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Baroness Coussins: I thank the Minister for that reply, but as languages at key stage 2 are no longer to become statutory, will sufficient funding still be available for teacher training in this area? Research shows that learning foreign languages improves children's written and spoken English, and languages are a significant part of the "vast divide" between state and independent schools, which only yesterday the Government said they want to close.
Lord Hill of Oareford: I start by paying tribute to the work of the noble Baroness as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. I know that she has kept the flame for modern languages burning and I agree with her wholeheartedly about that. I am a great fan of modern languages and, if it is not too rash a thing to say on my first outing at Oral Questions, of ancient ones as well. As the noble Baroness knows, over 90 per cent of primary schools are offering a language to some of their pupils at key stage 2-70 per cent to all pupils. I welcome also the progress made by the previous Government in attracting and training more language teachers for primary schools. I reassure the noble Baroness that the spending cuts announced for the current financial year should not affect funding for primary languages or for the training of teachers.
Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree with the noble Baroness. Obviously that increases the challenges that primary school teachers have in teaching languages. However, I have already had the privilege of seeing many good examples where schools are coping with that challenge and managing to teach modern foreign languages as well.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that the Government are aware of the importance of languages for our international competitiveness, particularly at the moment? Can he say a little more than he said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about how the Government intend to continue the recruitment, education and training of teachers, which seems particularly vulnerable at the moment?
Lord Hill of Oareford: As to helping international competitiveness and business, I agree that modern languages have an important part to play. I also have a slightly old fashioned view that education is a good in its own right; I do not wholeheartedly share the concentration there has been in recent years on education being merely a means to a job. As to the funding for recruiting more language teachers, I understand the points made by the right reverend Prelate. As I said, funding is in place for this year. We will continue to look at the issue but in the context of the difficult overall public spending decisions in the CSR.
Lord Wright of Richmond: The Minister has already drawn attention to the fact that, although 90 per cent of all primary schools teach some foreign languages,
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Lord Hill of Oareford: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that important point. There will be a consultation as part of the review of the overall national curriculum and how it should be delivered. I hope that as many noble Lords as possible-I do not think many will need much invitation-will contribute to that review because it is extremely important that we get this right.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does the Minister agree that whereas teaching primary school children modern languages is obviously of great benefit to them, it has to be sustained into the secondary system as well? There is, I suspect, an increasing shortage of suitable candidates, and the issue of training teachers will be resolved only if the teaching of modern languages in secondary schools is made compulsory to a higher level than is currently the case and more people are encouraged to take them on at university.
Lord Hill of Oareford: I understand those points very clearly. In regard to the overall review of the curriculum, its content and the question of what should and should not be compulsory, we shall need to reflect on those points and come up with conclusions in due course.
Baroness Walmsley: Given the continued need for more specialist teachers and the continued budgetary constraints, will the Minister join me in welcoming the British Council scheme which funds temporary cover for teachers to go away during term time, as well as their own time, to foreign countries to increase their language skills? Will he encourage other organisations to put their money into similar schemes?
Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, I will be very interested to hear more about the British Council scheme; it sounds extremely good. I would like to talk to the noble Baroness about that and to see whether we could encourage other organisations into it.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, following the excellent debate on the Academies Bill yesterday-and I hear what the noble Lord has said about reflecting on the teaching of languages in primary schools-I wonder whether, in the Government's view, the Government's primary academies should be obliged to teach every child a language. Have the Government made any assessment of the impact of schools opting out of funding provision for teaching languages in other schools in areas where it is a shared service?
Lord Hill of Oareford: The basic question about the overall content, how the curriculum should be constructed and how that applies to all schools is one that the Government are looking at, with regard to academies. There is a presumption that academies will have slightly more freedom over their curriculum than other schools.
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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the United Kingdom is in regular contact with the Israeli and Palestinian Governments and our international allies regarding the current humanitarian situation in Gaza and the wider issues relating to the peace process. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in the other place, it is essential that there should be unfettered access to Gaza, not only to meet the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza but to enable reconstruction of homes and livelihoods and permit trade to take place.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, in the face of threats to intervene and break the blockade by Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval units, why cannot the United Kingdom Government announce that they are prepared to challenge the blockade by providing a naval escort for a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid into Gaza, aid which has been given prior clearance by the European Union in the way that Bernard Kouchner has suggested? Would that not be a far better way to proceed? The Israeli Government are far more likely to heed that kind of initiative.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I recognise the noble Lord's strong feelings on this matter, but we simply do not think that that is the right way to proceed. We think that the right way is for the restrictions and the so-called blockade to be lifted beyond the present arrangements, by which some humanitarian supplies get in but not enough. We think that the right way forward is to put maximum pressure on Israel to do that. That is the sensible way forward for Israel's own security and for the future prospects for the peace process.
Lord Hylton: I agree entirely with the Minister about unrestricted access to Gaza, but are there not immediate questions to be discussed with the Government of Israel concerning the ships themselves, their cargoes, now under arrest, and possibly the personal possessions of persons who have been arrested?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I cannot answer the noble Lord on the personal possessions issue. With regard to the humanitarian goods on these ships, the idea is that they should be shipped on into Gaza. However, unfortunately, it appears that the Hamas group has not been very keen on accepting all that aid
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Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: Does the Minister agree that, while there is a great need to improve the access for aid and commercial goods into Gaza, it still requires any new regime allowing new materials into Gaza to take great care not to allow in weapons that might be used against Israel?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Baroness is absolutely right. This is the dilemma. Israel does have the right to restrain the import of weapons, bombs and so on into the control of Hamas. At the same time, we all want to see the sufferings of the people of Gaza minimised and the maximum supplies of food, building materials, medical supplies and so on imported into Gaza. That is the dilemma that must be solved. The right way forward is along the lines proposed, with pressure on Israel to do that rather than creating some head-on conflict with Israel when it is the country with which we need to co-operate to achieve the two-state solution that we all want to see.
