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House of Lords

Wednesday, 26 November 2008.

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

Iraq: Ashraf City

Lord Eden of Winton asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the US has confirmed that it intends to transfer responsibility for Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi authorities. Transfer should take place before 31 December. The Iraqi authorities have given assurances that residents will be treated humanely. The Iraqi human rights ministry plays a key role in the transition. The US and the ICRC continue to follow developments at the camp closely and are content with Iraqi assurances so far received. The US and Iraqis have discussed the transfer with UNHCR and UNAMI.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the rather ominous directive of the Iraqi Government of 17 June which called for the removal of US troops and their replacement with Iraqi forces, and for the expulsion of the PMOI residents in Ashraf City? Does he realise that expulsion in those circumstances would almost certainly mean execution? This is an extremely serious situation. Can he assure the House that he will keep a very close eye on developments and secure what guarantees he can from the Iraqi Government to avoid what would otherwise become a humanitarian catastrophe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, this is primarily a matter for the United States, to which this group surrendered at the time of the invasion in 2003. The US has sought clear understandings from the Iraqi authorities that there will be no such expulsions and that the group will be properly protected. The ICRC is content so far with the understandings received.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the question is not so much, “What are the intentions of the Iraqi Government?” but, “What would be the intentions of the Iranian Government if these people were delivered up into their hands?”. Does he agree that if there is to be any hope of their survival it is vital that we persuade our American allies that the fate of these people is in their hands?

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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, some 300 members of this group have returned—they are admittedly low-level people in most cases—and we have no evidence that they have been inhumanely treated on their return. However, it has been the intention of the Americans in the understandings that they have sought from the Iraqis that Camp Ashraf remains open, and therefore that those individuals in it will not be expelled.

Lord Addington: My Lords, will the Minister encourage our allies to make sure that there is at least some international monitoring of the situation when the Americans leave, and that there is some way of reporting back if there is a deterioration in the circumstances of these people?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, it is for exactly that reason that the United States has involved both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations in trying to ensure continued international monitoring.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, the Minister referred to the responsibility of the United States but surely Britain, by virtue of its membership of the multinational force, will be as much in breach of international law as America if the protection of Ashraf City is handed over to Iraq without any real expectation that the rights of the inhabitants will be respected and that the Iraqi Government will not return them to Iran. Surely that must be the legal position.

I return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Eden. In the light of the directive issued by the Iraqi Government on 17 June, it is surely very odd to take at face value present assurances by the Iraqi Government that these people will not be expelled, because the directive to which I referred calls for their expulsion.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the second point, the United States absolutely shares the noble Lord’s concern, which is why it has pressed the Iraqi Government to ensure that undertakings to look after this group are in place. I think that they are satisfied that that is the case. As to the UK’s legal responsibility, it is our view that the MEK/PMOI specifically chose American forces to surrender to. Secondly, the proclamation from the multinational commander at the time in 2004 that confirmed camp resident status as being “treated as protected persons” was clearly made on behalf of the United States alone.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are 1,000 women among these refugees in Ashraf City, who are very concerned about the possibility of their being returned under the care, so to speak, of the present Iranian Government, in view of their policy and attitude on women’s rights?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, there is no doubt that with the return of these people to the Iranian Government, the rights not just of women but of the whole group would be in some jeopardy. That is why I assure my noble friend that the United States has worked hard to make sure that the camp remains open and people are not at risk of return.

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Lord Dykes: My Lords—

Lord Alton of Liverpool: 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 think that we should let those on the Cross Benches speak.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, is this not a premature decision, given the failure of the Iraqi Government at present to protect the Chaldeans, the Syriacs, the Yazidis and other minorities, whose lives are endangered on the Nineveh plains where they have been expelled from Mosul? Is it not premature to change the status of those Iranians in Ashraf City?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will agree that there is a difference between the dispersed communities to which he refers and the limited capacity of the Iraqi Government to protect them and the situation of this group, contained within Ashraf City. The right of protection can easily and effectively be transferred to the Iraqi authorities, so long as they are committed to playing that role.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, aside from the special and heart-rending situation in Ashraf, is not the sobering reality for us all that, since 2003—five years ago—all Iraqi citizens want western foreign forces to leave as quickly as possible, particularly after so many citizens have been killed in Iraq?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord asks a very different question. I do not know whether all Iraqis share that view, but obviously there is a dramatic change in direction in which there is a rundown of western forces in Iraq. It is important that this group’s rights be protected while we recognise that new situation—that Iraqis will be responsible for security and human rights in Iraq.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, is the situation covered in the status of forces agreement that the Americans signed with the Iraqi Government, which seems very unpopular in the Pentagon? Have we raised this matter directly with the American authorities?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the latter point, we have raised it directly with the American authorities. I doubt that it is in the status of forces agreement but I shall respond to the noble Lord in writing on that.

