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House of Lords

Tuesday, 12 January 2010.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Questions for Written Answer

Question

2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Lucas

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, Ministers are, of course, responsible for the Answers to Written Questions. The principal role of the Information Commissioner is to enforce and oversee the statutory Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act regimes. As paragraph 5.15 of the Companion makes clear, Written Questions are not,

It is right that these processes remain distinct. Accordingly, I will not be making any such proposals.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it strikes me that, wonderful though Written Questions usually are, there can be occasions when one comes across a department that is reluctant to provide the information requested, and one finds oneself in a situation where we have given to the citizen powers that we have not given to ourselves. Does not the Leader think that it would be good to find a way in which we can encourage departments to provide information-if not by the mechanism that I have suggested-and perhaps even have adjudication on their refusal to do so, so that we can take to ourselves the powers that we have given to everybody else in this land?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there are three or four issues here. First, it is very important that the distinction between the two regimes should remain. Secondly, it is of course open to any Member of Parliament to request information under the Freedom of Information Act; and should they so wish, noble Lords should avail themselves of that process. As for departmental Questions, if Members are not satisfied with the Answers to Questions, they can ask further Questions. They can ask Oral Questions if the first Question was a Written Question; they can see the departmental Minister concerned; and they can come and see me. So a range of various options is available to Members of this House.



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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it not perfectly reasonable to suggest that each House of Parliament should publish an Order Paper that shows which Questions have been asked under freedom of information legislation by individual Members of Parliament? Why should that not be made available to the public?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I have not encountered that suggestion before. I will read carefully what the noble Lord has said and reflect on it.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, will the Leader of the House seek to strengthen Parliament's own capability in this sphere, particularly to enable it to respond fully and quickly in public debate? Yesterday, in current business, there were 81 Questions unanswered within the 14 days that the Companion sets out as the expectation, and 15 of those were tabled as long ago as 18 November. That does not seem to me to help Parliament to be responsive in the way that I think we all would wish.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am acutely aware of the responsibility of Ministers to answer Parliamentary Questions. If the noble Lord were to look at the statistics over the past few months, he would see that things have improved exponentially. That is not to say that it is not entirely wrong that there should be 82 unanswered Questions, and that 15 of those date from November. I must say in mitigation that in this House we are quite properly expected to answer Questions within a 14-day deadline, and that includes the Christmas period. There are a couple of Questions for which I am responsible which were tabled on 16 December, and the deadline was 30 December. Noble Lords will understand why we missed that deadline, and I can only apologise to the House.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, there seems to be here a dog that has not barked in the night, so to speak. Does the noble Baroness agree that at the root of this is the question of how often it happens? I have not yet heard anybody say how frequently a departmental Minister or officials refuse to answer a Question. Surely that is relevant to this debate.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think that it is very infrequent and that where there is reluctance to provide certain information, it is on the basis of the Data Protection Act or similar considerations. It is not a reluctance to provide the information as such but is in order to protect certain individuals.

Lord Inglewood: Given that my noble friend Lord Lucas is clearly going to be dissatisfied with the reply of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, what does she advise him to do next?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I will continue to reflect on this issue. I believe that the noble Lord's Question stems from a problem that he has had, but we have had discussions, there have been discussions

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with the department, and, as I understand it, the specific issues have now been resolved or are in the process of being resolved.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Will my noble friend also reflect on the paradox that I get much more detailed information through FOI requests than I get through Parliamentary Answers? Civil servants still have a tendency to draft for Ministers Parliamentary Answers that-save for the presence of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop-remind me of the definition of a bikini: what it reveals is less interesting than what it conceals. I ask my noble friend to think carefully about ensuring that civil servants get instructions to take account of FOI legislation and to be far more forthcoming in drafting Answers for Ministers.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says and I have some sympathy with that point of view. The principle is that one should not get less information from a Parliamentary Answer than one receives under FOI. The thing is that under FOI one receives raw information, whereas under a Parliamentary Answer it is-

A noble Lord: Spun.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, not spun-absolutely not spun. It is made into a Parliamentary Answer. I heed the noble Lord's words, however, and I will certainly take them back to all departments.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I am sure that we are all most grateful to the Leader of the House for the pressure that she exercises pretty regularly on our behalf to get good Answers quickly. However, in view of the difficulty she has, it would be very interesting to know whether she applies the pressure to Permanent Secretaries or to Secretaries of State.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I usually write to Permanent Secretaries. If that does not have the required effect, I take it up with my colleagues in the Cabinet.

