Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.
Asked By Lord Anderson of Swansea
To ask Her Majesty's Government what was the outcome of their consideration on preventing the issuing of arrest warrants for senior Israelis visiting the United Kingdom.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are looking at this issue urgently. No decisions have yet been made.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, Hamas is an Islamist organisation which does not deal gently with its rivals, the opposition in Gaza. Is it not therefore absurd that it can work with friendly lawyers to obtain an ex parte arrest warrant, in effect preventing the visit to the UK of the leader of the opposition of a friendly and democratic ally? The Government have said for some time that they are looking urgently at this matter. Is it true, as reported, that the Government will give the Attorney-General the power to veto similar applications which harm our diplomatic relations? If so, would that need primary legislation?
Lord Bach: My Lords, as I said a moment ago, no decisions have yet been made on this matter. As for any proposal to limit universal jurisdiction, as a party to certain international conventions, the United Kingdom has legislated to give the courts jurisdiction over some grave offences whether they were committed in the UK or elsewhere, or whether by UK nationals or otherwise. We have no intention of restricting what is called universal jurisdiction. Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend of the United Kingdom. We are determined to protect and develop these ties. Israeli leaders, like leaders from other countries, must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British Government.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, is this farcical legal situation, which has implications for the travel plans, I suggest, also of Mr Blair, not partly of the Government's own making? Were the Government not repeatedly warned during proceedings on the International Criminal Court Bill that the imposition of universal jurisdiction had profound implications for diplomacy and would make conflict resolution in certain parts of the world more difficult? Some people in the UN are arguing that that is happening with Sudan. If we are determined to have these laws, surely
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Lord Bach: My Lords, the problem arises because some offences, including war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, can be tried in English courts even where the offence was committed outside the United Kingdom by a person who is not a UK national. It is open to anyone to apply to a magistrate for an arrest warrant in respect of such an offence against a person who is present in the country. While prosecution of these offences requires the consent of the Attorney-General, consent need not have been given before an arrest warrant is issued. All that is necessary is that there is prima facie evidence, which is much less than would be essential for the Attorney-General to instigate a prosecution.
Baroness Northover: My Lords, is this not about the separation of legal and political powers? Yet the Foreign Secretary and the Attorney-General apologised to the Israelis and said that they will seek to change our law on war crimes. Political pressure has had an effect on Attorneys-General in the past, with the Iraq invasion and the BAE prosecution. Will the Minister therefore guarantee that no change will be made to this law because of political pressure?
Lord Bach: This is a difficult issue, as it would be for any Government. It arises because, if one is to arrest on warrant, that does not require the Attorney's consent; if one is to arrest on summons, it does. It is a problem. There are various arguments on both sides; those have already been put in the couple of minutes that we have been debating the matter this afternoon. Of course political pressure will not play a part in our decision. What matters is getting this difficult issue sorted out properly.
Lord Pannick: Does the Minister accept that it is anomalous that a prosecution may be brought in this context only with the consent of the Attorney-General yet an arrest warrant may be issued without the consent of the Attorney-General? That will inevitably have the effect of deterring people from coming here who will not be prosecuted because the Attorney will not give her consent, which will damage the ability of politicians to come to this country for the purpose of discussing the peace process, and it will prevent other persons-military officials and security officials-coming here to aid this country in the fight against terrorism.
Lord Bach: It is an anomaly set up by Section 25(2) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. It is an anomaly, but it is also, as the law stands, the right of a citizen to bring prima facie evidence before a magistrate in order to effect an arrest. That is the law of the land. What we must consider is whether it ought to be altered.
Lord Clinton-Davis: Does my noble friend agree that this delay is unconscionable and intensely damaging to the interests of this country and Israel? Is he aware that Israeli leaders past and present are deterred from coming to this country?
