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House of Lords

Thursday, 18 June 2009.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Death of a Member: Lord Dahrendorf


11.06 am

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

Kenya: British Army


11.07 am

Asked By Lord Clement-Jones

The Minister for International Defence and Security (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, the Army has measures in place to minimise the impact of its activities on wildlife, tourism and the local economy in Laikipia. This is standard practice wherever British forces undertake overseas military training.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Of course, we are all keen to ensure that the Army has good training opportunities in the countries in which it trains and that its reputation is highly positive. However, the Army has recently greatly extended what it calls its Grand Prix training activities in Laikipia, which is an important centre for wildlife and biodiversity and an important tourism destination. Should not the Army be doing more, through consultation and local partnerships with bodies such as the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, to create a strategy to ensure that wildlife and tourism sustainability is pursued through stewardship schemes and the like?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s acknowledgement of the importance of this training to us and to the Kenyans who also participate in that area. It is right that we have recently extended the amount of training in that area. We take very seriously our obligations to the local community and local needs in terms of wildlife conservation and tourism, which is important there. We have individual agreements with ranch owners, we are members of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum and we try to liaise with local people on these issues. At present we are negotiating an extension and a change to our memorandum of

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understanding with the Kenyans in order to incorporate all that we need to do to make sure that we are a positive contributor in that area and that we take into account all the issues that have been mentioned.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, does the Minister agree that many of the best wildlife areas in the United Kingdom are MoD training areas?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: Yes, my Lords. That is a matter of fact and we are very conscious of our obligations there as well.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of Tusk Trust, a wildlife conservation charity that does a lot of work in Kenya. While I agree that the British Army could do a lot more to improve its communications with the local community as to its operations in northern Kenya, is the Minister aware that it has contributed enormously to the infrastructure there through the improvement of airstrips and roads to several of the community conservation initiatives in the region? Next week it will be providing a huge amount of support for the Lewa marathon, which is one of the largest events in that region raising money for wildlife conservation projects.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am pleased to have confirmation of the positive contribution that our Armed Forces can make and are making in that area. We provide a great deal of local employment, we have medical exercises that improve immunisation in the area and we carry out many engineering works such as those that have just been mentioned. Overall, this positive contribution means that there is a great deal of synergy between our needs and those of the local area.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, Exercise Grand Prix has been crucial in training battle groups in an environment similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that we have pulled out of Iraq, will the Minister confirm that we will carry on training in this area?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, training in this area is critical to many of the challenges that we might face in the world in future and we are very conscious of the need to maintain training. As I mentioned, we are negotiating adjustments to the memorandum of understanding with the Kenyans to reflect the increased training that we are doing and intend to continue in the near future.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has said about the new MoU with the Government of Kenya. Does she recognise that the Laikipia area has the largest collection of diverse wildlife in Kenya outside the Masai Mara? That is why it is so crucial. In the renegotiation of the MoU, will the Ministry of Defence pay particular attention to access to water supplies in that area for the wildlife?

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Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I have been briefed on what we are doing about water supplies. We are making a positive contribution by drawing water from rivers and having purification facilities there. This is an extremely important area for wildlife and conservation. We have been exercising in Laikipia for many years now and it is interesting that, while wildlife generally in Kenya is under great pressure, the wildlife population in Laikipia is increasing. That shows that there is good co-ordination, which we must build on.

Lord McNally: My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about the quality of the land held for training purposes in the UK, will the Minister assure us that the Ministry of Defence is not hoarding more land of such natural beauty than is necessary for training purposes?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am sure that we are not holding more land than is absolutely necessary. Training is important and we have to be able to do it in a range of circumstances. Our training needs are clear. We have a good training programme and we are conscious of our obligations to everyone.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her replies to the various questions. Will she confirm the date on which the discussions on the new MoU started?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we had representatives in Kenya earlier this year and we are hoping to conclude those discussions this year.

