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House of Lords

Thursday, 19 March 2009.


Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Armed Forces: Battalion Strength


11.06 am

Asked By Lord Astor of Hever

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, arrangements already exist for Army battalions deploying on operations to be augmented with manpower from other units where there is an operational requirement to do so.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Figures given in Parliamentary Answers show that the Government have allowed the numbers in battalions and other essential units of the Army to fall so low that they can be deployed only by raiding other units to make up numbers—robbing Peter to pay Paul. Does she agree that, if we are to be fully efficient on operations at a time when the Army is so overstretched, we must have all units up to the establishment strength? What plans do the Government have to convert the huge numbers of recruits waiting in the pipeline into trained soldiers?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is true that the figures are as the noble Lord suggests; they were outlined in a Parliamentary Answer in another place. However, it is wrong to suggest that this is creating difficulties that we cannot overcome. Even a fully manned structure might require tailoring when troops are deployed on operations, because they may be doing things that they would not be doing in their normal peacetime configuration. Any deficiencies outlined when there is a deployment are met by the reallocation of services from other battalions. Sometimes, there are missions such as the OMLTs—the operational mentor and liaison teams—which are rather small and create surpluses that can be deployed elsewhere. We are aware of the pressures, but recruitment is good at the moment and we are taking all the steps that we can, both on recruitment and on retention.

Lord Bramall: My Lords, I have two questions for the noble Baroness. Is it true that there are 3,000 people in the pipeline, waiting to be recruited and, if so, what is the hold-up in getting them into training and then into units for active service? Secondly, does she agree that one great advantage of having larger infantry regiments—some of them quite large, with five battalions—is that, if any battalion about to go on

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active service is below establishment strength, it can quickly be made up from other battalions of the same regiment, with the same cap badge?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, on the last point, of course I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, which is not surprising given his experience in these matters; he has far more experience than I have and his words should be listened to very carefully. As for how rapidly we can deploy new recruits, there is always a balance to be struck, whether with personnel or with equipment. We have to ensure that the people and equipment that we send into operations are fully ready for the task that they have. Therefore, it can take longer than some people would think ideal, but it would be wrong to try to hasten that process if it put anybody at risk.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what quality of accommodation those returning from Iraq will find when they come back to this country? The recent National Audit Office report found that a third of service personnel’s families were dissatisfied with their accommodation and that it would take two decades to bring all service accommodation up to a certain standard. Would it not make sense to accelerate the improvement programme to help the local construction industries of this country at the present time and to provide appropriate housing for our service personnel when they return?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, obviously we take housing for service personnel extremely seriously and are concerned about any deficiencies. However, the vast majority—around 90 per cent—of service family accommodation is at grade 1 or grade 2 level, which means that it is more than adequate. The improvements that we have made in recent years have been very welcome. We have upgraded 1,800 properties to the highest standard. We have carried out important improvements to kitchens, bathrooms and central heating boilers in another 4,500 properties. However, it is true that there is a legacy problem. Many of these difficulties date back not just to the period of this Government but to previous Governments over many decades. The agreement on the sale of housing that was reached in 1996-97 by the previous Administration did not help the situation.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, are there any cash constraints whatever that extend the time between a young man or woman volunteering for Army service and their being deployed fully trained in the field?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am not aware of cash constraints that cause that problem. Any recruit has to be properly screened and has to go through the proper processes. There are vacancies at the moment. It is well known that levels are not up to full targets, although we have been pleased with the increase in recruiting recently. The problem is not just recruitment, though; we have had to take measures on retention, which are showing some signs of success.

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Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, when establishing tour intervals, which is an important factor, one usually watches regiments or even battalions to see how often they are deployed for active service? Is she satisfied that when those battalions are augmented from other battalions, sufficient track is kept of the tour intervals of individual soldiers?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the need to preserve harmony guidelines. It is true that on occasion some of those are breached, which is something that we work hard to minimise. There are certain pinch points in terms of the skills available and it is only in those circumstances that that particular difficulty is likely to arise. But we are aware of those pressures and we take measures to try to minimise them.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in her previous answer the noble Baroness mentioned that the manning level was short of the target. Can she say by how much it is short?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: Yes, my Lords. At present, the total strength of the Armed Forces is at 97.2 per cent.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister said that there were constraints on training and equipment. I am not sure what the inference of that is. Does it mean that the battalions in the field are short of equipment for the recruits to bring, or can she assure us that all the battalions in the field are both up to strength and fully equipped?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I was referring to the fact that there has to be some time before new recruits can be deployed. When we have new equipment, we have to make sure that we have sufficient equipment on which to train people before they can take that equipment with them into operations. We cannot just send it into the operational field if people there have not had that previous training.

