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House of Lords

Monday, 9 November 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.



2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Ahmed

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, there have been delays in the visa operation in Pakistan, particularly in issuing visas resulting from successful appeal decisions. Some applicants have been inconvenienced as a result. The United Kingdom has a close and important relationship with Pakistan. During the Home Secretary's recent visit to Pakistan, he assured the Government there that the visa operation is a priority and committed to reducing processing times to meet the published service standards by November.

Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, but can he tell the House how many Pakistani students have missed their university deadlines and lost their student fees and scholarships due to the backlog and delays in Abu Dhabi? How many people are waiting for visa endorsements in Islamabad after winning their appeals in British courts in the past six months? Will Her Majesty's Government refund fees of all those victims of our failure who have missed their deadlines for medical check-ups, university courses, family weddings and professional jobs, either due to the backlog or the delay in FedEx? And finally-

Noble Lords: Too long!

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. I do not have at my fingertips the exact numbers of those who have missed courses; I shall get back to him in writing. We have about 10,000 students currently studying in the United Kingdom. In the first nine months of this year, just under 8,000 student visas were issued. On the appeals, the team working in Abu Dhabi, which is fully set up now, cleared more than 4,000 cases in five weeks in September and October and we will continue at that pace. We are rapidly getting up to speed.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the delays in processing are caused by the multi-agency checks being carried out by the security service and others? If security is the consideration, why was the visa centre moved to Abu Dhabi rather than to a safer location, such as Karachi? If security is the motivation, why have only 29 face-to-face interviews been conducted out of 66,000 applications in the nine-month period to June 2009?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, there are a number of questions in there. We have discovered, interestingly, that interviews are not a reliable indicator necessarily; people make them out to be more effective than they are. The independent monitor and others have pointed out that research into job selection methods shows the interview as the weakest link. We go into great detail with the electronic checks and paper-based decision-making. As for the move to Abu Dhabi, there is no doubt that there have been problems caused by IT failures and linkages, so it has not worked straightaway as well as we would have liked. However, we have resolved most of those problems and things are working much better. On refusal rates, we refuse automatically any bid that includes false documentation or information. In Pakistan, there is a very high volume of false documentation. As soon as we spot it, the whole bid is refused. That is one of the problems.

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, it is very welcome that the Government have taken the sensible decision to return the visa process to Pakistan itself. That is something that we on these Benches have called for. Can the Minister confirm whether the IT system is now fully operational? He referred to what I hope are just teething problems. How many staff are now employed there and of what type? Are they locally engaged or home-based? How many will there be when the office is up and running, if it is not fully operational now?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we have not returned the issuing of visas to Pakistan; that is done in Abu Dhabi. It is part of the hub-and-spoke process that we have around the world. I apologise because I did not fully answer the last question. Yes, there is an issue of safety; there is no doubt about that. This happened post the Marriott hotel attack in Pakistan, where we were concerned about the large number of people we had there. We assessed Karachi as a dangerous place as well in that sense and Abu Dhabi was seen as a much better place for this. Abu Dhabi also acts as a spoke for Bahrain and will shortly do the same for Iran. The other reason is to get a certain standard for this type of work around the world, and that is working quite well.

As to the number of people, we currently have 15 UK-based staff in Islamabad, 15 Ralon staff and 120 locally engaged staff, who do the detailed nitty-gritty stuff. In Abu Dhabi, we have 146 staff, of whom 88 are support staff and the others are primarily British. I visited that unit because we were having problems there. It had difficulties initially, but it is rapidly getting up to speed and we are clearing the backlog.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, when the Home Office was consulting on visa fees for overseas students, the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers-I declare an interest as its chairman-said that the level of fee was less important than the quality of service? The quality of service to our would-be students from overseas is of fundamental importance to the economic interest of this country and now that the new points-based system is coming into effect, everything must be done to make sure that students get their visas as expeditiously as is needed for them to take up their courses.

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. I declare an interest as chancellor of a university. Foreign students are important, not only in economic terms-if they come from outside the EU they are a valuable economic tool-but because we are able to add huge value to their training in terms of what they can do when they go back to their nations, and they add huge value to our students in terms of the interchange of ideas. This is an important matter.

We are aware that there has been a delay. As I have already said, we are working extremely hard to get this right and we are getting there. We have cleared a big backlog; we are getting better and quicker and we will resolve this problem. Working with Pakistan is extremely important to us. The safeguards that we have put in place are crucial. We had to tighten up our borders and over the past two years or so we have done an immense amount in this area.

