26 Jan 2009 : Column 1

House of Lords

Monday, 26 January 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

2.36 pm

Energy: Nuclear Fusion


Asked By Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, the UK invests in nuclear fusion research through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the EPSRC. Almost all UK fusion research takes place at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Culham, which will receive grant support from the EPSRC of £106 million over the four years culminating in 2009-10. The UK also participates in the EURATOM European fusion programme and the ITER project—the international thermonuclear energy reactor project—through its contribution to the EU budget.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, that is a helpful reply as far as it goes. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient financial support after 2010 to ensure continuity of the Joint European Torus project at Culham until such time as the larger, commercial-scale facility in the south of France, which is being developed by a global consortium, comes on stream?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, we can guarantee that continuing collaboration. ITER is a globally publicly funded scientific collaboration on nuclear fusion. It involves the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, Korea and the United States and is being constructed at Cadarache in the south of France, to which the noble Viscount referred. The ITER agreement was signed by the seven parties in November 2006. We strongly support ITER as the next step towards practical fusion power. It could lead to the demonstration of full-scale power generation in a prototype power plant in 30 to 35 years. This is a long-term project, which has the potential for a long-term secure source of energy. The funding will be through the EURATOM agreement and it will continue.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, although that is a welcome assurance from the Minister, does he recognise that the Joint European Torus at Culham, to which he referred, is the biggest tokamak in the world and that there is huge expertise from British scientists and engineers? Will he give an assurance that the ITER project, to which he also referred, is taking full advantage of this pool of British expertise and knowledge, notwithstanding that the project is situated at Cadarache in France?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I can confirm that we undertake the vast majority of fusion research in the UK and maintain the Joint European Torus as a fusion facility for European scientists. I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the contribution that we make to this project.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, do the Government agree that real progress has been made at Culham in solving some of the scientific problems and that there are good prospects that in due course there will also be a practicable solution to the engineering and materials problems? As fusion in the medium term is possibly the best hope for the world’s serious energy problems, and as greater investment could speed up the project, can the Government give it a higher priority than seems to be indicated by the Minister’s answer?

26 Jan 2009 : Column 3

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I must confess that I am not an expert in nuclear physics, as has probably been obvious from my replies, but we have a long-term commitment to the ITER project. It could lead to a demonstration of full-scale power generation in a prototype power plant in 30 to 35 years. It certainly requires an act of faith but the leading physicists in this area believe that it is possible and capable and we are fully committed to this international project. We should not underestimate the significance of a project that combines the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, Korea and the United States. I cannot confirm whether we will give any more to it but I am happy to write to the noble Lord on the matter.

Lord Broers: My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that he realises the priority that is given to this project internationally? Last year I was a member of a committee put together by the US National Academy of Engineering and charged with looking at the grand challenges for engineering in the coming century. We identified 50 initially but boiled them down to 14. The projects related to energy, infrastructure and even medicine. Fusion survived through to the final 14 and engineers give the project an extremely high priority internationally. We have a very strong position, which I hope the Minister will sustain.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, according to the information with which I am supplied, we are fully committed to this project. I agree with the noble Lord about its significance and the importance of a long-term commitment.

Lord Winston: My Lords, given that my noble friend has pointed out that the chance of nuclear fusion promoting valuable power to our energy needs is some 30 to 35 years off, can he reassure the House that there will be continued investment in the improvement of nuclear fission technology as well? This is a serious issue at present.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, my noble friend is right. We believe in a balanced and integrated approach to energy and not in putting all our eggs into one basket. The Government have demonstrated their commitment to all forms of renewable energy, including nuclear.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the interesting developments in the United States with laser fusion technology? Will the Government examine that? As it will be, apparently, 35 years before we get fusion power, has the Minister noticed the report in today’s paper that it will provide each gigawatt of electricity much cheaper than that produced by wind power?

Lord Young of Norwood Green:My Lords, these statistics are always complicated. It would be best if we wrote to the noble Lord on laser energy.