Prisons

Question

2.43 pm

Asked By The Lord Bishop of Liverpool

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, we aim for increasingly sustainable prisons within budgetary constraints, focusing on energy, emissions, water, waste and recycling. Energy consumption per prisoner place is down 29 per cent from 1999 levels, with 23 per cent of electricity now obtained from renewable sources. Prisons are now recycling 46 per cent of waste generated. NOMS

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is working with constructors to move towards the Government's goal of constructing new public sector buildings which emit zero carbon by 2018.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging Answer and congratulate the National Offender Management Service on some of the initiatives that have been taken in sustainable living. Does the Minister recognise not only the economic benefit in creating sustainable prisons but the restorative potential in engaging prisoners in sustainable living?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the House well knows that the right reverend Prelate is the Bishop for prisons and shows a great interest not only in that topic but, of course, in the environment generally. I strongly agree with him that the restorative element of the sustainable work that is going on in prisons is very important. For example, in Wetherby young offender institution, next to the waste unit where many of its young offenders are working, there are classrooms for the provision of education and training. It is clear already that work in waste management in prisons can lead to those who are let out of prison finding employment in that area. As prisons become more sustainable there is no question that that will, I hope, prevent reoffending.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does a sustainable prison include the growing of vegetables and flowers, farming, the rearing of pigs, which provide bacon and pork to prisoners, and the provision of future careers for prisoners on leaving prison? I deeply regret that these facilities have, thus far, been removed.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the answer is yes. The biodiversity action plan for the prison estate, which is the second largest built and non-built government estate, is being taken forward with various partners which are very active indeed in this field. NOMS was the first government service to implement the biodiversity action reporting system, which monitors all the actions and targets on species and habitats. The noble Baroness is asking particularly about prisoners making their own food and training for prisoners. I do not know the specific answers, or whether such provision has declined or advanced in recent years, but it is certainly worth considering.

Lord Judd: While strongly endorsing the concerns of the right reverend Prelate, does my noble friend agree that in the context of the excellent lead given by the Government on environmental matters, all government buildings, whatever and wherever they are, should be environmentally sustainable?

Lord Bach: Of course I agree with that, and we are working to achieve a carbon-neutral government estate by 2030. That is a long way off, but there is a great deal still to be done. The Ministry of Justice's sustainable development action plan focuses on commissioning energy-efficient new-builds and operating existing buildings-noble Lords will know that the prison estate was not necessarily built with environmental considerations in mind-in a sustainable manner, whereby the ministry's carbon footprint will be reduced.



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Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question which is not a thousand miles from the original Question of the right reverend Prelate. What estimate have the Government made of the first available date upon which it is expected that the first prisoner will enter the first of the sub-Titan prisons to be built?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am sorry that I do not have the answer to that question immediately to hand. This Question is about prisons and sustainability, but of course I will write to the noble Lord with the latest estimate.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is tremendously excited by the biodiversity action plan in Her Majesty's prisons. How much does it cost, how many people are employed in it, and what has been its greatest achievement so far?

Lord Bach: I am delighted to excite the noble Lord by what I have said. I cannot give him specific figures on costs of employment, but I gently remind him that the question of employment in prisons is not very difficult.

Lord Acton: On sustainability, I have asked endless questions-all of them hostile-of this and the predecessor Government about prisons, and for the first time ever I shall ask a sycophantic question. Is my noble friend aware of how delighted I am at his replies to everybody, except the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, who I am afraid is looking a little sad?

Lord Bach: I am even more worried that I usually am when the noble Lord is being hostile.

The Earl of Listowel: In principle, does the Minister agree that in terms of sustainability, rather than imprisoning more and more offenders, it would be better to consider the demonstrably cheaper and more effective approach of not using prison? There is the Northern Ireland approach of restorative justice, where victims have 80 per cent rates of satisfaction and reoffending has decreased to below 30 per cent. Is that not a more sensible and sustainable approach?

