The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I much regret that I have to inform the House of the deaths, on Saturday, of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and of the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, last night. On behalf of the whole House I extend our condolences to the noble Lords' families and friends.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what discussions they held with the Financial Reporting Council before the Council issued its proposals to allow companies to stop providing hard copies of annual reports and accounts.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): My Lords, the Government have regular discussions with the independent Financial Reporting Council on corporate governance, accounting and audit matters. My honourable friend in the other place, Edward Davey, the Minister for Employment, Consumer and Postal Affairs, last met the Financial Reporting Council in December. This included a wide-ranging discussion about the Financial Reporting Council's consultation paper, but the FRC did not mention this specific proposal. However, I should remind noble Lords that shareholders' right to request a hard copy of annual reports and accounts is enshrined in company law.
Lord Naseby: I thank my noble friend for that very full Answer. The 2009 BP report-50 per cent of which I have with me this afternoon-amounts to 108 pages, and the financial standards section amounts to more than 100 pages. Is it not an absolutely crazy idea to put this online when what investors need is a hard copy? Furthermore, is the Minister aware that when companies have something perhaps to hide, it is usually to be found in the notes? If those notes are in the 100-odd pages online, it will be virtually impossible to find them. Would it not end up as almost a passport to fraud?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, as I just said, as the law stands, you are fully entitled to a printed copy of the report and accounts. So there is no reason why that
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Lord Young of Norwood Green: Does the Minister agree that there is some environmental gain to be had from people opting to receive these reports online when so many of them are unread or ignored? As she said, there is a question of opting in to this. Does she also agree that it is more important that the report contents are more transparent and accountable, demonstrating that all the remuneration and reward systems are linked to long-term success and showing that active steps are being taken to narrow the widening gap between the highest and lowest paid? While the companies are at it, perhaps they could also tell us how many apprentices they have. Finally, we ought to put our own house in order. We circulate more than 800 copies of this publication, for example. We could put it online.
Baroness Wilcox: Yes, my Lords, I suppose that that might save a few trees but at the moment, under law, we have to provide printed copies. I am sure that if your Lordships' House decided that it wished to debate the matter again, we might hear a lot more new ideas. I thank the noble Lord for the advice.
Lord Newby: My Lords, it might be the law at the moment that people can request a hard copy but the Financial Reporting Council is consulting on a proposal that it should no longer be a right. Given that many of those who need hard copies-because they are not very familiar with the web-are older people who rely on their shareholdings for their income when retired, will the Minister give a commitment on behalf of the Government that they have no intention of legislating for the change that is being consulted on?
Baroness Wilcox: As I said in the original Answer, the Financial Reporting Council is independent and can bring out any suggestions it wishes. The proposal comes from the council and does not represent the view of the Government. As I said, the law states that reports and accounts must be printed and made available. Until it is decided that the law should be changed, that is how it will stand.
Lord Harrison: In talking to the Financial Reporting Council, will the Minister discuss the abject failure of many firms to report on their social and environmental policies in order to keep shareholders better informed?
Baroness Wilcox: The Financial Reporting Council is independent, and the European Union says that we must have an audit regulator. The council has to fulfil certain requirements in law and it does so. It is not for the Government to tell it how it should distribute information.
Lord Boswell of Aynho: My Lords, is there not a danger, which perhaps my noble friend can take on board, that lay investors will be snowed out with too much information and that items may be smuggled through when they are not particularly obvious? Can she counsel all companies to produce clear, intelligible and straightforward summary material as well as the full monty?
Baroness Wilcox: Yes, I think that we are all aware that these reports are difficult to work one's way through; I have found the same myself, as have we all. The narrative reporting consultation is going on at the moment-that is the bit that comes at the front, before the financials. If we can get these things clearer and cleaner, we would all benefit. I thank my noble friend for the advice.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Does the Minister agree that what is needed in this area is less emphasis on transparency, which encourages mere disclosure in bulk, and more emphasis on communication, which has to be differentiated for its audiences, and necessarily should be differentiated for professionals and the ordinary shareholder?
Lord Teverson: Will my noble friend remind us where the Government are in terms of carbon emissions reporting in company reports, which is required under the Climate Change Act? Is that about to happen, and what organisations will be involved?
Baroness Wilcox: That is a little wide of the Question and I do not have the information with me. As I said, we are having a wide-ranging discussion ourselves and will report back at the end of March. I have no doubt that there will be a reference to it there.
Lord Broers: Does the Minister agree with me that if somebody is trying to hide something in a long document, it is far, far easier to find it by searching a digital document than by paging through pages and pages?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, that is a fine engineering suggestion and I am absolutely sure that some would agree with the noble Lord on it. However, there are others who still prefer to clutch a piece of paper-as I am doing-for safety's sake.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, before removing failed asylum seekers, the UK Border Agency assesses whether their removal would be contrary to the UK's obligations under Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Such case-by-case consideration may include the medical treatment and other support available in the country of return. However, the Government would not normally expect to make arrangements for foreign nationals to access medical treatment in their own country.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that someone who receives treatment here but is deported to a country where no such medication is available is going to a death sentence? Will the Minister not urgently consult, for example, the World Health Organisation and voluntary organisations to seek a way to ensure that no one, wherever they are-in the UK or elsewhere-is denied necessary basic medical attention?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I fully understand the point put so well by the noble Lord. However, the UK complies with all the requirements of the ECHR. Furthermore, DfID has an extensive health programme in developing countries. Health is the largest part of the basic services that are heavily prioritised by UK aid-the others being nutrition, education, water and sanitation. DfID's priority areas for improving health outcomes in developing countries include malaria; reproductive, maternal and new-born health; child nutrition; and HIV/AIDS.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, given that the Minister has confirmed that we fully observe the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, can he also say whether that applies to judgments of the European Court of Human Rights?
