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House of Lords

Thursday, 5 February 2009.

11.00 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.



11.06 am

Asked By Lord Judd

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the Foreign Secretary met the new US Secretary of State on 3 February for detailed talks on Iran. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s political director took part yesterday in talks with his US opposite number and officials from China, France, Germany and Russia. FCO officials both here and in Washington have been in close touch with the new Administration. We will continue to work closely together on this issue.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is not the firm, pragmatic approach of President Obama exactly the policy that we should be fully supporting? Must not human rights always be central to our considerations, and what are the latest developments concerning the British Council? Does my noble friend agree that underlying economic and political weaknesses in Iran suggest that there may be more room for leverage in negotiations than is sometimes supposed? Is not our task to win Iran, with its great history, into playing a positive role in the region, rather than to humiliate it?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, my noble friend raises a series of important interrelated points. President Obama has made it clear that he indeed wants fundamentally to revisit the US relationship with Iran, and I think he will be guided by exactly the pragmatism that my noble friend suggests. He said that it will take several months, and that is right, because we want to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater—and the baby is the very important E3+3 negotiation on the nuclear programme. Yes, we need to broaden the contacts and discussion with Iran, but we need to indicate that there is no backing off from our fundamental requirement that it does not proceed with a nuclear weapons programme, and, indeed, that we secure improvements on issues such as human rights. In that regard, the closing of the British Council office is a very sad setback.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we on these Benches must congratulate Her Majesty's Government on their success: the new American Secretary of State

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spoke to the British Foreign Minister just before she spoke to the German Foreign Minister. We understand how important these little questions of status are.

Does the Minister agree that those who say that the worst thing we could do to President Ahmadinejad and his hard-line regime is to open a dialogue and make it quite clear that we do not intend to work to overthrow the regime, as his regime thrives on confrontation and the belief that the whole world is against Iran; but that encouraging those in Iran who are not fully behind this rather nasty regime is exactly what we should be doing?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I say in a mischievous spirit similar to that of the noble Lord’s opening remarks that it takes a Liberal Democrat to notice these small points about pecking orders. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for it. On his second point, he is correct in that any broader engagement with the regime in Iran must undermine that regime’s tendency to fall back on populist, nationalist arguments of isolation, yet the real challenge for the Obama Administration is to find credible interlocutors in Iran—not people who posture but those who will deliver real policy results from such a dialogue.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest in this topic. I re-established relations with Iran in 1986 after an interval of many years only to have those relations broken off two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, by the issuing of the fatwa about the book published at that time. That indicates that the matter should be approached with considerable precaution. I remember a 1920s railway timetable for Chevening which disclosed in a list of embassies in London that then only three embassies represented Asian countries: Japan, China and Persia. Does that not underline the importance of trying to establish terms with that Government while warning against the hazards that lie ahead?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord offers wise advice. President Obama has indicated that it will take some months and a lot of consultation to arrive at any new policy initiative but that this revisiting of policy should not be mistaken as in some way going soft on the nuclear issue. It was again confirmed in the talks on 3 and 4 February to which I referred that the Americans want to move prudently to broaden the contact in a way that does not compromise the fundamental objectives which we continue to seek and which have remained constant from the previous Administration to this one.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, has the Minister made any representations to the authorities in Iran about the virtual closure of the British Council’s operation in that country? What lessons does he draw from the launch of a new missile in Iran earlier this week?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, on the first point, the Foreign Secretary is making, or has made, a Written Statement on this. The British Council was forced to

