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Baroness Brigstocke: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer which gives one a certain amount of comfort. I understand that 22,000 passports are locked up in Croydon and that students experience tremendous delays in receiving their passports. Will the Government consider recompensing students who miss perhaps the first term of a course for which they have paid because they are unable to obtain the necessary visas?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right, the IND is dealing with about 22,000 applications where passports have been submitted. In 1998, there were approximately 46,000 decisions on student applications. Of those, 32,000 were granted, 14,000 were refused, 21,000 were decided "on the day" and the rest were done in case-work groups where the average waiting time was three months.

As regards compensation, I must repeat the Answer which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, last week, that we consider ex gratia compensation where there is sufficient evidence to justify payment.

Earl Russell: My Lords, is the Minister aware that this concerns not only students? Perhaps I may draw his attention to the fact that last week I wrote to his honourable friend Mr. O'Brien about one of my academic colleagues who is a specialist in middle eastern archaeology and who is unable to discharge his duties without travelling. Does the Minister think that it is fair to responsible citizens, or their employers, to prevent them from discharging the duties for which they are paid?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, last week I said on this very point that the service provided is not satisfactory. I do not believe that I have ever tried to duck that. I gave the figures on students specifically because that was the main interest of the noble Baroness. Of course, others have suffered. I know that because a number of your Lordships have been good enough to tell me about individual cases.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I must declare an interest as a solicitor who from time to time has to deal with the IND on behalf of clients. Is the Minister aware that delays affect not only students and asylum seekers, but also those applying for naturalisation? In April 1998, the advice to those who had paid the not insubstantial fee for naturalisation was that their applications would take at least 12 months. In November 1998, those who inquired were told that the department was still dealing with applications lodged in May 1997 and that they would have to wait at least another 12 months. Does the Minister think that that is an appropriate way to deal with those who apply to and pay a fee to a government department?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not, and I am happy to repeat that. In fact, last week I

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used the words of the Home Secretary and of my honourable friend Mr. O'Brien when I said that, in terms of what the noble Lord has identified, we inherited a "shambles". That is why we are seeking to try to reorganise the system. I repeat my regret that things are taking longer than we had at first anticipated and hoped.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, on the matter of inheritance, the Minister confirmed last week that it was the relocation to Croydon, which was decided after the election, which was the primary cause of the loss of the passports, not the Siemens contract, although that has obviously also gone wrong. Can the Minister tell the House whether those who need to acquire a new passport either from the United Kingdom authorities or, if they are foreigners, from their own embassies, in replacement for one lost will be compensated at least to the extent of the extra fees as well as for any other loss, such as has already been referred to?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, any neutral or objective observer cannot be in any doubt about the fact that we did inherit a shambles. The relocation caused problems, as did the computer. As regards compensation, I repeat again what I have already said on two occasions: applications for an ex gratia payment will be considered, if properly supported with evidence.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Minister consider granting ex gratia compensation to an Algerian whose case was approved last August as a refugee, whose wife and six children then entered, but who was unable to obtain benefit for them until late February, and whose case I have taken up with the Minister, Mike O'Brien?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, every case is judged on its own merits, according to the criteria that I set out earlier.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, as regards the ex gratia applications, have those who are entitled to make them, because passports are lost for any other reason, been told that they are in a position to make such applications?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not know whether everyone has been told specifically, but those who are careful students of Hansard will know, at least since last Wednesday, that that is the position.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, may I ask the Minister about an answer that he gave last week which has concerned a number of us? I refer to the fact that there was no penalty clause in the Siemens contract. Given the fact that there have clearly been failures by Siemens, can the Minister give an undertaking that in any future PFI contracts in which the Home Office is involved there will be penalty clauses?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not think that it is necessarily appropriate to have a penalty clause in

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every contract. The guidance given by the National Audit Office pointed clearly to the need to learn lessons. Undoubtedly, the problem which the noble Lord identifies is one of those matters that must be taken carefully into account.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the Minister said that he inherited a shambles from the previous government, but does he recall that when the previous government tried to speed up immigration procedures in 1994, or whenever it was, there were howls of protest from the then Opposition--I am sure that the noble Lord joined in--saying that it was not fair?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I did, because it was not!

NATO: Nuclear Weapons Policy

2.52 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether NATO policy envisages first use of nuclear weapons and, if so, whether they are party to that policy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, NATO continues to reserve the right of limited first use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence to persuade an aggressor to desist if no other means are available. The United Kingdom has, of course, undertaken not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapons state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unless it should attack us in alliance with, or in association with, a nuclear weapons state.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does that rather complicated Answer really mean that the Government will not use weapons against any non-nuclear state in any foreseeable circumstances?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Answer means what it says: the Government reserve the right of first use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence.

Lord Carver: My Lords, can the Minister explain how the Government reconcile the policy of possible first use of nuclear weapons with the assurance that they constantly give that our nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that is exactly what I said in my Answer. They would be used only in extreme circumstances of self-defence. I do not think that I can give an answer that is any clearer than the Answer that I gave to my noble friend Lord Jenkins.

PDVN: Written Answers

2.54 p.m.

Lord Lucas asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they will be able to reply to Written Questions by e-mail.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, we are making steady progress. Nineteen departments and agencies are now able to e-mail the Parliamentary Data and Video Network using the Government Secure Intranet. However, although very useful, e-mail alone is not suitable for Written Answers, as neither the time of receipt nor the identity of the sender can be guaranteed. Bespoke software which overcomes this deficiency using a server- to-server link has been developed, and a programme of installation, testing and refinement is in progress. I expect a small number of Questions to be answered electronically on a trial basis before the Summer Recess.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but it is a great deal slower progress than the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, seemed to indicate that we might be making many months ago. It seems extraordinary that the Government, who claim such technological competence and to be so up to date, should be unable to reply to an e-mail and to make sufficient provision for e-mail replies in two years of asking. They seem to have complicated the question beyond recognition. We need to be able to have copies of Written Answers by e-mail so that we can include them in our files. Why is that beyond the competence of the Government?

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