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House of Lords

Wednesday, 2 June 2010.

3 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Several noble Lords took the oath or affirmed.

Health: Contaminated Blood Products


3.14 pm

Tabled by Lord Morris of Manchester

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, declare a non-pecuniary interest as president of the Haemophilia Society.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, we have decided not to seek leave to appeal the judgment, and we shall be writing shortly to let the court know of our decision. We are considering our response to the judgment and will announce our decision in due course. In the mean time, ex-gratia payments will continue to be paid at current levels to those affected.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl and congratulate him on his well merited ministerial post, which I know he will grace with all his customary integrity. Is he aware that 1,982 haemophilia patients have now died from being infected with HIV and hepatitis C by contaminated NHS blood products in this worst ever treatment disaster? Given the High Court's landmark judgment, the wide all-party acclaim for the Archer inquiry's findings and David Cameron's strongly positive response to the Haemophilia Society's pre-election call for urgent new help for the afflicted and bereaved, can the Minister confirm that there will be no delay now in ensuring a just settlement for this cruelly stricken and arguably most needful minority in Britain today?

Earl Howe: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord for his kind words. I am sure he knows how seriously I take these matters. I hope he can take as read my wish to see that those whose health is suffering as a result of this tragedy are properly looked after by the NHS. I know that the noble Lord will understand that we are looking at the court judgment. It is early days yet, but we are considering very carefully what the court has said and I cannot be of more help to him at this stage than I already have

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been in my earlier Answer. I stand ready to talk to him, either inside or outside this Chamber, on these important matters.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I endorse my noble friend's congratulations to the noble Earl. Do the Government accept that the scale of payments to victims in Ireland was not a response to criticisms from an official inquiry, as the scale had been decided and implemented long before either official inquiry reported? Furthermore, is it now accepted that to argue that there has been no similar criticism from an official inquiry in this country is, to say the least, disingenuous, as successive Governments have failed to appoint one?

Earl Howe: My Lords, obviously, I cannot speak on statements made by Ministers of the former Administration. However, I can confirm to the noble and learned Lord that the compensation scheme in the Republic of Ireland was set up in the light of evidence of mistakes made by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board. That has been confirmed to us by officials in the Republic of Ireland's Department of Health and Children. It is important to understand that the events that gave rise to the people in Ireland becoming infected through contaminated blood transfusions were quite dissimilar to the sequence of events that occurred here. There were specific circumstances in Ireland, and quite different circumstances in the UK.

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton: My Lords, I declare an interest as the widow of a haemophiliac who died from contaminated blood products 16 years ago. Is the Minister aware that many of the widows, widowers and children of people who were infected and died received very little compensation-in fact, many do not receive a penny in support from the state? Does he not agree that it would have been wiser to spend the Department of Health's money used to fight the High Court case on supporting those bereaved families, many of whom have lost their breadwinner?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am well aware of the noble Baroness's personal interest in this matter and feel deeply for her. She is of course correct that the Skipton Fund was not designed to support bereaved relatives. It was designed to alleviate the suffering of those infected with hepatitis C. Sympathetic as I am towards those who have lost their loved ones in this tragedy, that fund does have a specific purpose and it would require a major review to alter that purpose. However, I note her concern on this matter.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I share in the congratulations and good wishes to the noble Earl, who has served this House so well on health issues, and offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, on their tenacious pursuit of this issue. Does the noble Earl agree that the High Court judgment shows a confusion of thinking on the part of the Department of Health not only in regard to this matter but on the whole question of dealing with adverse health events? Does he accept, as the Scottish Executive have done, as the Chief Medical

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Officer did in 2003 and the National Audit Office did in its report in 2004, that much more money would be available in compensation if it were not being spent on legal fees and court cases, and that the introduction of a no-fault compensation scheme could achieve that?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I share the noble Lord's antipathy to taxpayers' money being shelled out in legal fees, but what has happened has happened. In the current constrained financial climate, every department of Government will look very carefully at its legal activity.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I join my noble friend in welcoming the noble Earl to his new position and wish him all the very best. Not so long ago, during the passage of my noble friend's Bill last November, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, were very keen on a full compensation package for those affected by contaminated blood products. Has this commitment been translated into the coalition Government's policy? If so, how and in what timescale?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. We are in a coalition Government. Not every pledge in either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat manifesto can be honoured. That is the nature of coalitions. In fact, the specific Liberal Democrat proposal which she referred to was not included in the programme for government which we published.

