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House of Lords

Tuesday, 27 January 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.

Aid Workers


2.37 pm

Asked By Baroness Rawlings

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we take the safety of British aid workers very seriously. The Department for International Development has revised and updated its security policy to ensure maximum protection of staff in conflict zones, in particular, but also in all overseas locations. We also support non-government partners in similar precautions. So we hope that non-government and non-British aid workers will also benefit from better security in the face of increasingly numerous and callous attacks.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. I have asked this Question several times before but never received such a satisfactory Answer. This time, however, the situation is very different, as DfID’s budget is set to increase by 11 per cent a year, to £7.9 billion in 2010-11, according to the 2007 Pre-Budget Report and Comprehensive Spending Review. Will this increase still happen, and what percentage of this enormous but well-deserved amount will be put towards protecting the security of aid workers who are providing help and humanitarian assistance in areas of strife?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her birthday and on once again asking me a question that I have not the slightest chance of answering. I have every confidence that the figures in the Pre-Budget Report will be committed to and I am delighted that the opposition parties are aligning with them. On the protection of aid workers, which I think is what the noble Baroness is getting at, I should point out that we have three kinds of aid workers: DfID employees, funded NGOs and non-funded NGOs. On the funded NGOs, we now require anyone we are funding to have in place a proper security plan that is of the same standard as those for our own staff, and we expect them to include in their budget sufficient moneys to cover that security support. We have a legal responsibility for our own staff and we accept a moral and financial responsibility for those aid workers who work for us.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, does the noble Lord nevertheless agree that aid workers working in Afghanistan feel very strongly about this issue? They

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feel that aid workers should keep their distance from soldiers, mainly because of the obvious consequences for the local population with whom they are working.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I can give a general answer but will write to the noble Lord on the specifics of Afghanistan because it has its own peculiar security problems. As a generality, we see a division among aid workers who are not DfID employees. Some aid workers are working for us by virtue of our grant, but we also respect those who work for organisations which choose to distance themselves from Her Majesty’s Government because they believe that that is a more effective way of working. We do not support them because they do not want us to support them. However, we include them in systems of information, guidance and advice. We recognise that many of those organisations do an excellent job.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, further to that question, does the Minister recognise that there is a conflict between carrying out the duty of care—for DfID employees, for instance—and moving them in straight after a conflict in a place like Musa Qala has finished? The need is to get them in fast if the opportunities won by the soldiers are not to be lost. The United States has tackled this problem by setting up a special unit of volunteers who are prepared to move in even when the circumstances are dangerous. That is far better than what we are doing. Is DfID thinking about such a proposition?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the DfID approach is one of proportionality. We do not have an absolute sense that aid workers have to be as secure as someone working in the United Kingdom—we take risks that are proportional to the value they are adding. In that sense, we are working towards going down the same road as the US. In a dangerous environment we will be working with volunteers. We have a stabilisation unit which is assembling skilled people and our target is to have 1,000 people on the register who have various skills and can move into particular humanitarian situations. I am not sure that that follows the US model exactly but it is trying to be proportionate in terms of the safety of the individuals and the value they add. It is right to point out, as the noble Lord’s question did, that it is frequently in areas of conflict that we have to move in quickly to stabilise the situation because conflict is so much a part of poverty in many parts of the world.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I declare an interest in the sense that a member of my family has just returned from Darfur and has been discussing the issue with me at the weekend. The problem for aid workers, particularly those from charities, is that they are people with a wide range of nationalities who are working in difficult areas, and we need to ensure that good evacuation procedures are available if the situation gets worse. That is an obvious shared interest and responsibility for the Governments concerned. How closely are the British Government working with other members of the European Union, the African Union and other international organisations to ensure that evacuation procedures can be put in place quickly?