26 Jan 2009 : Column 4

Legislation: Lord Chancellor


2.44 pm

Asked By Lord Campbell of Alloway

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, having declared my interest on the fourth day of the debate on the humble Address.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Lord Chancellor is a member of the Legislation Committee, which considers all Bills before they are introduced into Parliament.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, why has it been sought to foreclose on the role of the Lord Chancellor to tender his advice, which has been established and retained by usage and which has not been abrogated by statute, by setting up a combined appointment with conflicting functions which has presented the constitutional renewal Bill to Parliament? Would any Lord Chancellor exercising that role have withdrawn or substantially amended that Bill before presentation to Parliament, as advised in the report of the committee?

Lord Bach: My Lords, changes to the process for approval of legislation for introduction into Parliament long pre-dated the reforms of the office of Lord Chancellor in 2005, let alone the creation of the Ministry of Justice in 2007. The usage and custom to which the noble Lord refers have already moved on and, arguably, have fallen into abeyance. As has been pointed out in this House fairly recently, the Lord Chancellor’s functions in relation to the rule of law are now on a statutory basis. The Lord Chancellor himself remains a member of the Legislation Committee which approves legislation before its introduction and, therefore, has the opportunity to raise any concerns he may have at that stage.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, does the Minister recall that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and I, other Members of the House and MPs sat on the Joint Committee for many months examining a draft constitutional renewal Bill. What has become of that Bill? We could be discussing this issue if we were now debating that Bill. What has become of the Prime Minister’s programme for the governance of Britain, which he announced at the very beginning of his premiership when he wanted to do all sorts of good things to improve the accountability of both Houses of Parliament? Does the Minister not recognise that this is not a luxury that we can leave until the end of the recession? It is urgent. The public are losing confidence in both Houses of Parliament, and the events of the past few days have not helped the reputation of Parliament generally and of this House in particular.

26 Jan 2009 : Column 5

Lord Bach: My Lords, I ask the noble Lord to be patient. We plan to introduce a constitutional renewal Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. We expect that to be later this Session. We remain committed to the programme of constitutional renewal, which we announced in the Green Paper. As part of that programme we issued a draft constitutional renewal Bill for consultation and we are looking at the final composition of that Bill. I pay tribute to the noble Lord and to other Members of the House who served on the Joint Committee.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, will the Minister deal with the point arising from my noble friend’s Question; namely, that it was the independent political status and professional reputation of the Lord Chancellor, before that office was reformed, that enabled his advice on the constitutional significance of any Bill brought forward for approval in Cabinet to be almost universally accepted? Now that that safeguard has been dismantled—to use polite language—are we not already seeing some unfortunate results?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord that the safeguard has somehow been dismantled. The Lord Chancellor now has a constitutional duty in relation to the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law and, as an important member of what is commonly known as the L Committee, he has an important role to play in looking at whether Bills conform with the various treaties and other obligations which the UK Government have. I remind the House that all Ministers, not just the Lord Chancellor, are required to respect the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law at all times.

Agriculture: Hill Farm Allowance


2.50 pm

Asked By Baroness Byford

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, final figures for 2006 will not be known until work to confirm the existence and level of debt has been completed. However, it is expected that the exercise will affect between 1,000 and 2,000 farmers, with an overpayment value of between £1 million and £2 million.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, that really is a very unsatisfactory position. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the RPA payments system is appalling and its continuing incompetence is unacceptable. Has the RPA sent out letters to all farmers who were overpaid, and what information was given to those farmers about what overpayments were due?

