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House of Lords

Tuesday, 13 May 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Lord Bishop of Winchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government strongly advocated the renewal of the mandate of the UN independent expert on human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We made this clear through UK and EU statements during discussions at the Human Rights Council, but the HRC could not agree to this. However, there was agreement that existing special rapporteurs will present a report on the human rights situation in DRC by the HRC’s March 2009 session.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response, especially for that assurance, because the situation in the Congo is dire, not only in the east following the stalemate after the Goma ceasefire but also in the west and the south-west in Kinshasa. Does not this failure give those states responsible for serious human rights violations a veto on the council’s ability to fulfil its mandate? At the meeting of the contact group to be held next week, will the UK join others in pressing for the appointment of an additional senior special adviser on human rights to monitor the human rights obligations of the Goma agreement?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, let me assure the right reverend Prelate that, on his first question, we hope that this will not be the case. Other countries that have resisted a special rapporteur have nevertheless had one imposed on them by the council, so we hope very much that the principle about which he is concerned is not conceded. Moreover, the special rapporteurs on violence against women and the independence of the judiciary have produced excellent reports on the situation in DRC, particularly in the east, so we think that the framework of strong reporting remains intact. I shall certainly look into the Goma issue.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the killings in Goma, Kivu and, indeed, throughout the rest of the Congo, where more than 3 million people have died in the last decade or so, have been driven on by the insatiable desire of the Congo’s

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neighbours and factions inside the country to seize and plunder the massive mineral resources there? Does he agree that, in developing human rights over the long term, one of the most important things to do is to join with the mining interests and big mining companies to ensure that they exploit those mineral resources to the benefit of the people of the Congo and thus help to build a civil society there?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord puts his finger on one of the most critical issues that has kept the Congo in conflict. The mining interests have over many years taken different sides in the factional fighting in the country. Now that there is a democratically elected Government for the DRC, we hope that they can regularise their relations with the mining industry, put them on a much more transparent footing and break the curse that these resources have previously placed on the country’s development.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, there are continuing reports of atrocities in the eastern DRC, with a particularly horrific report this morning by a Congolese doctor on the use of mass rape as an instrument of conflict by the 23 armed groups. In the circumstances, is it not essential that there should be an effective monitoring mechanism for Article 3 of the Goma agreement of 23 January, which compels these groups to abide by humanitarian and human rights law? Therefore, can the Government undertake to press at the contact group meeting next week for the proposal mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, which has the approval not only of the 63 Congolese human rights NGOs but also that of several countries?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord and the right reverend Prelate make it clear that we need to ensure that our people on the ground have instructions to press hard for this proposal. I know not only from President Kabila but also from discussions with the UN special representative and others that there is a common understanding that human rights in the eastern Congo are the single most important threat for the democratic stabilisation of that country. There is a common desire to address this and we will certainly look into using the Goma process, and Article 3, as a means of doing that.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and understand the circumstances in the Congo. With a democratically elected Government, it is possible that the human rights relationship might well be established. However, does he not feel that, in Africa, Britain should be doing more about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, certainly the world should be doing more about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, which is bad and getting worse. However, dreadful though it is, there is a bigger level of abuse in the Congo—or, for that matter, in Darfur—than in Zimbabwe. That in no way excuses the situation in Zimbabwe. We should be pressing hard for good human rights protection in all these situations.