Visas: Sri Lanka and Maldives

3.09 pm

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the transfer of visa processing in this case is part of a larger project to reduce the number of processing centres around the world while maintaining an extensive network of visa application centres. This is being done in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that for 60 years, Sri Lankans and Maldivians have been very satisfied with the processing in Colombo, whereas now there is a catalogue of errors, complaints, confusion and allegations of incompetence? Furthermore, is it not strange that there is a complete lack of sensitivity on behalf of the Foreign Office in locating this in Chennai, which is the one part of India where the Tamil Tigers have considerable influence and, as the noble Lord will know, where Prime Minister Gandhi was blown up by the Tigers? Secondly, is it not strange that, even at this stage, it is not possible for processing to return to a sovereign nation of 18 million people—one of the handful who supported us at the time of the Falklands crisis?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, with this new change, people applying for visas do not have to travel to Chennai; they still go to Colombo with their passports and documents and have a face-to-face meeting there. All of the detail is then passed to Chennai. That is done because we get an improved quality and consistency of decision-making about visas. We know that because we have assessed it with external sources. For example, we know that Sri Lankan nationals holding visas have been subsequently detained for less time when trying to get into the UK. The number detected as having incorrect visas has dropped as well. Not only that, by adopting this hub and spoke method around the world, we have saved in the region of £7 million this year. As I said, we have actually improved quality and consistency. It is more productive and cost-effective and people do not have to travel to Chennai.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, when the processing of visa applications was transferred to a private firm, Visa Facilitation Services, did it not cause immense disruption to the people in the residential neighbourhood of Palm Grove, where the activities were being conducted? No toilet facilities, parking or shelter were provided for the applicants, who had to depend on the hospitality of the people in the neighbourhood. Was that an improvement to the service?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am confused by that point. People still go to the same visa centre in Colombo as they did in the past. There has been no change whatever. I have not visited myself. I have not been to Sri Lanka for a number of years. But if it is bad, it was like that before and it is not something that has changed because of the hub and spoke method.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, under which of the new tiers can applications for a new visa be made by people from Sri Lanka and the Maldives? How do they know and how are they made aware that they will need a licence sponsor?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the tiers that apply will be the same as those applying for other regions of the world. Clearly, it will be tier 2 for people with particular advanced skills down to tier 5, as we discussed yesterday in the House, for people coming for religious reasons. There will be the same tiers as everywhere. They can get that from the UK Visa Centre where they can discuss these issues when they apply for a visa to come here.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, when we had a Question on a similar line about the Pacific islanders some two years ago we were told that they would all have to go to Fiji even though distances between the islands made that difficult. Does the hub and spoke system apply in those islands or do they still all have to go to Fiji?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I feel as though I am taking a test. All I know is that 150 issuing posts existed at the beginning of last year. That figure has been reduced to 95 and will go down to 65. The actual visa centres will still be where they were. People will go there with their passports. I am not sure about the exact detail of what happens in the Pacific islands, but I will get back to the noble Baroness in writing on that.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I am sorry to set the Minister another test, but my understanding is that Syrians who require a visa to come to this country have to go to Jordan or Lebanon in order to collect them. That may not apply to some categories, but when I visited Syria about three months ago I found very considerable unhappiness about those arrangements.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord is, as usual, absolutely right. However, those arrangements apply only in certain cases, and a lot of it is to do with security reasons that I would prefer not to go into right now. But he is absolutely right that in some cases, not the bulk of cases, they have to do that.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister not aware that we have sold the high commission in Colombo and that of course it has moved? Is that not part of the problem—no one really knows what is happening on the ground?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the visa centre is two kilometres away from the high commission and is still in the same position and the high commission has moved across the road. So I think that I am being tried a little hard on this one.

Armed Forces: Future Rapid Effect System

3.15 pm

Lord Luke: My Lords, at the specific request of my noble friend Lord Astor, I beg leave to ask the Government the following Question:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Marine Alexander Lucas, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on Monday.

On the Question, the future rapid effect system programme is currently in its assessment phase. The in-service date will not be fixed until the main investment decisions have been taken.

Lord Luke: My Lords, we on these Benches should like to associate ourselves with the remarks of sympathy for the family and friends of Marine Lucas.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, if the in-service date for the FRES Scout is likely, as we have heard, to be 2015, what interim solution does she intend to employ considering the now desperate state of the Scimitar CVRT, which has been in service since 1971, for 37 years? Is there anything available off the shelf? If there is, when might it come into service?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord will be aware that just recently, on 29 October, we announced a substantial package of vehicles that will be suitable for operations. The FRES vehicles are not operation-specific; they are part of the long-term core programme. On 29 October, we announced that we are spending more than £700 million, which will cover a whole range of vehicles, some of which are upgraded. Many of the vehicles that we need cannot be bought off the shelf and require a great deal of development. Even when the basic vehicle is available, we often have to spend an awful lot of money to get them up to theatre-entry standard, given all the extra protection that we now know is necessary.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I should like to enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute.

Does not the FRES programme present a real opportunity for a joint procurement approach with the French, given the size, scale and length of time of the programme?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we are always looking to collaborate where appropriate with other nations, as we have done on many programmes. The difficulty is that we need to have the same requirement, same timescale and similar funds available. That is not always the case, but we are always on the look-out for ways in which we can maximise the potential of our investment by working with appropriate other countries.

Banking: Northern Rock

3.18 pm

Baroness Noakes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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