Climate Change: Carbon Dioxide Emissions


11.14 am

Asked By Lord Dubs

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, according to the European Environment Agency, the per capita carbon dioxide emissions of the UK,

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France and Germany in 2006 were as follows: 9.19 tonnes in the UK; 6.42 tonnes in France; and 10.68 tonnes in Germany.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Can he suggest why the French rate is so much lower than the British rate? Is it entirely due to the nuclear industry in France, or do other factors explain the phenomenal difference?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there are always a number of different factors, but there is no doubt that the French reliance on nuclear contributes to their lower emissions to a large extent. My understanding is that 78 per cent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear generation.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, surely the key issue is not so much comparing levels per head but what efforts countries have made to reduce their emissions. Since this Government came to power 10 years ago, they have reduced their emissions by a pathetic 1.6 per cent. What are the Government going to tell us that they are going to do next?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Government have paid a great deal of attention to our efforts to reduce emissions. For instance, it is predicted that CO2 emissions will have fallen by 15 per cent between 1990 and 2010. A number of policies have been put in place to encourage a reduction in emissions. We have signed up to hugely challenging international targets. This House and the other place have passed legislation pledging this country to an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. We have a record to be proud of.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that 25 per cent of our emissions come from heating, both domestic and commercial? Is he further aware that in Sweden, which in spite of its colder climate manages to have roughly half of the per capita emissions of the UK, a good deal of the older housing stock is now fitted with ground source central heating? Can he tell us why so little has been heard in this country of that technology and why we are not making more use of it?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have recently issued a number of papers on renewable heat, looking at how energy programmes can be developed more widely in domestic housing. If the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, were here, he would point to the potential of combined heat and power. With local authority leadership, we can see a great extension of district heating systems, which also have a great role to play here.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the carbon footprint of a four-bedroom family house would increase or decrease if daylight saving were to be in operation during the winter months as it is on the continent? Will he quantify his reply with some reliable statistics from the Energy Saving Trust, the

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Carbon Trust or some other responsible agency, and make them available on the Library Table for the benefit of all noble Lords who have an interest in this important subject?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that question warrants serious attention. I assure the noble Lord that my department and others take those matters into consideration. However, I doubt whether the answer to climate change can be completely solved by daylight saving time.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, given that the Minister’s department has estimated in its latest impact assessment the annual cost of the Climate Change Act at £15 billion to £18 billion for every year between now and 2050, and not even for any conjectural benefit unless the rest of the world follows suit, will he give an undertaking that if there is no such global agreement at the Copenhagen conference in December, Her Majesty’s Government will move to have that costly Act repealed?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords. We will not do that. That Act is of profound importance for this country, and in terms of encouraging other countries to do the same. We are confident that, however challenging agreement in Copenhagen is, we can come out of it with an agreement that will lead to the appropriate mitigation of climate change. Clearly, we have to accept that some of the measures that must be taken will cost money to the economy. Equally, however, a low-carbon economy can bring immeasurable benefit to this country in terms of investment, jobs and growth.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, how can the noble Lord reconcile these great promises with the fact that Britain is in breach of the European obligations on air pollution, and that central London is considered one of the worst places in that regard, certainly in Europe?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is not entirely so. The noble Baroness will know that we are having to apply for a derogation as parts of London do not meet the required standard. She might also have pointed out that a considerable improvement in overall air quality standards has been made in this country. We are not complacent; we have to do better and we are working with the mayor on these matters. However, the noble Baroness has not given an entirely accurate picture of the situation.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that the programme for nuclear-fired power stations is fully on track, that we will be getting nuclear generated electricity on stream as speedily as possible, and that all the necessary steps have been taken to ensure that we retain scientists in this country who can operate those nuclear power stations?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords. EDF, which recently took over British Energy, has proposed four new reactors, with the first to come on stream in 2017-18. Other companies and joint ventures are showing

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interest in developing nuclear generation. My noble friend is right: this is a huge opportunity for this country once again to look to nuclear and take advantage of all that it offers. There will be many opportunities for skilled people to go into the sector, and we are working very hard to make sure that happens.