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, can the Minister give the House any assurances about instructions given to agencies responsible for the removal of failed asylum seekers, whether by coercion or by forms of restraint? What are the Government's policies on monitoring those instructions?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I think that the right reverend Prelate was referring to the process of removal. A few weeks ago, I visited the UK Border Agency's training for the removal process. I am satisfied that the training was up to standard.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this issue is an example of the many responsibilities being placed on the UK Border Agency in conjunction with the National Health Service. Is the Minister satisfied that the UKBA will continue to focus on and give priority to these matters, given the 20 per cent cut in its budget and the reduction in its staff by 5,000? Is it not a question of cutting too fast and too deep?
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the UKBA appears to have no recent policy on HIV-positive detainees, but that there is anecdotal evidence that some of them are being denied medication while in detention and that they are being given only one month's supply of ARVs when they are removed? Will the Government consult the British HIV Association with a view to adopting the guidelines which it published two years ago, including provision of a three-month supply of medication to those who are deported, which would give patients at least some chance of finding an alternative source of treatment?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, while asylum seekers are in the UK and have not exhausted their appeal rights, they are entitled to the full range of NHS services. Asylum seekers who are returned should be supplied with sufficient drugs to meet their needs and tide them over until they can access drugs in their country of return. However, I will look further into the issue raised by the noble Lord and come back to him.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I declare an interest; I serve on the Select Committee on HIV/AIDS. The noble Earl said that people who are awaiting news of their asylum status are entitled to the full range of NHS services. Will he confirm that in fact people who test positive for HIV are not able to access free treatment?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, as far as I know those who test positive for HIV in the UK, as long as they have not exhausted all their appeal rights, have exactly the same access to NHS treatment as the rest of the population. If the noble Baroness knows any different, I would be grateful for the details.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, is not the issue that of how seriously ill the person is? Surely, whatever the other considerations, to deport a person who is seriously ill and getting medical treatment here is wrong in principle.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I speak as a former member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Does the noble Earl agree that there is a large amount of case law relating to the returning of asylum seekers who are sick to their own countries, and that on the whole the tribunal abides by this case law?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, the Government welcome Graham Allen's report, which is a helpful contribution to their thinking on social mobility. We also welcome its acknowledgement of the importance of the early years and good parenting. We are considering the report carefully and will also take account of the recommendations of other reviews looking at related issues: by Frank Field on child poverty, Dame Clare Tickell on the Early Years Foundation Stage and Professor Eileen Munro on child protection.
Baroness Massey of Darwen: I thank the noble Lord for that encouraging Answer. Does he agree that many families bringing up young children need support-sometimes quite a lot of support? Will levels of funding for programmes such as Sure Start, and for family intervention programmes, be maintained?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, that parents need support. As far as concerns Sure Start, the Government believe that they have put enough funding into the early intervention grant to make sure that there is a national network of Sure Start children's centres. The Government have not ring-fenced that funding. Our approach is that local authorities should be able to decide on local priorities. However, they have statutory responsibilities to ensure sufficient provision, and they have to consult before opening Sure Start children's centres or making any significant change to their provision.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the wide range of responsibilities that local authorities have for children. What will the Government do to ensure that the quality of services is maintained as the authorities set various priorities around their cuts? Will the Government look at the various means of inspection such as Ofsted to ensure that standards are as high in welfare as they are in education?
Lord Hill of Oareford: A number of good points are wrapped up in that question. Across the piece, the Government will need to ensure the spread of good practice and concentrate approaches for the families most in need of help. I will take back with me the
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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, how satisfied is the Minister with the rigour of the methodology proposed in the Allen review for assessing the effectiveness of early intervention initiatives? He may well be aware that a number of experts have considerable reservations about that methodology. Will he look into it?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I am aware of the recommendations in Graham Allen's report and the approach that he advocates of concentrating on the 19, as he would judge it, most approved standards. However, his recommendation is based on an American methodology which is different from the one commonly used in this country, and that is one issue that the Government will need to reflect on in framing their response to the Allen review.
Baroness Ritchie of Brompton: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is a travesty that only 1.4 per cent of health service spending goes on primary prevention? Can he impress on his noble friend the Minister the importance of assessing the effectiveness of early intervention, even if it takes a little while to understand it?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree with my noble friend. So far as concerns the Department of Health, the number of health visitors is to be increased by 4,200 and there will be a doubling in the size of family nurse partnerships. However, I shall certainly relay the thrust of my noble friend's remarks.
Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report from 4Children and the Daycare Trust which suggests that 250 Sure Start centres are to close and that a further 2,000 will cut back their services? If the Minister finds that local authorities are not able to fund them, who will deliver these early intervention services?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I have already replied concerning the Government's policy towards Sure Start's children's centres. I hope that we will be able to find more efficient ways of delivering services across the piece. One idea that the Prime Minister talked about was bringing together budgets in various areas with early intervention places instead of having silos of different funding. I take the noble Baroness's point: there are concerns about Sure Start children's centres and funding, and my honourable friend Sarah Teather is monitoring the situation. We all have a shared interest in making sure that those services are delivered as effectively as possible and, as I said, local authorities have a statutory responsibility to make sure that they are.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister assure me that the most important next step with regard to early learning will be to prioritise the finance which is essential for the two neediest groups
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Lord Hill of Oareford: Those kinds of priority targets relate very much to the groups of people that the Government will want to ensure get the support they need. So far as concerns children with special educational needs, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will know that my honourable friend Sarah Teather will shortly be bringing forward a Green Paper on special educational needs and disability, and that will be an opportunity to make sure that those services are provided.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that good parenting skills are crucial to giving young people the best start in life? Does this not underline the need for schools to teach these skills as part of the core curriculum?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree very much with the noble Baroness about the importance of parenting and early years. School has an extremely important part to play. As she will know, the department is carrying out a review of PSHE, and that will provide us with an opportunity to look at the whole range of educational services delivered as part of PSHE.
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will ensure that a proportion of the funding provided by the UK Film Council to the British Film Institute will be ring-fenced for the production of films whose target audience is children.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following extensive consultation with the film industry, from April 2011 the British Film Institute will manage all lottery awards for films, including funding for film production. Lottery policy includes a requirement to encourage funded projects to inspire children and young people. That policy will remain in place while the Government conduct a review of film policy with the BFI later this year. The use of ring-fencing can be considered within that.
