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House of Lords

Thursday, 11th February 1999.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

The Duke of Manchester--Took the Oath.

Scottish Schools: Foreign Language Teaching

3.2 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to improve the standards of foreign language teaching in Scottish schools and to increase the number of pupils sitting the higher leaving certificate in such subjects.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, in October 1998, my right honourable friend Mrs. Helen Liddell, Minister of State for Education, announced a package of measures to strengthen modern languages in Scottish schools. This included securing the place of modern languages within the five to 14 curriculum, improving the quality of modern languages at standard grade and the establishment of an action group on languages. Those measures will seek to improve the continuity between five to 14, standard grade and higher grade and also to raise the appeal of modern languages at higher grade. From 1st July 1999 this will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I warmly welcome that Answer from the Minister. Is he aware that over the past 20 years the number of pupils in fifth forms in Scottish schools, taking modern European languages at the higher certificate level, has dropped by about a half? In October last year, when the Minister was setting up the action paper, Her Majesty's inspectors of schools said that there were significant weaknesses in the teaching of languages in 80 per cent. of Scottish secondary schools.

Naturally I welcome the setting up of the action group, but will the Government give a pledge to accept the recommendations that come from it and to monitor the results of the efforts being made to make Scotland, in the modern sense, a country with an education system appropriate to being a good European country?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, there is a one-word answer to that question: yes. It is true that there has been a considerable and unwelcome decline in the number of presentations at higher grade over the past 10 years. It has fallen from about 11,000 to 5,000. That worries us to a considerable extent and it is why my right

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honourable friend the Minister for Education in Scotland established the languages action group. We are determined to ensure that progress is made in the area.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, when the Minister has sorted out Scotland in that respect, perhaps in the interests of joined up government he would have a word with his colleagues in the DfEE, to fix things for the rest of the UK as well. Will he refer them to page 35 of this week's Ofsted report which states that during the five years of secondary education in England and Wales, less progress was made in modern languages than in almost any other subject in the curriculum?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, a tiny part of me is tempted to say that I am more than delighted to do so. However, the rest of me suggests that I am rather circumspect in venturing south of the Border on such matters.

Lord Elton: My Lords, given that the Government's party may not be in a majority in the Scottish Parliament, how is the noble Lord able to give undertakings as to what will be done in devolved areas of policy in two years' time?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I have faith and confidence in the good judgment of the Scottish people.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the Westminster Parliament will continue to be responsible for foreign affairs in the United Kingdom and modern languages have a good deal to do with foreign affairs. Can the Minister--who, after all, speaks for the whole Government--tell the House whether, once the Scots Parliament is in being, it will be possible in this House to ask questions and receive answers on a matter such as this relating to the education of Scots people in foreign languages?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, as I understand it, it is a matter for the House authorities to decide whether, and how, matters of Scottish interest will be dealt with in this House. I believe that the other place has already made a decision that questions on Scottish business will not be accepted. That is my understanding. The difficulty would be that if questions on the topic were put down in this House there would be no Scottish Minister to answer them.

MoD Documents: Court Proceedings

3.7 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the current position with regard to the documents misappropriated from the Medical Assessment Programme of the Ministry of Defence in November 1998.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, on 5th February a man appeared before Horseferry Road magistrates' court charged with

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theft in relation to unclassified internal documents which were removed from the MoD's Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme at St. Thomas's Hospital in November last year. The case was adjourned until 19th February. In view of the considerable public concern raised by misinformed media reporting of the contents of the two documents, the Ministry of Defence formally released both of them on 16th December and placed copies in the Library of the House.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that MoD lawyers, I believe, have indicated that the documents--incidentally, 23 pages of schedules--are in the public domain? Can the Minister therefore say when the Ministry of Defence will fully disclose the documents?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I may have misunderstood the noble Countess's Question, because I thought that I had already answered it. We have in fact disclosed the documents and have put them in the Library of the House.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, with the leave of the House, the Minister has disclosed the schedules. It is the documents listed in the schedules which the MoD says are now in the public domain. I ask the Minister when the MoD intends fully to disclose them.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, we are now talking about something different. I will look into the point raised by the noble Countess.

European Time Zones

3.8 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is their intention to harmonise with the European time zone before or after entry to the European monetary union.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we have no present plans to change our time zone.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed and informative Answer. Is he aware of the Government's report which concludes that, by not implementing the switch to single-double summer time or European time for lighter evenings in winter, the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Office is directly accountable for the preventable deaths of approximately 138 pedestrians on British roads every year? Can the Minister inform the House why Report No. 368 of the Transport Research Laboratory was commissioned by the Department of the Environment and not the Home Office, which is the department responsible for the nation's time standard?

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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Home Office is responsible in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, indicates, but not every aspect of every conceivable human activity falls within the remit of the Home Office--yet. The appropriate department commissioned the research. There are arguments one way or the other about central European time. Some sections of our community favour it and others do not. When a Bill introduced by Mr. John Butterfill was before the House of Commons not very long ago the views of the other place were virtually evenly divided. There are different views about the introduction of central European time.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, is it not a fact that the report by Dr. Jeremy Broughton to which the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, refers shows that on the basis of his own recent investigation and previous reports the number of deaths and major injuries arising from road accidents as a result of the current change to winter time is about 150 and 350 respectively? Is this not a very serious consideration? Should not the Government be looking again at the issue in order to save lives next winter?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as I have said, different sections of our community have different views. Plainly, the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is extremely important but not necessarily determinative of the final outcome. At present we have no plans for change in this area.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, do the Government agree with the general proposition which is accepted by many of us that noon is when the sun is south of the observer in question, and therefore since noon in Berlin--this is about Berlin time--is almost an hour earlier than on the Greenwich meridian, it would be very wise to follow our present system of time? After all, that is certain. The question whether lives would be saved or lost if we changed to Berlin time is entirely speculative.


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