Korean Peninsula: "Cheonan"


3.22 pm

Tabled by Lord Alton of Liverpool

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in so doing, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the All-Party Group on North Korea.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, we are concerned about the situation on the Korean peninsula following the sinking of the "Cheonan" vessel. The Government are in no doubt that North Korea was responsible for this callous and unacceptable act. The Prime Minister has expressed his sympathy to President Lee for the loss of life. We urge North Korea to acknowledge responsibility and to avoid escalating tensions further. We understand that South Korea will request that the UN Security Council looks at this issue next week and we are working with South Korea and other international partners to ensure the strongest possible response with a UN Security Council consensus.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, on this, his first appearance at Question Time as the Minister dealing with international and foreign affairs, and in the light of the huge contribution that he made during his time in opposition, I am sure that the whole House will want to welcome the noble Lord to his onerous duties and responsibilities.

When this matter comes before the Security Council next week, will we be pressing for a commission of inquiry or a referral to the International Criminal Court on these events, which led to the deaths of 46 people following the sinking of the "Cheonan"? Are we also engaging with the Government of China? That is crucial if we are to make progress on this matter.

Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. He is second to none in his expertise on North Korea and in his concern for human rights there. The problem with a commission is simply that China will not go along with it, so we would never get unity among the permanent five. Also, North Korea is not a signatory to the ICC. Although we want strong action, we want to try to keep the permanent five together and to get some kind of statement or resolution that will really have an effect and make an impact.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Have the Government had any indication of what the Chinese Prime Minister may have meant when he reportedly said in Seoul that the Chinese Government would not protect anyone responsible for this incident? Are we taking steps to bring home to the Chinese Government the proposition, with which I hope that the Minister would agree, that if they were to block an effective response in the Security Council, that would be a major contribution to insecurity in north-east Asia?

Lord Howell of Guildford: Yes, we are taking all the steps that we can to bring the Chinese along. We would obviously like their support, but there are difficulties. The statement from the Chinese leader that he would not protect those who did this raised hopes but, thereafter, the Chinese went rather ambiguous and are now not prepared to apportion blame. That is the problem and where we are now.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I, too, add my welcome again to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his new role. I shall pursue the Minister on the ICC. The UN special rapporteur for North Korea has called for strong UN action. He said that a commission of inquiry should be set up on crimes against humanity in North Korea and he called for serious consideration of the need for an indictment of individual members of the regime. Does the Minister agree with that position? What action will the coalition Government take in pursuit of those objectives?

Lord Howell of Guildford: Yes, I agree. The Government would be concerned to see that any criminals, or those accused of war crimes internationally, were properly charged, where they can be reached by the jurisdiction of the ICC. There is a difficulty, given that Korea has not signed up to the ICC, which is why we feel that the commission of inquiry may be some way down the road, as it is a difficult thing to get started now.

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Lord Pannick: Have the Government considered the possibility of expanding or encouraging the expansion of the jurisdiction of the ICC so that it would have a role in relation to conduct within a state that does not recognise the powers of the ICC?

Lord Howell of Guildford: We debated these matters closely in this House-I cannot remember whether the noble Lord was a Member at the time-and looked at that possibility. The Government have no plans to do so at present.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, does the Minister accept that China's position of so-called impartiality on this question is unsustainable, because it cannot use that approach to other countries in which it also takes an interest, such as Iran? Are we pressing on China, in this case, the need for it to be clear at the UN Security Council next week about where it stands, given that the United States has offered to share with it its assessment of intelligence information, in addition to the independent commission's report?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble friend is absolutely right that, if we can persuade the Chinese that their troublesome and awkward neighbour could be just as damaging to them as to the rest of us, we will be making progress. We are talking to them at a number of levels and we may make progress. However, at the moment, the Chinese are reluctant to pin blame. That is the problem.

