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House of Lords

Wednesday, 3 March 2010.

3 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Royal Assent

3.07 pm

The following Act was given Royal Assent:

Corporation Tax Act.

Palace of Westminster: Pest Control


3.07 pm

Asked By Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, the administration is fully aware of the problem with mice in the Palace of Westminster and is taking all appropriate measures to minimise their numbers. We retain the services of an independent pest control consultant and a full-time pest controller. The current focus is on poisoning and trapping, blocking of mouse access points, and more frequent cleaning of bars and restaurants to remove food debris. This programme was intensified over the February Recess and fewer sightings of mice have been reported since.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I thank the noble Lord for his reply. How many calls have there been to the mouse helpline? Has the accuracy of that information been checked, given that the staff report seeing mice on a daily basis at the moment in the eating areas? Has consideration been given to having hypoallergenic cats on the estate, given the history? Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning. Finally, does the noble Lord recognise the fire hazard that mice pose, because they eat through insulating cables? It would be a tragedy for this beautiful Palace to burn down for lack of a cat.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, there are a number of questions there. I cannot give an answer to the number of calls made to the mouse helpline-if that is its title. I suspect that it would not be a good use of resources to count them up. But I am well aware of the problem of mice, as I said in my Answer. It is something that we take seriously.

As for getting a cat, I answered a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, last week on this matter. I was not aware that such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat existed-I do not know whether our cat at home is one of those. There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to have cats. First, they would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice, which would not

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be very nice for them, and there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars-and maybe even in the Chamber itself. Therefore, we have ruled out at this stage the possibility of acquiring a cat, or cats.

Lord Bradshaw: I have spoken continually to the staff in the eating places in the House and I acknowledge that there has been some diminution in the number of mice around. But could I press the noble Lord, because further action needs to be taken? I know that this is an old building, but mice are still here and we are talking about places where food is served. I have no magic solution, but perhaps the consultant who is being employed might have some answers.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am well aware that there are still mice around. I saw one in the Bishops' Bar only yesterday evening. I do not know whether it was the same one that I saw the day before or a different one; it is always difficult to tell the difference between the various mice that one sees. We believe that the problem is getting better. Cleaning is one of the measures we are taking, as I outlined in my original Answer. As I speak here this afternoon, the Bishops' Bar and the Guest Room are being hoovered, so we can get rid of the food scraps from lunch. If you were a mouse, you would rather eat the crumbs of a smoked salmon sandwich than the bait. Therefore, we want to remove the crumbs as quickly as possible.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Why should I and noble Lords trust the Executive to deal with mice when they cannot deal with the economy?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I do not actually deal with the economy. I am glad to say that that would be above my pay grade, whereas trying to deal with the mice is probably just about right for me.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was in total ignorance that there was anything of the nature of a mouse helpline until this Question Time. Can the Chairman of Committees tell us what helplines there are for Members of the House on other issues that we do not know about?

The Chairman of Committees: I rather hope that we do not have too many other ones. I was not going to advertise the existence of the mouse helpline, although it was advertised some time ago. Indeed, I invited Members of the House to telephone when they saw mice. The trouble is that when the person at the other end of the helpline goes to check this out, very often the mouse has gone elsewhere.

Afghanistan: Minerals and Gemstones


3.13 pm

Asked By Baroness Rawlings

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Lord Brett: My Lords, between 2004 and 2008, the UK spent £4 million to map mineral deposits in a geological survey of Afghanistan. This helped identify the growth potential of the mining sector and restructure the Afghanistan Geological Survey. We have agreed to help the Ministry of Mines to undertake an ambitious reform programme, with a budget of some £950,000, and the Ministry of Finance to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in Afghanistan, with a budget of £515,000. In February 2010 the EITI board accepted Afghanistan as a candidate country.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware-I am sure that he is-that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it has huge reserves of the highest quality lapis lazuli, silver, copper, rubies and emeralds-examples that can be seen even today in the British crown jewels, the Taj Mahal and the Russian imperial collection? What else are Her Majesty's Government doing to encourage development of these reserves to help alleviate poverty and help the Afghanis diversify from their reliance on the poppy?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the good news is that reliance on the poppy has been much reduced, from 13 per cent in 2007 to 4 per cent in 2009. The noble Baroness is absolutely right: Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world. This is why we have committed £510 million over four years on a series of measures: on assistance to government, more than £300 million; to create jobs and economic growth, more than £80 million; to help stability and development, £72 million; and to produce alternatives to the poppy, some £30 million.