Baroness Benjamin: I thank my noble friend for that encouraging Answer. Does she agree that the decline not just in children's television drama but also in children's UK film production denies our talented writers, our actors and production teams a creative outlet? Would my noble friend encourage the BFI to adopt the Danish film institute's model, so that there is a solution to this crisis? The Danes commit 25 per cent of their annual film budget to children's film and animation productions, which attract co-production funds. I take this opportunity to congratulate "The King's Speech" on its wonderful UK production.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Benjamin on her topical Question today, following the tremendous success of British films at the BAFTA awards last night. One cannot fail to feel proud, having watched all those talented, fine actors. The noble Baroness has a point on the percentage of films for children, but Her Majesty's Government feel that children are catered for in film productions. There were 191 films produced for children and young people in 2010. That represents 30 per cent of the total number of films passed by the British Board of Film Classification, which is slightly more than the Danish model.
Lord Wills: My Lords, I should remind the House of my declaration of interests at the Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill. The Minister has already referred to the remarkable success of "The King's Speech", not just at the BAFTA awards last night but at award ceremonies around the world. We look forward to the Oscars as well. Is the Minister aware that the "The King's Speech" was brought to cinema screens by the UK Film Council, which has now been abolished by this Government for reasons best known to them? How confident are the Government that the efforts that they are making to restructure support for the British film industry will result in the replication of the success of "The King's Speech" next year and in years to come?
Baroness Rawlings: Yes, my Lords, "The King's Speech" did fantastically well. Actually it had lottery money as well as UK Film Council money. The BFI and UKFC are now working together on due diligence procedures and will publish a detailed transfer plan shortly. That plan will provide a clear timetable, setting out which functions are moving across and when.
Viscount Falkland: My Lords, I declare an interest: my wife is the director of an international film sales company. My noble friend Lady Benjamin has introduced an important and interesting component to our film scene, that of children's film. However, it seems to me that the answers of the Minister have been rather pointed towards what I would call British acceptance of children's films. Of course, children's films are hugely popular around the world and we are very good at making them. We saw our talent last night: it is there waiting to make films for children, which should be sold on a proper strategy. Is it not the case that you create an industry by creating a relationship of sales to foreign film distributors so that they are always watching you and will always buy your films? They are always pre-sold, so you build up trust.
Baroness Rawlings: My noble friend Lord Falkland is absolutely right. In addition to the films especially made for children, government support to a number of film activities focused on children and young people helps especially abroad.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I declare an interest as a previous vice-chairman of the BFI under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Attenborough, who, as we all regret, cannot be in his place today.
As the Minister will know, in the past, children's film was financed from the Eady levy and the funding administered by the Children's Film and Television Foundation with great success. If the principle of ring-fencing is accepted-I get the feeling from the Minister that it is-would it not make sense for that organisation to carry out the same role in future?
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on his successful time as vice-chairman of the British Film Institute. Ring-fencing is definitely being considered by the Government at the moment.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, also mentioned the making of TV and radio programmes. Will the Minister remind the BBC and other channels of their public service obligation to provide good and interesting films for children, because they have been sadly in decline over recent years?
Baroness Rawlings: The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, makes an important point, but within the framework of the BBC charter and agreement, the provision for TV drama created specifically for children is a matter for the BBC; there is no provision for the Government to intervene.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, does the Minister agree that as well as film and radio for children, which are hugely important, the making of cartoon films-I am here thinking especially of S4C-has been a major contribution and one that can be exported around the world? I hope that nothing will happen to prevent S4C continuing its excellent work.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, today's date was fixed without consultation. Had we been consulted, we would have said that there was no reason not to comply with the usual interval of three working days between Report and Third Reading, meaning that Third Reading would have taken place tomorrow.
"( ) Party election broadcasts during the referendum period will not be broadcast if they deal with pictures or implied support of any particular side in the referendum on the voting system for parliamentary elections."
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, for noble Lords who are interested in this amendment, perhaps I may start again. The first amendment on today's Marshalled List deals with expenditure on the campaigns in support of or against the alternative vote system. My amendment to Clause 5, and that of my noble friend Lord Bach, seeks to prevent a party political broadcast that supports one or other side in the AV debate being broadcast. I want to achieve that because there are complex and, in my view, sensible rules that
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My amendment seeks to prevent any political party using the party political broadcasts that it gets from the state, on the radio or on television from supporting or opposing the AV system. It is of practical significance in this particular debate on AV-whether or not we should introduce the change on the referendum-because the AV referendum, as noble Lords will know, is being combined with other elections in which parties will seek support for individual candidates.
In addition to broadcasts relating to the alternative vote referendum, party political broadcasts in support of individual candidates in local authority elections will be made available for the state and in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament elections. The Tories-the Conservatives-and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, will put out party political broadcasts throughout this period.
One party-the Liberal Democrats-unreservedly supports the change to the alternative vote system. It will be possible for it to put into its broadcasts indications of support for the alternative vote in the referendum, which will give in effect a significant broadcast. I do not know how many broadcasts there will be during the election period-perhaps five or six on the television and the radio. It gives them an edge that is not caught by the expenditure limits that are rightly put in the Bill. The amendment has the effect of saying that if you support AV or are against AV in your party political broadcast, that broadcast should not be granted.
There is already a section in the 2000 referendum Act that says that a party political broadcast on the television or radio cannot be broadcast if its purpose or its principal purpose is to support or oppose a view in the referendum. The question is whether it is better just to leave the law as it is and to let broadcasters decide the purpose or principal purpose, which is quite a difficult question of analysis. It is reasonable to assume that the principal purpose of a party political broadcast by the Liberal Democrats will be to promote the Liberal Democrats, but a subsidiary purpose might well be, from their point of view, to support the alternative vote system, which is a question of quite fine judgment. Or is it better, as I submit it is, to be quite clear about what you are saying and simply to say, "If you support one or other side in your party political broadcast, it should not be broadcast."? That means that the political parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats but also any party that opposes them, will know precisely where they stand.
