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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have had the opportunity to express the Government's support for credit unions from this Dispatch Box within the past few months. I am very glad to do the same again. I realise that it might be thought that my answers to a question which I interpreted in macro-economic terms—in other words, in terms of the economy—might have suggested a lack of sympathy with those individuals and households that find themselves in great difficulties. The Government are extremely sympathetic to every case of that kind. That is why we are reviewing the Consumer Credit Act; that is why we have the Financial Services Authority strategy on financial literacy; and that is why we are paying a great deal of money to Citizens Advice, which is money well spent.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the recent ITEM Club prediction that borrowing this year will be 36 billion—10 billion more than the Chancellor's estimate? Does he further agree that the Chancellor is setting a very bad example to over-borrowed households in this country?

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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I take it that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is referring to government borrowing. The Question is about household debt. Pace the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, I do not think it is an issue of an analogy of government borrowing and household debt. This Question is rightly about household debt. That is what I have been responding to.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, how does the Minister reconcile the inexorable rise in household debt with the notorious risk averseness to going into debt of students and their families?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I deny the inexorable rise of household debt. I have said that two things are important: first, the cost of servicing the debt is lower than it was under the government of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke; and, secondly, the ratio of debt to wealth is satisfactory—and much more satisfactory than in past years. As to student debt, the Government have very well thought-out and well publicised policies to deal with that issue.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is far too easy for people to get credit cards. In supermarkets I have seen people flicking through their credit cards and selecting the one on which they still have some credit. Can the Government do nothing about that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I think that Mr Matt Barrett of Barclays Bank gave very good advice on that issue.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, has my noble friend fathomed precisely what it is that noble Lords opposite are asking for? Are they—the party that wants government off the backs of the people—asking for more intervention from the Government in this case? If so, the obvious areas of intervention would be to increase interest rates, to increase taxation or in some other way adversely to interfere with the economic performance of this country.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, will find an opportunity to answer that question.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, of the figure of 10.7 billion given by my noble friend Lord Northesk, 8.85 billion was accounted for by mortgage debt. Are the Government satisfied that not more money is being borrowed for productive investment?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think I understand that question. If the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is referring to the savings ratio, it is true that it has fallen and now stands at not much more than 5 per cent. But I think he will agree that the savings ratio is an ambivalent measure of potential

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economic damage. I am sorry that I do not understand his question; I shall have to think about it and possibly write to him.

Uzbekistan: Human Rights

2.51 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What reports they have received this year about the state of human rights in Uzbekistan.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we receive regular reporting on human rights in Uzbekistan from our embassy in Tashkent. The embassy closely monitors the human rights situation and is in regular contact with independent human rights organisations and international non-governmental organisations. The Foreign Office's recently published human rights report details our concern about Ubzekistan's human rights record.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, while congratulating the noble Baroness on the human rights report and, in particular, on the excellent speech made by our ambassador in Tashkent about a year ago, does she not think that we now need to reinforce our capacity to monitor the numerous allegations of violations of human rights by the regime that have appeared since that speech? What steps have been taken to reinforce that capacity since the loss of two members of staff at the Tashkent embassy? Will she take this opportunity to reaffirm not only the full confidence of the Foreign Office and of the Foreign Secretary in our ambassador in Tashkent but that of the Prime Minister?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, on that last point, we expect Her Majesty's ambassador to Tashkent to return to Tashkent this coming weekend. That fully answers the noble Lord's point.

He asked what more we can do to promote the development of human rights in Uzbekistan. He is right: there is a sorry position there. We can do so in two principal ways: we can monitor reform and exert pressure. We can set benchmarks against which political and economic reforms will be measured, agreed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development strategy for Uzbekistan, which will be reviewed by the EBRD later this year. Secondly, the UN Special Rapporteur's report on torture in Uzbekistan referred to torture as "systematic". It behoves us all to continue to press the Uzbek authorities to implement the recommendations in that report.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, what representations did Her Majesty's Government receive from the US State Department about the ambassador's human rights activities—in particular, his speech, which is so

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helpfully printed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual report on page 254? If representations were made, how did the Government deal with them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I know of no formal representations made to Her Majesty's Government on that issue. The fact that the speech is reproduced in full on page 254 of the report clearly conveys that the Government agree with it. As for what else we can do, the issues have of course been raised with the Uzbeks by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr Bill Rammell, and by his predecessor, Mr Mike O'Brien.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, there are more than 6,000 political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. Rather than impose sanctions or speak out against the regime—as successive British Governments rightly did in Iraq—the Prime Minister has chosen the opposite approach. Can the Minister confirm that Uzbekistan was granted an open licence to import whatever weapons it wanted from the UK and that when Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan recently spoke out against abuses, he was withdrawn?

In February, the Prime Minister rightly said of Saddam Hussein:


    "Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane".

Does not the Minister agree that when Britain does not apply a consistent approach we undermine our ability to deal with dictators?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I fear that I must take issue with the premise of the noble Baroness's question. We have spoken out on the issue. As I made clear in previous answers, not only has the current Minister responsible spoken out on the issue, so did his predecessor. If the noble Baroness cares to read our human rights report, she will find no fewer than 13 individual cases specified there. I am sorry to take issue with the noble Baroness, but the fundamental premise of her question is wrong. As for exports, the fact is that Uzbekistan has not been a traditional market for UK defence exporters—primarily because of its human rights record.

Lord Judd: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us congratulate the Government on standing firm on human rights issues in Uzbekistan? Does she accept that it is not simply a matter of individual rights, but that, if there is to be any hope of stability in that incredibly volatile and dangerous region, it would be absurd to become directly or indirectly implicated with policies of regimes that are abusing human rights, causing dissent and building political pressure?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I broadly agree with what my noble friend said. He is right: this is not just about what is happening to individuals. For example, there are no independent political parties in Uzbekistan; the press is muzzled; religious activity is controlled by the state; and the judiciary is compromised.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said that there were 6,000 political prisoners; I am informed that there are between 7,000 and 10,000. Torture is practised in prisons. There have been some appalling deaths in custody—the most notorious of which resulted from individuals being subjected to boiling water.

Those are all terrible indictments of human rights in Uzbekistan, but we must engage with that country. Hence, we have an ambassador there who can do what he is doing—speaking out on those issues. We must proceed with the Government's policy of critical engagement; it is through such dialogue that we hope to bring Uzbekistan to a better understanding of its obligations.


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