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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18 March 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Chemical Weapons Convention

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the United Kingdom will participate actively in the Second Review Conference. Compliance is central to the effectiveness of the convention and we take seriously the need to ensure it. The UK has focused on strengthening mechanisms to detect and deter non-compliance, including maintaining the credibility of the verification system. The EU has agreed its priorities for the conference, including issues of compliance as set out in its common position.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I thank my noble friend, and not just conventionally, for that encouraging Answer, but does he agree that, precisely because the convention is drafted carefully and comprehensively, it has been partly overtaken by time? Does he agree, for example, that proliferation no longer consists exclusively of passing on weapons to other people but could consist of transferring details of a technological process that could be fairly simply implemented? Will he assure the House that the preparatory work for this conference, both governmental and non-governmental, will be reflected in discussions if not in technical amendments?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I assure my noble friend that there has been extensive consultation with non-governmental organisations and academics and that the preparatory conference is being led by a distinguished British diplomat, our ambassador in the Netherlands, so I hope that his concerns are being well addressed.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is one convention that has had some success over its 16 or 17-year life? Will he also accept that, if the British Government decide to press really hard at the forthcoming April conference both for a speeding up of the destruction of chemical arsenals, particularly in Russia and the United States, and for more effective compliance in China, Russia, Iran, Sudan and one or two other countries, he will have my full backing and that of this side of the House?

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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I am very happy to accept a success. The noble Lord is right: there are 183 parties to this convention, only five countries with declared stockpiles and a very robust mechanism for investigating others about which there might be suspicions. We hope that, by 2012, all stockpiles will have been destroyed. There are just one or two countries that may not meet that deadline, but in general he is right that this is a success.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, an article in yesterday’s Times highlighted the current suffering of more than 55,000 Iranians as the result of Saddam Hussein’s ghastly chemical attacks 20 years ago during the Iran-Iraq war. Today’s Iraq is one of only seven countries that have neither signed nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Does the Minister agree that US/UK pressure should be applied to ensure that Iraq signs up to the convention without delay?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord and I believe, although I will have to confirm it in writing, that Iraq is one of those countries that are preparing to sign.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in view of the immense significance of this type of potential warfare and therefore of the convention, it is crucial that at the Second Review Conference we should be represented by senior ministerial leadership, thereby not only engaging at a ministerial level in the conference but demonstrating that the Government are giving this issue the priority that it deserves? What have the Government been able to do to raise awareness in the chemical industry in this country about the significance of the CWC?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we have been trying to raise the level of ministerial attendance at such conferences to signal our support. We are concentrating in the discussions here on seeking the opinions of the industry among others and on communicating to it the importance of compliance. I very much take my noble friend’s point on promoting and advertising the goals of this treaty to the industry.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the further consideration of this convention it should be borne in mind that toxicology is not in every respect an exact science? From time to time, certain chemical substances are released into the environment that may not at first sight appear to be chemical weapons; they may be thought to be innocuous in very small doses but they may be very harmful to the individual in larger doses. Will that point be taken into account in considering the effects of this convention?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, it is certainly correct that there are toxic chemicals that fall outside so-called schedule 1 to this convention. One of the issues for review and for any successor convention after 2012 will be to make sure that there is a more comprehensive list of such chemicals.

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Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, will Her Majesty’s Government bring forward specific measures relating to emissions problems that have arisen since the last review conference, such as those on dual use and definitions? Also, I did not quite catch the earlier answer: will we be represented by a Minister?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the latter point, I honestly cannot say at this point, because I am not aware of the dates of the conference, although I suspect that I would be the Minister involved. We will certainly make every effort. On the noble Lord’s first question, the whole point of this review procedure, or preparation procedure for the review, is to catch up with changes that require further investigation. We support the scientific advisory board, as well as training courses, financially, to try to keep the convention current.

Lord Elton: My Lords, how many of the seven countries that have not signed the convention have significant stockpiles of chemical weapons? How many of the 183 countries that have signed the convention have significant derogations from it?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the 12 that have not signed, I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord that answer immediately, but I shall return to it. Of the 183 that have signed, five still have stockpiles, and a further country has destroyed its stockpile.