This point was first raised in Committee and it was agreed that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I would speak, but we were not able to do so. I then received a letter on Report just as that stage was coming to an end, so it was not possible to debate it at that point. The Minister, Mr Harper, was kind enough to ring me at ten to two on Friday afternoon last week
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I apologise: at Third Reading today. It is an important issue, and I wait with interest to hear what the Government have to say. In the course of my telephone conversation with the Minister last Friday, one of his officials, plainly reflecting policy, said that either the Electoral Commission or the broadcaster-I cannot recall which-had not yet decided whether it was going to be permissible, in its book, for a party to say in its broadcast whether it supported AV or not. In other words, the broadcasters' committee that was going to determine what was acceptable had not yet made up its mind whether a political party, in a party political broadcast, could say, "Our political party supports AV and we urge you to do so as well". I respectfully submit that it is right for Parliament rather than a committee of broadcasters to decide this matter, and therefore I invite the House to support the amendment.
what if the Lib Dems put out an election broadcast, let us say, six weeks before the referendum in which they said, for example, that they are strong supporters of constitutional reform across the board, or words to that effect? Would that fall foul of this amendment?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I accept the noble Lord's implied, or indeed express, criticism. My wording is not good and that is my fault. It would have been much better if the amendment had said: "Party election broadcasts during the referendum period will not be broadcast if they support any particular side in the referendum on the voting system". It would have been much simpler if I had just said that, and then one would have known where one stood.
On whether the proposition put by the noble Lord in his question would fall foul of my amendment, if the six-week period is within the referendum period, then it would. I would have to check with the Minister because I am not sure whether the six-week period is within the referendum period. However, if we assume that it is within the referendum period, then saying, "We are strong supporters of constitutional change", implies support, I would have thought. I beg to move.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has indicated, this matter has been debated in Committee and on Report, and it is clear that the Government have taken a different view from him. However, I accept that it is helpful for us to be able to have a further exchange on the issue.
The Government believe that the framework that is set out in this Bill and indeed in other legislation is sufficient for this referendum. Perhaps I can establish some common ground. We agree with the principle that party election broadcasts should not be used as referendum campaign broadcasts. However, Section 127 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 prevents the main purpose of any broadcast other than a referendum campaign broadcast being to procure or promote an outcome in a referendum, which we believe is sufficient reassurance. In other words, it ensures that a party election broadcast does not become a referendum campaign broadcast. I think there is common ground here and that the mischief which the noble and learned Lord identified-although I would not necessarily accept it-is an incidental part of an election broadcast in which one side or the other is endorsed.
Our view is that there is clear merit in maintaining some flexibility in this area while acknowledging the clear limits already imposed by Section 127. Such flexibility might enable, for example, the inclusion of a brief statement during a party election broadcast that referred to the referendum and to whether the party supported a particular outcome. Although the noble and learned Lord did not say it, I understand from him that he would find nothing wrong with the existence of the referendum being referred to or indeed with an encouragement to vote; it is the endorsement of a particular yes or no position that he seeks to address.
If such a reference was an expression of a party's wider policy on matters-for example, on political reform-that were of relevance to the elections on 5 May, one might say that precluding mention of that position in a related election broadcast could have an adverse impact on campaigning for a particular party in those elections. To pick up on the point made by my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I can confirm that six weeks would be within the relevant campaign period for the referendum. I understood the noble and learned Lord to agree with the proposition that if in that broadcast a party was to support, let us say, constitutional reform-I do not think that my noble friend even specified a particular outcome of the referendum-that would fall foul of the law if his amendment were passed.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I have an important question for the Minister as to what happens during the broadcast. He referred to flexibility. He is a Liberal Democrat Minister in the coalition. Will he assure us that the flexibility to which he referred will preclude in a Liberal Democrat broadcast any reference to the fact that more than 50 per cent of the electorate would be required to secure the election of a Member of Parliament? In other words, if there is flexibility, I seek to be assured that it in no way leads to misleading statements being made on the 50 per cent requirement.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I have two points in response. Speaking as a member of the Administration, I am in no position to offer detailed assurances on the
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We believe that it is ultimately a matter for the broadcasters to see that the rules in Section 127 on the content of party election broadcasts, together with relevant guidance issued under the Communications Act 2003, are adhered to. That is the Government's position. I accept that the noble and learned Lord might disagree with it, but we have not yet heard any compelling reason to convince us that that stance is wrong. The proposed approach would in any case still require broadcasters to take a view on whether the proposed content in a broadcast complied with the new rule. Broadcasters would have to make some sort of judgment as to whether the content of a party election broadcast indicated a preference for a particular referendum outcome. Such a judgment might well be in the field of whether a general endorsement of constitutional reform fell within that or whether the content had to be much more specific, endorsing a yes/no position.
As I indicated on Report, the chair of the Broadcasters' Liaison Group has already written to the political parties, drawn their attention to Section 127 of the PPERA and asked them to contact him if they intend to include any reference to the referendum in a party election broadcast in order to ascertain whether any reference crosses the line into Section 127 territory and could in the group's view be unlawful. We believe that these lines of communication will clarify how the legislative framework will apply in the context of the combination of the referendum with other polls on 5 May. The framework for regulating party election broadcasts sits under the Communications Act 2003 and within the broadcasters' guidance. We believe that that, combined with the Section 127 provisions in PPERA 2000, provides the necessary clarity.
