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House of Lords

Thursday, 12 June 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

The Earl of Stair—took the Oath.

National Parks

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, government departments have a statutory duty to have regard to the purposes of national parks and were reminded of that duty with the publication of Defra’s 2005 guidance note on the subject. As I have already said to the House, Defra will shortly re-send that guidance by way of a reminder. It is more important for government departments to have regard to the status of national parks than a specific responsibility to advance their causes.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I declare an interest as the vice-president of the Council for National Parks and president of the Friends of the Lake District. Does my noble friend agree that the vision and commitment of those who fought for the parks is more relevant than ever in our pressurised and stressed society? Does he further agree that they are literally the lungs and places for the physical and mental regeneration of the population? Is there not a danger that, because of other priorities, there could be a process of erosion and suburbanisation of the parks? Is it not essential that all government departments with any involvement in the parks have at the top of their priorities the preservation of this very special asset?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I certainly agree—the whole House will—with the thrust of what my noble friend has said. The national parks are there as lungs for the nation and are vastly used by millions of city dwellers. That does not mean to say that development will not take place in the national parks. That will have to be sustainable and take account of the economic and social circumstances of people living in the parks. But the national parks are not under threat from either the Planning Bill, which the House will receive in due course, or from their use by the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, in some parts of the national parks the land has probably been better looked after from a biodiversity point of view by the MoD than it would have been if it were otherwise.

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Lord Teverson: My Lords, is not climate change one of the main threats to national parks, particularly in relation to biodiversity? What is Defra doing to make sure that there are plans for adaptation of national parks—for example, of the Norfolk Broads, where there is a real threat of inundation by the sea?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not have a specific answer for that but, if memory serves me right, I do not think the issue of the national parks was ever raised during the passage of the Climate Change Bill. I will see that it is raised in the other place and that we get an answer to it.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, no doubt the Minister is aware that our designation for national parks gives a very high priority to access and enjoyment and, as such, falls below the highest criteria for conservation considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and into a category that prioritises the preservation of the physical landscape. As the Government are issuing new guidance, as the Minister mentioned, will they consider establishing different criteria for different parks that take into account traditional activities as well as natural criteria?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, all we are going to do is re-issue the guidance note that was put out in 2005. I promised to do that in a recent debate on areas of outstanding natural beauty and it is important that that is done. National parks each have their own authority and their own planning rules. As I have said, developments are taking place that need to be sustainable and take account of the circumstances, both social and economic, of the individual parks. I agree with the noble Duke that it is not a one-size-fits-all situation but there are no plans for the issue of new rules specific to each national park.

Lord Burnett: My Lords, I am proud to declare that I am a patron of the Dartmoor search and rescue group, a bunch of volunteers who do outstanding work. I know the Minister comes down to the West Country every now and again, and I am sure he is aware that the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Ministry of Defence work well together. Does he agree that it is imperative that our troops have a training area conveniently situated, like Dartmoor, so that they can have rigorous and realistic training?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord says. He is right. Areas of isolation away from the main population are, almost by definition, in the national parks, particularly areas of Dartmoor. That applies also to the Lake District when it comes to low flying practice. I know people have been irritated by it in the past, but all that irritation stopped during the first Gulf War when they saw how vital it was. There is a disturbance factor but, as I have said, those areas are vital for the training of our troops before they are sent abroad. We have a small island and a large population, so it is right that we use those areas that are isolated. As I have said, the land and the biodiversity are probably better looked after, in some respects, than if the MoD was not using that land. That applies particularly to the Dartmoor area.

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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I declare an interest as a resident of a national park for some considerable time. Does the Minister agree that there is special accountability, in a democratic sense, to local communities? Will he seek to ensure that the majority of members of national park authorities are directly elected from within the communities of those national parks?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have not come with any brief on changing the rules about the national park authorities. I know there may be dissatisfaction from time to time. I do not see national parks as a chocolate-box lid; they have to be vibrant and sustainable communities, otherwise they will decline. The national park that the noble Lord refers to is also one that is used by the military for training, to the great advantage of all concerned.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of the Cumbria Tourist Board. Does the Minister agree that at least as important as the policies that pertain to national parks is the manner in which they are applied—in particular, the overriding importance of sensitivity?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, everyone takes their own view on sensitivity. The park authorities have their responsibilities but, frankly, the sensitivity of the people who live in these areas is equally matched by the millions who visit and spend their time, leisure and finance in those areas. I am not going to put one above the other.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, perhaps the Minister is also aware that in Scotland rules for national parks have been drawn up that include local residents. Perhaps he could watch how well that works and see whether it has any application.

Lord Rooker: That is devolution, my Lords.

