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House of Lords

Wednesday, 11 June 2008.

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

Middle East Peace Process

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary visited Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the past few days. He intended to continue on to Israel but has returned to the UK early because of urgent parliamentary business. We are looking for the next available opportunity to reinstate his visit.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Could the Government remind Ambassador Ron Prosor that when moderate, sensible people in Britain criticise Israeli policies, they are not criticising Israel as a country, but some of Prime Minister Olmert’s less wise, more foolish, policies in the occupied West Bank? When do the Government think that Prime Minister Olmert is going to commence substantive negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on the real issues required to get to a Palestinian state by the end of this year?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the first point, all of us in this House abhor anti-Semitism in any form and are strong supporters of the state of Israel, but he is quite correct that it does not mean that there should not be a right to robust debate and disagreement about how peace in the Middle East is best achieved. The two issues are not helpfully conflated. On his second point, there is progress in the Annapolis process, and indeed regular meetings are taking place between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas. Let us hope that they produce results, although whether that will be by the end of the year, I know no more than the noble Lord.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, is the Minister aware that since Annapolis the pace of settlement expansion has increased significantly, particularly in and around East Jerusalem? The Israeli authorities have recently announced that 800 settler homes are to be built in East Jerusalem, bringing the total of additional housing units to be built around East Jerusalem since Annapolis to 9,617. Given Her Majesty’s Government’s consistent view that settlement expansion in the occupied territories is illegal, and even the American view that it is unhelpful, will the Government draw the attention of both the Israeli Government and President Bush

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when he visits London next week to the fact that the continuing expansion of settlements seriously undermines the one hope of protecting Israel’s long-term security; namely, the creation of a Palestinian state as agreed at Annapolis?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord draws our attention to an important point. We have raised with the Israeli Government our concerns about recent reports of the construction of new housing units in illegal settlements. I say again that this is in breach of Israel’s road map commitments, which call for a freeze on all settlement construction. Moreover, it threatens negotiations on a two-state solution, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was able to see for himself this week.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, is my noble friend aware whether, in the negotiations being brokered by Egypt between Hamas and Israel, the cessation of the supply of missiles and other arms from Egypt into Gaza is part of the deal?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we hope that the Annapolis process can be the vehicle for securing a ceasefire at an early stage. The rocket attacks into Israeli territories are doing enormous harm both to civilians and the peace process, as are indiscriminate retaliatory actions by Israel against civilians in Gaza. Peace requires that this stops.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the Minister referred to the Annapolis process—and we all welcome the fact that it is a process and was not a one-off meeting—but can he be more specific about what the follow-up involves? When are the next meetings? Would it be fair to say that the most disruptive elements to progress are, first, the Hamas control of Gaza, which splits the entire Palestine case in a tragic way; and, secondly, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, rightly made, that the settlements continue to be built over an area which is meant to be Palestine? These surely are the two issues that have to be focused on in a follow-up meeting very soon.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point about the Annapolis process, obviously the now regular meetings between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas give it real substance. Indeed, the briefings we receive from the United States and others involved in Annapolis are that there are cautious grounds for some optimism around certain components of the deal. That gives us all encouragement. On the second point, obviously the election of Hamas in Gaza makes everything more complicated. But it represented the views of Palestinian citizens at the time of the election and we have to live with these political realities and find a way to make peace despite them.

Lord Richard: My Lords, my noble friend told the House a few moments ago about representations made by the Government to the Government of Israel about the settlements. What was the reaction of the Government of Israel to those representations?

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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Government of Israel’s position on this is unchanging. They believe that there are settlers who need homes and, pending a final solution via Annapolis or another process, they do not see a need to cease this construction activity. It is in some ways, if you like, a bargaining chip—but we wish they would not throw it on the table.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, have the Government had any contact with President Carter following his meetings with Hamas and his statement that he felt Hamas was now prepared to negotiate a long-term ceasefire?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I am not aware of such contacts but certainly if there have been any I will let the noble Lord know. As to the broader point, a number of officials no longer in government, both in the US and in the UK, have made the point that there needs to be contact with Hamas. That is the luxury of not being in office. For those in government on either side of the Atlantic, the quartet principles requiring a cessation of violence, the recognition of Israel and the acceptance of earlier agreements made by the Palestinians remain the pre-conditions for direct contacts by government.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that last week’s talks in Senegal between Hamas and Fatah could be very useful and restore trust between these organisations so that both of them will move towards peace with Israel? Does he see any real hope that may lead to the re-establishment of a Palestinian Government of National Unity in the near future which would want to live at peace with their neighbours and would be prepared to discuss with them, in peace, how best to achieve that end?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we have always deferred to President Abbas, as the head of the PLO and as the President of the Palestinian Authority, to make any judgments about reconciliation with Hamas. Certainly, the general principle of a united Palestinian people committed to peace and a two-state solution is a critical basis for proceeding.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Structural Changes

3.09 pm

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the department’s mission is to enable everyone to live within our environmental means. That is underpinned by two public service agreement objectives: to secure a healthy natural environment and to lead the global effort to avoid dangerous climate change. In addition,