The noble Baroness is also correct in saying that a well regulated mining sector would have great benefits. The World Bank has identified the potential for an annual production of something over $250 million, and for 19,000 jobs. We continue to support the Afghan Government in their endeavours to diversify: that is part of our ongoing commitment.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, after the geological survey that my noble friend referred to, which was funded by the British taxpayer, a Chinese metallurgical company paid $3 billion for a copper mine in Aynak province, with a potential profit of $88 billion. How can the Minister justify coalition troops guarding that mine and possibly laying down their lives when China picks up all the profits and provides no troops or any other form of military assistance to Afghanistan?

Lord Brett: We are in Afghanistan to assist the Government of that country to provide security and prosperity for their own people. It is true that the Aynak copper deposit is the second largest unexploited deposit in the world. It is equally true that the open tender for the contract to develop the mine was managed by the World Bank and won by the Chinese Government. One cannot develop a copper mine in one or two years: it has the potential for a lifetime of work. Our endeavour will be to ensure that the security situation in that country is such that its armed forces, police and Government can provide their own security for what is

3 Mar 2010 : Column 1446

an international operation. Had the tender been won by a European or North American country, would we be making the same points?

Baroness Northover: My Lords, there are indications that the value of minerals in Afghanistan could be $1 trillion. Does the Minister find potentially chilling-given the effect on fragile states such as the DRC of having that sort of mineral wealth-the level of corruption in Afghanistan, with countries and companies tripping over themselves to exploit it? How can we work internationally to ensure that it is the many and not the few who benefit?

Lord Brett: The noble Baroness makes a very important point. I do not know the number of noughts one would put when estimating the potential value of minerals in that country: it depends on extraction costs and the world market. The noble Baroness is right to highlight the potential danger in a country that has had endemic corruption as one of its problems for a long time. It is important that President Karzai has made a commitment, both in his statement on his election and subsequently at the London conference, to make the fight against corruption his number one priority. Now we want to see that commitment turned into action. This is why we are putting our funding through government agencies to the extent of 50 per cent. We are anxious to ensure that the Afghan Government take advice, learn from the experience of others and remove corruption. The noble Baroness is right that if in the long term that is not the case, the wealth that could come to that country could be not a blessing but something worse, as we have seen in some parts of Africa.

Lord King of Bridgwater: Does the Minister recognise the wide support for the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson; that the Chinese are moving in and taking advantage of the situation that has been created by coalition forces in support of the Afghan Government? Does he agree that there is a strong argument for the greatest pressure to be put on the Chinese Government for them to play a bigger part in helping in the overall task to which we are all committed?

Lord Brett: I find myself in slight disagreement with the noble Lord. On his latter point that the Chinese should play a bigger part, they are making major endeavours on the African continent in terms of assistance to some countries, development of some countries and, of course, the extraction of minerals. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the Chinese should play a more responsible role.

On his first point, while I am not personally a great advocate of it, international capitalism is all about open tendering and those who bid the most money winning the contract. I have to make the point again that this is not a short-term contract. In the longer term, our intention is to ensure that there is a situation in Afghanistan where the Government can rule effectively and provide whatever protection is required for their industries and for their own people. That is what should guide us, and we should not be diverted. However, I take the point that the Chinese could play a much bigger and more responsible part. We would welcome that.

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Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: My Lords, the Minister has mentioned that our Government are making funds available, at least in part, to a suitable agency of the Afghanistan Government. There are large question marks over whether that is an efficient way of operating. The wider neighbourhood of that part of the world contains the world's largest democracy next door, which has huge experience of gemstones, mining and so on. Are the Government considering working with the Indian Government on this issue? Would that not be a better way forward than just an isolated, incidental expenditure on a small scale, which is albeit laudable, through the agency of a very corrupt Government indeed?

Lord Brett: My Lords, we are in constant communication with our coalition colleagues and the countries in the region. The noble Baroness makes an important point in saying that India has a major interest in the gemstone industry both in its own sub-continent and beyond. I am sure that if there is assistance and advice that could be given, we would welcome Indian assistance in that direction. However, in the end it has to be for the Afghan Government and the Afghan people to determine their own future. All we seek to do is not to colonise the country; ironically, although we may have diamonds in Russian and British crowns, that is not what we are about in 2010. We are concerned with helping the Afghan people rid themselves of a form of insurgency and govern themselves. Those are the objectives that we should retain as our central focus.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the problem is not the small-scale mining of gemstones, but that of getting them out of the country and on to the international market? I understand that this is done on foot across the most dangerous frontier in the world; namely, that between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Can the noble Lord tell us what is being done to add to the security of that border?