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Disability: Winter Fuel Payments

2.43 pm

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, we have no plans to extend winter fuel payments to disabled people aged under 60. Help is already available through disability benefits and the disability premium in income-related benefits in recognition of the extra costs, including heating, which disabled people may have.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that the Government cannot lose on this issue because they are fighting disabled people who are not able to fight for themselves? It is a very easy victory for the Government. On the other hand, the Government cannot win in this situation because when they refuse payments to disabled people that is noted, not only by disabled people, but also by the general public. The public tend to judge disabled people’s reactions and are disconcerted by what is happening. Does my noble friend agree that the best thing now is for the Government to change their tack and make certain that the allowance is given to disabled people—because without it, they are suffering quite considerably?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I acknowledge my noble friend’s disappointment with my reply, but the winter fuel payments were created to reassure pensioners that they could afford to heat their homes in winter. That is why they have been targeted. He will know that 60 per cent of those receiving DLA or attendance allowance are aged 60 or over and automatically receive winter fuel payments in any event. Notwithstanding the rising cost of energy, which has presented a real challenge, a severely disabled person can get more than £150 per week extra in benefit, including the disability premium and income support. We are concerned about the impact of high fuel prices on vulnerable people and have been encouraging energy suppliers to adopt initiatives to reduce the impact of price rises on the most vulnerable.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I declare an interest, having a daughter in her 40s who is in receipt of the higher rate disability living allowance. She tells me that if you are disabled and trying to live independently you need warmth more than if you are a non-disabled person. I have put this point to the Minister before and he said he would consider it, but now I gather that the answer is no. Will he tell me more about how easy it is to get help?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, as I said a moment ago, the disability benefits and DLA were created to ensure that the additional costs that disabled people inevitably face can be supported and that the money can be spent as they feel most appropriate.

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Regarding the additional support, as I said, we have been working with the energy companies to encourage them to put more resources into vulnerable households. There are challenges about information flows to enable appropriate targeting, and we hope that there will be some developments on that shortly.

Individuals on income support or jobseeker’s allowance who have a disability premium or a disabled child can get cold weather payments when the weather turns particularly cold. Furthermore, 48 per cent of disabled people of working age are in work, and part of the Government’s strategy to help people out of poverty, including fuel poverty, is to support people to get into employment and to ensure that work pays.

Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we have had this discussion several times and that it always comes down to the fact that there is a small group of the disabled who have difficulty generating sufficient heat within their own bodies but are not taken as part of the mainstream of disability benefits? Surely the Government should take another look to see whether they can address that problem.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I have tried to deal with the points raised. The proposition was that we should target winter fuel payments to disabled people and I have explained why, in our view, that is not an appropriate basis for targeting that resource. Warm Front, which the Government are supporting, has, through energy-efficiency measures, helped more than 1.6 million households benefit from advice and the installation of central heating. People in receipt of qualifying disability benefits can be eligible for grants of up to £2,700, or £4,000 where oil heating is recommended. We spent £2 billion on winter fuel payments in 2007-8 and, since 2000, £20 billion has been spent on fuel poverty benefits and programmes to tackle fuel poverty.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, were the needs of the disabled considered at the recent fuel poor summit? As that important conference was aimed mainly at what the fuel industries could do to help the fuel poor, when will the Government be able to announce their arrangements for ensuring that the companies know who they really have to help?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the summit covered a range of issues but focused on working with the industries to encourage them to do more. We said in Budget 2008 that we would like to see the amount that energy suppliers spend on social programmes increase to at least £150 million and I think that six major energy suppliers have signed up to that. As the noble Lord has indicated, there are issues about providing information to support identification of vulnerable households. That is not without its difficulties, because of data protection and other sorts of issues, but it is being actively addressed and we hope to be able to move forward on that quite soon.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it is a scandal that, in this day and age, anybody is living in fuel poverty?

