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House of Lords

Tuesday, 19 February 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

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 European Communities (Finance) Act.

Nuclear Energy: Proliferation

2.36 pm

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, there is widespread support for the development of a viable regime of multilateral nuclear approaches, of which assurances of supply are an integral part. We have approached about 20 countries that are considering developing nuclear energy. Many have shown interest in the UK proposal for an enrichment bond. We have also received support from the IAEA. We are now building support for our proposal through bilateral and multilateral channels, including within the IAEA, and will co-host an international conference in April to engage with potential recipient and supplier countries.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer, which demonstrates some progress on the matter. However, it is over a year since I asked a similar Question in the House and very little has actually happened. This is enormously important, as I think the noble Lord recognises. In 2006, the Government put their proposal for a uranium enrichment bond to the general conference of the IAEA. Can we be assured that that proposal is still on the table as one of those to be considered, or has it been overtaken by more recent proposals? We are trying with all these things to ensure that there is control against proliferation of nuclear energy. Instead of a continual process of new proposals, it is time that decisions were taken.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I sympathise with the noble Lord’s impatience on this, as it is an enormously important priority. I am glad to say that in April there will be an international meeting,

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co-hosted by us, Germany and the Netherlands, which we have invited countries interested in this issue to attend. We are assured that the IAEA will, later in the year, give its opinion on the 10 proposals that exist, which we hope will allow decisions to be made and implementation to begin.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I declare that I have been following a proposal to the Jordanian Government by Rio Tinto, a British organisation. Does a nuclear co-operation agreement exist with Jordan? If not, given the close relationship between our two countries, not least in security matters, is it not appropriate that we should propose one to His Majesty and work on it with immediate effect?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct: Jordan is a reliable ally on this as on so many things. We are certainly looking at the possibility of such an agreement. I know that the noble Lord is concerned that countries such as France and Russia may be ahead of us in this regard. We do not think so. Technical issues confront us all and it would be much easier to deal with these issues within an IAEA-approved formula, but I can assure him that British companies will not be at a disadvantage.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, in light of the large number of proposals now being made for new civil nuclear power stations, not least in the developing world, does the Minister agree that it is vital, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, implied, that there should be an international architecture capable of providing controls over that civil nuclear energy so that it will not be diverted to nuclear weapons purposes? Are the United Kingdom Government prepared to support the necessary strengthening of the staff and finances of the IAEA so that the agency can be part of such a new international architecture?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely correct that the rise of nuclear energy, driven by environmental and climate change concerns, is transforming this from a narrow security issue to one where whole new challenges are thrown up as the world turns to nuclear energy. Like her, I see the strengthening of the IAEA as probably the best mechanism for providing a suitable environment of safeguards and checks. However, that may well need to occur in the context of a renewal of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which at the moment suffers from a loss of authority in many respects.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, my noble friend asked whether the proposal was still on the table. Is it still on the table—yes or no?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, let me perhaps make it simpler—yes.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was pleased to hear the Minister say that there is to be a multilateral conference or meeting on this in a

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couple of months. Will that be strictly a government-to-government meeting or will the private sector be invited? Will other multilateral organisations also be present?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I will need to get back to my noble friend on exactly who is invited, but we want the broadest support possible, as we see it as preparing the ground for our proposal to triumph at the subsequent IAEA deliberations. Therefore, I suspect that any suggestions on wider attendance will be well received.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am happy to hear the Minister say that Germany and the Netherlands are co-hosting this conference. Can we be assured that other members of the EU have given it their active support and that Japan and, above all, the United States actively support this approach?

Lord Malloch-Brown: Yes, my Lords, but, as I said, there are 10 proposals. For example, the United States is very interested in a lower-grade uranium enrichment bank as an alternative proposal. We need to sort this out and have one or two proposals, either alone or combined, to become the path down which the whole international community can proceed in agreement.

