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House of Lords

Thursday, 24 April 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Jodrell Bank Observatory

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, the future of the Jodrell Bank Observatory is a matter for the University of Manchester. Delays in the e-MERLIN project are costly to the STFC. The STFC is discussing with the Northwest Development Agency and the University of Manchester e-MERLIN and the next generation, the SKA, on which the University of Manchester and Jodrell Bank are leading. No decisions have been made by the STFC, which has made clear that e-MERLIN is part of its strategy for radio astronomy.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend recognise the historic role of Jodrell Bank in the discovery of quasars and the important future potential, currently through the e-MERLIN programme, of inspiring students and research in the physical sciences, including astronomy, so vital for our nation? Will she remind the STFC of the vital role that Jodrell Bank plays alongside Daresbury in inspiring and encouraging the centre of excellence in the north-west rivalling those of London and Cambridge?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question because it gives me the opportunity to do as he suggests and draw attention to the iconic status of Jodrell Bank and the contribution that it has made in placing the UK at the forefront of worldwide astronomy. I concur with him and stress, for example, that the Daresbury Science and Technology Campus, along with a host of key scientific developments in the north-west, make a tremendous contribution to our scientific effort in this country.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, although the Minister has said that the future of Jodrell Bank lies in the hands of Manchester University, is it not also a fact, though, that the Science and Technology Facilities Council, as the funding agency, is going to be the determining factor in whether Manchester is able to sustain these internationally renowned facilities at Jodrell Bank? Universities UK has said that there should be a,

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Does the noble Baroness agree with that view? Will she at least give an assurance today that the Government will monitor any of the STFC’s decisions in regard to Jodrell Bank?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of very important questions. I support Universities UK’s call for close monitoring. The department and the STFC will look closely at the effects of its strategy in the workplace. I stress that the STFC has said that e-MERLIN is helping to prepare the ground for the next generation, the SKA. That is a very important statement. But, as I have said, discussions are taking place between the funding council, the university and the Northwest Development Agency about how to go forward.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, having heard the Minister’s first reply to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and then having contrasted it with her second reply, is it not the case that the first reply was fairly complacent bearing in mind that this is a very important national asset?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I stand by both my replies. I am trying to stress that we have an important arrangement with our funding councils whereby they must review the scientific priorities within their particular areas. A review has taken place. The STFC has looked at the programmes associated with Jodrell Bank and it is in discussions with the university and the development agency to make the best decisions for radio astronomy going forward in the region.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the fact that no decision has been made is quite damaging? Science in the north-west, as well as Jodrell Bank, depends on this. Can she apply pressure for an early positive decision to be taken to further the interests of science not only in the north-west but nationally and internationally as well?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. The STFC would be the first to recognise that communications around the decisions, and the consultation process around the programme review that it has undertaken, have created an element of heat and an unnecessary degree of uncertainty. We expect to see an outcome from the consultation for the STFC’s July council, and I hope that that will create more certainty in those areas, as my noble friend suggests.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the Minister stressed that she would emphasise the historic role of Jodrell Bank. Will she also reassure the House that she will be stressing the importance of Jodrell Bank in carrying forward the next generation work in terms of its e-MERLIN and SKA facilities, which are very important in terms of the next generation of radio telescopy?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. I am trying to stress that the same expertise—in fact, many of the same people—are involved with e-MERLIN and SKA. The expertise,

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technologies and resources that are being developed at Jodrell Bank are seen by the STFC as being important or as even laying the ground for SKA.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, will the Minister accept my warm personal support for the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison? Will she bear in mind that the founders of Jodrell Bank, Professor Bernard Lovell, who luckily is still with us, and Professor Hanbury Brown, are among the greatest scientists we have produced, and that the nation owes them a considerable vote of thanks for their efforts in founding Jodrell Bank and in seeing that this amazing scientific work was developed? Does she agree that we should always respect the names of these gentlemen, one of whom is with us while the other is now deceased, in a very strong way? The nation has benefited greatly from their wisdom.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. As I said at the start, Jodrell Bank houses the Lovell telescope, which is an iconic facility that has placed the UK at the forefront of radio astronomy for the past 50 years. The Government are proud to recognise the contribution of those scientists. We also recognise, as I said in my Answer, that the STFC sees e-MERLIN as part of its strategic future. I hope that the House recognises that we have to allow research councils to make the difficult decisions about scientific priorities and that we as politicians should not micromanage what they do. However, we must recognise the contribution that these scientists make.

