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House of Lords

Wednesday, 4 June 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

Immigration: Heathrow Airport

Baroness Hanham asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we welcome the first report of the independent monitoring board on the short-term holding facilities at Heathrow Airport. We have provided the chair of the board with an action plan addressing the main areas of concern raised in that report.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that the report raises serious concerns about the physical conditions in the short-term holding facilities and about the care and welfare of detained immigrants? Does he agree that it is unacceptable that—this is a snapshot of the many serious issues raised by board members—women and children should not have access to separate accommodation from unrelated men in each of the terminals, that where people are held for long periods there are no proper sleeping facilities and the Border and Immigration Agency says that it does not intend to provide them and that there are no proper washing facilities for the detainees to use in any of the terminals? How and when will all those issues be raised and by whom and when will they be dealt with?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we obviously share some of the concerns raised in the monitoring report. We have set out an action plan and agreed its main points with the chair of the independent monitoring board. Many of the issues to which the noble Baroness has referred are, of course, shared concerns and we shall be making progress over the next few months to raise the standards of care and facilities at Heathrow.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the report states:

What monitoring of the contractors is carried out by the Border and Immigration Agency? Is he satisfied with that monitoring?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have gone through the report today and am aware of the management issues to which the noble Baroness refers.

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Management has a responsibility and we are redoubling our efforts to ensure that there is proper monitoring and that observation of the contracts is fully maintained.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, who is the contractor involved in these facilities?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: GS4, my Lords.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, another point brought up by the monitoring board is the length of time that people have to wait in such conditions. Will the Government lay down criteria on an acceptable length of time for the contractors to keep people waiting and will the contract specify those?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I made a slight error in my previous answer. It is G4S. It is easy to get these acronyms wrong. I say in answer to the noble Baroness that we do not want to detain people for lengthy periods in the short-term holding facility, which is what it is and what it is there for. The maximum period for people to be held is generally around eight hours. About two-thirds of people are moved on from that point into the more secure part of the detention and removal estate.

Lord Elton: My Lords, my noble friend on the Front Bench asked a series of specific questions, but the Minister gave a general answer. Can he answer any of the questions that she asked and specifically whether anything is to be done about there being no proper washing facilities in any of the terminals and whether something is to be done about the lack of separate accommodation for women, children and unrelated men?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there is a timeline to solving these problems. The House needs to appreciate that the facilities are not in the gift of the UK Border Agency; they are owned and provided by the British Airports Authority, with which we have to work and negotiate to secure improvements. That is why I cannot give more specific answers. Separate facilities are being developed so that women and children can be separated from others who are temporarily detained. It is not easy to secure improvements to some of these problems in the short term. However, I shall ensure that there is more information about this and I shall try to provide a timeline for some of these improvements. I shall happily provide more precise answers in writing.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is not a new problem? It has existed for 20 years to my knowledge, as I was a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal and came across such cases. Why is it taking so long to provide decent facilities for these people when they come into this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I accept that the facilities at Heathrow are, to be frank, basic and in need of improvement. The independent monitoring board has highlighted a number of key issues that need to be resolved. The action plan is long and

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complex. Officials have to work with the UK Border Agency and the airports authority to secure longer-term improvement so that those who are quite rightly detained are held in more comfortable accommodation.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, would the noble Lord like to rephrase his answer that it is not the responsibility of the Government to detain people but the responsibility of the British Airports Authority? Furthermore, is it not a disgrace that, in a country as civilised and as grown-up as we are, we lock up people even for eight hours without proper washing and shaving facilities? That is nothing to be smug about and it is nothing about which we should not hang our heads in shame.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government are not smug or complacent about these things. These are difficult and sensitive issues. We quite rightly detain people; if we did not, noble Lords opposite would complain loudly about our failure properly to protect our borders. Yes, we provide decent standards and facilities and, yes, we are addressing the serious issues that the monitoring board has rightly drawn to our attention.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, what facilities are there for people to be met by those who speak their language and to be given information about their situation in their language while they are being held at Heathrow?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, when we detain somebody at our borders, we try to ensure that they can be talked to in their own language. When they are detained, we make provision to identify the language in which they wish to conduct themselves and we then bring in interpreters. Unfortunately, that is one reason why people spend longer than we would prefer in short-term holding facilities.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the core of the problem is nothing short of money? If enough money were spent on the facilities, we would have what we need. The British Airports Authority has failed to do that and is not fit for purpose; Heathrow is a national disgrace.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is somewhat wide of the Question. Clearly the facilities are the responsibility of the British Airports Authority. We work with it to secure improvements to the quality of the short-term holding facility. Obviously we have to ensure that we do more to raise those standards.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, how can the Government say that they are not being complacent about—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we are in the ninth minute.

