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House of Lords

Thursday, 15 May 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Iraq: Basra

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, our forces still have a vital job to do in Basra. Their primary focus is now on training and mentoring the 14th Division of the Iraqi army until it is fully operational. They also support Iraqi-led operations when requested, as they did during the recent successful Iraqi operations in the city. In addition, our forces facilitate economic reconstruction—in particular at Basra’s international airport—and lead the training of the Iraqi navy.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. As we know, strong evidence suggests that most of the weapons being used by the Iranian-backed group there, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and ever more sophisticated roadside bombs, are of Iranian origin. What are we doing diplomatically to counter the threat to Iraqi stability and to the lives of our troops, and how successful have we been on the ground with Iraqi troops in preventing the transfer of those weapons into southern Iraq and the Iranian training of the insurgents?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is quite right to say that a great deal of the weaponry that is coming in and being used by insurgents in Iraq either originates from or comes through Iran. It is a topic of great concern to us all. We are taking action diplomatically in a number of ways, including by trying to involve influential countries in the region as well as exerting our influence directly. We are supporting the Department of Border Enforcement in Iraq, and our fast jets help and assist in that. That is very important. Everybody involved recognises that the problem of weapons coming in to the insurgents from Iran is very significant.

Lord Addington: My Lords, in view of the fact that the Americans seem to have been called on for assistance last time that the Iraqi forces were engaged in Basra as a first port of call, why are we there in such large numbers in combat units if we are there primarily as training support?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there is a slight misapprehension there. The Americans did go to Basra, in somewhat limited numbers, in support of the extra Iraqi troops that went into Basra, because

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the Americans were monitoring those divisions. Similarly, when Iraqi troops have been moved into Baghdad, British advisers and support people—those who were mentoring and training those divisions—did go with them. So it is nothing exceptional for coalition forces that are mentoring specific divisions of the Iraqi army to go with those divisions when they are on operations.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, is there any indication of when this training programme is likely to come to an end? What progress has been made on it? I seem to recall Ministers indicating earlier a stage when they thought the training would be completed. Does the Minister have a forecast?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord, with his experience, will know that the training of any armed forces is not a single one-off event: it is training, mentoring and additional support where that is requested. The recent events in Basra city proved very successful in attacking the militia and criminal elements. The Iraqi forces took the lead but they had support and help from elsewhere. That was important. On that basis, it would be wrong to try to set a target date for when that training and mentoring could come to an end.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, bearing in mind that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Territorial Army, will the Minister say what proportion of the troops in Basra are being drawn from the Territorial Army?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I cannot give a figure at this moment but I will certainly write on that matter. The Territorial Army and our reservists generally have a significant role to play. They have been very valuable in the work that they have done.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that few graver criticisms can be made of any Government than that they should undertake greater military commitments than they can produce the resources to meet those commitments? Is it not clear that there have not been adequate forces to best achieve the missions which have been so brilliantly performed by our Armed Forces in Basra and Afghanistan? Would it not be better to switch the Basra forces to Afghanistan? Will the Government overall make up their mind on whether they will adjust the resources to the commitments or the commitments to the resources?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the commitments which the Government have given to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been substantial indeed: £10 billion in recent years, and from the Treasury, not the MoD budget. I acknowledge the noble Lord’s praise for the work of the Armed Forces and the fact that he says that they have been brilliant in what they do. But at this stage it would be somewhat premature and somewhat irresponsible to go for a simplistic solution such as switching troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

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Baroness Tonge: In this week commemorating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, and thus the Naqba—catastrophe—in Palestine, will the Minister agree that it would have been much, much better to have put huge efforts into solving the Israel-Palestine question instead of making war on Iraq?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I do not think that work on a solution of the Middle East problem in terms of Israel and Palestine is mutually exclusive with the operations that we have undertaken. The Government still put a great deal of effort into trying to get a settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation that will suit everyone.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, pursuant to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, about the flow of arms from Iran into Iraq, can the Minister tell the House when we first became aware of the flow of these arms into Iraq; what representations we have made to the authorities in Tehran over the years since they first started to flow; and what response have we had?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I do not think that the Iranian authorities are very keen to acknowledge the scale of the problem. We have made it clear to the Iranians that supporting groups responsible for violence—there are a number of insurgency groups in Iraq—is totally unacceptable. We have done that directly. As I said earlier, we have also been seeking to influence the Iranian Government diplomatically by encouraging other countries in the region to put pressure on as well and face up to the difficulties that will arise if this kind of activity continues.

Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund

11.14 am

Lord Redesdale asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Defra plans to spend £24 million on the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund in 2008-09. That is more than we spent in 2007-08.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that proposals were put forward to reduce the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and that that would have a massive impact in local communities? Will he assure the House that the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund will be increased in line with the fact that the aggregates levy has increased quite dramatically? This is a tax on the extraction of aggregates, but the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund has been set up to help local communities deal with the environmental impact of such extraction.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we will certainly sustain the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. As I indicated, we are spending more in this coming year than we did last year. However, there is no direct correlation between the levy and the sustainability fund. The levy is not a hypothecated tax, and it goes to many other purposes beyond the sustainability fund. The sustainability fund has a significant role to play and we are increasing expenditure accordingly.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, where a former gravel pit has been converted into an attractive water feature or amenity for local people, has that been funded by the sustainability levy or by the industry itself?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the industry would be quick to point out that it contributes more than the allocation to the sustainability fund, but the sustainability fund is the instrument whereby targets are identified for support. It would be rash of me to say that in every case the sustainability fund has been the decision-taker, but of course the fund produces those benefits in crucial respects, and it is important to the environment. There is a broader issue. We need price signals to be sent out to the industry in order that it goes for the recycling of materials rather than the constant exploitation of natural aggregates.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, in the parish of Gresford in the 1930s a castle disappeared, together with the hill on which it stood, in order to provide aggregate for the Mersey tunnel. What proportion of the £24 million to which the noble Lord referred goes to archaeological sites for the preservation of our history in a way that did not happen in the past?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is part of the remit of the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, but National Heritage also has a role to play in exactly the area the noble Lord has identified. The question of aggregates covers so many issues with regard to the land and, I might say, with regard to marine resources. One of our major projects is to look at the impact on the seabed and marine life of the withdrawal of aggregates from the sea. All these issues have to be taken into account, which is why there has to be a relationship between National Heritage and the sustainability fund. A great deal of research has been carried out in recent years to enable the fund to target successfully.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, according to Defra, the aggregates levy raises more than £300 million a year. I am sure the noble Lord would not wish it to be seen as a stealth tax, but £24 million into the sustainability fund does not sound like a particularly robust use of that money in environmentally sensitive ways. To what extent has the pattern of spending changed over the years? The noble Lord told us that the planned spend this year was an increase. Could he give us figures for the previous three or four years, just to give us the pattern of spending?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I would not want to exaggerate the issue of spending in percentage terms, but we spent about £19 million the year before last and we have budgeted for £24 million this year. The House will recognise that the levy is not a hypothecated tax. It is there to sustain aspects of the industry as well and to send out a price signal, for which the noble Lord is likely to offer his support, that the aggregates industry has a particular responsibility regarding the environment. That is why the levy is in place to the level it is, although it has been increased this year only as an inflation index.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord misheard my noble friend’s question. My noble friend asked whether he would give the figures for the past three or four years. Does the noble Lord not have them, or does he not want to give them?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I would certainly give as much information as I have to hand. The noble Lord is indicating the Box, which has limited uses on occasions such as this. We have not spent as much as £24 million in the past two years and we are therefore making provision for additional spending. In the year before last, the figure was £17 million; and last year, it was £19 million. Those figures may not be precise. I was not being evasive; but merely indicating that there should be no suspicion that the Government are about cutting expenditure: we are not.

Food: EU Supplements Directive

11.20 am

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the UK Government support the EC food supplements directive and its broad objectives of ensuring safe supplements that are accurately labelled to facilitate consumer choice and of creating a level playing field for trade in these products throughout the European Community.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that somewhat surprising Answer and congratulate her on her courage in responding to this awkward Question. Perhaps it should have been answered by the Foreign Office, which got us into this mess in the first place. Do the Government not appreciate the damage that this directive, together with 10 similar pieces of EU legislation, is already doing to our health food sector and the havoc and suffering that this legislation will cause if the Government cannot alter it radically in Brussels or escape from it altogether? Secondly, I ask a question that I have asked before: why can we not deal with this matter ourselves? What has happened to subsidiarity?

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Baroness Thornton: My Lords, there are certainly a number of pieces of legislation that apply to the supplements industry. All these are designed to protect consumers and to ensure that they are not misled by the information given about products. Each piece of legislation has a sufficient lead-in time to enable the industry to collect the necessary data. The UK Government negotiated hard to make the food supplements directive as flexible as possible in order to allow substances to remain on the market while undergoing a safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority. The website of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association says:

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that the Government will continue to make every effort, in negotiations with the Commission and other member states, to ensure that the maximum permitted mineral and vitamin supplements will be in accordance with scientific assessments of risk made by expert bodies within the United Kingdom and endorsed by the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the directive created an obligation to set maximum levels for vitamins and minerals in food supplements on the basis of scientific risk assessment. Work is under way on this and proposals from the European Commission are expected in January 2009. The Food Standards Agency, on behalf of the UK, has been actively engaging in the Commission’s work on setting maximum levels through discussions. As noble Lords will appreciate, other member states in Europe take a different view from that of the UK. We have the most liberal market in this respect. We are working with member states to ensure that the levels set are flexible and risk-based, to balance consumer protection with the impact on UK business.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Minister not find it bizarre that everybody wants a single market but that, when the Commission tries to create one in certain special products, everyone is against it, particularly in the UK, for various reasons? Was not the recent answer by Commissioner Kyprianou on the proposed tabulation system for maximum amounts for food supplements a perfect balance between the legitimate special interests of member states and the need for a genuine single market that gives strong guidance to users in an increasingly mobile European Union?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord is completely correct. As I said, many UK food supplement manufacturers wish to expand their markets across Europe and we are keen that the food supplements directive should enable them to do so. At the same time, we are working hard with the industry to ensure that the domestic market is protected and allowed to grow and develop.

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