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House of Lords

Wednesday, 14 May 2008.

The House met at three o'clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop ofLiverpool): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Shipping: Irish Lights

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have accepted the recommendation in the Review of Funding for the Commissioners of Irish Lights that there should be negotiations between the two Governments to make early decisions on a lasting funding solution. A constructive meeting between officials took place in Dublin on 1 May. It is too early at this stage to say when negotiations will be completed and a new agreement put in place.

Lord Berkeley: I am grateful to my noble friend for that full Answer. I congratulate the British and Irish Governments on commissioning this joint report 84 years after independence. Is he aware that ships entering British ports are still making a contribution of about £8.5 million a year in maintaining Irish Lights? Notwithstanding the information he has given about that very welcome first meeting, when will there be a decision so that this inequitable contribution can finally stop?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am unused to being congratulated in government but I thank my noble friend for his congratulations. It is difficult to predict when the negotiations will finish. They will have to consider the running costs of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and items such as the funding of ships and other large assets, redundancy, trading between the three GLAs and commercial income.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I shall follow the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. There are confusing figures about how much the UK might be subsidising Irish lighthouses, but if it is near £8 million a year and has been going on, I am told, for something like 20 years, that amounts to £160 million. Would not that have kept a lot of post offices open?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am delighted to receive that question because one of the points I wanted to make was to describe the Irish Lights system and lighthouses in general. There is no provision whatever from the UK Exchequer. In the best possible tradition of our Government and the generality of UK government, the users pay. The contribution is paid for by users at

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35p a tonne. That means that only about 0.3 per cent of the total shipping costs for the deep-sea service are paid for this. That is good value for money at no cost to the UK taxpayer.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, in declaring an interest as an elder brother of Trinity House and welcoming the fact that negotiations are going on with the Government of Ireland, which is a special case in point, are we not in danger of straying into difficult and possibly counterproductive waters when comparing contributions, bearing in mind that the light-due contributions from England outweigh those from Scotland by 12:1? Is it not a fact that the three general lighthouse authorities provide an integrated service for the safety of navigation and operate a system whereby ships can be used by one another as and when required?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I will not venture into the Scottish/English question because I am not that courageous, but I agree that there are many benefits in having an integrated light service provided by all three authorities. Many ships coming to British ports pass through Irish waters. It is important that they are protected in an integrated way. Having entirely separate systems in the Republic and the UK would be likely to cost more.

It should be noted that the Commissioners of Irish Lights, which has existed for more than 200 years in one form or another, is a great example of a whole-Ireland body that has served both countries well from the creation of the Republic of Ireland and right through the Troubles.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, drew attention to the fact that the negotiations with the Irish Government are protracted. The Minister may recall that I have asked several times when negotiations with the Irish Government over the repeated breaches in road-safety law in north Wales will be concluded. Will he confirm that there is some sense of urgency, because British ships and hauliers are put at a significant competitive disadvantage by the present arrangements?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the competitive disadvantage has been alleged in many cases, but the most recent study by the Department for Transport concludes that there would be no change in shipping patterns even if the light charges were to be zero. In fact, the impact of any negotiation would be at best 10 per cent of light charges. I am not seized of the argument that there is a significant competitive disadvantage.

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein: My Lords, it is a self-evident proposition from the Brooke report that we should try to work towards a ratio of 85:15 instead of the present 70:30. Does the Minister agree that nothing should be done which might affect the close co-operation between the three general lighthouse authorities, which between them, as has already been said, provide an integrated service throughout the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland? That

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close co-operation is exemplified in research and development, which has reduced the costs to shipping during the past many years. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, mentioned the intership agreement. Quite recently, I saw an Irish vessel operating in Scotland.

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein: My Lords, I asked the Minister whether he agreed with me.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, in so much as I heard the question, I agree. There is no denying that the integrated service offered by the three general lighthouse authorities is essential. Any arrangement must maintain either that integrated service or a service which is as effective and cost-effective.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I totally agree with the Minister. Other noble Lords and I have declared an interest, but does the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, have an interest to declare whenever he asks these Questions?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, that is not a question for Her Majesty’s Government.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, how many lights have the British maintained around the world?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I work very hard at this brief, but the answer to that is not in it. I will write to the noble Lord.

Maldives: Elections

3.09 pm

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bach: My Lords, the United Kingdom is providing financial support for Commonwealth efforts to improve the Maldivian legislative electoral framework. Free, fair and credible elections in the Maldives are a crucial element of democratic reform there, as my noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown emphasised to Dr Mohamed Asim, the high commissioner, in March. When our high commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives presented his credentials on 8 May, President Gayoom gave assurances of his commitment to the elections.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that eight political parties are already registered and 150,000 electors are voting across nearly 200 islands? One of the imperatives for a free and fair election is to ensure that the parliamentary process can run normally. As he will be aware, I put a

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proposal to Her Majesty's Government that a senior Clerk from the House of Commons should be on loan for a period of perhaps four months to assist the Maldivian Government to ensure that that happens. Perhaps I may also ask the Government to ensure that funds are made available for the preparation prior to elections. These elections are so important for this country which is moving from autocratic rule to fully fledged democracy. I request that Her Majesty's Government give them the most support possible.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who is chairman of the All-Party Group on the Maldives and is now, I think, a very well known figure in the islands. I know that he has talked to my noble friend. I can tell him that we are considering a request from the Maldivian Government to provide a parliamentary expert to advise on parliamentary procedures. It is a little early to say whether that will happen but the idea is very much being taken on board. I also take his point that these are the first multiparty elections in the Maldives. The House will be delighted by that progress. We will do everything within our power to ensure that the legislative electoral framework is improved in the Maldives.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, what assurances has the Minister sought from the Government of the Maldives that they will establish, as they promised to do, a fair and independent elections commission well before the elections? Can the EU send electoral monitors to monitor the process? Can anything be done to ensure that there will be a free press with equal access for all candidates by the time of the elections?

