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House of Lords

Monday, 15th September 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

National Asylum Support Service

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will publish the independent review of the National Asylum Support Service.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the review of the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) was created to provide Ministers with an independent analysis of NASS. It is not usual to publish advice to Ministers. However, given the obvious interest in asylum issues, the key findings of the review team's report were published on 15th July. A further statement will be made on progress in actioning those conclusions, and we have not ruled out publication of the report in the future.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the secrecy surrounding full publication of the report must be a matter of serious concern. The review and its terms of reference were announced to Parliament, and Parliament would appreciate a report being made to it. Instead, all we have is a summary of some of the key findings. Does the Minister accept that NASS has come under severe criticism from voluntary and statutory organisations and that there has been a very critical report from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux? How will Parliament assess the progress being made unless it knows whether or not these issues have been identified and addressed by the Government?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we accept that a number of criticisms were made of NASS. Therefore, the review was established to ensure that Ministers and senior Home Office officials would receive an independent assessment of the way that NASS was operating. The Home Office and its Ministers have been delighted at the nature of the independent report. Now, we require a period to work through the findings of that report and to put into action, and deliver on, its key and important findings. That is what we want. We want NASS to be effective, as I am sure does the noble Lord. The recommendations in the internal report have been valuable in ensuring that NASS has a greater, better and clearer view of its sense of direction and purpose.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that many asylum seekers cannot be helped by NASS because they are in prison? Does he recall that in October 2001 the Home Secretary said that they were no longer to be imprisoned unless they had committed, or were

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suspected of having committed, a crime? Therefore, will the Government review the representations that they have received, both from members of the legislative authority in Northern Ireland and from Scottish bishops, with a view to minimising the numbers held in detention in all jurisdictions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we keep all these matters under very careful review at all times. However, I hear what the noble Lord has to say on the issue, and it is obviously a matter of continuing concern. I am confident that the Home Secretary gave that commitment fully cognisant of the fact that it was important to ensure that the minimum number of asylum seekers were detained in prison but, where they had to be detained, rightly it was because they had committed criminal offences.

Iraq: WMD Investigations

2.40 p.m.

Lord Redesdale asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why information about the two vehicles suspected of being involved in the production of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is restricted under Exemption 1c of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have a duty to protect information provided in confidence by foreign governments. As I made clear in my answer of 8th September to the noble Lord, our continuing investigations into the suspect vehicles are based primarily on such information. For that reason, I am withholding the details under Exemption 1c of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, is not the Government's refusal to give the information an abuse of the code which the noble Lord has just mentioned because, in an earlier paragraph, the code refers to public interest? Obviously it is in the public interest to know whether the suspect vehicles were used as mobile weapons of mass destruction laboratories. If they were, that is rather odd because the vehicles are not mentioned in either the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report or the Intelligence and Security Committee report. If they have no links to the weapons of mass destruction programme in Iraq, then perhaps it is also in the public interest that we should know that vehicles which have British components on board were not being used for that purpose and that therefore the allegation should not be made.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I refute entirely that it is a wrong use of the code. We shall not release information passed to us in confidence by foreign governments, nor would we expect other governments to release information that we have provided to them in confidence. We have said that coalition forces are

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actively pursuing intelligence leads, documentation and individuals connected with Iraq's WMD programmes. Gathering and collating evidence of WMD programmes from the various sources is a long and complex task. Frankly, the noble Lord needs to be a little more patient and to give the Iraq Survey Group time to complete its task on this and other issues. However, we intend to provide an update once we are in a position to do so. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on 2nd July that the findings of the ISG should be publicly available.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, these two vehicles are most significant, having been mentioned in the US President's State of the Union address in January and having been referred to in the White Paper presented by the CIA and the DIA in the United States at the end of May 2003. Given that, can the Minister tell us something wholly within the sphere of Her Majesty's Government? Were the British-made components on the vehicles supported by any form of export subsidy and has that export subsidy been repaid or, in effect, is the United Kingdom still the legal owner of the component parts of those vehicles?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am not in a position to be able to answer the noble Baroness in the terms that she suggests. We currently assess that the vehicles were built in Iraq using Iraqi components and standard industrial components that had been obtained from several different countries, including the United Kingdom. The components of British origin would not have been restricted under the sanctions regime.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, when does the Minister expect a response from the Iraq Survey Group, which he mentioned?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we hope that the survey group will report as soon as possible, but we accept that it will take as long as is necessary to investigate the programmes. I notice that the Liberal Democrat Benches laugh at that answer. I believe they should think slightly more carefully about laughing at an answer like that. This matter needs very careful consideration so we do not jump to conclusions one way or the other. If they are suggesting by implication that there is some kind of cover-up here, they should be very careful indeed or put that allegation to me directly.

Lord Newby: My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the suggestion that the two vehicles, far from being used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, were used to manufacture hydrogen for use in barrage balloons?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I understand it is possible that the vehicles were used either for the manufacture of hydrogen or biological material, albeit both imperfectly.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, considering the Written Answer he

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gave earlier, we believe that this is an abuse of the code. Therefore, we shall probably take this matter to the Ombudsman.

School Budgets

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are confident that the quality of educational provision will not be affected by the budget problems encountered by schools during this current financial year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I am confident that head teachers are managing their budget in such a way as to safeguard the quality of their pupils' education in what is a difficult year for some schools. The Government are working hard with representatives of head teachers, LEAs and others to ensure stability in school funding for next year and beyond.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, perhaps I may press her a little further on the workload agreement, the first stage of which was due to be introduced in September this year. Is she aware that many schools which are struggling with deficit budgets and losing staff cannot possibly implement the workload agreement as it stands at present? Can she comment on how far they will be able to implement it with the new resources that the Minister promised on 17th July?

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