That said, the Government acknowledge the important issue that has been raised by the noble and learned Lord in tabling this and other amendments at earlier stages. The PPERA framework for referendum regulation was introduced by the previous Government and, despite the confidence that I have expressed in the legislation, aspects of the framework might need a longer-term refresh. I reassure the noble and learned Lord that the Government will reflect further on these points in the light of the referendum and the experience of the poll on 5 May. In the mean time, I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his speech, but there is a fundamental problem with it; he referred to flexibility, but the amendment seeks to establish the principle that in a party political broadcast you should not be able to support an outcome in the AV Bill. The Electoral Commission says that it supports the intention behind the amendment, but goes on to say that it is not sure that it is necessary to achieve the intended outcome because of the main purpose issue in Section 127. Surely it is better that there should be clarity about
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Lord Lloyd of Berwick: In the event that the amendment is successful, it seems an awful pity that we should use this language. It makes no sense as drafted, as I think the noble and learned Lord accepts. Is there a way, even at this late stage, in which we can adopt his alternative language, which is much clearer?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the Clerk, brutally, is shaking his head. I would be willing to adopt the noble and learned Lord's approach to this matter. However, if the House adopts the approach that I am taking, I anticipate that the Government will either reject the amendment in the other place, or, if having had time to think about it the amendment is accepted there, the House of Commons could then tidy it up. I respectfully and tentatively suggest that the House should vote on the principle of whether there should be a prohibition on political parties being able to support or oppose the AV referendum in their party political broadcasts. If my amendment is carried, it can be tidied up or rejected in the House of Commons later.
The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, we are at Third Reading and the noble and learned Lord has sought to test the opinion of the House. He has taken one interruption, but I fear that if we have multiple interruptions we will prolong the debate. With the greatest respect, I suggest that we should now continue to a Division.
(a) "the electorate" is defined as those persons entitled to vote in the referendum, as defined in 2;
(b) the turnout figure is to be calculated on the basis that 100% turnout is defined as the total number of individuals who are entitled to vote in the referendum, as defined in section 2;
(c) and "vote" is defined as votes counted under Part 1 of this Act."
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall not detain the House too long. I think that it was generally accepted, after the vote last Monday on Report, that Amendment A1, which the House carried by just one vote and which is now in the Bill at Clause 1(2), requires tweaking. That amendment stated that less than 40 per cent of the electorate turning out meant that the vote was not binding; in other words, it has come back to Parliament, to a Minister. We had a brief discussion across the Floor that the amendment needs tweaking-and I fully accept that, but this is not that tweak.
Clause 8 is binding. That is accepted, and there is no problem about that. The amendment carried last week simply states that it is not binding if there is a turnout of less than 40 per cent, so it is not fatal. It is not a threshold, and it does not wreck the change. The amendment passed last week is a constraint that limits action.
I am moving Amendment 2 today as a result of a very long discussion last Thursday in the Political Reform and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the
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The amendment the House passed last week was a compromise between having a consultative referendum and a binding referendum. Frankly, when the Prime Minister was asked about the issue by Christopher Chope last Wednesday at Question Time, he started to say that, generally speaking, in this country, we do not have thresholds at referendums-as I said, this is not a threshold-but generally in this country, we do not have binding referendums either. This is the first we have ever had. I do not know whether anyone has drawn that to the attention of the Prime Minister-and I add that I will be happy to share a no platform with him during the referendum.
This issue goes well beyond what has happened in the past. At no time during the Select Committee discussion was the unbinding bit of the Bill ever raised. The discussion proceeded on the basis that we cannot measure turnout, because there is no national register, and cannot measure what a vote is. That is what the Electoral Commission said to the Select Committee. We cannot measure the turnout because it is too complicated. We do not even know what a vote is because it is not defined. What is a vote? Does that mean we count the spoilt papers as well as those that count? All that was trotted out before the Select Committee without any challenge. Then the size of the register was raised. Given that we have legislated on the basis that by common consent there are 3.5 million people missing from the register and hundreds of thousands of voters entered twice, either as undergraduates or second-home owners, it could be argued that there is a distinct lack of precision about the register in the first place for all purposes, let alone this one.
It seems to me to be reasonable to call the electorate those people defined in Clause 2 as entitled to vote. The vote is those counted under Part 1. That gives clarity. The Bill sets out the electorate in Clause 2, on which we had long debates. The vote is defined as voters who are counted under Part 1 of the Act, namely those who are yes or no. Those are the only votes that count. Spoiled votes do not count. I would have thought the Electoral Commission would have been aware of this, yet it has raised these issues as if, if
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Lord Tyler: Could the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, clarify one point? The Electoral Commission points out that there is some doubt about his definitions. In particular, does he accept that the register may be considerably out of date by the date of the referendum? For example, anybody who has died in the intervening period would, under the terms of his previous amendment, be counted as a no. Every abstention is, effectively, a no when it comes to looking at his threshold. Does the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, accept that the Electoral Commission may not be right about everything but it is correct in saying that his current amendment is defective?
Lord Rooker: It is certainly wrong about it being fatal; I will argue that until the cows come home. The Electoral Commission bordered on being wilful. I was about to come to the point that the noble Lord raised, which is a very fair one, about the register. My point is this: after the referendum, when everything is counted, if it comes down to such a fine definition that we have to look at the number of people currently on the register who died or left the country before 5 May-in addition to such elements as foreigners who are able to vote in some elections but not for Westminster-we will have precisely the situation that I seek to avoid in a binding referendum. If all those factors come into play-that is, if the result is narrow and there is an argument over the numbers-it will be the very reason why we should not have a binding referendum in the first place.
My compromise is to say that the threshold should be 40 per cent. My original compromise was that it should all be consulted on. The House threw that out by 17 votes in November. That is my point. If it comes down to the fact that these issues start to matter, we will have a serious problem on our hands. Therefore, if the referendum was not binding, Parliament could then look at it, Ministers could advise Parliament, we could take a rational view and maybe-I fully accept this-still go ahead and introduce AV. This amendment does not stop the introduction of AV. If the circumstances are such that we have that problem, we will also have a problem that is even bigger.
I have listened to what the Electoral Commission told the Select Committee and to the chairman of the committee, who swore blind that she voted for this amendment in the Commons last year. She did not. The amendment in the Commons last year, which was defeated by around 500 votes to a couple of dozen was on a killer, fatal threshold. The Labour Party voted against it and quite right, too. If the threshold was not met, that would be it-the referendum would be off. That is not what this is about. Those who refuse to accept that are being disingenuous about the situation we have arrived at. It is not too late.