Lord Ahmed: This is my second chance, my Lords. What is the legal status of those Pakistanis who apply for a visa in Islamabad and it is endorsed on their passports as having been issued in Abu Dhabi, when they have never been to Abu Dhabi?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I take notice of my noble friend's question; I am not sure of the exact answer. As I understand it, once the visa has been issued, it allows freedom of movement in exactly the same way as with an ordinary passport. If I am wrong, I will get back to him in writing.

Road Tax


2.44 pm

Asked By Baroness Knight of Collingtree

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the policy has not changed. Since 2006, we have pursued an education and enforcement campaign aimed at foreign-registered vehicles in the UK. This arose from public concern over the perceived increase in foreign-registered vehicles that were not subject to UK road-tax rules. Vehicles may be used by visitors for up to six months in 12 without having to meet UK requirements. The campaign continues and we believe that public concern has lessened.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, was it not the 1982 EU ruling that cars registered and taxed in one European country could travel freely in any other European country for up to six months, continuously or otherwise? Was that not drafted to permit easy travel throughout Europe? Why has the DVLA deleted the words "continuously or otherwise"? Cars are being impounded without any warning and their drivers forced to pay £420 to get them back. Is that fair?

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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the policy has been driven by public concern over the very large number of foreign vehicles that are coming on to our roads, particularly since the enlargement of the European Union and the influx of workers from countries such as Poland and Lithuania. When a foreign car is first spotted by either the police or the general public it is arranged for a warning notice to be placed on that vehicle saying that the driver is required to register it if they are here for six months within a year. Only after the six months have elapsed, or the vehicle is spotted again, is enforcement action taken.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend will know that I am always ready to defend my home city and my former constituents at the DVLA. Is it not true that the case which received publicity recently did not involve the DVLA in any way? The police in good faith, but wrongly, clamped a motor vehicle, and they put it right as soon as they could, without payment. Will he also confirm that, largely as a result of the publicity campaign to which he refers, concern over the number of foreign vehicles not paying our road tax has largely been allayed?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: Yes, my Lords, my noble friend is correct-it has been a successful campaign. Obviously there will be the odd case when somebody is hard done by, and he has referred to one case which has received publicity. It was indeed based in Northamptonshire, the home county of the noble Baroness, where the police have been particularly active with their own Operation Andover campaign. The number of vehicles that have enforcement action taken against them has reduced and the situation appears now to be under control.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, on the subject of enforcement action against foreign vehicles and foreign-registered vehicles-because there are many British people registering their cars abroad-will the Minister please ensure, first, that the drivers of these vehicles are able to read the road signs in this country? There is a lot of evidence of people being totally ignorant of signs that say no left turn or no right turn, or that give bridge heights, although these are supposed to be international signs. Will the Minister also comment on the level of fines being imposed by VOSA on foreign vehicles which are improperly maintained and driven by drivers who have exceeded the driver's hours? These fines are derisory in respect of the amount of damage to fair competition.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: With great respect to the noble Lord, both his questions are rather wide of the original Question. The second question is about road freight vehicles, about which he and I had a lengthy exchange in your Lordships' Chamber two weeks ago last Friday. Road signs are a matter that falls well wide of the original Question.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great concern about vehicles that carry foreign plates that are unreadable in this country? People feel that such drivers are getting away with everything because the police cannot read the Arabic or Chinese or whatever it is and, therefore, that the

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drivers get no penalties of any sort and there is no enforcement. I have raised this before. Has the department looked at it again?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: It is precisely that situation which the scheme aims to catch. Once a foreign vehicle with either a recognisable or unrecognisable number plate is spotted, the warning notice is placed on it and the owner or driver knows what he or she is required to do in terms of getting the car taxed and registered in the UK. The problem of unreadable number plates is not however confined to foreign plates. There are a number of plates called cherished plates, which British drivers have, which also fall foul of the law. Action is also being taken about them.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, are differential tax rates operated in European countries on the basis of car emissions, as they are in this country?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: I hate to give the same answer to the noble Baroness as I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, but that question, too, is a long way short of the Question on the Order Paper, which concerns the registration of foreign vehicles. However, I am happy to answer the noble Baroness in writing.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, would some of the rather ancient vehicles that arrive in this country be eligible for the scrappage fund?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: The noble Viscount is correct: once a foreign vehicle comes within the scope of the DVLA and our tax and registration system, it is required to comply with MoT tests and all the other roadworthiness requirements. It is interesting to note that in the last 12 months in which the scheme has been in operation, 18,419 vehicles registered overseas have been sighted, 691 have been clamped, 387 have been impounded, and 132 vehicles registered overseas-which I think are the vehicles he is asking about-have been authorised for disposal, mainly by what I am advised is called shredding.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, in what language is the notice that is put on the windscreens of these vehicles?

