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House of Lords

Wednesday, 4 February 2009.

3 pm

Prayers—read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Afghanistan: Helmand Province


Asked By Viscount Ullswater

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, on 12 December 2007, the Prime Minister announced in another place a long-term framework for security, political, social and economic development for Afghanistan, setting out our strategy and objectives. Military operations in Helmand support the implementation of this approach. My right honourable friend also announced on 3 December 2008 a review of this strategy. That review is ongoing and we will report to the House at the appropriate time.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. The noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, said of the Afghan Government:

“Corruption is a terrible cancer in that Government”.—[Official Report, 8/7/08; col. 628.]

Therefore, will Her Majesty’s Government be backing the re-election of President Karzai for effectively a third term in the presidential elections later this year? Also, can the Minister assure the House that talks are being undertaken by the international community with tribal leaders and even the Taliban to try to build a stable Afghanistan?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is certainly the case that corruption has been a significant problem in Afghanistan. One of the objectives set out by the Prime Minister in the Statement that I mentioned was the need for good governance and the rule of law to be established in Afghanistan. So far as the elections are concerned, our main concern is to get the process right and to ensure that they go smoothly. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan has lead responsibility and the Afghan national security forces are responsible for security there, but we are assisting. Our concern is with the process more than with the outcome, because that is a decision for the Afghan people. So far as talks with the Taliban are concerned, it is clearly the case that there has to be a comprehensive solution, not just a military solution. The Karzai Government have already made it clear that anyone involved in talks will have to renounce violence, sever any links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution.

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Baroness Crawley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the continual build-up of the Afghan army, especially the 205th Corps covering Helmand, is a vital way forward in achieving our strategic objectives, as is the concentration on the new shift, coinciding with the arrival of General Petraeus, towards far greater protection for civilians in the south?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend is correct. One of our basic objectives is to build up the strength of the Afghan army. We have put considerable effort into that with a large degree of success. We also have to build up the Afghan national police force, on which there is still some way to go. Everyone is now agreed that we need a comprehensive approach where we concentrate on ensuring that people in Afghanistan are able to provide security for themselves to maintain that situation and to operate under a rule of law with good governance. All those things combine as the objectives of everyone involved.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, can the noble Baroness comment on reports that Lieutenant-Colonel Owen McNally, while working with ISAF in Afghanistan, has been arrested by the Royal Military Police and is being brought back to this country to face charges of leaking details of civilian casualties to a human rights organisation? Are we in the business of covering up the tragic statistics of civilian deaths?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we all regret civilian deaths whenever they happen and we take as much care as possible to avoid them. It is of course extremely difficult to comment on the particular case that the noble Lord mentioned, which is very active. All that I can do is confirm that a British Army officer has been arrested in Afghanistan on suspicion of breaching the Official Secrets Act. He is being returned to the UK for questioning and the investigation has been referred from the MoD to the Metropolitan Police. It would be improper for any further details to be discussed at this time.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, in the desperately difficult situation that our forces face in Afghanistan, a further major challenge faces our supply routes and has done well before the recent announcement of the destruction of the bridge in the Khyber Pass. What further discussions are taking place with the Government of Pakistan to try to improve the security of our supply lines?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there is a Question specifically on this tomorrow, but I can say in general terms that we have more than one supply route and it is important that we are not overdependent on just one route. There has been an incident with the bridge; the Pakistanis have been providing emergency assistance to alleviate that problem and we continuously review with our allies the situation in terms of the airlift. There are problems, but there are no immediate difficulties that cannot be overcome.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, given the importance of the military contribution to achieving the Government’s objective in Afghanistan, what are their plans to increase the forces to ensure that objective?

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Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the Prime Minister announced in December a very modest increase in forces on a temporary basis. We keep that force level under review, but at this stage there is no further announcement to be made.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, am I right in thinking that there is a gap of several months between the expiry of President Karzai’s term of office and the elections for his successor? Do Her Majesty’s Government believe that he has the right to continue in office during that gap?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, again, that is an issue for people in Afghanistan and one of the reasons why we set such great store in having a proper system of governance and a proper legal framework. There is a gap, which is being addressed by Afghanistan’s people; it is basically an issue for them.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, may I gently tempt the Minister to give a slightly more substantive answer to a question that I have asked previously? The United States has a volunteer corps of post-conflict reconstructors who can move straight in after troops have taken a town such as Musa Qala. That is good, because it capitalises on the success of the soldiers. However, DfID has to wait sometimes weeks, even months, until the situation is safe. That is bad, because it fails to capitalise on the successes of the soldiers. What is being done to put this right?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, there is a difficulty in moving from one stage of a conflict to another. I do not think that there is a simple answer, although I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord is suggesting. We have to take an area and then we have to hold it in order to make it safe for those who want to participate in reconstruction to move in. That is the basic strategy and people across all departments in government are working well together to try to ensure that it happens. The review that I mentioned earlier will further look at that work to make sure that we maximise the efforts of all government departments and co-ordination between them.