Lord Bates: I, too, welcome my noble friend to his duties, to which he brings enormous expertise. As well as ensuring that there is a suitably robust international response to the specific instance that we are talking about, will he ensure that some progress is made on the lingering injustice of the artificial division of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel? Will he ensure that the pledge that was made in Cairo nearly seven years ago to try to bring about an independent, demilitarised, democratic and free united Korean people is also progressed as a way of reducing tension?

Lord Howell of Guildford: That would, in theory, be the ideal. It is basically up to the nation states involved: North Korea and South Korea. In practice, there are, to put it mildly, a few difficulties.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I join those who have expressed words of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on his return to the government Front Bench. He is my old roommate from Cambridge and I think that I was almost in short trousers when he first went into government. I am delighted to see him back.

Do Her Majesty's Government have any plans to try once again to persuade the United States to recognise the International Criminal Court? It would be helpful if the United States could overcome its shyness on this, because it would carry a great deal of weight in dealing with rogue states such as North Korea.

Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank the noble Lord-indeed, my noble friend, as he is-for his compliment, if it was a compliment. We must keep trying. The

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United States has deep-rooted objections, as we discovered when we debated this matter in the House some years ago. It is nervous that its troops and personnel around the world might be unfairly attacked and charged. However, we must keep at it and I agree with the noble Lord that this is a good way to go.

Immigration: Detention of Children


3.29 pm

Asked by Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): My Lords, the Government are committed to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Immigration is heading a review on the way forward, which aims to protect the welfare of children while ensuring the removal of those who have no right to be in the UK. He will set out the way forward as soon as possible: certainly in the coming weeks. Currently, I might add, there is one family with two children in immigration detention.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and I welcome her to her new high ministerial office and wish her well for the future. When does she expect to be able to end child detention for immigration purposes? Does she not agree that it would be a signal success for the new Government if there could be an early announcement that ended the practice? Is there any chance of her being able to do that sensibly before the House rises for the Summer Recess?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for his kind words. I certainly agree that we want to progress this as rapidly as possible. I cannot unfortunately give him a deadline today, but I hope that my honourable friend in the other House will have more details really quite shortly. At the moment, we are working with various charities and NGOs that will help us to find solutions so that we can come forward with something that is not just process but that incorporates a solution. We will do that as rapidly as we can. The noble Lord is quite right that we need to end this as soon as possible.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, many of us who have argued for years that children should not be detained under immigration powers will welcome what the Government appear to want to do. Will the Minister confirm, however, that ending the detention of children must mean that families-parents as well as the children-will no longer be detained? If it does not, this will involve separating children from their families, which would be a retrograde step.

Baroness Neville-Jones: We certainly aim not to separate families from children or children from families. The noble Lord is quite right, and I think the House

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would agree, that this is not an ideal form of detention. I cannot say categorically how we will work it out, but the aim is certainly to keep families together.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I welcome the Minister to her position. While I welcome the statement about ending the detention of children, will the review consider the position of another group of children who are held in detention? I refer to the hundreds of independent juvenile asylum seekers who are currently being held in social services care around the country. There is a real need to look at the consistency of their treatment and conditions because those differ widely in different parts of the country.

Baroness Neville-Jones: The noble Lord makes a very important point. I am aware that children who are not in immigration detention and who are unaccompanied are indeed with local authorities. I will take back his point about the inconsistency of treatment and report back to the House.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness. Is consideration being given in the review to the bereavement needs of children, given that many children who come here as asylum seekers, or indeed for other immigration purposes, have often undergone traumatic bereavements? The incidence of severe bereavement reactions among these children is particularly high, and lack of attention to that in the processes to which they are subjected may make their experiences worse.

Baroness Neville-Jones:The noble Baroness makes an important point. All I can say at the present stage is that in the guidelines that we agree consideration should be given to cases of this kind in which an individual problem needs extra help.

Lord Avebury: My Lords-

Noble Lords: It is the turn of the Bishops.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this is the only category of children who can be detained indefinitely without the oversight of the courts and without ever having committed a crime?

Baroness Neville-Jones: That is the formal case. However, in current circumstances, the average time for which children are being detained is only about 11 days. We are trying to bring that figure down. I pay tribute to the previous Government who did great work in bringing the timescale of these detentions down. I entirely agree that it is a problem. We are trying to make the system as humane as possible.

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