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House of Lords

Tuesday, 5 May 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Armed Forces

Question

2.37 pm

Asked By Lord Lee of Trafford

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, the Prime Minister last held official discussions with the individual heads of the three armed services, together with the Chief and Vice Chief of the Defence Staff and our Permanent Secretary, on 18 September 2008.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, given that we are in a serious conflict in Afghanistan and that major decisions have to be taken on equipment and force manning levels, is it not simply outrageous that the Prime Minister has not seen the single service chiefs for more than seven months? Where does he get his military advice from? Is it from the McBrides of this world?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am surprised at the noble Lord’s final remark. The Prime Minister regularly meets members of the Armed Forces involved in operations at all levels, including those in command. He did so again only last week when he was in Afghanistan. On that occasion, he was accompanied by the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Prime Minister will continue to meet members of the Armed Forces at all levels, including the Chiefs of Staff, as appropriate.

Lord Soley: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that people feel very positive when they see the Prime Minister talking to troops in Afghanistan? We should recognise that engaging in talks with the troops at all levels is profoundly important for morale in the current situation. We should not forget that.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I think that the Prime Minister has made three visits to Afghanistan since last summer. I know that those visits are appreciated by our troops and by the Prime Minister, who feels that direct contact with those on operations is extremely important. I also know that many Members of this House have visited troops on operations. We are happy to arrange that, bearing in mind that we do not want to overburden those who are performing those operations.



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Baroness Sharples: My Lords, should not the Prime Minister meet the individual heads of each service very much more often than every seven months?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, as I said, that was the last formal meeting. He meets them on many other occasions, including on the operational tours I have just mentioned. As far as I know, there have been no complaints from the chiefs of individual services about their contact with, or the availability of, the Prime Minister.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, in 1998, the Government signed up to the Strategic Defence Review, which said that the Armed Forces should not be committed to more than two medium-sized continuing conflicts at one time. Of course, that is precisely what has happened. We have been involved in two medium-sized conflicts, with no serious increase in the defence budget. Is this not the time for another Strategic Defence Review, to place the forces where they know that they can face the future?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, as we have said on many occasions, we recognise that our Armed Forces are stretched, but we also recognise that they are not overstretched. There have been considerable increases in the budget. The Treasury has funded the operations that we are involved in, and defence spending on equipment is at its highest ever.

Lord Addington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that meeting the chiefs of staff individually would give a better opportunity to hear about such things as the roles of the various services in Afghanistan and whether they think they need improvements in numbers?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, at the last formal meeting issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan were discussed, as were certain issues such as the service command paper, which is of great importance to the individual chiefs of staff and the equipment examination. There were opportunities at that formal meeting for those discussions, but there are also many other opportunities for those working in the operational field to make their views known to the Prime Minister, who is ready to listen on these matters.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does my noble friend welcome the debate that seems to be emanating from the official opposition Benches on the need to review the future of Trident? I trust that we are discussing these matters with the heads of the services.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, as was made clear in the debate just last Thursday, the Government are committed to the progress of Trident. There are differing views, and there is a cost to be had. We would all like to see moves towards the diminution of our reliance on nuclear weapons, but we would have to be very secure that any progress in that direction did not put the safety of the United Kingdom in jeopardy.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, the noble Baroness said a few moments ago that defence spending on equipment was at record levels. How do the Government propose to maintain such spending?



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Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we have laid out the spending plans very clearly, and I am very pleased with the support that the MoD has had from the Treasury. As I mentioned earlier, all the operational costs associated with Iraq and Afghanistan have come from the reserve, not the MoD budget.