Lord Bach: My Lords, of course it does not affect those currently in the Israeli Government, although it did affect Mrs Livni, who, as has already been said, is a most distinguished leader of the opposition in Israel. I repeat that we have close relations with Israel and intend to continue to do so. The Israelis of course understand that we have a difficulty with our law here. We must get it right. It is more important to take time getting it right than to get it wrong.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords-
Lord Dykes: Notwithstanding this putative legislation, can the Minister-
Lord Dykes: I do not get up every day. Can the Minister say what the Government's reaction was to the striking full-page advert in the Times at the beginning of December from respected members of the international Jewish community in Britain and elsewhere saying that Israel should submit to war crimes trials?
Lord Bach: I am sure that the Government as a whole looked carefully and saw the advertisement; I certainly did. However, I am sure that there was no general reaction to it.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: Does the Minister not agree that the sweet words of Hamas are not entirely balanced by its deeds in this matter? Is he aware that, since the fighting ended in Gaza some 11 months ago, 284 rockets and mortar bombs have been fired at the towns and cities of southern Israel, each with the malicious desire and expectation that it would bring about death and destruction?
Lord Bach: I have read about what happened last year in Gaza and what happened to citizens both of Israel and in Gaza. It is certainly not my job to comment on that at this Dispatch Box this afternoon.
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they plan to provide in Iraq application and issuing facilities for visas for business visitors to the United Kingdom.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the UK Border Agency continues to keep the provision of visa services to Iraqi nationals, including for business visitors, under review, taking into account ongoing security, logistical and financial considerations. A joint visit by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UK Border Agency in March will review the possible
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Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I cannot fault the Minister for consistency, but is this not the same old story that he has been dishing out since 2008? Is it not high time that we adopted the same business visa facilities as the Schengen countries do? Is he not aware of the damage being done to British business in Iraq as a result of this failure to issue these visas?
At the recent Erbil trade fair, there were 71 German companies. How many British companies were there? One.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the Government's consistency in response is matched only by the noble Lord's consistency in asking the same question, and I am delighted to respond to that. The Government accept that there are huge opportunities in Iraq. One of the great joys about Iraq is that there is a relatively well educated population and there is actually money there, once it has sorted out oil production and that sort of thing. We understand that and indeed, we sent a team over there last March, and that is why we opened the facility in Erbil. We cleared a number of people to go to a UKTI meeting there to talk to people. We are looking again in March to try and expand this, but there are very real issues of security and cost. It is extremely expensive and we use a hub-and-spoke method elsewhere. We understand this and we are pushing to try to achieve as much as we can. There are huge opportunities for our businesspeople and those are being encouraged by UKTI.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I have just returned from Baghdad. Is it not the case that we have a brand new embassy there and that security within Baghdad has improved considerably, even compared with last year? Is it not therefore high time that visas could be issued there to Iraqis who want to come to this country for business purposes?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I agree that security has improved there. It is constantly under review. At the moment, because of security and other things, particularly for example in Erbil, it makes it extremely expensive to issue visas-probably in excess of £600 per visa given the work that has to go into them. It is under constant review, there are opportunities, and we want to push these. Yes, we see our competitors are being a little bit freer in this and that is why we have to move and will do so.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, BP has secured a contract to develop the super-giant Rumaila oilfield over the next 20 years at a cost of $15 billion. For that purpose it will need to bring dozens, if not hundreds of workers to the UK for training. Others, such as the British Council, are also bringing many Iraqi workers here for training. If the Minister cannot provide the facilities at the British embassy, why not sub-contract the provisions for the fingerprints and photographs which are needed for applications to one of the other embassies that are already doing it?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord highlights something that is a very positive move in Iraq. We are reviewing this all the time. I have no reason to believe that we will not be able to facilitate that movement of staff to enable those things to happen and to allow that flood of oil hopefully to come out through the facilities in the northern Gulf which the Royal Navy helps to look after.