Lord Bach: My Lords, on election observers, the European Commission has agreed to field an assessment mission which will allow the EU to make an informed statement on the conduct of the presidential elections, the first elections to be held. Subject to an evaluation mission, the Commonwealth, of which the Maldives is a member, is also likely to send observers. We strongly support international monitoring and will look to join an international observation mission as short-term observers too. We will do all that we can to ensure that these are free elections. They are, of course, the Maldivians’ own elections.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, while I am sure that free and fair elections in the Maldives are close to the heart of everyone in this House, will the Minister ensure that we have free and fair elections in this country by implementing the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and of two judges, who described the present systems for postal voting as fraudulent, worthy only of a banana republic?

Lord Bach: My Lords, some might say—perhaps the whole House would say—that that was wide of the mark of this Question, by perhaps 10,000 miles. At the same time the noble Lord is such a distinguished Member of this House that I can say that we are considering the matters he has mentioned.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, returning to the Question, will the Minister stick to his brief and his line that the Commonwealth is probably the best instrument through which to ensure free and fair elections in the Maldives? If every other international organisation starts sending monitoring teams as well, the islands, which are very small, will become quite unnecessarily crowded.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord's enthusiasm for the Commonwealth, which we share, is well known in the House. I do not think that there is any danger of too many people going to the Maldives for these elections.

House of Lords: Reform

3.13 pm

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government plan to publish a White Paper on Lords reform before the Summer Recess.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, which I welcome. I also welcome the consideration of the draft Civil Service Bill of 2004, which had been expected in many Statements to this House over the past 10 years. It states that there will be two special advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office who can authorise expenditure and have supervision over civil servants. How does my noble friend reconcile the role of civil servants, who for 150 years have been responsible to Ministers, but who are now subordinate to two special advisers? On the issue of an elected or partially elected second Chamber, there could be an unbridgeable conflict between such a Chamber and the House of Commons. Is it not clear that Parliament could be faced with a problem not seen since 1909, when the House of Lords rejected Lloyd George's Budget?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not recognise the problem in the terms suggested by my noble friend. The cross-party group has considered many of these matters in informing the Government’s construction of a White Paper but not that particular one.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, has the amiable consensus between the Front Benches and the working group yet developed to a point at which the Government share the view of the Leader of the Opposition that House of Lords reform would be a project best deferred until the third Parliament after this one?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is not for me to answer for the Leader of the Opposition—although long may he continue in that esteemed role. The cross-party group talks have been constructive and we will produce a White Paper before the

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Summer Recess. We hope to reach a consensus, which we hope will be reflected in party manifestos. It would then be possible for a Bill to be brought before Parliament after the next election.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, the Minister will recall that the Leader of the House wrote to all Members of this House inviting them to submit views on these issues. Will he tell the House how many responses have been received and, in particular, whether everyone now accepts the primacy of the House of Commons—in which case, any starting point for the Government’s White Paper must be on the basis of the votes of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons last year?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my understanding is that following the letter from the Lord President, there have been three formal representations—two papers from two separate groups of Peers and one letter to me from an individual Peer. Those communications have been extremely valuable and have been made available to the cross-party group.

As far as primacy is concerned, there were votes in both Houses last March. There was somewhat of a disagreement between the House of Commons and this House. Inevitably, on that position, the Commons has primacy.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, since this House has not been given the privilege of knowing what happens in the cross-party group, will the Minister assure us, following the repeated assurances that we have already been given, that the White Paper will state that at least 20 per cent of a reformed House of Lords will be independent?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, work in the cross-party group is being taken forward on the basis of the two votes in the Commons in favour of both a 100 per cent and an 80 per cent elected House. Therefore, it is intended that both options will appear in the White Paper. Clearly, this is still work in progress, but the work has been undertaken in the light of those two votes.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, surely the use of the term “cross-party” is a misnomer as the group consists of Front-Bench representatives who do not represent the views of those on the Back Benches in this House. Why do the Government take the view that it is in the public interest that the proceedings of this cross-party group should be kept secret?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, on the membership of the cross-party group, it does not seem to me exceptional that leaders from all three parties should be invited to join it. That is how consensus will be created between the political parties.

Noble Lords: Oh!

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have debated this matter on many occasions. I suspect we will not all come to the same view. The original cross-party group, which led to the February 2007 White Paper and to the votes in both Houses, was based on the coming together of representatives of the leadership of the three main political parties and we decided to continue with that process.

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