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we do not want to see anybody living in poverty, fuel poverty or otherwise. This Government have done a good deal to make sure that people have been removed from child poverty, pensioner poverty and fuel poverty. It is undoubtedly a continuing challenge, particularly with the current fuel increases. However, just in the Budget last year a further £50 in winter fuel payments was announced for people aged between 60 and 79, and £100 for people aged 80 and over. Those were increases of 25 and 33 per cent respectively, which is one way of helping people in poverty. It is a constant challenge, but I believe that we, as a Government, have a good record in tackling poverty right across the piece.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, would not one way of helping people who find meeting energy costs difficult be to reduce the taxes that the Government have increased on fuel? For example, around 8 per cent of the average electricity bill consists of the renewables obligation; there are also the increased taxes on oil that have been allowed. Given energy costs, would the Government not like to review the tax regimes in order to reduce the real cost to people of paying to heat their homes?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, it is all very well to propose reductions in taxes here, there and everywhere, but the noble Lord has to say where additional taxation would come from to replace that lost revenue or what programmes would be cut to make sure that the budget can be sustained.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister said that the Government have no plans to accede to the wish of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. Does that mean that no policy work whatever is going on in the department?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: No, my Lords, of course it does not. The noble Lord is well aware that a whole range of policy initiatives is going on, right across the DWP’s responsibilities, and that we have had four pieces of legislation in the past 18 months. There are lots of policy developments, focused particularly on poverty—child poverty, fuel poverty and pensioner poverty—to make sure that the Government can sustain their good record.

Royal Navy: Piracy

2.52 pm

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Trooper Ratu Babakobau, who was killed on Friday, 2 May in Afghanistan.

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As for the Question, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not provide advice to the Royal Navy. The Ministry of Defence provides classified policy advice to the Royal Navy, which in turn provides detailed classified policy and legal guidance to its commanding officers to enable them to fulfil the United Kingdom’s obligations under international law including, in particular, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. The pirates off the coast of Somalia are becoming ever bolder, frequently attacking in excess of 100 miles out from the coast. They certainly do not come from Penzance; they are very nasty people indeed. When the Royal Navy captures some of them, how will they be dealt with and brought to justice? Who has jurisdiction, and where will they be tried?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Earl is right to say that incidents of piracy in that part of the world have increased. Although such incidents have fortunately decreased in other parts of the world, they are becoming a more difficult problem on the coast of Africa that he mentioned. The Royal Navy has an obligation under international law to help if it is in a position to offer assistance. If it is in the vicinity, it has powers of capture, should that be appropriate, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Should people be apprehended and taken into custody by the Royal Navy—this has not happened so far—they would remain in United Kingdom custody until any ship of ours entered territorial waters, but before that happened we would talk to any of the nations that might be involved. As it is very rare for an instance of piracy to involve nationals from only one nation, you have to take into account the ownership of the ship, the personnel on board and the territory into which they may be going. If people involved in piracy were brought back to this country, they would be subject to the British criminal justice system.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I should like to enjoin these Benches in the Minister’s earlier tribute.

The British Chamber of Shipping’s annual review states:

To this end are Her Majesty’s Government having discussions with the Somalian Government on allowing hot pursuit or similar on their territory?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, what the noble Lord says is absolutely true. We have a problem in this area because of the ineffectiveness of the domestic Government in Somalia and their inability to tackle this problem. This concerns us and the United Nations. There have been two resolutions in the United Nations within the past year and discussions are under way

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about a possible further resolution which would affect Somalia in particular. We are trying to assist Somalia, both individually and collectively with our allies, so that it can provide more protection. It is not an easy task but is one that we take very seriously.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that under both the law of nations and the Merchant Shipping Acts an act of piracy is a crime at international law and therefore triable in the courts of England and Wales wherever it has occurred? Can she tell the House when the last prosecution occurred and whether any prosecutions are either contemplated or in train?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I have no knowledge of any prosecutions. As I said, the Royal Navy has not been involved in apprehending and arresting anybody for piracy, so it has not yet brought anybody back to this country. By definition, that means that no cases are pending.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia are clearly becoming extremely serious and spreading to other regions as well? The recent publicity about the instructions to the Royal Navy has caused considerable concern. Can she explain how it is possible for the French navy to operate much more robustly than seems to be permitted to the Royal Navy?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, as I said, all these cases are individual and different and the situation is therefore very complex. I think that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the operations of another state. As I said, very often not just one country is involved because a ship may belong to one country but individuals and the crew may come from another.

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