Lord Bach: There is undoubtedly a place for restorative justice, and for non-custodial sentences in appropriate cases. However, I am afraid that as long as people behave as badly as some do, there will always have to be prisons.

Michael Savage

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By Lord Pearson of Rannoch



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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the former Home Secretary made it clear that Michael Savage was excluded for engaging in unacceptable behaviour by making comments that might provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred that might lead to intercommunity violence. In the absence of clear, convincing and public evidence that Mr Savage has repudiated his previous statements, the current Home Secretary is not prepared to review the exclusion decision.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who will of course be aware that Dr Savage has won the prestigious award in the United States for freedom of speech from TalkersMagazine. Will the noble Lord undertake to place in the Library any statements made by Dr Savage that the Government judge to be inflammatory, together with their context? Also, are the Government aware that Dr Savage has given a rare botanical collection to Kew Gardens? Should he not be allowed to visit it and to exercise his freedom of speech in response to any questions he may receive while he is here?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, may I take those questions in reverse order? On the second, I was made aware of the collection of plants only when the noble Lord kindly let me see a letter that had been written about that, for which I thank him. On the reasons for Mr Savage's exclusion, he has made a number of radio broadcasts when he has spoken about killing 100 million Muslims, and spoken in violent and unpleasant terms about homosexuals. I do not want to quote those statements on the Floor of the House because some of them are deeply offensive, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord with them, as he has asked, and to put a copy of that in the Library.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I was under the impression that this was part of the Government's policy of protecting British jobs for British workers-we produce enough nutcases in this country without needing to import any from the United States.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I would not want to comment on how many nutcases there might be in this country. We have a good process for identifying when we think someone should be put on the list, which includes inputs from diplomatic posts overseas and community groups. The information is then taken together, looked at by a group in the Home Office and a decision is made on whether people should be above or below that cut-off.

Lord Tebbit: Would the Minister consider taking the policy a bit further and deporting some of the foreign nationals who make unacceptable statements which are likely to cause strife in this country?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point. These things are extremely difficult to do but I share his view. It is quite extraordinary how people who say appalling things about our nation

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hang on like limpets and definitely do not want to go anywhere else in the world. This has struck me again and again with some amazement.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, will the Minister draw the existence of Talkers Magazine to the makers of "Have I Got News for You"? They might find some material in that. More seriously, does he agree that blacklisting people without knowing why and when they want to enter the country risks making martyrs of them? We know what a good recruiting officer martyrdom can be.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her 21st birthday today; I am sure that the House joins in with that. One has to be aware of not making martyrs of people who say abhorrent things. That is always a risk. Perhaps Mr Savage had been trying to say it in an amusing way; I do not think it is very amusing. We do not give people prior warning or notice that they are going to be excluded, but if they feel that it is wrong they can challenge it and then go through a judicial review process. We tend normally to expect an individual to repudiate some of the statements they have made if they are particularly repugnant. If they do that, we review it and there is then the opportunity to come in but that has not happened in this case.

Lord Pannick: Does the Minister accept the principle stated by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal last October in allowing the appeal of Mr Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician, against his exclusion from this country by reason of the views he had expressed? The principle was that, because of the importance of free political debate in this country, it is vital that people are excluded from this country by reason of their views only if the strongest evidence exists of a real danger to the interests of this country, not least because if people do come here and say things that are unacceptable the police have ample powers to arrest them.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. The two cases are somewhat different because there is a difference between European nationals such as Mr Wilders and a non-EEA national such as Mr Savage. In the European case, we can only refuse admission if the presence is considered a threat to public policy, public security or public health and the personal conduct of that person represents a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of those fundamental interests. It was considered that that was not the case in the specific case of Mr Wilders. By contrast, Mr Savage is not an EEA national and he was excluded on the basis that his presence was not considered conducive to the public good. The two are therefore somewhat different.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Is the noble Lord aware of the context in which Dr Savage said that large numbers of Muslims should be killed? Was that not in response to the question of what happens if a rogue Muslim organisation gets hold of a nuclear weapon and uses it?


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