Asylum Seekers: Democratic Republic of Congo


11.13 am

Asked By The Lord Bishop of Winchester

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, failed asylum seekers are returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo only when we and the independent courts are satisfied that it is safe to do so, taking full account of the circumstances of the individual applicant. The Court of Appeal has upheld the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal’s finding, based on all the evidence, that there is no general risk to failed asylum seekers returned to the DRC.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but there will be many in your Lordships’ House who find it bizarrely inadequate. I sympathise with the Minister for having to stick so closely to his brief and to close his mind to the large body of evidence that is available among those who

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work with asylum seekers all over the country. Does he agree that the Home Office can continue to say what he has just reported it saying only because of its consistent refusal to take any steps for itself to discover what actually happens to those whom it hands over to Congolese authorities as marked people at N’Djili Airport in Kinshasa? Will he agree to meet soon with me and no more than two or three others so that he can hear some of that evidence at first hand—evidence to which his department and a succession of asylum and immigration tribunals have shut their ears?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the first thing to say is that I and members of the UK Border Agency would always be willing to meet the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and others to discuss these issues and get more information on them. The Country of Origin Information Group draws on all sources— Foreign Office, NGOs, in-country sources, anyone who has reports—to make its decisions. I was aware, for example, of the claims made in the Guardian but we have looked into those and we have found no substance in them. Our people in country have looked and found no substance. On 3 December 2008 the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling about a previous claim that someone had been ill treated there and that failed asylum seekers were at risk. It just could not find a case for that and absolutely supported the previous court judgment.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of reports that those who have sought refuge in the British embassy, as they seemingly had to do to report on further abuse, have in fact been arrested by the authorities in the DRC? The Government seemed unaware of publicly known information about abuse of judges, as is shown by some of their Written Answers, so how confident can we be, following on from the right reverend Prelate’s question, that the Government are properly monitoring this situation, or are they in fact simply closing their eyes and hoping?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I can assure the House that we are not closing our eyes and hoping. As I say, we actually have a group—the Country of Origin Information Group—that specifically looks at these issues and it draws on information from everybody. Not only that, the chief inspector has set up an independent panel of experts, formerly the Advisory Panel on Country Information, and they are reviewing this, and indeed the COI service is currently revising our DRC code. This was last published in January 2009, so we are constantly updating it, and that will be issued very shortly following these versions. These are allegations and we have tried to investigate them all. When the courts have looked at this they have supported what we have discovered, which is that it does not mean that we cannot send people back to that country.

Lord Elton: My Lords, in his initial Answer the Minister said that no one was sent back until the Government and independent courts were satisfied that there was no general risk to returning failed asylum seekers. Can the noble Lord assure us that the

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individual conditions of a failed asylum seeker are also taken into account because there are very differing receptions accorded to people according, for instance, to their religious or political alignment?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord asks a very pertinent question. I can assure the House that our current guidance is very much done on an individual basis, and each person, each asylum seeker, has an individual case manager who looks at it on an individual basis. So, for example, although we will not take a blanket approach that we cannot return anyone to a particular country, once it has been accepted that is all right to do so, we might well have an individual who for various reasons we will not send back. That will certainly be done. We do not accept that we can make a presumption about every asylum seeker of a particular nationality who presents himself, unless there is something that has made us accept that—for example, at the moment we do not return to central and southern Iraq. We just do not accept that. We look at a case on an individual basis and we will send them back if we feel they are not real asylum seekers.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this situation is nothing new? Surely it has been going on for many years because successive Governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo have not had full control of their territory. Warlords have been very strong in certain places. Remnants of other armies from other states have come into the country and there is a great deal of chaos.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I think that all noble Lords will agree that it is a very unfortunate nation, as it has been through various guises since the mid-1960s. That is just very unfortunate. Although fighting is going on in the east of the country, for example, we return people to Kinshasa, which is 1,000 miles away from the particularly violent bit at the moment. That is similar to returning someone to London, say, when the fighting is going on in Morocco. That gives a flavour of the distances involved. Yes, there have been real difficulties. As I say, however, these things are looked at and monitored all the time. We would not send people back if we felt that they were at risk and we had evidence of that, because that is not what we do.