Local Government: Business Rates


11.21 am

Asked By Lord Naseby

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, business rates are adjusted each year to take account of RPI inflation in the previous September. This was established by the introduction of national business rates in 1990. If RPI inflation is lower in 2009, this will be reflected in next year’s bills.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, I view that Answer with some incredulity. Does the Minister not recognise that small businesses and retailers are facing falling sales? How on earth are they going to find the money to pay an extra 5 per cent on their rates bill? Does she not understand that there are well over 100,000 such small businesses and that, unless this rate is frozen, the net result will be yet more unemployment? Yesterday, the 2 million barrier was reached. Do we really want to see more unemployment? Will the noble Baroness make a plea to the Chancellor to freeze the business rate for just the current year?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I certainly understand the gravity of the situation that the noble Lord has addressed. On his first point, to freeze business rates at the 2008-09 multiplier would cost about £1 billion, but it would also raise issues of unfairness. The noble Lord talked specifically about small businesses. What he proposes would be untargeted and would benefit the larger, property-intensive industries. The 400,000 businesses that receive the 50 per cent small business rate relief get, on average, about £60. In 2005, we introduced the small business rate relief, whereby businesses with a rateable value of less than £5,000 pay 50 per cent of their rates. That is a huge help to those 400,000 small businesses. I am sure that the Chancellor is aware of the lobby addressing business rates issues.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, do the Government not recognise that we have just had the biggest increase in unemployment in any month since 1971 and that businesses out there are bleeding to death? Surely we need a co-ordinated strategy not only to freeze the business rate but to reverse the Government’s

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plans to levy VAT next month on the salaries of agency workers and their proposals to increase national insurance costs, all of which is making it more expensive to employ people, who are therefore being fired.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, this Government do not need to take lessons about the burdens of unemployment. We are deeply concerned about unemployment. We are facing an unprecedented economic situation. In the Pre-Budget Report, the Chancellor announced a massive programme of help, not least £20 billion in working capital to help businesses to access credit, which will help exactly the sort of businesses with which the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is concerned: it will help with liquidity and credit and it will keep people in jobs. We have also put £100 million towards debt advice and free business health checks, which is a significant and helpful package to meet an unprecedented situation. All that will be real help for businesses.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, will my noble friend ignore the suggestion made by the noble Lords, Lord Naseby and Lord Forsyth, unless they are suggesting that the difference should be made up by the Exchequer and increased taxation? If that is the alternative that they are suggesting, it seems to me that it would be better if she ignored both of them.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am always very grateful for the sound advice of my noble friend.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, resisting the temptation to ask two of the three previous questioners whether they did not anticipate this situation when the arrangement was introduced in 1990, may I ask the Minister what she can say to local authorities that hear so much from those who are having to give up shop leases because of the level of rates? The vitality of shopping centres suffers very much in this situation.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the best thing that I can say to local authorities that are concerned, as we all are, about the loss of small shops—about 380,000 small shops fall into the category of below £15,000 rateable value—is that the package that was introduced in the Pre-Budget Report has raised the rateable value for exemptions on empty property rates from £2,200 to £15,000 and we want to make sure that small shops and offices know about that and are claiming that relief. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for pointing out that these changes were introduced in 1990.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I thank the Minister for referring to the small business rate relief, but is she aware that in the north-west, the south-east, the Midlands and even in London fewer than 50 per cent of small businesses that are entitled actually claim that relief? In some cases, it is 26 per cent. At a time when there is tremendous pressure on small businesses, does she accept that the Government should not be placing additional bureaucratic burdens on businesses and forcing them to claim? Will she therefore take our advice and the advice of the House as set out in the vote last night and introduce automatic small business rate relief, as is the case in Wales?

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