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House of Lords

Thursday, 11th November 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

River Danube: Clearance

Lord Grenfell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the probable consequences of NATO's decision not to provide assistance for clearing the Danube of debris as long as President Milosevic remains in power.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, there has been no decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation not to provide assistance for clearing the Danube while President Milosevic remains in power. Nor is there any decision in similar terms by any other organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member. The main obstacle to clearing the Danube remains President Milosevic's own policy of refusing to permit the wreckage to be removed unless the international community agrees to lift sanctions against Yugoslavia. Such demands are not acceptable to the international community.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that quite helpful Answer. Are the Government fully aware of the horrendous consequences that may flow if the debris is not removed? The ice that will form around it this winter will create natural dams which will cause extensive flooding in the region with possibly severe humanitarian disasters as a result.

Can the Minister assure us that if the European Union and others involved in NATO are not able or willing to mobilise the necessary technical and financial means to be able to solve the problem before winter arrives, they will consider the precedent set in 1956 when the United Nations, by resolution, mobilised an international salvage team to clear the Suez Canal effectively and efficiently?

Finally, does she agree that however much we may want to see the end of Mr Milosevic and his regime, maintaining the navigability of an international waterway of such importance must take precedence?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, perhaps I may say straightaway that we all totally agree that preserving the Danube is a matter of real importance. There is, of course, a major distinction between the action taken in Suez in 1956 and the position with which we are now faced as regards the Danube. In 1956 the Egyptians wanted such action; President Milosevic does not. That is a significant difference. We are aware, therefore, that that operation and the circumstances relating to it were very different.

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We are also aware of Hungary's fear, which is widespread, about flooding due to winter ice collecting on the wreckage. For the Danube Commission to assess the risks, Yugoslavia needs to honour its obligations. The primary responsibility for clearing the wreckage lies with Mr Milosevic. By taking no steps to do so, he is in breach of his obligations under the Danube conventions. He is refusing to allow the wreckage to be cleared until sanctions are lifted. As I told your Lordships' House, that is not acceptable to the international community.

Your Lordships' House should be aware that while Milosevic remains in power, Her Majesty's Government do not consider that assistance for reconstruction in Serbia is possible. However, clearing the wreckage is not reconstruction work. The EU could consider on their merits any detailed proposals that may come forward for clearing the Danube.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that apart from possible flooding, the damage caused by the wanton blocking of the Danube has affected Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland and even Belarus. The damage, therefore, has affected a far wider area than Serbia, which it was intended to intimidate in the first place.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we accept that the potential for damage is wider. Your Lordships will be aware of the Stability Pact for South-East Europe. That pact indicates hope of support for all the regions mentioned by the noble Earl. The aid package currently in place, which will be funnelled through the stability pact, is considerable. I am sure your Lordships will be aware of the bilateral programmes we have through DFID. Six million pounds has been given to Romania, £4 million to Bulgaria and £2.5 million to Hungary. The EU support package is also considerable: 155 million euros for Romania, 105 million for Hungary and 50 million for Bulgaria. Her Majesty's Government, together with the EU, are conscious of the situation in which that region finds itself. They are looking at the total package and trying to have an holistic approach to the management of the problem.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we appreciate that the United Kingdom is not a member of the Danube commission. My information is that the commission is meeting to discuss this matter today. Can the Minister also confirm that because of the timescale it is no longer possible to clear the wreckage before this winter is over? Can she reassure us that Her Majesty's Government will co-operate in whatever efforts there may be to mount a collective effort as soon as spring arrives? That will involve three or four months' planning ahead of time to mount a multilateral effort to clear this important waterway.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can assure the House that this matter is being addressed with a great deal of energy. Our information to date is that it should take around four months and will cost

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approximately £14 million. The issues are being canvassed. The noble Lord is correct in relation to the timescale. We shall know shortly whether or not Yugoslavia intends to ameliorate her attitude and allow work to commence. There are hopeful signs. But we know from Mr Milosevic that those signs cannot be relied upon until they are consolidated in very firm terms.

Lord Kennet: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House roughly what proportion of the damage to Danube bridges was done by bombers under the operational command of the NATO council, and, on the other hand, by B2 American bombers flying from the United States which were under American national command only?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot. Indeed, with respect, it would be inappropriate for there to be such a distinction. We were allies. We took up arms together in order to defeat a regime which was systematically killing large numbers of people. We were right to do that. We were right to do it together and division at this stage is intolerable and unacceptable.

The Earl of Drogheda: My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell us whether, in view of the present situation in the Balkans, she considers that the war conducted there earlier this year was a success?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, yes. Before I sit down perhaps I may take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grenfell on raising this question. He will be greatly missed for his sage counsel and his erudition.

Coalfield Areas: Regeneration

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What support they have given to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in its efforts to form partnerships with companies receiving investments from the miners' pension fund to assist in the regeneration of the former coalfield areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust is an independent grant-giving body which provides help, support and funding for all the coalfields communities. It is a matter for the trust to form any partnerships with companies to assist in the regeneration of the former coalfield areas, including those receiving investments from the miners' pension fund. However, the Government encourage the trust to build partnerships where appropriate and we shall welcome positive responses from the private

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sector, including in particular those linked to the miners' pension fund, to back their coalfields to the benefit of both themselves and local people.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Does he agree that the nation owes the miners a great debt not only for the contribution that they made to the economy of the country in the most dangerous and difficult of jobs, but also because of the butchery of their industry by the former government? Is he aware also that in spite of the great help being given by the Government to the former coalfield areas, they are still experiencing high unemployment and physical devastation? Can my noble friend say how many companies have been approached, and what has been the response?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The position for the mining communities over the last period has been devastating and it will take some time for them to recover physically, socially and psychologically to good health. However, that era has passed and we must move into a new era based on new industries for the mining communities. There is a responsibility on the Government. We have used a number of different instruments. We have help from the European Community. The trust, which will deal with small-scale projects, approached a range of companies, including 16 in which the miners' pension fund has significant investments. A number responded positively. Of course, the trust was finally set up only in September and we hope therefore to have more news to give my noble friend shortly.

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