Banks: Charges

2.43 pm

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, decisions surrounding a bank’s pricing model are commercial in nature and for each bank to take individually. The Government are consulting on the implementation of the payment services directive. The intention of this directive is to support a single payments market in EU currencies and provide for standardised conduct of business requirements, which should afford enhanced consumer protection.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Will the Government look urgently at this matter with the regulator and the banks, as he has already indicated? The single payments area for euros started on 1 January. Is the Minister aware that the euro-zone bank charges for domestic customers are too high still and, for UK customers, domestic charges and charges for changing from sterling to euros are still on the high side? After all, we know that the cost to the banks when they press the electronic button to transmit even large amounts of money is just a couple of pence.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the payment services directive does not come into effect until November 2009, so we have time for adequate consultation. On the broader issue of bank charges, the House will appreciate that the Office of Fair Trading is involved in intensive scrutiny and the outcome of a current court case is awaited on these issues.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, has any progress been made on the time it takes to clear cheques? That matter has been raised in the House before and it is always considered that this is an invisible or hidden charge to customers. Your cheque goes in and it takes days to clear, but any money you take out comes out instantly.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an issue but perhaps a minor one with regard to bank charges. I assure the noble Baroness that the Office of Fair Trading investigation will cover all significant issues of bank charges.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that it is a pernicious practice of both the sending and receiving banks to charge often inflated commission and that that in itself is a great inhibition to small businesses profiting within the single European market?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is exactly those kinds of concerns to which my noble friend has drawn attention that has conditioned the Office of Fair Trading inquiry. It decided that it needed a very firm legal base for such an important and significant inquiry, which is why it has brought a test case. We are awaiting the outcome of that case for the OFT to make further progress.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, perhaps I may return to transactions between the UK and the EU. Is the Minister aware that for all British subjects who have EU accounts and pay by cheque in, for instance, France, the cost of processing that cheque is way above the cost of processing any cheque anywhere else in Europe?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the inspiration behind the directive is to bring uniformity between states in Europe to ensure that payments made across borders are at the same level as those within frontiers and to tackle exactly the issue to which the noble Lord has drawn attention.

Lord Broers: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that he is aware that the problem is very often not the bank charge but the exchange rate? I want to check that that is controlled.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an important component part of the potential costs that the customer bears. I assure the noble Lord that that is all part of the very intensive investigation into the issue of bank charges, which is the subject of the work of the Office of Fair Trading. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that the OFT is taking a considerable time to deal with the matter. That merely reflects the comprehensiveness of its approach.

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Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for the high cost of transferring money between the UK and the euro-zone area is simply that the currency has to be changed from sterling into euros? Is it not the case that one of the many advantages of the UK joining the euro-zone would be a reduction in charges?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I had anticipated that that question might emerge from the Liberal Benches, and I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, did not raise it. Of course that is one advantage of the euro-zone, but there are a few attendant disadvantages too.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, we are grateful to the Liberal Democrat Benches for bringing up the issue of euro-zone membership yet again. Can I invite the Minister to come a little further and agree with me that paying the odd exchange transaction fee is a small price to pay for remaining outside the straitjacket of the euro-zone?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I can bring amity to both the opposition parties because when the payment services directive is implemented—we have a considerable amount of time before it is—the issue of the cost difference for transactions between the euro-zone and the UK will have been ironed out. Therefore, we will not be members of the euro-zone, but we will have the same advantages in costs.

Agriculture: Bluetongue

2.50 pm

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, on 20 December, in accordance with EU law, Defra declared that the UK bluetongue restricted zone was in a vector-free period. Falling temperatures and a declining midge count provided evidence that the risk of disease transmission was low. Based on an assessment of historic meteorological data and historic trapping, the vector-free period ended on 15 March. We have now returned to the pattern of movement restrictions in place between September and December last year.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In the light of the recent discovery of viremic calves and the possibility of maternal transmission of bluetongue, does he agree that it is vital that we understand the overwintering process for bluetongue? What funding has been made available to the Institute for Animal Health to research this issue? Further, does the noble Lord agree that it would give farmers a lot more confidence in Defra if the officials who compiled the leaflet Bluetongue: How to spot the disease knew the difference between sheep and cattle and that you do not vaccinate a recumbent cow?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, what happened with the exports from the Netherlands to Northern Ireland in January is worrying. I cannot give a figure for the money, but research is going on to see whether there is a possibility of oral transfer mechanisms or transfers from cows to calves of bluetongue because that has not been thought to be the issue to date. Work is going on across Europe on the issue. The EU Commission has looked at it, but the evidence base is incomplete, so further work is being undertaken.

On the second point, perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the noble Countess for drawing my attention to this lapse in technical efficiency as soon as she discovered it rather than waiting to cause me acute embarrassment at the Dispatch Box. As she will realise, the website was changed by around noon today so that it now shows the clinical signs in cattle accompanied by photographs of cattle and the clinical signs in sheep accompanied by photographs of sheep. The one thing I would say in defence is that there was a separate area on the website of the clinical signs of bluetongue accompanied by photographs, all of which were accurate. However, the leaflet was not. This is a lapse that I regret.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the clear information that is available on the website which states that the vector-free period ended on 15 March. However, is he satisfied that those without access to the website are being given the information about the movement of animals after that date?

Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, We expect all animal keepers to take responsibility for keeping themselves up to date with what is going on. Not everyone has access to the website, but sufficient information has been published. We gave virtually a month’s notice of the end of the vector-free period, which finished on 15 March, and we issued the notification on 22 February making it abundantly clear. We had good scientific evidence for doing that, and support from the industry. More than enough notice was given because the information was put out not just on the website, but in the farming periodicals and technical press. We expect responsible livestock keepers to ensure that they keep themselves up to date.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, while admiring Defra’s objective to contain the disease, there comes a time when the emphasis must change to allow trade to take place and businesses to be able to carry on, even under the cloud of the disease. Does the Minister have in mind the point at which this change might come?

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