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House of Lords

Monday, 13 October 2008.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Introduction: Lord Mandelson

Lord Mandelson—The right honourable Peter Benjamin Mandelson, having been created Baron Mandelson, of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham, for life, was introduced between the Baroness Jay of Paddington and the Lord Falconer of Thoroton.


2.42 pm

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we consistently raise human rights issues with the regime. Our ambassador in Rangoon has repeatedly made it clear that Burma’s many problems will be solved only through dialogue between the Government, opposition and ethnic groups. DfID is providing £600,000 of emergency assistance in response to food shortages in Chin State. This year, DfID is also providing £1.8 million to assist Burmese refugees in Thailand and internally displaced people in Burma.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very encouraging reply. Is he aware that on a recent visit to the peoples of the Chin hill tribes in Burma, we found evidence of a serious famine which had already killed hundreds of people? Many hundreds more were ill and dying. Since we left, in just one week in one village whose people we met, seven people died—six of them children. Will DfID’s welcome commitment to provide relief ensure that food reaches those most affected, particularly in view of extremely disturbing news received this morning that the SPDC authorities are not going to allow the World Food Programme or the NGOs access to those in need? The situation is desperate and I hope that the Minister can give some specific reassurance.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her work on this issue and for prior notice of her Question. The situation there is truly desperate, and any delays will be very serious. DfID’s staff in Rangoon

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have become aware of the reports, but we do not know how substantial these situations are going to be; we will use all efforts to follow them up. The £600,000 will be routed through our UN partners, the World Food Programme and the UN Development Programme. If it goes ahead smoothly, we expect it to get to most villages within a week and the more remote villages within the next 10 to 12 days.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the famine was largely caused by a massive infestation of rats? Can he further confirm that that infestation was clearly predictable, because it was associated with the blooming of the bamboo, and that the Indian Government intervened quite successfully in Mizoram to prevent a similar tragedy? Are the Burmese Government prepared to discuss famine relief with aid organisations outside, or does my noble friend share the widespread belief that the failure to act was deliberate?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, it is clear that Burmese preparation for this famine, which is predictable because it happens every 50 years when the bamboo goes through a particular stage, was inadequate. However, that is more symptomatic of the Burmese Government’s failure to commit adequate resources to the needs of their people than poor organisation. We believe that United Nations organisations on the ground are best placed to raise these issues with the Burmese authorities. They did so in developing the aid package that DfID recently agreed to finance. We believe that a bilateral approach from the United Kingdom to the authorities on the situation in Chin State would not be effective.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the suggestion made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last May that the quarter of a million Rohingyas in Bangladesh should return voluntarily—a forlorn hope as long as their relatives are being treated as non-citizens? What can be done to step up the pressure on Burma, called for by the EU a couple of weeks ago, to engage in dialogue with the ethnic groups? In particular, would the EU be prepared to visit the unofficial camps in which the quarter of a million Rohingyas are suffering appalling conditions in Bangladesh?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the efforts of the EU on the political level have been significant—it is the strictest regime that has been introduced. The United Kingdom and the EU are constantly concerned about it. Whether we will be able to make more direct progress is difficult to foresee. The situation, certainly among the minorities, is terrible, with dreadful human rights violations. At the moment, we are working through the EU, the United Nations and neighbouring countries to bring pressure on the regime.

Lord Elton: My Lords, reverting to Chin State, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, asked whether it was possible that the failure of the Government of Burma to bring relief was in any way deliberate. Is the Minister aware of reports that their troops in Chin

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State are not only resorting to what appear to be customary methods of forced labour and rape, but destroying the population’s remaining minimal stores of food? In one case, a village’s entire herd of pigs was shot by the military who then demanded payment for the bullets.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the Government are aware of the dreadful behaviour of this particular regime. Nevertheless, we were hopeful that the United Nations partners had agreed effective understandings with the regime that this aid would get through. We will monitor these reports carefully to see whether there is more that we can do, but at the moment we continue to believe that pressure through our UN partners will be most effective.