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the department has eight strategic objectives, of which two examples are: a thriving farming and food sector, and stronger communities. The structural changes in question are designed to enable Defra to meet these objectives more effectively. My priority remains what it has been for the past two years: the operation of the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, while I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, is he not disappointed in some ways that the two main strategic objectives are in fact dealing with climate change and diverse natural environment? Surely, in the age of food security and food shortages, the very department that is responsible for food and farming should highlight that. However, it does not; indeed, it does not even include farming in its name.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, this is rerunning history. Food, farming and rural affairs are still our priorities. Climate change is a priority, but it encompasses a lot of these other issues. The way we farm and manage the land, and the things farmers can do to mitigate and attack climate change, are a major contribution, as was said during the debates on the Climate Change Bill in this House. Just because the word “farming” is not in the title does not mean that it is not a top priority. As I have just mentioned, one of the department’s strategic objectives is a thriving farming and food sector.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, with the worldwide changes in the food commodity market during the past 12 months, as reflected in the international food conference last week, does the Minister agree that a reassessment is required of his department’s budget in the Government’s priorities? I declare my interest in the food and farming industry.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the reassessment will come from the Strategy Unit and the Cabinet Office later this summer, as we have had a review of the food sector and the overall holistic contribution that it makes to both climate change and the cost of living.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, I am pleased that the Minister has mentioned the eight objectives. It is interesting that on his website, where they are listed, it says at the bottom that further information can be found on the Treasury website. Does that not rather suggest the subservient nature of Defra to the Treasury, particularly after the severe budget cuts there have been? What does the Minister intend to do to reassert Defra’s strength against the Treasury?

Lord Rooker: The public service agreements are with the Treasury. That is how and why departments get the money, so we have an agreement with the Treasury about how we spend it. We are trying to get value for money by restructuring the department, as is mentioned in the article referred to in the noble Baroness’s Question. As a result of the flexible working, I might add, we have saved 800 jobs, in the sense that we are 800 fewer than we were; we are working a lot more smartly; and Work Wise UK, a non-profit initiative that aims to make the UK more competitive, has made

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Defra not only the first government department to receive accreditation for its quality mark in terms of flexible working but the first public sector organisation in the country to do so.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the article contains a delightful picture of the Permanent Secretary scanning London’s horizons. Does the Minister agree that wildlife is a sentinel to climate change and to animal health in this country? Why have wildlife surveillance and research fallen off Defra’s horizons, in that they get very little funding, if any at all? DfID probably contributes much more to wildlife research in Africa than ever happens here.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Countess mentioned the article in passing. I am not sure if that was a dig at the Permanent Secretary, who has visited farms and nature reserves across the country. Wildlife surveillance and research have not dropped off our agenda. Not everything is a top priority, but we are still working in that area. We have reprioritised the department but we have not jettisoned or walked away from the host of wildlife work that she referred to.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, given the successful debate last Thursday on the EU Committee’s report on the reform of the CAP, what importance does the department give to that subject and what resources are dedicated to such reform?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, they are major, simply because reform of the CAP is crucial. The health check documents have been published. It is hoped that the matter will be settled by the end of the year. I hope that that will lead to simplification of the common agricultural policy and its being less of an imposition. Within five years, when the next budget review takes place, there may be complete reform of the CAP.

Part of the health check is simplifying the single farm payment arrangements, which is a top priority. I am very pleased to announce today that we have met our European Union target of paying the 96.14 per cent of the total budget, which was announced this morning at 96.27 per cent, and we have paid 94.86 per cent of the farmers. I pay tribute to the rural payments agency, because that is a remarkable transformation in the past two years. The people in the office have worked their socks off, in co-operation with farmers and our stakeholders. It gives us a much better chance to make next year, the 2008 payment year, the first normal year of the single farm payment system, which is what we always predicted.

Railways: Electrification

3.16 pm

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government committed in last year’s rail White Paper, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, to keep the case for electrification under review. The Department for Transport is working closely with the rail industry to explore how to improve the affordability of electrification schemes. Part of this work involves evaluating the impact of changes in diesel and electricity prices on the business case for electrifying different routes.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply and wish him a very happy birthday. Is he aware that the apparent change of heart on the part of the Government towards railway electrification is very much appreciated? He referred to last year’s White Paper, which seemed to have been based on an oil price of $50 a barrel. With the oil price now at $139 a barrel, it seems that those economics need fundamentally to be changed, particularly in the transport sector. A further appeal of electricity as a means of powering trains is that it can be generated from a variety of sources, produces fewer emissions and is a great deal easier to maintain. The Secretary of State for Transport last week referred to the desirability of a rolling programme of electrification. Can we have early announcements on the Great Western main line and the Midland main line north of Bedford?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s support for the Secretary of State’s statement. Our transport appraisal process takes full account of forecast oil prices and the environmental benefits of electrification. We recognise that oil prices are at record levels, which will undoubtedly improve the business case for electrification. If we are moving in the general direction of increasing electrification, a strong business case is to be made for the Midland and Great Western main lines. Indeed, that business case was set out in the Atkins review in 2007.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, why is the Minister so gloomy about all this? Why does he not openly welcome the sharp increases in oil prices? Is he not aware that the noble Lord, Lord Turner, the chairman of the Government’s climate change commission, acknowledged to the Financial Times only a few days ago that the Government’s climate change policy, as set out in their absurd Climate Change Bill, requires a substantial increase in energy prices? Although we have not got there yet, does he not welcome the fact that at least we are on the way?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I guess that I would welcome the change in oil prices in the same way as the noble Lord would have welcomed it when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the paramount duties of any Government is the defence of the realm? We are becoming very open to threats to our energy supplies, with all the devastating consequences that there could be. When will we start this electrification, which is often announced? It will take a long time to do and, the longer we wait, the more vulnerable we are. Are we even training the staff to do the job? I believe not.

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