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close the office as a result of harassment of its staff. We have made it clear to the Iranians that we consider that to be utterly unacceptable and that we want the British Council to be able to restart its operations as soon as possible. The Iranians have said that they would be prepared to negotiate a new cultural co-operation agreement, which would allow the British Council to reopen, but they have not responded to our attempts to start a discussion on that. As to my noble friend’s second point, we are extremely concerned about the launch of the satellite. This kind of launch technology is potentially of a dual-use character and might therefore be capable of launching ballistic missiles as well.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I agree fully with the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Judd, but does the Minister believe that the success of our policy towards Iran will depend largely on its policy in relation to us? Secondly, does he believe that, with the forthcoming presidential elections, there is likely to be a better policy arrangement between us and Iran?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we have to see what the elections bring. We have all read the interesting reports of reform candidates regathering their courage and their organisational capacity to run, as they believe from opinion polls that they have support. That has been covered in the media. However, it is probably very imprudent to comment in this House on Iranian elections, as I suspect that we would handicap the horses that we would like to see win.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, with regard to the other worthy policy objectives concerning our relations with Iran, will the noble Lord include an exhortation to the Iranian head of state that he should no longer express the wish and desire that the state of Israel be expunged?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I think that the whole world has agreed that what he said is absolutely abhorrent; he has said it not just once but on many occasions. It goes back to my earlier point: however much we want to find a better dialogue with Iran, we have to find credible interlocutors. The President, in many of the things he says, raises doubts about whether he is such an interlocutor.



11.15 am

Asked By Baroness Whitaker

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, we recognise that the housing market faces significant challenges. We continue

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to take action both to support home owners and first-time buyers and by doing all we can to keep the housebuilding programme on track.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that positive Answer. Does she agree that one of the best routes to social mobility is decent, well designed housing for all who need it? What can the Government do to ensure that all housing schemes underwritten or facilitated by statutory authorities can meet the highest housing need without cutting corners on quality, both in the design of housing and of neighbourhoods, particularly in view of current information that some housebuilders are orchestrating a move to renege on quality standards?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, even though we face unique challenges in our housebuilding programme, it would be a huge mistake if we were to send any signal that we are any less serious about quality. In the past year, not least thanks to the efforts of my noble friend, we have passed the Housing and Regeneration Act and the Planning Act, which will ensure that all delivery bodies, including the Homes and Communities Agency, must aim to deliver well designed homes and neighbourhoods. We are taking that work forward with the Homes and Communities Agency and our partner, CABE.

Lord Best: My Lords, in relation to the plight of home owners in today’s economic situation—I declare an interest as a member of the council of the Ombudsman for Estate Agents—will the Minister comment on the Government’s reaction to the report from the Office of Fair Trading on the practice of sale and rent back, whereby home owners in difficulties sell their property to a company which then lets it back to them? Unfortunately, the purchase of those properties is often at a knock-down price and the occupiers discover that they have very little security of tenure. This is a loophole that the OFT suggests needs the regulation of the Financial Services Authority. Are the Government able to comment on the OFT’s report on this?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I think the whole House would agree that it is outrageous at this time for anyone to seek to exploit the misery of people who are in very difficult circumstances. I am glad to say that we are having conversations with the FSA at the moment about the prospects for regulation.

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, I rent out property. There are now more than one million families struggling with their mortgages, more than one and a quarter million families trapped in negative equity and one and three quarter million on the homeless waiting list. The Government say they are doing all they can on repossessions, but the reality is that repossessions have doubled, led, incidentally, by the government-owned bank, Northern Rock. Now, to cap it all, they propose to grant draconian new powers to bailiffs. Is it not the case that the Government say they are helping families and home owners but the reality is nothing of the sort? I half expect the Minister to say, “Don’t worry. It’s the birth pangs of the new housing market”.

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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I think that is an unfortunate phrase. We doing all we can and giving real help. We have prioritised people who are most vulnerable though our mortgage rescue scheme, which we are working up with lenders, and £400 million is going into it to help people who might become homeless because they cannot make their mortgage payments. We are prioritising people who are at risk of losing their jobs. Through a lender-led scheme—the Homeowner Mortgage Support Scheme—we are working with major lenders to help many home owners. We do not want to see a single repossession because repossession and homelessness are more expensive than anything we can do. We are prioritising first-time buyers and have brought forward a new scheme with lenders, New Build HomeBuy Direct. We are putting in a 30 per cent stake, which we share with developers. We have 130 developers involved at a cost of £400 million. The total package announced in the Pre-Budget Report was £750 million, not only to support home owners but to support the whole of the construction industry.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that finance is available to housing associations? Housing associations are as affected by the reductions in lending as other organisations at the very time when it would make sense to increase construction.

