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House of Lords

Tuesday, 21 October 2008.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Introduction: Lord Myners

Lord Myners—Paul Myners, Esquire, CBE, having been created Baron Myners, of Truro in the County of Cornwall, for life, was introduced between the Lord Elder and the Baroness Vadera.

Asylum Seekers

2.44 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, we are not enforcing the return of unsuccessful non-Arab Darfuri asylum seekers to Sudan, nor are we enforcing returns to Zimbabwe. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal is considering the situation in these countries and we have no plans to resume enforced returns before the tribunal has reached its conclusion. We continue to enforce returns to Iran for those found not to be in need of international protection.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am so grateful to the Minister for that Answer, which meets the crying need of the moment. I say thank you. Can we have a sort of permanent moratorium, without any tribunals to issue their decrees on returns to these desperate nations of Zimbabwe and Sudan, at least until they are settled? When we resume the return of failed asylum seekers, although I hope that will not happen, will he accompany me on the repatriation of the first batch—especially the unaccompanied children—to either of those places?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I felt warmed up by the fact that he was thanking me, but I knew that the sting would be in the tail. I am in a particularly good mood, because 203 years ago today, at this time, sadly, Lord Nelson was mortally wounded, but we were about to win a great victory. It is a marvellous day for me in that sense, as well.

As the noble Lord knows, we consider each and every case individually, and each is dealt with by an individual case officer. We do not accept that we should make a presumption that every asylum seeker from a country, regardless of the individual circumstances, should not be sent back. That is why I would not want to make the blanket moratorium run into the future,

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and it is appropriate that the AIT looks at the situation in this way, to make sure that it is still safe. I cannot really promise to visit with the noble Lord. If I were able to, and there was time, I would love to do such a thing.

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, given that this is a de facto policy of the Government, can the Minister assure the House that letters will no longer be sent out to asylum seekers threatening repatriation and causing them extra distress?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I was not aware of how the letters were sent out, but I am sure people must be informed that these proceedings are going ahead. I may look at that because I do not like the thought that they are threatening. I shall look at exactly what is said in the letters.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, does the Minister now believe that it is safe for Iraqi asylum seekers to be returned to all parts of Iraq and, if so, have all the 1,400 who were rejected for asylum in March this year been repatriated?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, a case officer deals with each person as an individual. Therefore, I am sure that some can be returned safely. I do not know whether every part of Iraq is seen as safe, nor do I know specifically about the 1,400, so I shall write to the noble Baroness on those points.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, given that many asylum seekers arrive in this country because of religious persecution, what diplomatic efforts are Her Majesty’s Government making regarding the passing of the law on apostasy by the Iranian majlis, which makes the death penalty mandatory for apostasy and which will undoubtedly cause many more people to flee that country?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I do not know what exactly is going on about approaching Iran on that point. We are not particularly happy about a number of things in Iran. Again, I go back to the point that we deal with each person as an individual. Each one is looked at by their case officer and there is often no reason why someone cannot go back even though they have said they are a Christian. Indeed, quite often we have found that initially they may claim to be homosexual, then a Christian and then something else. They need to be looked at individually. The case officer needs to talk to them; we need to reassure ourselves with the COI that they are safe and, if they are, I think we should try to return them.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, can the noble Lord say what numbers we are talking about, please?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, is the noble Baroness talking about Iran?

Baroness Sharples: Yes, my Lords.