Bank Holidays

2.43 pm

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock 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, the department receives representations on this issue from time to time. However, the present pattern of bank holidays in the UK is well established and accepted, and the Government have no current plans to change the arrangements.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am very disappointed in my honourable friend’s reply.

Noble Lords: Noble friend.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: He is honourable as well but noble in this context. Is he aware that, while England has only eight bank holidays and Scotland has eight and a half—if you count the half-hearted St Andrew’s Day holiday introduced by the SNP—the European Union average is 11? Is he also aware that that is why more than a million people have signed two petitions—one arranged by Thomas Cook and the other on the Downing Street website, of which he should take particular notice? Therefore, will he or one of his colleagues agree to meet a deputation from

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the campaign involving the Fabian Society, the IPPR, the TUC and voluntary organisations which are campaigning for an extra bank holiday because there is a clear and growing demand for it?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I assure my noble friend Lord Foulkes that I will arrange for all those people to come and meet either me or one of my colleagues. Secondly, be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. Germany, for instance, has more bank holidays than Britain, but if they fall on a weekend you lose them; whereas in Britain you get them on the following Monday. Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. There is a £2.5 billion loss to the public and private sectors in this country for every bank holiday.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that both he and his noble friend have recently breached Standing Orders? Since the noble Lord, Lord Jones, has famously not joined the Labour Party, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not his noble friend, and nor is he his.

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, who my friends are is my business.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, would the Minister be surprised in any way to hear that, in the event of further consideration being given to the question of national holidays, there would be strong feeling in Wales that there is a just and proper claim in regard to St David’s Day? It would be nothing more than courtesy, chivalry and justice to acknowledge that.

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, Scotland is allowed to have St Andrew’s Day, but it loses a bank holiday from the British calendar; it does not get it in addition. At the end of the day, if we saw another bank holiday, I would love it to be a British bank holiday.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, if the Minister is going to meet the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and his merry band of brothers to discuss holidays, now that the half-term holiday seems to be compulsory for middle class parents, let alone for Members of your Lordships’ House, would this not be an opportunity also to see whether the Government can encourage steps to rationalise the timing of half-term holidays, bearing in mind the disruption that seems to go on for weeks in the spring, summer and autumn, largely because half-term holidays never seem to be the same for any one parent?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for that. Last week, during the Recess, I visited seven American cities in seven days banging the drum for British business, so I do not understand mid-term Recess.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, does the Minister think that the dismal economic performance of continental Europe might be attributed to the fact that it has more bank holidays than we do?

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Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, given that we are the most successful economy in the whole of Europe, the noble Lord is probably right.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, given the Minister’s comment on St David’s Day, will he in all equity look at the case for Cornwall to have its St Piran’s Day bank holiday?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, if Cornwall has one, so should Birmingham. I might have been in a different place five minutes’ ago, but I said that I was not in favour of different parts of the United Kingdom having separate bank holidays. I do not want the economy to have the cost of £2.5 billion every time for more, but if there were to be more, let them be British.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that his original Answer will give a great deal of pleasure to many people, not least for the fact that it shows that the Government can at least make one right decision?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Prosser: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the point made by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches regarding the spread of half-term holidays is very serious, because it impinges on the ability of working mothers to attend their employment which, as the noble Lord will know, is hugely important to the economy and businesses of this country?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, as my noble friend rightly states—I would add a further gloss—one reason why we have the most successful economy in the whole of Europe is that we have the most flexible labour market in the whole of Europe. One reason for that is that we have family-friendly policies and at last, under this Government, we recognise that you get more things out of more people if you allow them a work/life balance. At the end of the day, if we take that forward with a view to the regularisation of mid-term breaks, that will be for my ministerial colleagues in the education department, not UK Trade & Investment, that I am proud to lead.