Baroness Hanham:My Lords, is it not right to say that each person who is returned requires papers, passports, visas and other documents in order to return to their country? What arrangements are made to ensure that the documents are secured? Presumably we cannot just return people if they do not have the proper authority

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I missed the first part of the question but I think it was to do with the need for proper documentation. That is a real issue because we often have difficulty trying to pin down exactly which country a person comes from. It does delay the process but generally we manage to achieve it—we get the paperwork and documentation in place.

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Once the case officer assesses that it is safe to return a person then we move down that route. Ideally we let them do so voluntarily. We give them a support package of money to help them when they are back in their country to get set up and go. But if they will not go voluntarily and do not need asylum—many do not and are here as economic migrants—we believe that it is absolutely right that they should be returned to their country. Millions of people around the world would love to live in this great country of ours and we cannot just open the door and let them flood in.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, is there a memorandum of understanding between our country and the DRC to ensure that no harm comes to these individuals? The Minister’s reply was not very convincing because he did not say whether there is a precise monitoring system in place to see what happens to them. There are in-country reports, but how often are they updated? We should also bear in mind that the latest report from Amnesty International has barely had a look-in at the Home Office.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I had hoped that I dealt with that in my answer on COI. The latest one was in January 2009. It is now being updated and will shortly be coming out. We do not send teams to monitor. However, when we add everything together with our sources in-country—whether from the Foreign Office, NGOs, agencies, whoever it might be—if we feel there is a risk, we will not return the person. That is just not what we do.

Health: Obesity


11.22 am

Asked By Lord Berkeley

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, we all know that increased physical activity is necessary to help to enable people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. The Government recognise that we have a role, as part of our strategy to tackle obesity, to support individuals and families. Our policies are focused on helping people to make healthier choices and to create an environment that promotes healthy weight. We have made additional funding available to support a range of physical activity opportunities and we have launched Change4Life.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that comprehensive Answer and for the promises that she has given to the House. However, is she aware that every year about 30,000 people die from obesity and that there is a link between exercise and obesity, as the experience in Denmark and the Netherlands shows? People in the Netherlands cycle 12 times further than people in the UK and the obesity level in the Netherlands and in Denmark is two and a half times

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lower than ours. Can my noble friend tell the House a little more about what she is doing to encourage her departmental staff to cycle more and walk more, and will she encourage other departments, particularly the Department for Transport, to provide facilities for cycling?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, a great deal of activity is going on around cycling. I pay tribute to my noble friend for being, as it were, the lithe Lord for cycling in your Lordships’ House and encouraging cycling in general and for parliamentarians as well. We are already implementing as part of our obesity strategy a number of initiatives to encourage NHS staff, for example, to recognise the benefits of cycling. We are working right now with our trusts to plan a major promotion of cycling. We are investing £140 million in a three-year programme to increase cycling, which is being delivered through Cycling England. The investment will improve cycling infrastructure through dedicated cycle lanes, increase bike parking and promote the benefits of cycling, although we cannot do anything about the fact that there are more hills in the UK than in the Netherlands. It will also promote cycle training. There will be 146,000 children trained to use bikes safely and we aim to have 500,000 children trained to use bikes safely by 2012.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the science is quite straightforward on this subject? Exercise is important for the cardiovascular system and in controlling cholesterol and the redistribution of fat, but the essential thing with weight reduction is eating less. Is she aware that we have in the Chamber a splendid visual aid in the form of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior? He decided to take off two stone in weight and did so by doing something that did not cost anything—he simply ate less. We are what we eat.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord is exactly right and he presents a challenge to the rest of us. We know that physical activity is a key driver in dealing with obesity, but we also know that people need to eat less. The point that I made in my opening remarks is that we know that these are personal choices that people have to make and that the role of government is to encourage them to do that. I missed my walk this morning because I was reading my brief; I will have to catch up on it later.

Lord Peston: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of another adage, “I get my exercise by attending the funerals of my friends who engage in large-scale exercise”?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am very sad for my noble friend.

Lord Addington: My Lords—

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, it is the turn of the Lib Dems.

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