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House of Lords

Monday, 23 February 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Death of a Member: Lord Dearing


The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, it is with deep regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Dearing on 19 February. On behalf of the whole House, I extend our sympathy to the noble Lord’s family and friends.

Elections: Members of the House of Lords


2.37 pm

Asked By Lord Dubs

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government’s White Paper on House of Lords reform proposed that Members of a reformed second Chamber should be able to vote in elections to both the House of Commons and to the reformed second Chamber. The proposals would enable all members of the peerage and new Members of the second Chamber to vote in all elections.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, although it suggests that nothing will happen very soon. Can he confirm that, as the result of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, the Government are now working out how to give the right to vote to prisoners in our jails? If that is the case, would it not be invidious if prisoners were to have the vote—I welcome the fact that they are to have it—but we were debarred from voting until some time in the distant future?

Lord Bach: My Lords, if it was the distant future it might be invidious, but the White Paper makes it clear that the proposal for constitutional change is that after the next election, each party having published its own views on this matter in its manifesto, a Bill will be brought before Parliament that will include in it the right of Members of this House to vote. That is something that we would all like to see.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does not the Question refer to the situation at the present time? Does the Minister agree that it would be quite extraordinary if we, who already have a vote in Parliament, were to claim the right to have someone represent us here?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the position is as it is at the present time. In repeating myself for the third time already, with a reformed House of Lords, which we hope to see quite early in a new Parliament, that position would then be altered. For my part, I have to say that I very much welcome the prospect of voting in a general election.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the horse—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, shall I try again? Can the noble Lord tell the House what was the basic rationale that caused Peers to be disenfranchised side by side with felons, enemy aliens and lunatics, and does that rationale still hold water?

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Lord Bach: My Lords, I thought that that question might arise, and here is the answer. Parliament consists of three estates: the Sovereign, the Lords and the Commons. The Lords sit in their own right while Members of the Commons are elected by the remainder of the estate of commoners to represent them in Parliament. There was therefore no case for the Lords to vote to elect representatives since they were able to sit in Parliament anyway. Further, even if they had voted, they did not belong to the estate from which the Commons was elected and which it represented. I should add that the great American president, Thomas Jefferson, had another view on why the Commons passed this declaration in 1699, but I shall not trouble the House with it today.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, the Minister’s expression of hope for reform of our Chamber may be shared by many, but surely the Government are in a position to assert their intention to rectify this individual wrong. Although Jefferson announced his views a long time ago, Senators in the United States can vote for Congressmen today and have been able to do so for some time. Surely we can take a leaf out of that book.

Lord Bach: My Lords, on the whole, we do not believe that bits of legislation around the House of Lords should be introduced in small packages. There may be an exception to be had given recent allegations concerning disciplinary matters but, on the whole, our view remains the same. Comprehensive reform of this House, including the subject of the Question today, would, without support from all parties, risk throwing away what the parties have done so far to reach agreement. We intend to put a comprehensive package of reform to the electorate as a manifesto commitment at the next election. I think and hope that the House is with us in believing that it is much better to do this than to rush through full-scale reform without agreement or time to develop well considered proposals.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the rationale that he gave in response to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, on why Members of this House should not have a vote in elections to the House of Commons is entirely unconvincing? Is not the question of whether this House is to be appointed or elected irrelevant? If there is no good reason why Members of this House should not be able to vote, and if, as my noble friend suggested, there is to be early legislation on certain reforms of the House, will he ensure that this matter is dealt with in that legislation?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I said that there might be legislation, not that there would be. We do not think that this issue should be part of what will, if there is legislation, be around disciplinary matters alone.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is it not extraordinary that the Government should devote their time to this issue when there are so many others to be resolved? The electors outside this House will be amazed that the Government are devoting so much attention to it in the midst of the financial incompetence and economic problems that the Government have wished upon us.

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Lord Bach: My Lords, I have been trying to say that we have not been devoting much time to the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I ask the Minister for advice on a personal dilemma. I am a former elected Member of the House of Commons, a Member of this House and, of course, an elected Member of the National Assembly for Wales. I can vote in National Assembly elections and council elections and yet am still debarred from influencing what goes on down the Corridor. How soon am I to be delivered from this conundrum?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I come back to what I said at the start: if, after the next election, a Bill to reform this House can be passed through Parliament, the noble Lord can rest fairly assured that one of the provisions of that Bill will be that he will be able to vote at the general election after next.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the allegation of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that the Government are financially incompetent and have wished our current economic woes upon us is spectacularly inaccurate?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said. I do not think that, for once, he mentioned the Government. I was going to congratulate him on his statesmanship in not doing so, but if he did mean to have a go at the Government, he is quite wrong.

Energy: Nuclear Industry


2.45 pm

Asked By Lord Jenkin of Roding

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, Cogent, the sector skills council responsible for nuclear, is undertaking a large study to assess the nuclear skills requirements across all sectors over the next few decades. This work will be complete around the end of summer of this year.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, that is all very well, but is not the immediate problem much more serious than that? Does the Minister realise that the greatest problem that the industry now faces is the inability of the nuclear regulator to recruit and train the staff needed to perform its functions, particularly the generic design assessment of new designs? Is it not also the case that Dr Tim Stone, the Government’s adviser, specifically recommended to Ministers that certain rigid Civil Service rules about salaries in the

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first two years of employment should not apply to the nuclear regulator, given its staffing difficulties? Why have the Government refused to implement that recommendation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to some of the pressures that have faced the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Dr Tim Stone was commissioned to carry out a review, as a result of which a short-term pay deal is under negotiation with the trade unions. That will introduce a range of factors that we hope will address some of the short-term recruitment and retention problems. A satellite office is being established in London and one is to be established in Cheltenham, which are both strategic locations for recruitment. A restructuring of the nuclear inspectorate is proposed to deal with the very issues that the noble Lord has rightly raised.