Lord Dykes: In the mean time, my Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the peace talks and the proximity talks are proceeding apace, despite the continuing weakness of the quartet mechanism, which is deeply disappointing to all observers? Will he reassure us that the sinister rumours that George Mitchell is less than even-handed between Israel and Palestinian lobbies are not true?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I can give that reassurance. I can also tell my noble friend that the Palestinian authorities have shown no inclination to withdraw from the proximity talks or from the talks that might follow them. For the moment that side of the situation holds together, despite all these unhappy developments in recent days.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: The Minister must recognise that Israel has legitimate security concerns and cannot be expected to allow unfettered access. How, then, do the Government respond to the specific proposal from Bernard Kouchner that the European Union offers to provide some form of border monitoring for material entering Gaza to ensure that it is only for humanitarian purposes?
Lord Howell of Guildford: There may well be something in that idea. Of course there is the other border on the Egyptian side, which was open temporarily and has now been closed. All these matters are to be pursued to see whether we can find that key reconciliation between the need to end the suffering of the people of Gaza and Israel's legitimate security concerns.
The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, while I recognise the appropriate need for Israel to be protected, the issue of building materials in relation to
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Lord Howell of Guildford: The right reverend Prelate is right. The answer has to be that maximum pressure and encouragement must be placed on the Government of Israel to do what is actually in their own interest, which is to minimise the restrictions, to lift the blockade as far as they can consistent with their security and to continue to expand the amount of provisions already going into Gaza from Israel as well as from Egypt. That is the way forward and we should not be deflected from it.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, it may be helpful for me to say a few words about the procedural Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. The Motion proposes that the Local Government Bill should be referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills to allow them to consider whether the Bill is hybrid. The Companion to the Standing Orders explains that:
"Hybrid bills are public bills which are considered to affect specific private or local interests, in a manner different from the private or local interests of other persons or bodies of the same class, thus attracting the provisions of the Standing Orders applicable to private business".
The Bill, like every public Bill, was considered by the Public Bill Office before introduction. It took the view that the Bill was not prima facie hybrid. A letter from the Clerk of Public Bills explaining why that view was taken has been placed in the Library of the House. The Companion makes it clear, however, that it is open to any Member who considers that a public Bill may be hybrid to move that the Bill be referred to the Examiners. As with all matters of procedure, while the Clerks can advise the House, it is ultimately for the House to decide whether the Bill should be referred to the Examiners. I should perhaps make it clear that if the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is agreed to, the Second Reading will not take place today.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I declare an interest as a resident of Norwich. I want to put it to the House that there is a strong prima facie case that the Local Government Bill is hybrid, and that it should
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The noble Lord the Leader of the House just told us the definition of hybrid Bills in the Companion, but perhaps it would help the House if I quoted the words again. The definition states that they are,
I recognise that hybridity is not for amateurs. These are deep waters and a prudent politician does not even get into his bathing trunks, let alone plunge in. But I fear that, unlike my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister, prudence has never sufficiently been my watchword.
I regret that I was unable to give the House more notice of this Motion. The difficulty has been that the Government have advanced this Bill with extraordinary speed. We saw the Bill only on the eve of the long bank holiday weekend. That was followed by a day when the House was not sitting, so I was not able to consult the Clerk of Public and Private Bills until the following day, last Wednesday. I then had to discuss with Norwich and Exeter City Councils whether they wished to seek the advice of parliamentary agents and counsel. The lawyers then worked at top speed, with e-mails flying around all over the weekend and late at night. Counsel's formal opinion and a letter of advice from parliamentary agents were delivered yesterday, and in the light of them I tabled the Motion on the Order Paper for today. We could not have got to this point more quickly, and I have had no desire to wrong-foot the House.
In any case, while the concept of hybridity may be obscure and elusive, the issue before us now is simple. Do we consider that there are sufficient reasonable arguments that the Bill is hybrid to warrant referring it to the Examiners?
Plainly, the Government have sought to draft this Bill so that it is not hybrid. However, they are navigating tricky waters, and the House ought to satisfy itself on this point, since there are major implications for how we proceed depending on it. If the Bill were judged by the Examiners to be hybrid, after Second Reading, as I understand it, the Bill would go to a Select Committee which would receive and examine petitions and question witnesses and then report to the House before following the usual course of a Public Bill.
It seems clear to me that the Bill is hybrid on this ground most obviously, although there are others. Norwich and Exeter are treated differently from other local authorities under this legislation for the following reason. Since the Bill, significantly, does not repeal Section 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007-the Act that permits
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However, I speak merely as a politician and not as a lawyer. Far more significant are the views of learned counsel. I will not attempt to paraphrase either the lengthy opinion of Mr Peter Oldham QC or the shorter but densely argued advice of Mr Alastair Lewis of Sharpe Pritchard, parliamentary agents. Both those documents came in after the Clerk of Public and Private Bills had given his opinion that this particular Bill was not hybrid. I will just say that Mr Oldham concludes his opinion with the words:
What I am not proposing to the House in this Motion is that the House should decide here and now that the Bill is hybrid. Nor is this a debate about the rights and wrongs of the Government's policy on Norwich and Exeter-that is for Second Reading. What I am proposing is that the House should recognise that there are various views about whether this Bill is hybrid, all put forward in good faith by serious people-professionals who are competent to make such a case-and agree that all these arguments should be considered carefully and expertly by the Examiners so that they can determine whether the Bill is hybrid in accordance with the procedure that Parliament has provided.
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