Food: Pork and Bacon


3.09 pm

Asked by Lord Hoyle

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, my department published a second report in November on the proportion of domestically produced food used by government departments, hospitals and prisons. It shows a rise overall from 64 to 66 per cent in UK produce used. In relation to pig meat, overall the use of UK-produced bacon rose from 25 to 29 per cent and for pork from 65 to 74 per cent.

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Lord Hoyle: My Lords, those rises are substantial but is it not true that, prior to that, Whitehall departments were using 71 per cent of imported bacon and 39 per cent of imported pork? When I wrote to the departments to ask this question, I got constructive replies from all of them except the Home Office, which refused to reply because of the cost involved. I wonder whether it is using any British bacon at all. What resources are devoted to the public sector procurement initiative? Are we increasing those resources or are they the same, and will we continue to keep up the pressure in this regard? Does my noble friend agree that we should follow the example of the Commons in using only British bacon in all our refreshment outlets?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees wishes that he were here to respond on the question of the House of Lords policy not to serve British bacon for breakfast. My understanding is that it is down to the deadly combination of price and competition between the Lords restaurant and the Commons Strangers’ café for custom in the morning. My noble friend’s general point is that, since the new initiative, there has been an improvement. At the moment, we are on a level playing field with regard to resources, but the unit in my department receives huge support from procurement officers across government and the public sector and in the regional offices of government.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference a month ago, the Secretary of State, Mr Benn, proudly announced that Defra was using 100 per cent British pork, but there was no mention of bacon or ham. What percentage of these meats does Defra use and how can any government department justify buying meat from sources with lesser welfare standards than our own?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the figure that I have for British bacon used by Defra is 75 per cent. The department has undoubtedly improved its performance. The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out that the welfare standards for British pigs are very high. There has been concern that there is a disadvantage because of the standards in the rest of Europe, and that is a point well made. The EU directive which comes into place in 2013 will level that up to an extent, but it is important to emphasise the very high welfare standards for British pigs.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, the directive will in any event be inadequate, but will the Minister acknowledge that 2013 is too long to wait for harmonisation of animal welfare standards throughout the EU’s so-called single market? What steps are the Government taking to press for more rapid movement in that direction? According to NFU figures in recent years, our production costs for pig meat are some 20 per cent higher and, although there has been some adjustment as a result of accountancy changes, the situation is still disproportionate. Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain are all much cheaper because their standards are lower. Does the Minister acknowledge that consumers and producers have a common interest in higher standards and therefore in buying British pork and other pig meat?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is clear that British consumers appreciate the high quality of the pork and bacon from British pigs. However, I was rather surprised by the tenor of the noble Lord’s question concerning Europe, coming as he does from the Liberal Democrat Benches. He will know that we would have much preferred the new provisions to come into being long before 2013, but he will also know that negotiations in Europe on the matter were very difficult. Of course, we will continue to press for the highest welfare standards in Europe and for a level playing field between the rest of Europe and the UK.



3.15 pm

Asked By Lord Wallace of Saltaire

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown):My Lords, we continue to work actively with other OSCE participating states to support the efforts of Greece as chairman-in-office to agree a new mandate for the OSCE mission in Georgia. The mission will not finally close until June, and, with political will on all sides, we believe a new deal could be agreed before that. We call on Russia, the only state that rejected a compromise in December, to negotiate constructively.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that the OSCE believes that if there is no mandate by the end of February, it will have to start withdrawing members of the mission from Georgia. There is a more general question here: the Russian Foreign Minister has said that, in his opinion, the OSCE has failed and has to be replaced, along with NATO and various other organisations, in favour of the Russians’ very unclear proposal for a new European security organisation. Do Her Majesty's Government believe that we need to keep the OSCE going, or are we open to these unclear Russian suggestions that we have some new conference or other to talk about what we might do instead?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that, while we take with great respect proposals from the Russian Foreign Minister and others on new security arrangements in Europe, because Russia obviously has a real stake in such arrangements, in our mind they should not be at the expense of tried and proven institutions such as the OSCE and NATO.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, alone of the 56 participating states, Russia refused to have the roll-over in December and that equally it is putting obstructions in the way of the EU monitoring mission by insisting that it enters South Ossetia from the north? Will he be very wary of such attempts by Russia, which are presumably a