In other words, this amendment is directly consequential on what the House passed last Monday. Irrespective of what the Government choose to do in the Commons in the morning, it would be wrong to reject it-I make no assumptions either way-on the
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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thought I heard my noble friend be told by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that not voting would count as a no vote in the referendum. This worries me deeply. With my noble friend's amendment, Parliament will be able to decide, however many people vote for or against AV. That is my understanding. By not voting, people will not contribute to a no vote barring AV being adopted. It is merely a question of whether it becomes automatically binding on Parliament or whether it becomes something that Parliament can judge. I was deeply worried by the description of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler-
The Deputy Speaker (Lord Skelmersdale): My Lords, the House should remind itself that we are at Third Reading. The amendment has not yet been moved. There will be an opportunity for any noble Lord to address questions to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, when he decides what to do with his amendment in due course. May I take it that this amendment has been moved?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this is an important point. I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Rooker on the meaning of his amendment. I completely support him when he says that this is not a fatal threshold, by which I mean that if more than 40 per cent of those entitled to turn out vote, there is no issue because the turnout threshold is met. If the figure is below 40 per cent, the position is exactly the same as in the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act, in which case it becomes an advisory referendum and it is for Parliament then to decide whether to pass an Act of Parliament. I say with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that his question was misleading as far as the public are concerned in relation to the threshold that has been put in and was also misleading in relation to what had happened in the House of Commons in this regard.
The second issue is a statutory construction issue. I do not think that it is necessary to put in a definition of "electorate" in order to make Clause 1(2), as amended on Report, make sense. Clause 1(2) states:
The "electorate" in the referendum is defined in Clause 2, as amended on Report. In answer to the Electoral Commission's question posed in its briefing, that will include people who are not on the roll at the beginning of the period but are put on to it during the campaign. Therefore, I do not think that any amendment is required in relation to that.
The Electoral Commission asked what would happen in relation to a spoilt ballot paper and whether the person who spoils their ballot paper, whether deliberately or by mistake, is counted as somebody who has voted in the referendum in order to satisfy Clause 1(2), as amended on Report. My view is that they should be counted as having voted in the referendum in those circumstances but I should be interested to hear what the Government have to say about that. I suspect that there is an answer to that which probably does not require amendment. On the basis that the first question raised by the Electoral Commission has an easy answer and the second one has an answer, I suspect that amendment is not required.
The third issue, which is separate from those two matters of statutory construction, is the approach of this House to amendments. Where an amendment is passed by this House which is going to go back to the Commons, whether the Government agree with it or not and irrespective of whether they intend to seek to persuade the Commons to overrule it, the approach, as I understand it, is that the Government, who have access to parliamentary counsel and a full team, do what is necessary to make the Bill whole in the sense of it being consistent with the amendment that this House has agreed to so that when the House of Commons is addressing the amendment, which may be opposed by the Government, it is addressing a Bill which is consistent in all its parts. This would normally be done by amendments from the mover, but quite often it is not. I would expect the Government not to allow an inconsistent Bill to go back to the Commons but to move such consequential amendments as are necessary to make sense of the Bill. In those circumstances, I take the fact that the Government are moving no amendments in respect of my noble friend Lord Rooker's threshold amendment, if I may call it that, to mean that the Government, having consulted with parliamentary counsel and the Bill team, take the view that no issue that requires further amendment has been raised. That may well be right and is, in effect, the opinion I have expressed on the two difficulties posed by the Electoral Commission in its briefing to the House.
For the purposes of process, which is important, I should be grateful if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, could confirm that the broad approach I have defined is the one taken by the Government.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, seeks to clarify two points in relation to the amendment in his name carried at Report stage; namely, that if fewer than 40 per cent of the electorate vote in the referendum, the vote shall not be binding. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, indicated that the amendment was directly
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However, this is more of a political point, because there is no way of dealing with it otherwise. The noble and learned Lord is absolutely right to say that those who come onto the roll, perhaps as a result of a campaign encouraging people to register, would be included in the electorate, but that account could not be taken of, for example, undergraduates-who, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, might be registered at two places but can vote only once-and those who have died since the canvass which took place perhaps some five months earlier. Those points are perhaps more of a political, rather than a technical, nature.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, I accept the point about people who have registered more than once in separate constituencies, but it is very demanding on their honesty. What checks will be made on whether they have voted more than once in the referendum? If any check is made, what action will be taken against someone who has voted twice?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I cannot indicate what checks are likely to be made. It is obviously easier to check if that happens in the same constituency, but if a person is registered in two far-flung parts of the country, it is not readily obvious as to what check can be made, other than the fact that voting twice is of course illegal. Therefore, if it were somehow proved that that had happened, the person would have to face the consequences set out in the schedule to the Bill.
Paragraphs (b) and (c) of the amendment define 100 per cent turnout as the total number of people entitled to vote in the referendum under Clause 2, and "vote" as "votes counted" under Part 1 of the Bill. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, indicated, that means that the turnout figure would not include those who had turned out to vote on the day, but whose votes, for whatever reason, were deemed to be void. That is because paragraph 42 of Schedule 2 to the Bill specifies that void votes should not be counted, albeit they are recorded by the counting officer.
If eligible voters go to the polling station on 5 May and vote, they have in fact turned out, and should be included within the turnout figure, even if their vote is subsequently deemed to be invalid. The noble and learned Lord agreed with that proposition.
The amendment is not ideally worded. It is silent on whether a single independent body should be made responsible for verifying the turnout and whether the 40 per cent figure has been met. It leaves it unclear whether that would be left to the Government or would be a matter for the Electoral Commission.
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Perhaps the most important issue raised by the amendment is not what it does but what it does not do. It does not address the problem with the original amendment because it does nothing to change Clause 8(1), which still imposes a legal obligation on the Minister to implement the alternative vote. I fully accept the explanation of the amendment given by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker-that the intention is to make the referendum result non-binding if a 40 per cent turnout is not reached. He is right that it would not be fatal. Nevertheless, it is an important and significant provision. The effect of retaining Clause 8(1) is that the obligation to implement AV will apply even if the turnout is less than 40 per cent.