Baroness Andrews:My Lords, I could not agree more. We are bringing forward £550 million for affordable homes, which will give us 7,500 homes 18 months earlier than otherwise. Much of that money will go to enable RSLs to buy up unsold developers' stock and to expand their grant-making capacity.

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that our policy on homeless families impacts greatly on those who are waiting on the list? Is she aware that about 25,000 families are on the waiting list in east London? What does her department intend to do about the new housing to be built on the Olympic site to address the need for family housing?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the Olympic investment is extremely timely not only in the jobs that it will create but the housing that it will build for east London. I have mentioned the £550 million for social homes. We are also removing barriers to council house building, changing the revenue and capital grants and inviting councils to bid for capital subsidy. We are consulting on the proposed changes. We are looking for the most pragmatic, effective ways to build, buy and sell more houses across the board with all our partners.

Afghanistan: UK Forces


11.21 am

Asked By Lord Astor of Hever

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, our lines of communication for logistic support to British troops serving in Afghanistan are robust and reliable, and we have an effective air bridge. The security of the routes used to supply UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan is continuously reviewed.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply, but the destruction of the bridge in the Khyber region illustrates the vulnerability of our supply lines. How long might it take to repair or replace that bridge, and what progress has been made in negotiations with Afghanistan's northern neighbours, particularly in the light of Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to close the US base in that country?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the destruction of the bridge in the Khyber Pass at Jamrud was a serious incident. The Pakistan authorities have been extremely helpful in finding emergency alternative routes and are working on construction of an alternative—a Bailey bridge, I think. We are not by any means totally dependent on that route and, at the moment, we do not think that that is having or will have a significant impact. We always look at the possibility of strengthening other routes and, fortunately, we are not totally dependent on the Khyber Pass, and nor is NATO.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, the likely increase in American forces in Afghanistan and the closure of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, which has just been referred to, is likely to make it extremely difficult to supply fuel to the increased Allied forces in Afghanistan. How concerned are the Government about that?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, clearly, keeping supplies available at the appropriate level is very important when anyone is considering increases in force levels there, be it the Americans or anyone else. We are enacting a number of measures to ensure that we can continue to support our troops by the strategic air bridge. We have some short-term measures using additional lines of communication, using chartered aircraft to fly to the Middle East and then using our own aircraft to fly into Afghanistan. We are looking at a variety of methods and we are absolutely determined that we should not be dependent on only one supply route for anything vital.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, bearing in mind that the additional use of aircraft will require greater refuelling in Afghanistan, will the Minister say something about the adequacy of fuel provision there?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we are satisfied that we have adequate fuel supplies available in Afghanistan. One advantage of using the Middle East as a stopover is that we can use airports other than those in Afghanistan for refuelling for return journeys. That is proving very helpful and something that we may explore further.

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Lord Dykes: My Lords, will the Minister say more about the closure of the American airbase in Kyrgyzstan near Bishkek, which was not a complete surprise? What alternative arrangements can be made to make up for that loss?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I did say that we keep all our approaches and possible supply routes under review, as does the United States. It is important that no one is dependent on a single route, be it through the Khyber Pass or anywhere else. That is why, together with our NATO allies, we have considered a range of novel suggestions and contracts—for example, using civilian helicopters to airlift in non-essential supplies that can be taken on civilian aircraft. We are mindful of the need to keep a variety of routes and options open. We review this continuously and liaise with allies, so that we can review it with them.

Northern Ireland: Consultative Group on the Past


11.26 am

Asked By Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the report launched last week is a complex one that makes 31 recommendations on some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland today. One of the recommendations has provoked an understandably strong reaction. Naturally, the Government will be taking time to reflect on all the proposals carefully and will be discussing them with a wide range of people before taking any decisions.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that cautious Answer, but will she consider the situation if the proposed £12,000 payment to the families of terrorists was extended to the London Underground suicide bombers? Would the Minister, or indeed the Government, then be quite so ambivalent?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government have a responsibility to consider all the recommendations. I stress that we are looking to achieve consensus on anything that we bring forward, and it is absolutely clear that there is no consensus on this point.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I understand that the Historical Enquiries Team and the powers of the ombudsman to investigate the past will be transferred to the legacy commission. Will the noble Baroness tell us whether this commission will be funded properly for that job?

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