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Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I entirely accept that a response requires full consideration of evacuation and constant information to ensure that the organisation organising the aid has appropriate sensitivity, knows when the situation is changing and is able to make a rapid response. My understanding—I will write to the noble Lord on this—is that Darfur is substantially a UN-organised aid thrust. The UK has great respect for that effort. We have employees working out there and they have been integrated into that effort, and of course we also have volunteers there. We are satisfied that in every respect the UN plans meet the standards of safety that we expect for our people. As ever, though, that must be proportionate to the risks they have to take to provide the benefit.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was in Sri Lanka four days ago? There are estimated to be around 100,000 Tamils in the Vanni region. Does DfID have contingency plans to ensure that the organisations it funds are ready to move into the Vanni once the Tamil Tigers have been defeated?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I hate to share with the noble Lord the fact that I was not aware of where he was two or three days ago. I do not know whether DfID has specific plans for Sri Lanka in those circumstances, but I shall write to him.

Civil Service Bill


2.45 pm

Asked By Lord Sheldon

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, the draft constitutional renewal Bill, published in March 2008, included proposals to enshrine in statute the core principles and values of the Civil Service. As set out in the Queen’s Speech, the Government will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal, including the Civil Service provisions.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, it is more than nine years since the Government said that they would introduce a Civil Service Bill. This undertaking has been repeated year after year. When the legislation comes before the House, will it deal with the impartiality of the Civil Service as it is backed by the force of law? The important question is: if there is once again to be further draft legislation, when will it finally be passed into law?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I must congratulate my noble friend on his tenacity on this issue. I can confirm that the core values and duties of the Civil Service, which of course include impartiality, will be part of the Bill. I believe that our Civil Service is impartial, but it is good that there should be a statute in which those core principles are included. Pre-legislative scrutiny on these issues has taken place

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and I do not believe that further draft legislation is necessary. These proposals will be brought into law in due course.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, has the Lord President read that George Osborne has a detailed plan to sack senior civil servants whom Conservative Ministers deem responsible for shortfalls in their own financial targets? Might this not lead to an American-style spoils system of public appointment? Should not the opportunity of ministerial buck-passing be prevented by entrenching the independence of our British Civil Service?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am never in favour of buck-passing; I always think that the buck stops here. The existing Civil Service Code, which forms part of civil servants’ terms and conditions of employment, already states that civil servants must,

and that they must not,

That is absolutely correct; it is in the code; and I believe that it is sufficient.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that the constitutional renewal Bill is a fully formed and lusty baby after its long gestation and that there are many who think that the Civil Service is important enough to deserve a Bill of its own. Will she consider with her colleagues whether that baby might be delivered on its own?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I shall certainly take back to my colleagues the idea that birth should be as soon as possible.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, do the Government have any intention to reduce the number of special advisers, a very large number of whom have been created under this Government, which has gone so far to undermine independent advice being given by the Civil Service?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there are no proposals at present to reduce the number of special advisers, but I disagree fundamentally with the noble Lord that their position in any way undermines the impartiality of the Civil Service. Gordon Brown’s first act as Prime Minister was to revoke the Order in Council that granted powers to special advisers to line-manage and give instructions to civil servants. We are now back to where we used to be and we are in a very good position.

Lord Morgan: My Lords, the constitutional renewal Bill was a miscellaneous measure. Could not the Civil Service Bill be brought in as an individual measure as it is so strongly supported? Could it not be said also that the Government cannot be accused of undue haste, as this was proposed in 1854 by the Northcote-Trevelyan report?

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful for that historical perspective and will certainly take those ideas back to the department.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I support the idea of an individual Bill. That reflects the recommendations of the report of the Joint Committee and was the view taken by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I support both of them.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful for that support.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, does my noble friend consider that it would be beneficial if the contents of the Civil Service Bill drew on the distinctive insights and experiences, brief as they were, of the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I was disappointed by the views expressed recently by the noble Lord, Lord Jones. I was also slightly confused, because a couple of months previously, he had referred to our Civil Service, not exactly as world class, but he was full of praise for it. I endorse his praise for our Civil Service, which does a first-rate job.

I will abuse my position here to make a comment about the staff of the House. At this difficult time for the House, when the House is brought into disrepute, it must be difficult for our staff, who must feel demoralised. On behalf of the whole House, I record our thanks to our staff at this difficult time.