26 Jan 2009 : Column 6

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness is aware of the problems that the RPA has had, which led in the first place to what might be described as interim payments being made in relation to the hill farm allowance. Work is still being undertaken. I understand that stakeholders were notified last November that the overpayment process would begin. Work is now being undertaken and I understand that it will be completed in the next two months. Letters are likely to be sent out in March.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I declare an interest: I am still waiting for any of our single payments for the year ending March 2008 from the Rural Payments Agency. Overpayment is a different matter. Does the Minister think it is easy for hill farmers, the most disadvantaged sector, to meet an unexpected demand to pay within 30 days? How does this compare with the treatment of other disastrous overpayments, such as those under the tax credit system?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I think the overall performance of the RPA was behind the noble Lord’s first question; this House is well aware of the issues that have been faced in this area. On the SPS payments for 2008, 75 per cent, by value, of those payments should be made by the end of this month. I am aware of the pressures that hill farmers are under. I assure the House that repayments will be handled as sensitively as possible and that there will be a number of repayment options to make this as easy as possible for the hill farmers affected.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there will be a 30-day deadline for repayment of these sums? Is it not quite extraordinary that Defra has, on the one hand, presided over the failures of the RPA—the only outcome being that the Secretary of State, when a major failure took place, was promoted—while, on the other hand, it pursues farmers with these vigorous timescales?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there will be a range of repayment options. The figure can be repaid over six months. Indeed, if there are particular hardship issues, it is possible that the repayment period could be lengthened. The debt has to be of £250 and above. As I have said, I understand the pressure and stress that many hill farmers are under. That is why we will take as sensitive an approach as possible. We will work with the NFU and other stakeholders to ensure that we are aware of all the issues. At the end of the day, this money has to be recovered.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance that every effort will be made to match the repayment schedules to the needs of the individual farmers, but is he aware that particular farmers will not be able to access the uphill entry level stewardship scheme and will therefore lose that source of income and be further afflicted? I declare an interest as a trustee of the ARC-Addington Fund and ask that every attempt be made to keep the farm help charities informed so that we can in our turn be supportive of those who are most deleteriously affected.

26 Jan 2009 : Column 7

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate. I shall certainly ensure that my department is in touch with him and the relevant charities. I pay tribute to them for their work and for their support to farmers, particularly hill farmers, in what is a very difficult time.

On the transition from hill farm allowance to uplands ELS, I understand a number of the concerns. We have been in close discussions with organisations such as the NFU. However, we expect that if under the new system which comes into being in 2010 there is an 80 per cent uptake, the amount of money in the pool will be about £25 million, which is a little more than is available now under the hill farm allowance, and that if the uptake is more than 80 per cent, more resources will be available.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister recollect the rule that money paid under a mistake of fact is normally recoverable at law, but that money paid under a mistake of law is not? Is it possible that some of these moneys were paid under a mistake of law rather than a mistake of fact?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as ever, the noble Lord asks a very good question. He, along with other noble Lords, will know that when the SPS and hill farm allowance payments were started to be made by the Rural Payments Agency, the system came under considerable pressure, the targets were not met, and there was great concern that farmers were not receiving the resources that they were due. In view of that, the decision was taken to make what are best described as partial or interim payments, but it was always on the understanding that those payments would have at some stage to be reconciled with the rules under which they were given, as has now happened.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, if these are relatively modest sums owed by some of our poorest farmers, why can they not be repaid merely by being deducted from next year’s payments?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is one of the options. The hill farm allowance payments are due to go out in March this year. One option is for hill farmers to decide that the repayment should be taken off that allowance. There are a number of repayment options. I can assure the House that we will continue to talk with those who represent the interests of hill farmers. We will ensure that the matter is handled as sensitively as possible.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is anyone to blame for this, and, if so, who?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the matter of the Rural Payments Agency has been inquired into thoroughly. Ministers have accepted their responsibility and apologised. As the Government said in response to the PAC’s report, the Permanent Secretary and senior members of the department involved in oversight of the delivery of the programme share some responsibility for the failures, but the department’s strong view is

26 Jan 2009 : Column 8

that accountability rests fundamentally with the then chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency. The organisation that he headed was responsible for delivery, and at no time did he say to the department that it was not possible to meet the objectives set.

Israel Defence Forces


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page