International Aid

11.13 am

Baroness Rawlings asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that that UK aid is used effectively to reduce poverty in the world’s poorest countries. DfID has a rigorous system of evaluation and has established the Independent Advisory Committee for Development Impact. Progress against public service agreement targets is tracked continuously and formally reported in the autumn performance report and the departmental report. Parliament, the National Audit Office and the OECD Development Assistance Committee scrutinise our international development assistance.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will the Government take up the proposal made by my honourable friend in another place, Andrew Mitchell, for an independent aid watchdog to provide detailed scrutiny of the effectiveness of British aid in reducing poverty—especially now with the further fear of famine—rather than the self-evaluation that takes place at present?

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Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the Independent Advisory Committee for Development Impact, while within DfID, is genuinely independent. It is chaired by David Peretz, an independent consultant and senior adviser to the Independent Evaluation Office of the IMF, the World Bank and other international organisations. It will operate independently of DfID management; the chair will write annually to the Secretary of State; the minutes of its meetings will be made public; and the chair will also appear before the International Development Committee when required.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his new position. He is not yet listed on the website of the Government Whips’ Office, but I hope that he will be shortly. Does he agree that we are seriously off-track with regard to meeting the MDGs in 2015 and that aid must now be regarded as an international, and not simply a national, priority? What impact will the massive rise in food prices have on the effectiveness of all international aid? What international initiatives can therefore be taken to try to address this? Does he see change in international institutions as being urgent if a global crisis such as this is to be properly addressed?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her welcome; I realise that this will be the only gentle day.

The present crisis has been addressed by the Secretary of State for International Development, Mr Douglas Alexander. We have already talked about the advance in payment of budgetary support to countries highly affected. The UK is pledging £30 million of additional aid to the World Food Programme and £25 million of aid specifically to Ethiopia, and it is co-operating in an international research programme involving more than £1 billion, £400 million of which is new funds, which will be available over the next five years for agricultural research. We are also co-operating internationally in establishing uniform evaluation of the effectiveness of aid.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, in assessing the effectiveness of our aid programme, is it not worth the Government stressing two things in particular: first, that, as well as substantially increasing the overall amount that has been allocated, they have particular expertise in the speed with which they respond to emergencies; and, secondly—a point often overlooked—that DfID is a very young department? It was established in 1997, which is a date that we all remember vividly; one of the Government’s great achievements is to have established an independent department of state dealing with this massively important subject. I doubt that it will ever be changed.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I am very tempted simply to agree with him. We can be very proud of this country’s programme of aid. I believe that I do not exceed my brief in saying that it has wide cross-party support and wide support in this House. We are on track to raise international aid from £2.1 billion in 1997 to an anticipated £9.1 billion in 2010, which represents a trebling of aid in real terms. We are also on track to meet our UN

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target by 2013. The fact that we have an independent department with a seat in Cabinet is unusual in the world, if not quite unique, and allows a very quick response to emergencies.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the Government, in monitoring the results of the aid given, do not rely solely on government, top-level contacts and actually examine the situation on the ground, at individual level and at the recipient end, for only in that way will they have any chance of stopping corruption?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we are concerned about corruption and effectiveness. We are particularly concerned about effectiveness in the aid that we give to Governments because, clearly, that is an area in which corruption is possible. But we believe that it is very important to deliver aid through Governments because, in the long run, only through Governments can countries be brought out of poverty.