Energy: Gas Storage

Question 3

2.51 pm

Asked By Baroness Miller of Hendon

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 are working to facilitate new gas storage projects by implementing the reforms to the consents procedure under the Energy and Planning Acts 2008. National Grid’s Ten Year Statement identifies 17 commercial gas storage projects which, if they all go ahead, could increase Britain’s gas storage capacity to 20 per cent of current demand levels by around 2020.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that extremely helpful and full Answer. However, I remind him—I see that he is laughing, but I never ask anything difficult—that as recently as last December, our Prime Minister announced that there would be vast sums of money for infrastructure projects.

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Will any of that money enable us to look more quickly into other possible gas storage facilities, given that we have only an inadequate 14-day supply at present, compared with other countries, including France and Germany, which have supplies for 100 days?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I was waiting for the “but”, and it came. I do not think that funding from Government is appropriate. We have 17 potential projects at various stages of development by the commercial sector. I am sure that that is right. We reckon also to have a storage capacity of 4.5 billion cubic metres, which is about 4 per cent of demand. The noble Baroness made a comparison with Germany. As a proportion of imports, our storage capacity is about the same as that of Germany.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, is not the real problem here, as the Question states, the dispute between Ukraine and Russia? Is it not a fact that Europe did not take any notice of the wake-up call in 2006, when Russia first cut off the supply? What proposals on this issue are the Government bringing to the Czech presidency summit, to make sure that the problem is not just for us but also for the rest of the European Union?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very penetrating comment. Clearly, events between Russia and Ukraine in the past few weeks have very much concentrated minds. The Government have been in close touch with the EU and the presidency to reinforce the need for Europe to consider and take action in these matters in a very decisive way. I know that they are being given consideration within the EU Energy Council. I assure the noble Lord that this Government will put all due pressure on the EU to ensure that the lessons are learnt quickly.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, does not the credit crisis mean that the storage plants that the Minister talks of are less likely to get the funding they need and that they will not actually be built? It is no good producing all sorts of wonderful ideas when the chances are that we will not get the money for them. On reflection, should not the Government have used the good years to ensure that the country had adequate storage facilities and not put our energy security at risk by dithering and delay?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not know where dithering and delay come into it. We have taken action in the energy and planning legislation to facilitate the development of more storage facilities. Noble Lords need to recognise that we have a huge storage facility in the North Sea. Of course, the credit crunch may have an impact in certain investment decisions, and I would not walk away from that, but I assure the noble Baroness that we are keeping this under review.

We are not at all complacent but I am confident that we can come through and ensure that we have sufficient storage capacity. Some of the projects are very close to fruition and we can have confidence that we will have that storage capacity.

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Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, can the Minister say what, if any, increases in gas storage in the European Union have been constructed since the wake-up call of the first crisis between Ukraine and Russia two years ago? Is that not the sort of object that the EU’s stimulus package should be directed towards? What does he think of the desirability of having a minimum storage requirement in the EU for gas, just as there is for oil?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the question of what might be called strategic gas storage within Europe is under consideration at the moment. As for the UK, we remain to be convinced, since our concern is that a strategic supply would simply displace current commercial supply. However, I recognise that in continental Europe there are different considerations. I assure the noble Lord that we will continue to urge the EU to take decisive action in this area.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, have not this Government been urging the EU to take decisive action in this area for several years? That action has not been taken. It would be very desirable if it had been taken, but it has not. However, the fact that it has not be taken and is unlikely to be taken does not exonerate this Government from ensuring that we, nationally, have adequate gas storage, not least because, although Mr Putin can afford to cut supplies for a short period, he cannot afford to cut them for a long period. Therefore, if we had adequate gas storage facilities to cover a short period, we would be in a very much stronger position than we are in today.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have to remember that very little of our gas comes from Russia, we have a huge storage facility in the North Sea, we are not at all complacent and we are facilitating investment in further storage facilities. On the question of EU action or not, I believe that the events of the past few weeks have concentrated minds considerably in the EU. We will continue to press the EU to take the action necessary, alongside the actions that have been taken, such as a third internal market package to encourage Europe to have a more competitive approach to energy following the example that this country has set.

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