Lord ONeill of Clackmannan: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the picture is not quite as gloomy as that painted by the noble Lord? Indeed, while the Nuclear Industry Association, which I chair, is in no way sanguine, it recognises that a lot is being done. However, it has to be said that, as with the reform of the NII, we get dribs and drabs of information when the House requires a comprehensive statement of where we are. That would be helpful and would probably be more useful than the kind of question and answer session that we are having. Will the Minister take that on board?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I will certainly see whether I can produce a Written Statement or other information, which I am sure would benefit the House. As far as the nuclear regulator is concerned, one should also pay tribute to the tremendous work and skills of the people employed by the Nuclear Directorate. We hope that the measures that we are now taking will ensure that it has the right number and quality of people whom it needs for the future, particularly as we move into the new nuclear regime.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I am sure that the Government will accept that we have a real problem. This is all taking too long. Tim Stone’s report came in, but it has taken the Government six months to answer it. Now the Minister tells us that they are going to take on a large study. I cannot understand why they are taking so long when this country is in such a desperate state due to the lack of its own energy.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there are two points here. The study to which I referred in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, concerns the requirements of the nuclear industry generally. The specific question that he raised concerned the regulator. Frankly, it is unfair to say that the Government have not responded. We commissioned the review. We are looking at it seriously. We are negotiating with the trade unions. We have established a satellite office in London because that is an important recruitment centre. We are taking a number of other actions. We are not complacent but, equally, the nuclear industry is at an important stage; hence, we are asking the sector skills council to produce the review, which will be published in the summer.

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Lord Redesdale: My Lords, to follow the Minister’s point, most of the new nuclear fleet will not be in operation until the middle of the 2020s or the 2030s, so most of the people who will be working in the nuclear industry are currently still at school or even at university. Is there not a lack of capacity within the school and university system to train on these issues? If that is the case, are we not storing up problems for the future?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the first new nuclear station, which EDF is proposing, will come on stream in 2018 or the end of 2017. There should then be a regular programme of new nuclear stations opening. The point that the noble Lord makes is relevant, which is why the Government have taken action to enhance the teaching of maths, physics, chemistry and technology as key subjects in schools. We are also looking at graduate programmes to encourage people to come into what should be an exciting industry in the future.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, should not the reduced employment prospects in conditions of increasing unemployment potentially increase recruitment opportunities in the nuclear industry?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, clearly this should be an extremely attractive industry for young people to go into. We will do everything that we can to encourage them to do so. The prospect for the industry is brighter than ever. My noble friend is right to point out its huge potential for young people in this country, not just in terms of nuclear stations but in the supply chain.

Sri Lanka


2.51 pm

Asked By Lord Naseby

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the recent military advances of the Sri Lankan Government and the subsequent humanitarian crisis make a sustained drive for a lasting political solution to the conflict all the more urgent. We have made clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, why was a special envoy appointed with absolutely no consultation with the Sri Lankan Government? Is that the way to treat a friendly country? Indeed, it is one of just a handful of countries that supported us at the time of the Falklands war. In any case, do we not have a first-class high commissioner already in Sri Lanka who, rather than a failed politician, can do any job that is necessary?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is a little unfair. If the Government had done nothing in the face of this developing crisis in Sri Lanka I have no doubt that the noble Lord, who is always knowledgeable about these issues, would have been very critical. The Government sought after consultation to appoint Des Browne, with his experience of military and defence issues, as a special envoy. As the noble Lord will recognise, this is all about a military conquest of the northern part of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans then said that they were not prepared to accept him as an envoy, and we are still discussing the issue with them. However, the position is rather different from that portrayed by the noble Lord.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Sri Lanka’s participation in the EU trade preference scheme depends on it maintaining a good humanitarian record, and that an EU investigation mission has also been refused entry? What should we make of this?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that Sri Lanka benefits from the generalised system of preference. If it were withdrawn the Sri Lankan economy, which is already blighted by the present world problems, would be likely to lose 140,000 jobs and see its gross national product drop by 2 per cent. That is very serious. So we should be careful about the economic aspects of the position. However, the Government intend to bring pressure to bear in every way they can on the Sri Lankan Government to observe human rights. The noble Baroness is right that their acceptance of the generalised system of preference depends on their observing human rights in their country.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, will the Minister say whether the Government are satisfied that the Sri Lankan authorities are doing all in their power to bring to justice the killers of the journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga? Have the Government made any representations to the Sri Lankan Government about the threat to freedom of the press and free speech that such murders of those who write critically about them necessarily represent?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that point. Press freedom in Sri Lanka, to which the Sri Lankan Government contend they are committed, is of the greatest importance in ensuring that the world fully understands the position as it develops in these difficult times. The House will recall that the editor presaged his murder in an article that he wrote before his death and which was widely circulated, including in sections of the British press. He identified the threat to anyone who voiced criticism of the regime, even someone such as himself who had been quite friendly with the President of Sri Lanka. That shows how parlous the situation is. I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing attention to it.

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