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: The notices are not in Welsh because Welsh vehicles are not subject to this regime. In the early days of the scheme, notices in Polish and Lithuanian were put on cars, but as the European Union expanded further that was felt to be unnecessary and it has been replaced with a programme of education aimed at those local communities to ensure that their nationals are aware of the rules.

Internet: Broadband


2.52 pm

Asked By Baroness Byford

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, the Digital Britain White Paper outlined the Government's universal service commitment for broadband at a speed of 2 megabits per second to virtually every community in the UK by 2012. The paper also outlined plans for a next generation fund, to help to deliver next generation broadband to at least 90 per cent of homes and businesses by 2017. The Network Design and Procurement Company will be responsible for the delivery on behalf of the Government.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that response, I understand that Ofgem does not have powers to compel internet service providers to provide broadband in rural areas, which has resulted in some 166,000 people having no internet at all and more than 2 million having inadequate service provision. How will the broadband be delivered in these circumstances, particularly with regard to the proposed new megabyte speeds of 24, 40 and 100? Will this not be more focused on urban areas, leaving rural areas out in the cold?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Ofgem cannot command to be done what cannot be done technically. The noble Baroness is right to identify that a percentage of our households cannot receive the requisite signal. We are addressing that. Under the universal service commitment, which we have been following since the summer, we are committed to ensuring that all households have access to the basic service of 2 megabits per second. The second, longer-term project concerning vastly improved speeds, to which the noble Baroness referred, depends partly on market conditions and provision by private companies, but the Government are also taking steps to ensure that we universalise that service in due course as far as we are able to do so.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with more and more people in rural communities working from home and the increasing trend to media-rich content, the requirement for broadband speeds is more in the region of 50 to 100 megabits per second? What assurances can the Government give that rural communities will move to these speeds in the future?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is exactly the objective of the next generation access. It is clear that we will not be serving our communities, nor will we be remaining competitive with other countries, if we do not guarantee that next generation broadband is more universally available than it is at present. Certainly, there is provision of broadband at present from, for instance, Virgin, while BT is also interested in spreading its reach in these terms. However, the Government are concerned about that reach and I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising how important it is.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, the problem of lack of access to broadband is compounded for those rural communities that have poor analogue TV, no digital TV and often, at best, limited mobile phone connectivity. Do the Government have any plans to

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provide suitable grant aid to enable local rural communities to develop their own broadband where it is clearly not commercially viable to provide that through the telecoms company? If there are no plans, will they consider that as part of implementing Digital Britain?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, far from there being no plans, there is a major government commitment to meeting the exact objective that the right reverend Prelate has indicated. We are going to use funds from the digital switchover-£175 million-to guarantee that we reach those areas that have not got digital television at present; the development of broadband goes along with that. The Government have identified the funds that will be made available. We have not the slightest doubt that that is merely objective No. 1. The right reverend Prelate will recognise that we are spreading digital television across the whole of the UK in the next four years.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that may be regarded as a somewhat provocative question in some quarters. I merely emphasise to my noble friend that we are intending to guarantee that these services are available across the whole country, because they are essential to our future economic and social success. That is why there will be a tax on telephone users of 50p per month for a line-we are not talking about an excessive amount-to subsidise and help to spread the opportunities across the whole country in circumstances where we could not possibly have parts of our communities having no access at all to these services.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to come with me to visit some of my upland sheep farmer friends, who do not exactly have a luxurious lifestyle. Back in July, Defra announced that money from the European economic recovery plan, which rural development agencies would use as part of the rural development programme, would help to fill some of the holes in broadband provision, not least for my upland sheep farmer friends and for people in places like that. What is the mechanism by which this money will be used and what will it be used for?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are of course grateful for resources from wherever they emerge, but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that £2.5 million from Europe is a flea bite in relation to the total issues to be addressed. While it is welcome and is directed towards particular areas, the context of this question is universal access. That is a massive project and we have given clear indications since the summer of how we intend to tackle it. It can be fulfilled only by a long-term commitment to the objectives that I have identified.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords-

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