Nigeria

Question

2.42 pm

Asked By Baroness Cox

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, we are concerned about the ongoing violence in northern Nigeria, and we have discussed the situation with the Nigerian authorities as well as with the Christian and Muslim communities. We will continue to support measures to address religious tensions through our conflict prevention strategy, including support for NGOs working with communities in northern states and dialogue with the authorities.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging Answer. On a visit to northern Nigeria over Easter, I and my colleagues found incontrovertible evidence that the recent violence in Bauchi, Plateau and Niger states was religiously motivated, with attacks by well armed Muslim militants, assisted by foreign mercenaries, who have targeted Christian communities, killed hundreds of Christians and destroyed more than 50 churches and many hundreds of Christian homes and businesses. There was no reciprocal comparable violence against the Muslim communities. Will Her Majesty’s Government make serious representations to the Nigerian authorities and Government to ensure adequate protection for all citizens?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness that she has made a great case both here in this House and to me privately about the danger of the situation. I asked the British high commissioner to go to northern Nigeria to make a reassessment based on the facts that the noble Baroness shared with me, and he is there this week doing just that. Among other things, he will discuss the issues raised with the governor of Bauchi, one of the two states that have been affected. The noble Baroness knows well that there are disagreements about to what extent the violence is triggered by the marginalisation of certain groups and by the level of poverty, for which religion is an excuse, and to what extent it is a religiously triggered conflict. We need to get to the bottom of this, and we will go on pressing the Nigerian authorities to try to end these troubles.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, what recent advice has the FCO given to British nationals living and working in this area?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, in northern Nigeria, we have not felt the need to advise British nationals against travel or anything of that kind because the

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disputes, although violent, have nevertheless been internal. It is worth saying that while some lives were tragically lost over Easter, the last mass outbreak—in which, tragically, hundreds died—was last year. We give very different travel advice for the Niger delta in the south, which is extremely dangerous.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, given the reports of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cutting spending on conflict management, can the Minister confirm that there are sufficient funds in Abuja, through the high commission and DfID, to support the reconciliation work between Muslims and Christians being pioneered by the Bishop of Kaduna?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, let me reassure the right reverend Prelate that we are giving significant support to Bridge Builders and other groups involved in trying to bridge the conflict. Northern Nigeria is a huge area; if it were a country, it would be the second biggest in Africa, with tens of millions of people. It has some of the worst social indicators anywhere in the world, so it is actually the subject of DfID’s largest bilateral programme in the world, because we are trying to target poverty in the north.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, apart from the several hundred killed and the tens of thousands displaced by the events last November in northern Nigeria, the special rapporteur on religious freedom has reported that, over a period of years, tens of thousands of people have been killed in religious clashes. What have the Government done to get from the Nigerians word about the two commissions of inquiry that were commissioned on recent events by the federal and state Governments respectively? Have our Government taken up with the Nigerian Government implementation of recommendation 31 by the UPR working group on promoting a culture of religious tolerance and protecting the rights of religious minorities?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, Nigeria prides itself on being a multi-religious, multicultural society, and it is in a precarious situation. We have pressed on the President and Ministers—I have pressed them personally—that they must do a better job on this. We followed with great care the progress of the two commissions to which the noble Lord refers. However, we are not convinced that enough steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence. In that sense, I do not want to convey to the House that we have any confidence that there will not be repetitions of what has tragically happened.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, what help has DfID been able to give to the 50,000 displaced people now in Bauchi and Plateau states following the attacks there on the churches, businesses and homes referred to by my noble friend, both in her Question and in the excellent report that she has published? Also, when the Minister is carrying out the assessment that he is undertaking about these events, will the role of the mercenaries who have been arrested in Nigeria—75 of them have come from places such as Niger, Chad and Saudi Arabia—be properly assessed?



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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, in the bilateral programme—funding for it is rising to £140 million for next year—we have tried to ensure adequate humanitarian provision, as the noble Lord knows. I do not know the exact amount given to the group displaced in Bauchi; we will need to get back to him. I want to be clear that DfID is trying to work directly with local authorities and communities to ensure that not just the sources of conflict are addressed, but that there is better access to healthcare and education and a strengthened security and justice sector, as well as immunisation for children. Whatever the balance of cause for this between religious faith and poverty, we need to address both.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the Government assure us that we are concerned equally about attacks on people of all religious faiths, and not just, as was perhaps implied, solely about attacks on Christians? In the past two or three years, we have seen attacks by Hindu on Muslim, Sunni on Shia and, sadly, in Rwanda and in Kenya, Christian on Christian, including the burning of churches with people inside. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are concerned with all uses of religious identity as a source of violence, and that we oppose all those uses in different places around the world?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I am happy to give the noble Lord that assurance. In northern Nigeria it is Christians who in general are in the minority, although Plateau State, where this started last November, is a majority Christian state. Nevertheless it is Christians who have borne the brunt of the violence and are in that sense the besieged minority; so it is an appropriate Question with regard to northern Nigeria, but I am glad to have the opportunity to confirm that faiths of all kinds equally deserve our support.