Iran: People's Mujaheddin Organisation

11.14 am

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2008 was laid on 21 May 2008. No firm date has been set yet but I understand the usual channels are considering scheduling that order for the dinner-break business on Tuesday 1 July. Once it is agreed, the date will be advertised in the usual way.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I rejoice that the PMOI will no longer be listed as a terrorist organisation, but is it not shocking that the Government are acting only because they have been ordered to do so by the Court of Appeal,

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which found the Home Secretary’s earlier refusal to delist the organisation to be perverse and resting on no evidence? However, the PMOI remains on the list of EU-proscribed organisations. Is it not there because the British Government wanted it to be there, and is not the legal basis for it being proscribed by the EU the listing by Britain? Is there not now a clear duty on the British Government to take immediate steps to see that this organisation is delisted also in the European Union?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his role in ensuring that there was a more-than-adequate review of the position of the PMOI. The EU listings are based on a national-competent-authority decision; namely, that a domestic proscription or asset-freeze should be in place. Since the UK proscription of the PMOI was the sole EU member-state, national-competent-authority decision underpinning the EU listing, it is likely that that listing will now be reviewed.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, in welcoming the righting of this gross injustice done to this part of the Iranian resistance movement, may I press the Minister to be more specific about the action that will be taken by the United Kingdom Government to get the copycat ban on the PMOI removed in Europe? Will he give a date when the matter will be taken to the Council of Ministers or other appropriate body?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot give a date, but the United Kingdom has informed EU partners and the Council that the Home Secretary has laid the deproscription order before Parliament. It is now for the Council to consider what action it needs to take on the EU listing in light of the deproscription of the PMOI in the UK.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister think that it sets a good example to ordinary people to obey the law when the Government delay for eight weeks in tabling the deproscription order in response to the Court of Appeal presided over by the Lord Chief Justice? Should they not have tabled the order immediately so that the proscription could be lifted promptly as the court prescribed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, sometimes these matters take a little time. One has to put the right papers in order and ensure that matter is properly processed. While we accept the court’s decision in this matter, I think that our general approach of being cautious about organisations of the same or similar nature as PMOI is absolutely right. That situation has been reviewed; a decision has been made; we are putting in place the order; we are properly complying with the judgment; and we have informed our colleague states in Europe.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords—

Baroness Afshar: My Lords, are the Government aware that the Mujaheddin has no support in Iran, and has been absent from all the demonstrations by women and students and all the activities that are taking place against the Government in Iran? It is based in the West and is not supported in Iran.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a widely held view. There does not seem to be any evidence of significant support for the PMOI inside Iran, and its unpopularity would appear to be based on its history of violence and its military support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. That is probably the situation as best described.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, will the Minister reconsider his previous answer in light of the fact that the trade unions in Iran are being persecuted by the mullahs’ regime? Will he also accept that the students who demonstrate regularly against the regime should be given comfort and solace by a democratic country such as ours? Will he go further and agree with the vice-president of the European Union who only a fortnight ago in Brussels condemned the way in which the British Government have handled this matter and get the thing sorted out both here and in Europe, because an apology is due to those very brave people who are fighting the theocracy in Iran?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course—quite properly—we support those who seek to ensure that the people of Iran enjoy the benefits of democracy. Everybody supports that proposition.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the Minister’s reply gives the impression that the Government are dragging their heels over taking this matter forward at a European level. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are being positive and proactive in taking this matter to the Council?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not think that we are being slow in this matter. The order was laid just 10 working days after the Court of Appeal judgment. I have made it very clear from this Dispatch Box this morning that we are in contact with our EU counterparts to ensure that this matter is resolved in Europe.

Lord Slynn of Hadley: My Lords, since the United Kingdom took the initiative to put the PMOI on the proscribed list, and as at the moment there seems to be a lack of knowledge in Europe as to what has happened here, is it not essential that Her Majesty’s Government should not only take the initiative in the Council to remove the PMOI from the proscribed list, but, no less importantly, should inform other member states about what has happened here, because it completely changes the picture on which member states initially voted?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord. I have made it plain that we have taken the action that we should quite properly have taken. It is now quite properly a matter for the Council to consider what action it needs to take. We have informed the proper authorities. I make the point, with regard to the PMOI, that the POAC itself made the judgment that we were right to proscribe it when we did. We were right because we should adopt a cautionary approach in protecting our interests and the safety and security of people in this country.

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Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that this organisation campaigns for the rights of women and that that is a good thing?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, organisations that campaign for the rights of women are to be congratulated.

Courts: Escort Drivers

11.22 am

Lord Ramsbotham asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, no escort drivers are permanently employed as court orderlies. The contracts permit contractors to use escort staff for custodial duties. This enables them to make the best use of their staff and to service the variable workload of the courts. Contractors report that they regularly use escort staff for custodial duties, but they do not keep records of the number of occasions on which escort drivers undertake those duties.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. My concern is that all too often one hears that drivers do not leave courts until after the courts have closed, as drivers acting as court orderlies are unable to start the journey until then. Recently, for instance, a boy was taken from a court on the south coast. He had nearly reached Feltham when the van was turned round and had to go back to court to collect a suicidal woman, who was taken to Holloway. The van finally arrived at Feltham after midnight. The point is that, if vans leave too late, they arrive at prisons late and there is not proper time to assess prisoners, particularly the vulnerable, the suicidal, women and children. I hope that the Minister will make certain that no escort driver should also act as a court orderly. Will that be put in contracts in future?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it will not, because it makes absolute sense that staff who have essentially the same training and are multiskilled are used as flexibly as possible. The specific instance that he raises has, of course, been investigated. My honourable friend Maria Eagle has written to appropriate Members on that issue. In general, the contractors are dealing with considerable challenges at the moment because of prison population pressures. However, I am satisfied that we have the appropriate monitoring in place and that they are doing everything that they can to make sure that incidents such as the one that the noble Lord mentioned are as rare as possible.

Lord Henley: My Lords, if the appropriate officials are, as the Minister put it, “multiskilled”, will he comment on the recent report in the papers of a van being summoned from 60 miles away to take a prisoner 200 yards from one court to another in the same town? Would it not have been possible on that occasion for the court officials to have walked that prisoner from one court to the other?

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