Lord Butler of Brockwell: My Lords, is not St Patrick’s Day a bank holiday in Northern Ireland? Can the Minister explain why St Patrick is favoured over St David, St Andrew and, indeed, St George?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, yes, the noble Lord is right—Northern Ireland has two more bank holidays than Scotland, Wales or England; and, no, I cannot explain it.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, is the Minister prepared to deplore the Protestant Reformation in that in the Catholic Middle Ages we had many more holidays?

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Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, as we in this nation were responsible for the first industrial revolution and we are putting up an incredibly good show about dealing with the second commercial revolution, what we did in the Middle Ages and what we do now just defy comparison.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, bearing in mind events in Newcastle, is it entirely timely for the banks to have another day off?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, I think it is time that we referred to these holidays as “public holidays”.

The Earl of Glasgow: My Lords, would the Minister please consider helping the tourism industry to extend the season by considering having a public holiday at the end of October—maybe associated with Halloween or All Saints’ Day?

Lord Jones of Birmingham: My Lords, the tourism industry is a serious player in the British economy. It puts some £6.5 billion to £7 billion a year into the economy and employs about 2.5 million people, a lot of whom have come into the world of work for the first time. It is a fabulous entry place for young people and its importance as an industry is not properly recognised. If we created a public holiday on the shoulder of the year in October or November—it is a time that many people make representations to have one—perhaps we should make due reference, as the Prime Minister has, to those who laid down their lives in so many wars so that we could be free. Perhaps we ought to be celebrating Trafalgar Day; at least that was a British victory.

EU: Farming Support

2.52 pm

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, yes. The Government will be having a number of detailed discussions about reform of the European Union common agricultural policy with France, Germany, other member states and the European Commission as part of this year’s CAP health check.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, has the Minister noticed that, even in those two countries with their traditional views, the feeling is growing among opinion-formers that the old-fashioned subsidy system will fade away by 2013 and that a new modern system of support needs to be put in place? Is the Minister optimistic that the combination of not driving farmers into mass penury but ensuring that the countryside is properly looked after is manageable within any future solution?

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Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords. I am even more confident after yesterday, when I attended the European Union Agriculture Council on behalf of the Government and spoke with all 26 member states and the Commission on the future of the health check. By the end of May we will have a document relating to the health check of the CAP on which we can consult well in advance of future reforms. The meeting was very optimistic; there was a little backsliding—some people want to turn the clock back—but by and large the benefit of decoupling production and subsidies, while maintaining a vibrant countryside and a landscape within the European Union, was a view that everyone shared.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, at the centenary dinner of the NFU last night, the Prime Minister used the phrase, “the food security challenge”, which is the first time that the Government have used that phrase to raise that issue. Does the Minister consider that Europe will now start to concentrate on this area of future food security, or does he believe that it is just a transitory concern for agriculture?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot comment in detail. I was working for Britain in Brussels yesterday and was not at last night’s NFU dinner, which I regret I had to miss. I have not seen a transcript of what the Prime Minister said, although I understand from my visit to the NFU centenary conference this morning that his speech was incredibly warmly received. Food security is an issue but it does not mean what some people think—that is, that we as taxpayers pay for production targets if they are not met. It means ensuring that we are self-sufficient but within a world market for food. This issue will not go away; it is very important because the world’s population is growing. There is a big debate about the technologies that will be used to produce food, let alone the water that will be needed.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, does the Minister not agree with the conclusion of the European Select Committee in a paper produced, I think, two years ago that agricultural policy would be better repatriated to member states than being left with the European Union?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not know about that document but I do not agree with its conclusion, and nor do the Government. I do not think that that is what people wish. We have benefited enormously from being a member of the European Union and there will always be a CAP of some kind within the EU. It will vary, and it is changing enormously now with the decoupling of payments from subsidies to stop the wine lakes and food mountains so that public money is better used. The way that the CAP is organised at present does not make good use of public money, which is partly what the health check and future reforms are intended to remedy.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that these are changing times for British agriculture. Notwithstanding the health check, what sort of changes in the administration and determination of farm support are likely to be consequent upon the Lisbon treaty?

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