Working Time Directive

Question

2.50 pm

Asked By Lord Vinson

Lord Brett: My Lords, while this Question was apposite at the time of its submission, it has been somewhat overtaken by events, as discussions in respect of the working time directive broke down without agreement on 27 April. The effect is that the existing working time directive, and the opt-out, continue in force.

Lord Vinson: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am glad that he welcomes the opt-out particularly from the 48-hour week in the working time directive. Does he realise that it has come about with no thanks to the members of his party in the European Parliament who voted against it? However, does he agree that a derogation is only a derogation, and that it is too late to stop the mandatory restriction which is due this

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autumn on doctors’ and surgeons’ hours, much against their will? Can he tell the House what effect this valuable loss of expertise and time is likely to have on patient care? Does he also agree that the working time directive would have put an uncalled-for limitation on working hours, and that overtime in particular is an essential mechanism that brings together supply and demand and is a key component of our flexible economy? We need more vaccines quickly in a pandemic. Voluntary overtime—

Noble Lords: Too long!

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 noble Lord ought to draw this to an end. Will he ask a question?

Lord Vinson: In conclusion, my Lords, I say that voluntary overtime is one of the few ways in which British working men and women can better themselves—a point not often recognised in this House.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, I beg your pardon, but Question Time is a time for short questions and short answers.

Lord Brett: My Lords, the opt-out is not unique to the United Kingdom: no fewer than 14 countries in the European Union have an opt-out and exercise it, including Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Reference was made specifically to the health service. The UK is compliant with judgments on on-call time. The Department of Health no longer operates widespread on-call working and has moved instead to a shift-working system. The NHS has made excellent progress but still requires, in a small minority of challenging services, a little more time to reduce the hours to 48 a week. This is allowed in the directive. It should also be said that the directive is voluntary—no one can be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the talks collapsed because it was not only the United Kingdom that was against these proposals in the European Parliament and almost half the other member states were in favour of maintaining the opt-out system? Will he confirm that all other member states, as well as the United Kingdom, can now use this facility?

Lord Brett: My Lords, I can confirm that that is the case. The issue, as has been discussed, is one of efficiency and freedom. Individuals are free under the opt-out to do precisely that—to opt out.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that this country has a very proud record of postgraduate training in all branches of specialist medicine, including general practice, and that grave concern has been expressed by many junior doctors that continuing to restrict working hours under the working time directive could have a seriously adverse effect on the standard of training they receive before

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they finally achieve specialist status? Will he therefore ensure that the Government continue to support this opt-out indefinitely?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the simple answer is that I agree almost entirely with the noble Lord’s sentiments. He has great experience of the health service. I think that the point he makes has great validity.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very important that we should bear in mind that the directive is apt to prevent a person working more than a given number of hours even though he is supported by a strong union and there is no risk whatever of exploitation, or to health and safety? A person may want to work longer hours—perhaps for family reasons or in an emergency. Would it not be not only economically disadvantageous to this country but gravely detrimental to the rights of the individual if in those circumstances he was prevented from working? Should we not bear in mind that aspect of the matter?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point about having to have a balanced approach. It is interesting to note, however, that the UK has the lowest proportion within the EU of those reporting that their work causes health effects such as stress. Therefore, the working hours themselves are clearly seen by the majority of the population not to be a problem. Working hours have in fact fallen in the UK: 20 per cent fewer full-time employees usually worked more than 48 hours in 2007 than did so in 1997.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is not just human health and welfare that is affected but animal health and welfare? Particularly in remote rural areas, veterinary surgeons are very concerned about the working hours directive because it means that they cannot direct a young veterinary assistant to go out in the middle of the night to deliver a calf where there is a difficult delivery and then take responsibility if that young vet crashes on the way home because he is too tired. There are problems with the working hours directive not just for human medicine but for veterinary medicine.

Lord Brett: My Lords, the important thing about the opt-out is that it gives the individual the right to make their own judgment as to the hours they wish to work and those for which they are safe to work. If their employer seeks to take action against them for that judgment, there is recourse to employment tribunals to put that matter right.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is not the important thing about the opt-out that it would not have been necessary if the Government had not signed away our rights to decide these things by signing the Social Chapter?


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