I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord intended by his amendment. I recognise that this matter should be dealt with before the Bill becomes law. We understand and share the concern that any statutory provision should be technically effective. We are considering the way forward on this issue and will set out our plans when the Bill returns to the other place. It will be for Members there to decide tomorrow how to respond when considering your Lordships' amendments. On the basis that the amendment goes some way to clarifying the position in the light of the earlier amendment, it is not our intention to resist it.
On Clause 8(1), the "may/must issue", I fully accept that if this stayed in the Bill according to the wish of the other place, the Government would have to make available, in the exchange of amendments, the discretionary part for the constraint-it is not a threshold-to be made to work. That is all that I seek to do. If it comes down to having an argument about whether or not someone has died in order to determine whether we should have a major change to our constitution, we will have a serious problem on our hands. I am extremely grateful for the way that the Minister has dealt with the amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Pannick: My Lords, the amendment is entirely consequential on the amendment to Clause 11 that was carried on Report last Wednesday. It is a tidying-up amendment. I hope that it is entirely uncontroversial.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, indicated, this is a consequential tidying-up amendment following the amendment that was passed
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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, the amendment responds to the indication given on Report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, that an accommodation could be achieved on the treatment of the City of London. Noble Lords who followed the exchanges on the City of London, in Committee and on Report, will know that the point at issue is the inclusion of the whole of the City of London in one parliamentary constituency. This requirement of current legislation is noticeably absent from the Bill. My earlier amendment sought to deal with the issue by requiring the whole City to be included in one constituency so far as practicable. A qualification was included to avoid an absolute obligation that might have collided with the allocation method enshrined in the Bill. I also related the requirement to the City being seen as a "special authority" to emphasise its individuality. The noble and learned Lord the Minister acknowledged that individuality in his response on Report, and I am wholly content not to include that reference in the amendment which I have now tabled in agreement with the Minister.
I shall briefly explain the effect of the amendment. It adds a reference to the City of London as a whole into the interpretation of "local government boundaries" in rule 11 of Schedule 2, which is inserted by Clause 11 of the Bill. That, in turn, makes the City of London as an entity a factor for the Boundary Commission to take into account in any future review. Unlike a number of amendments with which your Lordships' House has been concerned, this is about keeping a small area with particular attributes but few parliamentary electors together in what will inevitably be a much larger single parliamentary constituency. That is why reference in the amendment to the City of London as a whole but not to its sub-divisions, such as wards, is so relevant.
One point not covered in the amendment is the inclusion of a reference to the City of London in the name of the parliamentary constituency. Although I appreciate that the question is ultimately a matter for the Boundary Commission, it is, I think, in order for me to invite the Minister to express a view on the appropriateness of such a reference in any future constituency which includes the City.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to record my gratitude to all the Members of your Lordships' House across the Chamber who have actively supported this case. In particular, I thank my noble friend Lord Jenkin, who has supported me throughout, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who earlier tabled her own amendment, and finally my noble friend Lord Newby, who also added his name to my original amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville has explained, the amendment adds the boundaries of the City of London to the local authority boundaries which the Boundary Commission for England may take into account when drawing up constituencies. I thank my noble friend for his amendment and for the interest which he and the other noble Lords and the noble Baroness, together with others, have shown in this matter, and for their persuasiveness in pressing their argument. I believe that his proposed wording provides the best way of including the boundaries of the City in the commission's considerations, and the Government are content to accept the amendment.
My noble friend raised the question of the name of the constituency and indicated that it is of course a matter for the Boundary Commission to decide. I see a very good argument for including the City by name in any constituency that it falls within, and no doubt those who feel strongly about the matter will be able to make representations to that effect to the commission as part of the review process. Therefore, I am pleased to be able to support my noble friend's amendment.
"( ) The Chief Counting Officer must take whatever steps the officer thinks appropriate to facilitate co-operation between that officer and the officers to whom sub-paragraph (3) applies in taking any steps under sub-paragraph (1) or (2)."
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I hope that I can move this amendment even more briefly than I did in Committee and on Report. I, too, thank many Members of the House who have supported the principle of the amendment, not least the opposition Front Bench.
It is a straightforward, practical and modest amendment but it goes to what many noble Lords will think is one of the hearts of the Bill-the bit which seeks to ensure that as many of our countrymen as possible take part in the referendum. In paragraph 10 of Schedule 1-I pay tribute to the Government for including this from the outset-there is a series of provisions under the heading "Encouraging participation". Among them is one which casts upon each of four officials-the chief counting officer, a regional counting officer, a counting officer and a registration officer-a formal duty to encourage participation in the referendum. As noble Lords will see from the way in which I have
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If anyone has questions about how I have moved the amendment or about the amendment itself, I will be happy to answer them. I hope that that is sufficient to spread understanding of the amendment and I invite your Lordships' appreciation of it. I beg to move.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we support the amendment and we supported it previously. The noble Lord invited our appreciation of the amendment. I expressly appreciate the amendment for its drafting and also its mover who has spent a lifetime supporting participation of this sort. He thoroughly deserves to get his amendment.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Phillips for the amendment and I join in the general approbation of it. For all the difficulties that we have had during parts of this Bill, a common theme in all parts of the Chamber has been the importance of participation in the referendum process. As my noble friend indicated, this paragraph of the schedule does that anyway but he has highlighted the way in which it can be done even better. I am grateful to my noble friend for the constructive discussions we have had on this and the result of those is that the Government agree that the proposal adds useful clarification to the Bill, particularly by emphasising the importance of co-ordination and co-operation. I am pleased to urge the House to accept my noble friend's amendment.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, with permission, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:
"With permission, I will make a Statement on recent developments in the Middle East and north Africa. Over the last few weeks we have witnessed events of a truly historic nature in the region, including changes of government in Tunisia and Egypt and widespread calls for greater economic development and political participation. I visited Tunisia, Jordan,
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I held talks in Tunis with interim Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who is overseeing ambitious plans to open up Tunisia's political system, reform its constitution, revive its economy and prepare for free elections. I strongly welcomed these intentions and the steps that have been taken to sign up to international conventions on human rights. I met some inspiring young students whose motivations were a desire for the freedom, employment and human dignity that we enjoy in Europe. I believe that there is now a clear opportunity for a closer relationship between the UK and Tunisia. I discussed how the UK might support projects in Tunisia through our new Arab partnership fund, with new funding announced to this House on 1 February, which will support economic and political development across the region.
