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House of Lords

Thursday, 9 October 2008.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Iraq: Refugees

Lord Fowler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the United Nations estimates that there are now 4.8 million displaced Iraqis. This includes 2.8 million internally displaced people within Iraq and a further 2 million refugees in surrounding countries, the majority of whom are in Syria and Jordan.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Perhaps I may ask about one small group of that vast total—the interpreters who have helped the British in Iraq. Did he hear, or have reported to him, the BBC programme on Monday on one of the interpreters, forced out to Syria, who had worked for a British newspaper for four years and who, because of that, received death threats and his brother-in-law was kidnapped and murdered? I raised this case behind my Question in April of last year. Is it not shaming that the British refused him entry to this country and that it was left to the Americans to resettle him? Is it not, sadly, typical of the restrictive way we have treated the interpreters who have worked for us and helped us so much?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I must apologise for not being familiar with that individual case. I am familiar with the overall scene, however, and I believe that the United Kingdom’s record in this matter is very good. The Foreign Secretary announced a scheme in October 2007 particularly to address these individuals. More than 20,000 people have worked for the United Kingdom in Iraq, but only 700 have worked in a close and sustained way and hence are qualified for consideration. One thousand one hundred have applied for handling under the scheme; 500 were eligible, 72 are now in the UK, 103 will come in the next few months, 144 are in the final stages, and more will follow. Fifty per cent of the eligible people chose to take a financial option and stay in Iraq, and that must be good for Iraq.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, what response did European Union Foreign Ministers give at their meeting on 25 September to the appeal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Guterres, not to return people to central and southern Iraq where, he said, the necessary conditions of stability and security have not yet been achieved? If people are to continue being repatriated voluntarily, does the Minister agree with the Iraqi Parliament Committee, which recommended

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a budget of $4 billion to be spent by Iraq on resettlement and rehabilitation in place of the paltry $50 per head that has been allocated?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the only part of that question I am briefed on relates to the internally displaced refugees. We do not believe that tackling the issue of internally displaced refugees is substantially a matter of money. The Government of Iraq can help with these things and have the resources to do so. We welcome the fact that they are spending $213 million on this scheme, and we welcome the improvements in security. However, at the end of the day, the issue is about progressing such returns when the security situation improves for the long run. We believe that co-ordination and co-operation with humanitarian agencies and the United Nations is the answer, and we think that United Nations Resolution 1830, to assist the most vulnerable Iraqis, is the way forward. We will work with the Government of Iraq and the United Nations on this issue.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that, when he leaves the Chamber, he will go to his computer, get on the BBC iPlayer and listen to “The Choice”, the programme to which my noble friend referred? When he has done that, will he then have a discussion with his officials as to whether it was right to put in his answer that our record on the handling of these interpreters is a good one?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I will certainly arrange to listen to the programme but I am convinced from the briefings I have had that our record on people whom the UK has employed is good and honourable, and is in line with that of the Americans on this matter.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that there remains a very wide gap between the briefing to which he has twice referred and the illustrative case cited by my noble friend Lord Fowler?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I cannot confirm it since I have not seen the details of that case.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, a report by the ODI in March this year stated that the international humanitarian action in Iraq since 2003 has,

Will the noble Lord take some responsibility for the Government’s part in this failure?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the whole international community must recognise the features of the response that has been set out. The Government are pressing for, and have achieved, a unified approach through the United Nations. The United Nations is drawing those strands together, which will allow better delivery, and we accept that that is the way forward. Iraq is not a poor country; the crucial thing is to help the Iraqis, through technical help and training, develop the capacity to look after their own people and also help their neighbours, who are looking after the refugees.

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Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister accept the very considerable burden which millions of refugees are putting on the economies of Syria and Jordan? What are our Government and/or the international community doing to ease that burden?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we are grateful to Syria and Jordan for their hosting role. There is some modest help in the form of £3 million to the UNHCR, which is working in those countries. The issue is getting sight of where these people are and getting them registered. At the moment, the United Nations and the host countries are coping; they are providing primary healthcare, particularly in Jordan and Syria. The key step forward is, once again, for the Government of Iraq to start to shoulder their responsibility. They have already given $15 million to Syria and $8 million to Jordan. The European community is also helping—it gave nearly €49 million in 2007.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the case raised by my noble friend suggests that the wrong judgment was made? If officials cannot make the right judgment—and they cannot always do so—will he at least ensure that where there is a case which is clearly very sensitive they refer it to Ministers for decision rather than taking a decision themselves?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we will certainly look into that. I believe that that will be the correct process in a case. If it is not, I will write to the noble Lord.