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, in 2007, the applications for asylum were 2,210. We granted asylum to 210; 1,665 had asylum refused and of those 605 were removed voluntarily; the rest have cases ongoing.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the judge in the case of NO said that conditions for Darfuris returned to Khartoum were grim, and that was before the 10 May JEM attack on Khartoum, which has led to materially worsened conditions for the Darfuris in the camps. Considering that, will the noble Lord and the Government take advice from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the current situation for Darfuris in Khartoum and lay that information before the AIT when it reconsiders the country-guidance case of HGMO?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the HGMO Sudan UKIAT on this issue said that those Darfuris returned to Sudan would not necessarily have to return to IDPs—the internal camps—which is an area one was very worried about, or a squatter area. However, if such a person ended up in camps, it was felt that conditions were not unduly harsh, so the decision was that it was not as bad as some people might have been presenting.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, will the noble Lord look again at the question of children who become settled in this country when they are received here as unaccompanied minors yet, when they are 18, whose cases are reviewed and some are considered for sending back in very unsatisfactory circumstances?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I will certainly look at that, because I was not aware of the detail.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, will the noble Lord rise to the boldness of his great predecessor, Lord Nelson—to whom he has rightly paid tribute—and suggest that the Government take a bold step: namely, to permit Zimbabwean refugees in this country to work until they return, not least because, in doing so, they will gain some of the professional experience and knowledge that a newly democratic Zimbabwe will desperately need, and to which the United Kingdom Government could contribute in the way that his predecessor contributed to the great battle at Trafalgar?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I would not for a moment dream of stepping into those shoes. I have found that whenever I do anything bold, I get rather a slapping, so I have to be a little careful about being overbold.

As the noble Baroness well knows, it is not generally our policy to let people work because it gets people linked and looped into the country and we have to have a proper policy of returning people. That policy really has worked. We have fewer people applying, we have been successful in getting people back, and there are benefits from that. As for Zimbabweans, people who have done 12 months where it is not their responsibility are allowed to work. We are looking to see whether there is anything else that we can do for

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them but, generally, we should not let people work because the aim must be that, if they are not here properly, they should go back to their country of origin.

Science: Funding

2.52 pm

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for this Question on a vital issue. First, I bring greetings and apologies from my noble friend Lord Drayson who, as we speak, is inspecting our £500 million investment in CERN in the Large Hadron Collider, with which all your Lordships will be familiar. I do not know whether he is trying to fix the fault, but he is certainly making sure that we are getting value for money.

The Government believe that science plays a vital role in addressing the key economic and environmental challenges facing the UK. The Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 will increase the science budget to £4 billion a year by 2011. Most of that is channelled through the research councils, which undertake a number of major multidisciplinary research programmes addressing key challenges in energy, ageing—we all have an interest in that—global threats to security, environmental change, the digital economy and nanoscience.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer and warmly welcome him to his new position. I wish him well.

Greening Spires, a publication by Universities UK, illustrates the work of universities in the United Kingdom on the Government's environmental and economic policies—for example, Newcastle and Liverpool Universities’ work on hydrogen power technology or Durham University’s work on solar energy and research into light-absorbing materials. Can my noble friend assure me that, given the credit crunch and the financial problems that have visited us now, the science research budget will not go any lower? Given that the Government last week, in a very welcome manner, raised from 60 per cent to 80 per cent their ambition for cutting carbon emissions, will there be more money in order more quickly to achieve our aims?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that supplementary question. To put things into context, we have trebled the budget since 1997. The overall science and research budget will increase from £3.6 billion a year in 2008-09 to almost £4 billion a year in 2010-11. Recurrent funding for research will increase from £1.4 billion to £1.6 billion in England, plus £1.3 billion of capital. That shows a commitment to research and innovation.

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It is an increase in real terms, and I remind the House that it is part of a 10-year strategy to make the UK the first-choice destination for both science and innovation for foreign students and international investors.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and to his new responsibilities. I am sure that he will bring great expertise to the department. Why, according to yesterday’s CBI report, is there still only a 7 per cent take-up by school pupils in the triple-science GCSEs? Does he agree that a shortage of trained and qualified teachers available to teach the separate sciences is the main reason why triple sciences are not being offered in all schools?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. In fact, there will be a 7 per cent increase in the number of students entering university maths departments in 2009, which will mean about 7,000 students entering those departments. There are also expected increases of 3.5 per cent for chemistry and 1.3 per cent for physics in next year’s university intake. I will have to write to the noble Baroness about the number of teachers, which was part of her question.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, how far is the UK as a whole on target to meet the 2.5 per cent of GDP that is devoted to R&D in 2014? I believe the latest figures indicate that we have moved from 1.72 per cent to 1.76 per cent of GDP, so we have some way to go yet.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, as I have already said, we have increased the science budget to £4 billion a year by 2011, which is a trebling of the budget since 1997. That is a significant increase in real terms and shows the Government’s commitment to research and science. I will write to the noble Baroness on whether it will meet the GDP target.