Lord Brett: The question of the security of the border is much broader than one of people smuggling gemstones in small quantities, which must be the case by definition if they are being transported on foot. What we have is a much greater military and civil project, which is to assist the Government in defending themselves against incursions by people from neighbouring states who support the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That is in our own British interests as well as in the interests of the people concerned. I have no particular knowledge on the narrower point about gemstones, but I shall certainly look into it and write to the noble Lord.

Defence: Export of Military Components


3.23 pm

Asked byLord Astor of Hever

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The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate, II Squadron RAF Regiment, Rifleman Martin Kinggett, 4th Battalion The Rifles, Sergeant Paul Fox, 28 Engineer Regiment, Rifleman Carlo Apolis, 4th Battalion The Rifles, as well as a soldier from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, who died recently while on operations in Afghanistan.

I turn now to the Question. We have eliminated the need for paperwork by making the licensing process fully electronic via the online SPIRE system, introduced in September 2007. Exporters also benefit from an open general export licence which allows, subject to certain conditions, military goods to be exported to the government of, or NATO headquarters in, specified countries.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I also send my condolences to the family and friends of the senior aircraftman, the Royal Engineer sergeant and the riflemen killed in Afghanistan.

On the Question, despite what the Minister said, even the simplest of components are being delayed by excessive red tape in the export control organisation of BIS, which has clearly not woken up to the realities of globalisation. Will the Minister please ensure that the system is simplified and speeded up even further so that British companies can compete on a level playing field with competitors from less bureaucratic countries?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, we recognise that the defence industry is very important to the United Kingdom. It contributes about £12 billion to our GDP. I certainly give him that assurance. If he would like to provide me with any more detailed information about any concerns that companies have, I will follow them up. We are undertaking a customer satisfaction survey right now about the department in this matter. It is open until the end of March and we encourage people to participate in that survey.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I associate these Benches with the condolences read out by the Minister at the start of his Answer. Can the Minister assure us that priority is given to any components needed by an ally in active service, so that they will go through quickly, and that we ensure that if we require something for our Armed Forces or to be used by one of our NATO allies on active service, that that is done with the minimum possible bureaucratic activity, whether online or on paper?

Lord Drayson: I am very happy to give the noble Lord that assurance.

Lord Teverson: What is the Government's attitude to France, a NATO member, potentially exporting sophisticated warships to the Russian Federation?

Lord Drayson: That really is a matter for France.

3 Mar 2010 : Column 1449

Press Complaints Commission


3.26 pm

Asked by Lord Taverne

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, for the public to have confidence in a system of self-regulation, it must be effective and robust. We welcome the recent report of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and look forward to the Press Complaints Commission implementing its recommendations.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, the Select Committee of the House of Commons has produced a very thorough and excellent report, which found that the system of self-regulation of the press, as it exists, has failed, especially in the case of the McCanns and of the News of the World hacking events. Will the Government therefore implement as soon as possible the committee's most important recommendations? It recommended that the commission should be more proactive and not wait to receive complaints before it acts; that it should have a two-thirds lay majority; and, particularly, that it should have the power to fine, which should have the result that the commission becomes somewhat less tolerant of the inaccuracies and excesses of some of the tabloid press.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord has accurately reflected the main points and recommendations made by the Select Committee in the other place. The Select Committee reported only last week, and the Government will make their response to those important recommendations as soon as possible. There is no doubt that the Select Committee has expressed itself in trenchant terms, while at the same time indicating that it considers self-regulation of the press to be best achieved through the Press Complaints Commission.

Lord Soley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Press Complaints Commission, which has made some improvements in recent years, would do itself an enormous favour if it copied the practices of the Advertising Standards Authority and, as the noble Lord suggested in his supplementary question, took a more proactive role in dealing with cases? It might also like to consider how it could recommend to newspapers that they be prepared to be a bit more responsible in the way that they advertise themselves. You never find the name of an editor in a newspaper or on the website, so they surround themselves with a wall of secrecy while feeling free to invade everyone else's privacy.

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