Health: Haemophilia

11.15 am

Lord Morris of Manchester My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as president of the Haemophilia Society.

The Question was as follows:

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the department is very much aware of the importance of the work of the Haemophilia Society. Indeed, we have funded the society for more than 10 years. In 2006, this funding provided 14 per cent of the society’s overall budget. However, Section 64 grants are not intended to be permanent sources of core funding for organisations, thus the tapered reduction over three years to 2010.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is she aware that 1,757 haemophilia patients have now died in direct consequence of infection with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated NHS blood products in what my noble friend Lord Winston described as,

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Is she further aware that many are terminally ill, unable to work and uninsurable, except at prohibitive cost, while the widows of many of those who have died receive no compensatory help whatever? Finally, is she aware that the Haemophilia Society, which exists to support this stricken community, now faces closure as its core grant reduces from £100,000 to £30,000? I know that she will want to help all that she can.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work and commitment in this field over many years. In 2006-07 and the preceding eight years, the Haemophilia Society received £100,000 annually. This is now reducing over three years to £30,000 in 2010, so, this year, the society will receive £60,000. It is clear that the transition process from core funding is proving a problem for the Haemophilia Society. The department has provided for this event and will consider capacity-building requests for funding to develop more sustainable funding streams, generate income through trading activities and develop the capacity to work in partnership. We will also fund specific projects such as Young Bloods, which is a good example of how the society has secured funding to focus on the needs of children with bleeding disorders, amounting to £110,000 over three years. I am, however, happy to make a commitment to my noble friend to ensure that further discussions take place with the Haemophilia Society.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a vice-president of the Haemophilia Society. Is the Minister aware that one of the society’s campaigns focuses on blood safety? Is not safety in health one of the top priorities? Does she not consider the society to be a special case? We are talking not only about people with HIV and hepatitis C, but also about people with variant CJD. They really need support and help from their society.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the department has absolutely no doubt that the Haemophilia Society is a very important organisation in supporting that community. The Government are certainly committed to supporting the society. We need to find a proper way of doing so that ensures that its work can develop and be sustained over a long period.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I readily understand that Section 64 grants are not appropriate in this case and never have been. However, the Department of Health gives the impression of being awash with money. Can it not find some other source of funding for this very desirable objective?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, the Government’s funding amounts to only 14 per cent of the Haemophilia Society’s budget. The organisation is very successful in raising funds from corporate and other charitable sources and from its trading activities. We are committed to helping it to make sure that those sources of funding are more sustainable and grow in the long term.

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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, it would be helpful if, in appreciating the importance of the third sector more generally, my noble friend could indicate whether the planned changes to the funding of the third and voluntary sectors will have a negative impact on the working relationships between those sectors and the directorate.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, that is an important question, as it affects not only the Haemophilia Society but a lot of voluntary organisations. The department is a major supporter of the voluntary and third sectors; indeed, £17.2 million goes to third sector organisations. The key change is that the Department of Health is committed to full cost recovery, which is what voluntary organisations have wanted for a long time. That means that third sector organisations can recover the appropriate amount of their core costs, proportionate to the activity that the department is funding. That in time will, as it should, reduce the need for organisations to have a dependency on core grants, which will add to their effective lobbying function, as it will make them more independent.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, is the Minister aware that over recent years there has been a big loss of community services? With those community services we have lost district nurses and health visitors, some of whom used to specialise in conditions such as haemophilia, sickle cell anaemia and diabetes—all those long-term conditions where patients need extra help and back-up. If funds are cut to voluntary organisations such as the Haemophilia Society, which has done such fantastic support work, how will she ensure that patients still get the support that they need?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Government are determined to ensure that people with haemophilia, for example, are increasingly well cared for and supported within their communities. We work closely with the Haemophilia Society and professional organisations to ensure that, for example, 24-hour counselling services are available. Those are provided through a mixture of statutory funding and voluntary commitment at a local level. Part of the commitment in the reorganisation is that more funding is available at a local level to provide exactly the services that the noble Baroness mentioned.

