid-February. We have also managed to secure a pledge for increased UN staff in-country. Therefore, we hope that the centre of gravity is moving from Iraq to Amman.

Health: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

2.45 pm

Lord Walton of Detchant My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I must declare an interest as having been a member of the Southwood working party, which was appointed in the early 1990s by the Government to advise on the implications for human health of the BSE epidemic.

The Question was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My Lords, NHS Blood and Transplant has already initiated a number of studies to assess the efficacy of the P-CAPT filter in removing variant CJD infectivity from blood as well as the quality and clinical safety of blood once it has been filtered. These studies are ongoing. This approach is based on the advice that NHS Blood and Transplant received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does he accept that three individuals have died as a consequence of variant CJD as a result of blood transfusion? The prion is not a bacterium; nor is it a virus. It is a small molecule of protein, which is infective, but which has a very long incubation period. I am glad to hear that these trials are being undertaken because this device has already received a European CE certificate and trials are under way in the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to try to prevent the death of any more individuals from infected blood.

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, I am grateful for the advice of the noble Lord, who is a great expert in this field. The P-CAPT filter is an innovative product. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the introduction of any new technology will be based on the efficacy and the safety of such technologies. We currently have three studies looking at the efficacy. We also have one safety study because the filter itself could create new antibodies that might harm the recipient patient. I also acknowledge the fact that Ireland has introduced the product in those cases where most of the recipients of blood are children.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, how safe are blood transfusions? Are more cases of variant CJD expected?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, any medical intervention carries risks; we are fully aware of that. However, as it stands at the moment, we have applied every technology available to us in screening blood for conditions such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. The difficulty in this situation is that we do not currently have a screening test for variant CJD. As we are all aware, it is carried not by blood but by prions—most of which are concentrated in lymphoreticular tissue.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will the Minister comment on reported remarks by the chairman of SEAC to the effect that the prion is not the infectious agent but merely a sign of infection?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Countess’s intervention. I agree with the analysis that, while abnormal prion proteins are considered to be the infectious agent, the precise nature of infectivity may differ from that of the prion alone. That was

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highlighted in an editorial in Science in 2007 by one of my colleagues, Professor Collinge.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, the diagnostic technique of protein misfolding cyclic amplification is being used to test for variant CJD in brain tissue. Are there any plans to introduce that test for blood—could it be effective? Will he explain what it is?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, I will spare the House a tutorial in molecular biology. However, the test is valid in lymphoreticular tissue. The same test has been used in examining biopsies of, for example, tonsils. The noble Baroness will be aware of the study currently being undertaken to screen 100,000 tonsils. I am delighted to report that 45,000 have already been screened and there is no evidence of any infectivity.

Earl Howe: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the device in question has a CE mark, which means that it has European regulatory approval and therefore can be used quite legally now? Given that the Government have already conducted studies into the prevalence of variant CJD and found the risk high enough to implement leucodepletion, which, as the Minister will know, is not by any means 100 per cent effective, why is it necessary to undertake further studies which will only delay the implementation of effective prion filtration?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Earl's intervention. CE marking does not necessarily mean that a product has been through effectiveness or efficacy studies. We are carrying out a study at the moment based on a recommendation of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which suggested that an identical study to the one carried out by the manufacturers should be independently carried out by the NHS.

Lord Krebs: My Lords, I understand that the number of new cases of variant CJD each year has now reduced to a trickle. However, Professor Collinge, whom the Minister mentioned a moment ago, has suggested that there may be future second and third waves of the disease. What is the Government’s attitude to that suggestion? If they accept Professor Collinge’s proposition, how will that affect their attitude towards risk management, including blood transfusion?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, we have had 166 infections for variant CJD, the peak of which was in 2000, when there were 28 cases. I am delighted to report that last year we had only one infection. The noble Lord referred to the genotype of these infections, most of which have been of the MM variety. There has been a recent scientific dispute about whether one case is of the VV variant. Scientists continue to disagree about whether that case is one of sporadic CJD or variant CJD. At the moment, as it stands, the registry in Edinburgh considers that the VV case is sporadic rather than variant CJD.

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Refugees: Loans

2.53 pm

Lord James of Blackheath asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the value of loans paid out under the integration loan scheme for refugees and others from 11 June, when the scheme was launched, to 31 December 2007, is £134,000. Loan payment and recovery is undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of the Home Office and the usual DWP enforcement procedures will apply where there is no compelling reason why loan repayments cannot be made.

Lord James of Blackheath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that response, but does he not share a little of my disappointment at the apparent lack of take-up of this facility? It struck me at the time as one of the most enlightened and intelligent pieces of regulation put through by this Government. It shone out like a good deed in a naughty world. I hoped it would have had a much bigger take-up than we have seen. What percentage of applications received might that figure be, assuming that they have all taken £1,000 per head, which was allowed? How many have been declined?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: this was a very good scheme, debated in the House, and we expected a much higher rate of take-up. This has been accelerating since last June, when the scheme initially came in. So far we have had 562 applications, of which 198—that is, 35 per cent—have received a loan. A number are awaiting receipt of signed loan agreements. It is not quite clear why there has not been bigger take-up, because this is very useful in enabling those who, almost by definition, are disadvantaged to integrate into our society.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, what was the Government’s response to the Merits Committee’s criticism of the scheme that it would be difficult for recipients to pay back even an amount as small as £3 per week, when it came on top of other deductions from benefits? Now that the Government are determining asylum applications within a maximum of six months, would they agree that £100 of every grant made under this scheme should be in the form of a grant, rather than a loan, over the six months?

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