Lord Soley: My Lords, can the influence of India, China and Thailand be brought to bear on this state? They are the only countries in the area that Burma is willing to listen to. Can we exercise our influence through them to do something about this terrible regime?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am sure that we will. The adjacent nations, ASEAN and the UN achieved an agreement with the regime about the cyclone, which has actually worked quite well: aid is getting through. I am therefore sure that, if we have more problems than we originally thought in getting the aid through, the strong influence of adjacent nations will be brought to bear.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, my colleague Andrew Mitchell in the other place has been pressing for more aid to Burma for a long time. Further to the Minister’s Answer, what support have Her Majesty’s Government been giving to the cross-border aid from Thailand?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we only resort to cross-border aid in extreme cases, when it is not getting through any other way. However, we are providing modest financial support for cross-border aid from Thailand.

Pakistan: Afghanistan Border

2.50 pm

Lord Eden of Winton asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, border security is crucial for regional stability and for both Governments’ effort to combat the threat from violent extremism. It is part of our ongoing dialogue with the Government of Pakistan. It has been discussed at ministerial level, most recently by my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary with President Zardari on 16 September and 25 September respectively.

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Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, it is good news that these discussions are going on. However, will the noble Lord address in particular the position of the federally administered tribal areas? Although it is traditionally a lawless region, has not the situation now got to the point where firm action is really necessary? Can he say whether the new civil Government of Pakistan and the army of Pakistan are working more closely together? Is not the time now right for a united effort to be made by the United States of America, ISAF and Pakistan to eliminate the many bases, terrorist camps and other establishments that are aiding and abetting militias based in the FATA region?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that the FATA region has historically been, and is currently, a very unstable place which is host to many elements that do not respect the rule of central government. The new president, President Zardari, has made welcome comments about the need to crack down on this with both a reinforced military and political approach. He has also met with the President of Afghanistan, and they have promised mutual co-operation. The United States and the United Kingdom certainly have a role in supporting these efforts.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Pakistan Government are, as we speak, meeting in a joint session of Parliament to try to resolve the security situation along that border? Is he also aware that the new head of Inter-Services Intelligence—ISI—has told parliamentarians in his briefing that the military concedes that the peace talks with the Taliban along the border have not succeeded—that that strategy has failed—hence the resort to military operations again? Yet at the same time our ambassador in Afghanistan is supposedly brokering peace talks for the Taliban to return to government in Afghanistan. Which strategy do we really believe in—supporting the pro-democracy groups, or rolling out the red carpet for the Taliban? Or do we want to please both parties at the same time?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, not for the first time, the noble Baroness is better informed than I am. I am not privy to the current discussions in the Pakistan Parliament but I think that it is true to say that both the Government of Pakistan and Pakistan’s military leadership believe that there must be a push on both fronts. There must be effective military action against lawless elements, including Taliban and al-Qaeda elements, but there must also be a political effort to win back the support of civilians in the tribal areas. These two goals are not contradictory.

For the record, our ambassador in Afghanistan is absolutely not engaged in a process of rolling out red carpets for the Taliban or arranging for their return to government; he is pursing British interests there, which are to encourage President Karzai to have an effective military strategy against insurgents in the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan and, similarly, to pursue reconciliation with the Pashtun tribes in that area.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, further to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Eden, are we not talking here mostly about the Bajaur agency district and the Swat district of the federally administrated areas, and about a border that is 1,640 miles long? Given that it is widely supposed that al-Qaeda has its headquarters in this inaccessible region, that Osama bin Laden is there if he is still alive, and that the main purpose of putting our troops into Afghanistan in the first place was to corner him and his immediate aides, is there the necessary co-operation between the ANA, the US forces and the Pakistan intelligence and army, and are we in the UK—since our interests are directly affected—also making a contribution, possibly with the new troops that we are sending in that direction?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a vital point. We have to understand that the border dividing the two areas is a recently modern invention and we must therefore treat it as a single area populated by people who are linked by tribal and ethnic associations. Every day, thousands of people cross the border. Any solution to this area must therefore take a comprehensive view, and that requires common co-ordinated action by both Governments supported by the likes of the United States and ourselves. We are moving forward very strongly on that. However, the troops that we are sending are at this stage for the purpose of reinforcing our operations in Helmand on the Afghan side of the border.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, one of the consequences of an insecure border with Pakistan has been the infiltration into Helmand. Will the Minister comment on the latest severe attack on Lashkar Gah and whether there are non-Afghan forces involved that have infiltrated?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Earl refers to reports at the weekend of a large insurgent action in Lashkar Gah which will have dismayed many of us. The good news is that the Afghan military and security forces played a front-line role in averting it. It is too soon to say whether non-Afghan elements were involved, but we will certainly report to the House when we know more about the incident.