Afghanistan: National Army

11.22 am

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, we welcome the recent decision taken by the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board to increase the size of the Afghan national army from 80,000 to 122,000. Building Afghanistan’s capacity to provide security for its people remains key to success. The UK therefore supports ANA expansion both of its combat capabilities and in key supporting elements such as engineering, intelligence and logistics.

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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. The ANA is absolutely vital to the future of Afghanistan; there will never be a successful Afghan Government without a successful army. However, the Taliban are luring huge numbers of defectors from the ANA by doubling their very low pay. In the light of all the money pouring into Afghanistan, what assistance are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the Afghan Government to ensure that ANA soldiers are fully and regularly paid?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there has been no problem recruiting people to the Afghan army. The difficulty is making sure that we have a spread across the country of people with different backgrounds speaking different languages. The US directly takes on responsibility for payment of the army but we put in quite a significant sum both in the assistance we give and in direct help for security sector reform. We have spent some £37 million on that in the past five or six years. That has gone to specific targets both at the national level, to ensure that the structures there are correct, with a national security adviser, and at the more localised level.

Lord Addington: My Lords, if it is accepted that we cannot win this conflict through straightforward military means alone, what are the Government doing to enhance the position of the Afghan police force, which is largely locally recruited and apparently has major problems with corruption? Could not the successful army models be applied there?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that winning the situation in Iraq is not only a military issue, it is also about development, good governance and the rule of law; and assisting in the building of a successful police force is very important indeed. At present, 80,000 people in the Afghan national police force have been trained by external advisors. There is a problem with capabilities and there have been problems of corruption, but we are helping as are many other countries. This is one of the areas where burden sharing could contribute more to helping the situation.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, the thrust of my noble friend’s question went not to the recruiting of the Afghan army but to its retention, making the point that the Taliban are luring large numbers of Afghan soldiers away. What are we doing to counter that?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, what we are doing on training, mentoring and helping on the ground to create the right structures is extremely important. There is not in Afghanistan a tradition of a successful police force as we would recognise it, so an awful lot of work has had to be undertaken. As I say, 80,000 people have been trained, but they are not all functioning at the level that we would expect. There is a lot to be done on the police force and on the army. We have made more headway with the army so that the defectors are not as numerous as they were. Recruitment is not a problem, as I said, so it will be possible to reach the

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target figures on expansion from 80,000 to 122,000. It is not expected to happen overnight but to be rolled out over the next six years or so.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, aside from building up the Afghan national army, do Her Majesty’s Government support the views of the American commanding general, General McKiernan, that this whole situation will need a considerable increase in troop commitments by NATO, by the Americans and by all others, and that it will take many, many years to deliver the kind of success on the military side alone that will allow some political success as well?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I think that the discussions we had on Monday showed very clearly that this is not simply a military operation, and it is not one that will be achieved very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, we must have good governance and the rule of law, something which is not yet established throughout Afghanistan. So we have to contribute to the situation on many fronts, including economic development. We cannot do that alone, so we are doing it with a wide range of nations; I think that 40 nations are involved in the effort in Afghanistan. We are contributing significantly both in policy terms and on the military side. It will not happen overnight, but the structures that we are putting in place—in the current discussions in Budapest, for example—will help to consolidate our position.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the ANA has taken over responsibility for Kabul? It is still a very safe city to live in, but why is the airport becoming more vulnerable to air attack? Whose responsibility is that?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the Afghan national security forces took over responsibility for Kabul on 28 August. That was a significant step forward and shows the improvements that they have made in the past few years. As a result, some of the insurgents have attempted to test just how good they are and how resilient they can be. That is why we have had an increase in attempts in the surrounding area to try to destabilise this step forward. We are still offering mentoring and training as part of the ISAF force in that area. It is important that we continue to do so throughout Afghanistan because the Afghan national army will not be able to take over all responsibilities within a very short timescale.

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