Baroness Afshar: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for mentioning education. Given the devastation of universities in Iraq, is it possible to help students to get here quicker? I declare an interest. We admitted a student to a master's degree last October, and after travelling in various countries in the Middle East, she has finally arrived, having missed one term of a course that is one academic year long. Is there any way that we could possibly help students to continue the great standard of education by coming here?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on an important issue. Education in this country is a gem and is seen as such around the world. It is very important for us in terms of influencing people and giving them the same perceptions of rights and all kinds of other things. We had a team in Iraq after Prime Minister Maliki's visit and we came to an agreement to expedite and push through a raft of scholarship people into this country. Sadly, the administrative arrangements within Iraq did not quite match it and we are still waiting for that to happen. We will make more opportunities available as and when we can.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, given that Baghdad and Erbil operate a limited biometric capture facility for specified categories of applicant, are the Government able to collect biometric information for visas for Iraqi businessmen? Surely this would speed things up dramatically.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I think I understand the question, which is that we should not take biometrics of businessmen. No, we make sure that we take the biometrics of people visiting this country. That is done and we make sure that it is done. It is one of the securities for our country.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords-
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: My Lords-
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have not heard from the Labour Benches.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Minister made a point about the expense involved in the issue of visas. Does he not also accept that, unless we get this right, the Exchequer will lose out considerably through loss of trade if we block or do not properly facilitate visas for business travellers?
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right-I hoped that I had touched on this earlier-and that is why the situation is being reviewed in March. I agree that we need to open this up. We
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Asked By Lord Roberts of Llandudno
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will increase the time between close of nominations and polling day for parliamentary elections in order to allow for the return of postal votes.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, increasing the time between close of nominations and polling day would require considerable consultation followed by primary legislation. We have no plans to make such a change at this stage. In any event, it would not resolve the issue raised by the noble Lord. Postal voting has been successful and is popular with electors. The turnout of postal voters across Britain at the 2005 UK parliamentary election was 76.6 per cent compared to 59.4 per cent in polling stations.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to this Question and others on postal voting. However, he does not seem to be aware of the massive increase in the number of postal voters. It was 11 days between nominations and polling when we had fewer than 1 million postal voters; in the European election we had 6,300,000; and in a May general election we could have 8 million. Surely we need a new timetable. The Electoral Commission is urging this. As for primary legislation, last night the Video Recordings Bill went through this House; it was introduced into Parliament on 6 January and will receive Royal Assent this week. Were the Government really determined, would it not be possible to get the necessary legislation through?
Lord Bach: My Lords, what really matters is the registration and postal vote deadline; that is key for all elections. Whether general or local elections, the deadline for registration and for new or changed postal vote applications is 11 working days-it is important that they are working days-before polling day. Returning officers send out ballot papers only once this deadline has passed because, until the deadline, electors may change their address or cancel their postal vote. Clearly we do not want a large number of duplicate ballot papers distributed. If a close of nominations for parliamentary elections were moved to 19 working days before polling day-the same as for local elections-postal ballot papers would not be sent out any earlier because of the 11 working days registration deadline.
Lord Henley: My Lords, what is the point of having 76.6 per cent turnout if a vast proportion of that percentage is fraudulently voting?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am slightly gobsmacked by the noble Lord. Is he really suggesting that a large proportion of those who vote by post are voting fraudulently? If that is the official view of the Opposition, I am deeply shocked. Of course there are examples of fraud in postal voting, just as there is sometimes personation at polling stations. We are going to be dealing with that in a few minutes. We are delighted that turnout is increased by the fact that postal voting is now much easier than it was when the noble Lord's Government were in power.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this system only works if noble Lords are prepared to give way. Shall we hear first from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler?
Lord Tyler: My Lords, at Questions in your Lordships' House on 9 December 2009, the Minister was kind enough to agree to a suggestion from me that he should look again at the 2003 report by the Electoral Commission on election timetables to try to get more consistency in all elections. Has he had time to review that report? What is the Government's reaction to its recommendations?
Lord Bach: I am afraid that I have not had time to review that report but we are now so close to the general election of this year-
Lord Bach: I have in my briefing examples of various dates and how long it will be before nominations close. As we are so close, it is frankly not realistic, using common sense, to suggest that we can change the law before then.
Lord Rogan: My Lords, a special section of the electorate, namely our Armed Forces personnel serving overseas, is in many cases disfranchised by the short time between nomination and polling day. Will the Government at least consider some special arrangement whereby these personnel will no longer be disfranchised by their postal votes?
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