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thinly disguised attempt to promote recognition of the breakaway provinces, which, I think, are currently recognised by only Hamas and Nicaragua?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that we are well aware that there is a Russian bear trap in all this, with an intention to use the arrangements of groups of observers, whether they are from the OSCE, Europe or the UN, to achieve de facto recognition. For us, that is a red line. We want to make sure that there is effective observation of what is happening but that the territorial integrity of Georgia is not compromised.

Lord Howell of Guildford:My Lords, I am sure the Minister is skilful in avoiding Russian and other bear traps, but is not the problem that Russia really wants two OSCE missions, one for what it recognises as Georgia and one, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, rightly divined, for Ossetia? Is there any basis on which one could negotiate over this? Could the Minister enlighten those of us who perhaps should know better exactly what the highlight aims, gains and benefits of the OSCE missions will be in future?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the Greek chairman has made a compromise proposal which would retain a united mission with headquarters in Vienna and two field office subsidiary missions, one in Georgia and one in South Ossetia. By doing that, we would preserve the idea of one mission, but it would be able to operate in both areas. We have urged the Russians to accept this compromise like the rest of the membership. However, the OSCE is more than just these observation missions. Through its different human rights activities and national minority rights activities, it has many other means, in addition to field observation, by which to continue to involve itself in this situation.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, is the Minister being, unusually, a little bit complacent and pretending in a way about the OSCE? It has done a marvellous job in the past; seemingly, however, more and more people now think that it has reached the end of the road, bearing in mind how marginal it looks in comparison with the increased security co-ordination activity between the EU and NATO. Why not wind it up and, if necessary, fold some of the jobs into the EU-NATO structure and proceed on the basis of a more modern world, without annoying the Russians too much?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I hope that I do not give away a confidence when I say that the new United States Secretary of State in her meeting yesterday with our Foreign Secretary in Washington mentioned the OSCE as part of what she saw as the critical architecture of security and observation in the region. Although the EU and NATO have enormously important roles to play, the attractiveness of the OSCE has always been the places that it can reach because of the breadth of its membership. However, the noble Lord is quite correct: if that breadth of membership becomes the right of one country to veto its missions and effectiveness, we could see a diminution of that important organisation’s utility.

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3.20 pm

Asked By Baroness Northover

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown):My Lords, we are cautious about the workability of the agreement, but this is a solution that has been agreed between the Zimbabwean parties. Our hope is that those parties can make it work. Our formal engagement, including the provision of donor support, will depend on the new Government’s ability to demonstrate through their actions a commitment to reform.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply and for all his work on the issue. Does he share—it sounds as if he may—my sinking feeling about the agreement and whether it has any real chance of bringing peace and prosperity to Zimbabwe, given that Mugabe still controls the police, the army and the central bank? Does he think that SADC feels that it has now washed its hands of the problem? If so, how does the international community now best support and protect the people of Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, perhaps “sinking feeling” is the wrong phrase. All of us have great scepticism towards this, but we should all devoutly hope that the agreement can work. I met a range of African leaders at the AU summit in Addis Ababa during the past few days, many of them people who have privately been very critical of President Mugabe. All of them felt that the desperate nature of the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe meant that one more try at power-sharing was enormously important, that the suffering of the people required the politicians to overcome their differences and try one last time to see whether the power-sharing arrangement could be made to work. Although the noble Baroness makes very important points about how control is shared, we have to give this a chance, while setting very stern conditionalities for what we expect in terms of political freedoms and economic reform before we can provide support additional to our generous humanitarian assistance.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, can the Minister reassure us that when it comes to resuming aid to that poor country, 75 per cent of whose people are currently starving—I know that he is cautious, and he is right to be—and funds start flowing again, whether directly from Britain or through the EU or other agencies, we will take steps to see that they do not fall into the hands of Mr Gideon Gono, the central bank governor, who seems to regard the central bank as a private ZANU-supporting agency and is quite willing to distort the distribution of funds from it for purposes that have nothing to do with the recovery of the people of Zimbabwe?

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