Channel Tunnel: Road Freight

2.57 pm

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission, acting in the name of the British and French Governments, has asked the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority to conduct a fundamental review of the extent to which experience has modified the original risk-assessment assumptions

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for the tunnel and to make recommendations. We expect its final report to be made public no later than September 2009.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. The best part of a year seems a long time to have to wait for a response. Is he aware that this is the second major fire that has occurred since the tunnel opened? I believe that in both cases a large length of the tunnel lining was burnt out and collapsed, which means that the seabed is standing up on its own. Luckily, nobody was hurt on this occasion. My noble friend will be aware that services have been disrupted, and probably will be for many months. Is there an argument for taking precautionary measures to ensure that this does not happen again in the interim and that the carriage of trucks is either restricted or banned until the existing study is completed?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I shall certainly draw my noble friend’s remarks on the interim arrangements to the attention of the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority. However, as regards the safety of the trucks, following the fire in 1996, the Health and Safety Executive commissioned, as he will know, an independent review of the design of the shuttle trains, which concluded that any risks attached to the design were as low as reasonably practicable.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in saying that surely September 2009 is rather a long way away, and another incident could well happen again. Surely the Government could take some action—for example, looking at the amount of flammable liquid that is carried on heavy goods vehicles and encouraging more transport of rail freight rather than on trucks going through the tunnel. It is a matter of urgency, and I hope that the Government will reflect and do something before 2009.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we will draw noble Lords’ remarks to the attention of the safety authority, but our current advice is that there is no reason to make any early changes. I stress that I said that the final report will be made public,

I hope that it will be possible to move sooner than that.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, no doubt the fires have cost huge sums of money and there is a need to act very quickly to get some fire suppression equipment fixed to the trucks that carry the lorries through the tunnel. When you look at these things in discounted cash flow, you can always prove that there is not a business case, but we have had two fires, and it is urgently necessary that the ordinary fire suppression devices that are fixed to so many buildings are fixed to the carriages that pass through the Channel Tunnel.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s remarks, but I stress again that, following the last fire, the HSE commissioned an independent review of the design, which concluded that any risks were as low as reasonably practicable. At the moment, we have no reason to believe that there is an issue of public concern here, but we have asked the authority to look at any lessons that can be learnt from the recent fire.

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Lord Brookman: My Lords, would it not now be appropriate to congratulate the firefighters and other services on their magnificent effort during that terrible disaster and the previous one as well? They are a credit to our country.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. As a House, we wish to send those congratulations. We also congratulate Eurotunnel and all the staff on the work that they have done to bring services back to normal, as near as possible, in the short time since the fire.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am told that toll-paying tunnels such as the Mersey tunnel have much stricter regulations for the transport through them of flammables and so on than non-toll-paying tunnels such as the Conwy tunnel. What have the Government in mind to get both tunnels under the same sort of regulations? Many of the trucks that go through these tunnels are carrying very dangerous materials.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I have already said all I can say on the Channel Tunnel. I am not familiar with the precise safety regimes for the other tunnels that the noble Lord mentioned, but I would be happy to look at them and come back to the noble Lord.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, perhaps I may come back to my noble friend’s very helpful answer in respect of the Channel Tunnel and to the comments from the safety authority that, after the previous fire, the risks were thought to be as low as reasonably practicable. I suggest to my noble friend that something is wrong if a risk that is as low as reasonably practicable has allowed another fire to happen within 12 years. Is my noble friend confident that this is not going to happen again in the next year before the safety authority reports?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we have asked the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority to report precisely in order that it will look at those issues. As I said, I hope that it will be possible to make public its report much sooner than next September, but I cannot give an absolute commitment for it to do so. I would not want my noble friend or the House to think that there is any lack of urgency about these proceedings on the part of the safety authorities both here and in France. There is a great deal of urgency to see that we learn the lessons as soon as possible.

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