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Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the great satisfaction felt on these Benches, and indeed by thousands of parents throughout the country, over the Government's swift action in getting rid of the ludicrous voucher system? In view of what has been said--and I should like to congratulate my noble friend on the provision for four year-olds--can she say what opportunity there will be for the private and voluntary sectors to ensure universal provision for four year-olds, especially as there is such a wide variation in that provision among local authorities?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there may be an even more significant role for private providers of one sort or another in making available places for three year-olds. Approximately 35 per cent. of three year-olds are currently able to take a place in some form of state provision. So there is still a big gap to fill. Indeed, that is a gap that we would encourage playgroups to fill, and we hope that they will do so. However, there will also be a place for private sector providers as far as concerns four year-olds, as some parents want full-time places for four year-olds from perhaps as early as eight in the morning to as late as six in the evening; namely, those parents who are out at work and who need full-time childcare. The private sector will continue in partnership with the state sector to make such provision available.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, as the Government believe that the voucher scheme was such a very bad idea and that their new approach is so much better, can the Minister tell the House why the scheme is continuing in Scotland?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am extremely sorry. I am not able to answer the noble Baroness's question. To be frank, I was not aware that the scheme was continuing in Scotland. However, I shall write to her when I have consulted my colleagues in the Scottish Office.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am more grateful than I can say to the noble Lord for the terms in which he has answered my Question. I take his response to be a very clear undertaking that the Government will in no way water down what the last Government understood by the phrase, "Triple Lock", in spite of some obvious wavering on the part of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the past. For that, I believe all citizens of the United Kingdom can be duly grateful this afternoon.
Can the Minister give a further undertaking that, when it comes to a referendum on any proposals coming out of the talks--which of course we continue to wish well--the referendum will have some chance of being conducted according to new rules which might have universal application to referendums held anywhere in the United Kingdom? The noble Lord will be well aware of some of the doubts expressed in the past about the way that the Government have conducted referendums since 1st May.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, as regards the noble Viscount's first point, there is no wavering on the part of any member of the Government; indeed, we remain firmly committed to the principles that I have enunciated. As regards the question about referenda and the precise procedures, the noble Viscount will understand that I cannot possibly define the method of holding referenda here. However, I shall ensure that the points he has made are shared with the other Northern Ireland Ministers in moving forward on the matter.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister on the terms of the triple lock which he has just explained to the House. The first lock of the three is the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland, as enunciated by the previous Prime Minister. Does this mean--and it is best to be clear on such matters--the agreement of all the parties to the negotiations from Sinn Fein through to the DUP? Alternatively, does it mean--as I believe the Minister's words implied--the agreement of as many parties as can and will agree, and certainly embracing consensus
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord got it in his second version. Clearly, we would not want these talks to founder if one single party participating decided not to agree with the outcome. Therefore, what we are looking for, and what we see as agreement, is that the mainstream unionists and mainstream nationalists should give their support to the outcome of the talks.
Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that consent is implicit in the face of a divided Northern Ireland, that there can be no other way and, indeed, that no government, either on this side of the water or on the other, could impose such a decision? Consent is there and was recognised by Mr. de Valera. Will my noble friend further agree that raising the Question in this manner today--that is, in a questioning manner--might do more harm than good? It is not a questionable matter; it is there, and needs no questioning.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his contribution. Yes, I entirely agree that the principle of consent, as he described and as I said in answer to the Question, is absolutely fundamental to the process. As regards the usefulness of the Question today, that is not a matter for me to comment upon.
Lord McConnell: My Lords, can the Minister give the House an assurance that there were no discussions between any Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, or any civil servant, and any so-called "loyalist" party about the transfer of Jason Campbell from prison in Scotland to a much more "cushy" and comfortable prison in Northern Ireland? If there were any such discussions, will the noble Lord inform the House as soon as possible as to who took part, giving names and telling us exactly what happened?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not aware of any such discussions having taken place. However, it is my understanding--anyone watching the television broadcasts would have seen this--that one of the loyalist parties was on record as having asked for the particular transfer of Jason Campbell to take place. That request was then retracted by the same member of that loyalist party. As I said, I am not aware of any discussions taking place. Communication took place, but no discussions.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, notwithstanding the implication of the noble Viscount's Question, is the Minister aware that by meeting Mr. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, this week in Belfast, the Prime Minister was in some fashion resiling from the commitments of the previous government? The previous Prime Minister--it was a government of which the noble Viscount was a distinguished member--did much to establish the talks process. Indeed, the previous Prime
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not, of course, in a position to comment one way or the other on the internal deliberations of the previous administration. I do not have access to the kind of knowledge that the noble Lord has had. It is for noble Lords to comment on the remarks made by the noble Viscount who tabled the Question. It is a matter of public record that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the previous administration and his Minister of State had a number of meetings with Sinn Fein following the announcement of the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to amend the law relating to public processions in Northern Ireland; to provide for the establishment and functions of a Parades Commission concerned with public processions and other expressions of cultural identity in Northern Ireland; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.