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Economy: “Boom and Bust”

3.15 pm

Lord Selsdon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, a platform of stability is necessary for high and stable levels of growth and employment. That is what this Government’s policies have delivered, with a record period of growth and with inflation that in the past 10 years on average has been half what it was in the previous two decades. This is in stark contrast with the record of the previous Administration, when there were two deep recessions and unemployment reached 3 million.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, in all my years in the House that is the first time I have had an Answer that bears no relationship to the Question. I am asking for a definition. In my life, I have been brought up with stagflation, reflation and inflation, and when you had problems we would introduce a word. The one I introduce is the Icarus factor. The Government have flown too high and boomed, and their wings are melting and falling off. What will the future economy of this country be based on?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I thought that I had answered the Question directly. I indicated that “bust” might be when unemployment reached 3 million, which it did under the previous Administration, and I indicated that the levels of stable growth under this Administration are in contrast with the accelerated growth that leads to bust, which happened under the previous Administration.

Lord Bilimoria: My Lords, the Chancellor’s former statement—we are talking about “no more boom and bust”—could arguably today be rephrased as “boom, then bust”. Does the Minister believe in economic cycles? What proportion of our economic predicament today does he believe is on account of global conditions? What plans do the Government have to prevent a recession?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I think the House recognises that in no period under this Administration has there not been economic growth; nor are there forecasts of any period when we will not have economic growth. We have reduced our growth forecasts below what they were three or four years ago, because we recognise that world economic circumstances and the credit crunch adversely affect our economy, but reduced economic growth is a world away from bust.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, in 1999, the current Prime Minister, in a Mansion House speech, described the symptoms of boom and bust as,

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If that does not describe the present state of the economy, what does?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, there is a forecast that, predominately through very high and rising world prices for food and energy, inflation will rise in the forthcoming quarters. We anticipate inflation rising to just over 3 per cent: in other words, below half the average that the previous Administration managed. That is why we think we are talking in very different terms from those of the previous Administration and their supporters today.

Lord Soley: My Lords, am I not right that, while we experience the first global financial crisis, families will suffer here and overseas, but that it is worth bearing in mind that unemployment in Britain is half that in our European competitors? Manufacturing growth is actually increasing in Britain and our exports are doing very well. We are not devaluing the pound, as happened in the 1990s, and we will get through this difficult international crisis rather well and without the double-digit interest rates that we had under a previous Government.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the whole House will be as grateful to my noble friend as I am for fleshing out those statistics. I emphasise that we should appreciate that the International Monetary Fund regards the problems that the world is going through at present, with the credit crunch, as being as great as any that we have had since 1929. None of us underestimates the challenge, but I am accurately reflecting not just Treasury forecasts but independent forecasters in saying that this economy will weather this storm somewhat better than in the period when the previous Administration were in control.

Lord Newby: My Lords, whatever else is happening in the economy, will the Minister accept that we are facing a collapse in the housing market and in new housebuilding? What are the Government doing to get the housing market moving again, and what will they do to ensure that we do not see a rising stock of half-finished, unoccupied houses?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the housing market is an important dimension of the difficulties that we face. The House will know of the significant support that we have put forward to sustain the market for those facing mortgage difficulties. The noble Lord is right, however, that in the short term there are bound to be difficulties with the level of house purchasing. That does not alter the fact that this Government look rather further ahead than the next few months. It is still the case that house prices reflect an acute house shortage in this country, which is why we will continue to see an increase in house-building in the forthcoming period.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, has the Minister’s attention been drawn to a report revealing that, as a

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result of the relaxation in the licensing laws in 2002, the number of sex clubs in London has doubled? Is that boom or bust?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I lack familiarity with sex clubs.

Bank of England: Monetary Policy Committee

3.22 pm

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Bank of England Act 1998 sets the objectives of the Bank in relation to monetary policy: to maintain price stability and, subject to that, to support the economic policy of Her Majesty’s Government including their objectives for growth and employment. The Government continually monitor the monetary policy framework to ensure that it remains at the forefront of international best practice. Changes to the framework are implemented only when clear advantages can be established for doing so.

Lord Barnett: Yes, my Lords, but my noble friend will have noticed that the governor is very concerned about having to write a letter to the Chancellor on the level of inflation. Would he care to join me in asking the Chancellor to send a letter to the governor congratulating him on his recent inflation report, which indicated that inflation will stay at about the level of his target over the medium term? In the short term, it might reach 3.7 per cent, but that is by no means catastrophic. Would he therefore remind the Chancellor to tell the governor that his second remit is now to ensure that the Government’s economic policy for growth should be continued? If he agrees with me, I will draft the letter if he likes.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I would not think there was any doubt that the Chancellor would look to my noble friend for any such help if it were needed, but it is not. The governor will indeed be obliged under the legislation to write to the Chancellor if the inflation rate exceeds 3 per cent, and forecasts indicate that it will do so in the fairly near future. As my noble friend has indicated, 3.1 per cent is scarcely catastrophic when, in the 1980s and 1990s, we were consistently used to seeing inflation rates that were double that and, at one stage, as high as 15 per cent. We ought not, then, to think that because world economic circumstances are unfavourable, Britain is in any way, shape or form remotely near economic crisis.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that against a background of rampant house-price inflation in this country and credit growth, the Monetary Policy Committee should be more focused on asset-price inflation and money growth than purely on CPI inflation?

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