Lord May of Oxford: My Lords, given that the Minister believes that the current levels of investment are adequate, and welcome though the increases are from our shockingly low investment earlier, what errors are being made by other OECD countries, such as Japan, France, Germany, most of the Scandinavian countries, and others, which are investing significantly higher proportions of their GDP in basic science than we are?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. At least, I think I thank him for it. I would not presume to know what the errors are. Those countries obviously have the capacity to make that investment, but I ask him this: do we think that the kind of multidisciplinary programmes on which we are expending our resources are the right ones? These relate to energy, global threats to security, ageing, the digital economy and nanoscience. That is a comprehensive programme of investment and a significant sum of money.

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Baroness Wall of New Barnet: My Lords, will my noble friend join me in acknowledging and congratulating Semta, the prime sector skills council for science, on the work that it is doing to achieve the Government’s objective to ensure that the skills of the people working in science are not only up to date but world class?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. We are increasing dual-support funding for university research. Overall science and research funding will increase from £3.6 billion to £4 billion a year. Our commitment is sincere.

Lord Broers: My Lords—

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords—

Lord Wade of Chorlton: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, I really think that it is time to move on.

Nuclear Energy: Electricité de France

3 pm

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government welcome EDF’s proposed £12.5 billion takeover offer for British Energy. This proposed deal is a milestone in the process for seeing new nuclear build as soon as possible in the UK, and would represent good value for the Government’s stake. We have made clear that our ambition is to have more than one new nuclear operator in the UK, and there are clear indications of an appetite for this in the market.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his Answer. I have long been in favour of increasing nuclear power generation in this country and I recognise that there is no group more experienced in this field than Electricité de France and the EDF Group. However, will the Minister bear in mind that EDF will perhaps have excessive dominance in this country once it has taken over British Energy and built the four nuclear reactors it has planned, and that such dominance could be harmful? In these early days would it not make sense if the Minister and his friends approached the British arm of EDF suggesting that we took a serious minority equity interest in the company and had two experienced directors on the board? The Government are getting quite used to

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doing that at the moment. That would involve us; it would keep some British interest and a share of the profit, which will be big.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thought that that latter point might be coming. We have decided, should the sale go through and assuming that the competition authorities give it the green light, to take the government share in British Energy in cash. That will provide certainty of income and value for money, and will enable us to give that money to the fund for the decommissioning of the old nuclear stations.

I certainly take the point that it would be good to see other new providers of nuclear generation in this country. That is why agreement has been reached with EDF that it will sell land to other potential nuclear operators at some specific sites in certain circumstances. We certainly would wish to see other providers come in. This is a very great opportunity for this country to invest heavily in nuclear in the future.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, while we welcome EDF’s takeover of British Energy, does my noble friend agree that at the same time the French are making great use of the semi-completed internal market and that there is a moral obligation on the French Government to open up their domestic energy market to free competition—the competition that they are seeking to benefit from but in which they are not allowing anybody else to engage in France?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we should be clear that we see EDF’s takeover as wholly positive as far as this country is concerned. However, my noble friend has certainly made some forceful points about the desirability of the liberalisation of the market within Europe as a whole.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, will the Government be able to re-export imported electricity from France? Yesterday I was with Ireland’s energy Minister, who made it absolutely clear that Ireland has no intention of going nuclear. It is my opinion that they will need to buy energy from us.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very, very interesting point. We see great potential in new nuclear. Although we must ensure that supply in this country is satisfied, we will look for other opportunities as well, not just for supply but also in what it means for jobs and the skills base in this country.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, given the Government’s interest as a shareholder and stakeholder in this takeover, what negotiations did they have with EDF to ensure that the impact on taxpayers of the legacy nuclear waste from current nuclear power stations is minimised? What assurances did they receive?

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