We try to protect our funds in three ways: we assess risk before giving support, assess underlying problems and, if necessary, we have special audits. In particular, in areas of high risk we use public expenditure tracking surveys to trace government money from the budget allocation to check that it reaches the end user—for example, schools and clinics.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, on behalf of a whole variety of development agencies, I, too, welcome the Minister to his post. On effectiveness, does the department accept that the partnerships that it can develop, not only with development agencies in this country but, through them, with a whole variety of civil society and voluntary agencies across the world, are one of the most effective ways in which we can tackle poverty and ensure that resources get to where they are needed?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his welcome. We entirely agree with the general view that, through partnerships, we will get better value for the aid and develop in-country capability. Aid is best spent in the longer term creating ways out of poverty in those societies, so we can look to long-term help for these societies, not simply short-term emergency relief.

Disabled People: UN Convention

11.21 am

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, ratification of international treaties is a complex process which takes time, but our aim remains to ratify this convention by the end of the year.

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Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who is aware of my long involvement in this policy area. Since the sooner we ratify, the greater our influence in monitoring the convention to the benefit of disabled people here and, with our support, of the poorest of the world’s disabled poor, would it not be mistaken and wrong further to delay ratification? For example, would not ratification signal that the inhumanities of institutional discrimination by health authorities against people with learning disability, as documented in Mencap’s report, Death by Indifference, will cease? And where do we stand now with regard to the optional protocol and the fear among disabled people of substantive reservations being taken out when we ratify?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I should start by saying that because a number of states have ratified the convention it comes into force on 3 May, at the end of next week, which is good news. Ratification by the UK, which is important for the reasons that my noble friend has outlined, would be a fitting tribute to the leadership and commitment of my noble friend in the cause of disabled people over so many years. I know that he would also wish me to mention the tireless work of the late Lady Darcy de Knayth, which has been an inspiration to many.

The fact that we have not yet ratified the convention does not mean that we cannot be supportive of poor people. DfID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been actively working to support poor people, and the convention is embedded in everything that DfID does. As for the optional protocol, it is still under consideration, as is the issue of reservations to the convention. I would be happy to say a little more about that if I was asked a supplementary question that gave me time to do that.

I very much agree with my noble friend that our association with the convention and our leadership in getting it under way in the first place is a signal to the world that we will not tolerate discrimination and will do everything that we can to eliminate it across the globe.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, by delaying ratification until the end of the year, will we not be debarring ourselves from membership of the monitoring committee which will undoubtedly be set up by those countries that have already ratified? Will our absence from the monitoring committee mean that we are not effective in terms of framing policy?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, as I think all noble Lords will understand, the general rule is that the UK does not ratify international treaties until it is in a position to ensure that it can implement the provisions and comply with its obligations. The noble Lord is absolutely right that the monitoring committee has to be set up initially within six months of the convention coming into force, but further provisions say that when 60 states, I think, have ratified, the monitoring committee can be expanded. So although we will not be there at the start, we will certainly have an opportunity when the monitoring committee is expanded.

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Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that many developing countries expect the UK to take the lead in these matters? Will he tell us which countries have already ratified the convention?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am happy to list them but it will take me a little while. Perhaps I may say that there are currently 127 signatories to the convention, 71 to the optional protocol, 24 ratifications of the convention and 14 ratifications of the optional protocol. The countries that have ratified include Bangladesh, Croatia, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Gabon, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, India, Jamaica, Jordan, Mali, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Philippines, San Marino, South Africa, Spain and Tunisia.

Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the idea of ratification reinforces the idea that all parts of the law and government structure should respond to civil rights issues for disabled people, as they should across the board? That is one of the important reasons why we must be seen to be in the forefront—in addition to the example that it gives to other states.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I very much agree. A lot of work has been undertaken to ensure that we can ratify in accordance with the aspiration to do it by the end of the year. I should point out that the average timescale between the signing of a convention and its ratification is in excess of four years. We signed in March last year and hope to ratify by the end of this year. We must work very hard, for the reasons which the noble Lord said, to ensure that we achieve that.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I acknowledge the positive role that the UK Government have played in the process leading to the development of the convention, and would in particular pay tribute to the work of the Minister for Disabled People, Anne McGuire, in another place. Can the Government confirm that they do not intend to make substantive reservations to the convention which would undermine the human rights of disabled people? Do they intend to communicate the results of the departmental exercise currently under way to determine the extent to which the UK meets the requirements of the convention?

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