In Egypt, as in Tunisia, there is now a precious moment of opportunity for the people of Egypt to achieve a stable and democratic future. Yesterday, I spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and to the Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik. I welcomed the statements of the higher military council promising a peaceful transition to civilian and democratic government, new elections and a reform of the Egyptian constitution.
Tahrir Square is calm today after yesterday's announcements of the dissolution of Parliament and the suspension of the constitution. I encouraged the Egyptian Government to make further moves to accommodate the views of opposition figures and was pleased to hear from Prime Minister Shafik that members of the Opposition should be included in a reshuffled Cabinet during the week. We would also like to see a clear timetable for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections and a genuinely inclusive dialogue about the country's future. We welcome the military council's commitment to all regional and international obligations and treaties.
Egypt is a sovereign country and we must not seek to dictate who runs its affairs. But we have been clear throughout this crisis that it is in our national interest as well as that of Egypt for it to seek to make a successful transition to a broad-based Government and an open and democratic society, and to an Egypt which carries its full and due weight as a leading nation in the Middle East and in the world. I believe we have been right to speak particularly strongly against repression or violence against protesters, journalists and human rights activists. We call now for the release of those detained during the demonstrations and steps to end the state of emergency, which curtails basic rights. The UK will always uphold the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech.
Looking to the future, it is vital and urgent to work with the European Union and other nations to support economic development and more open and flexible political systems in the region. We have begun discussions with the United States about co-ordinating our assistance. The Prime Minister discussed this with President Obama at the weekend, as I did with Secretary Clinton. We can help with the building blocks of open societies, knowing as we do that a stable democracy requires
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The UK Government are in close communication with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to ensure that the international financial institutions are doing all they can to provide appropriate and timely support to Egypt. We have also received a request from the Egyptian Government to freeze the assets of several former Egyptian officials. We will of course co-operate with this request, working with EU and international partners, as we have done in the case of Tunisia. If there is any evidence of illegality or misuse of state assets, we will take firm and prompt action. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will discuss economic support and possible freezing measures relating to assets with European Union Finance Ministers tonight and tomorrow in Brussels, and has requested a discussion at ECOFIN tomorrow.
I hope the House will also join me in paying tribute to the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and those who, over the last three weeks, have calmly and professionally run our embassy within yards of Tahrir Square while assisting the departure of thousands of British nationals from Egypt, and to the Ministry of Defence and the UK Border Agency. We will keep our travel advice under constant review.
The changes taking place in the region provide opportunities that should be seized, not feared. Egypt is a nation of more than 80 million people who should soon have the opportunity to choose their president and their representatives democratically. In Tunisia, more than 10 million people may now finally have the opportunity to unleash the economic potential that their geographic location and talented population put within their grasp, and to enjoy democratic freedoms.
However, this moment is not without risk. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Yemen, where I spent a day in meetings with President Saleh and members of the Opposition. I had three clear messages for the Government there. First, we want them to make progress on national dialogue with the opposition parties, including agreement on changes to the constitution and action to address the grievances of people in Yemen. Secondly, we have asked for and are now examining a prioritised and budgeted development plan for poverty reduction from the Yemeni Government so that we can establish a multi-donor trust fund for Yemen and be confident that funds are properly used. These issues will be the main focus of the next Friends of Yemen meeting in the coming months. We also look for intensified Yemeni efforts against the al-Qaeda threat on its territory. I know the House will salute the courage of our embassy staff in Yemen, who face the highest threat of any of our posts overseas and have twice been attacked by terrorists in the last year.
There is also a serious risk that Governments will draw the wrong conclusion from instability in the Middle East and pull back from efforts to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. We should draw the opposite conclusion, which is that we
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Our Government are a friend to both Israelis and Palestinians. We are calling for both sides to show the visionary boldness to return to talks and make genuine compromises. Talks need to take place on the basis of clear parameters. In our view, the entire international community, including the United States, should now support 1967 borders as being the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees.
Finally, we must not allow our attention to be diverted from the grave danger of Iran's nuclear programme. Iran claimed that it supported protesters in Egypt, but denied its own people the right of free expression today and placed opposition leaders under house arrest. Meanwhile, the threat from its nuclear programme has not diminished. Given Iran's refusal to engage in genuine negotiations over its nuclear programme at the recent talks in Istanbul, we are now in talks with international partners about steps to increase legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and the requirements of the IAEA.
All the issues that I have described underline how important the region is to our national interests. That is why our Government began from our first day in office a major, long-term effort to intensify Britain's links with the countries of the Middle East, north Africa and the Gulf-in diplomacy, in trade, in defence and in education, health and civil society-as part of a distinctive British foreign policy towards the region.
I reaffirmed last week to leaders in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that we are committed to intensifying our engagement on foreign policy issues and will step up over the coming months our discussions with the Gulf states on Iran's nuclear programme. We will also pursue firm engagement with countries where we do not see eye to eye but have a considerable interest in edging them towards a more constructive role, a process that I began when I visited Damascus two weeks ago for talks with President Assad.
At this time of opportunity and uncertainty, the UK will be an active and distinctive voice in the Middle East. We will send a constant message about how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems and sound economic development, while respecting the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation. Although we cannot set the pace of this change and must respect each country's right to find its own way, we will be a reliable friend and partner to all those looking to do so and a staunch defender of the UK's interests in the region".
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this comprehensive Statement, which I am sure the whole House welcomes as an update on where we were even as short a time ago as last Friday, when the House had the opportunity to discuss the current situation in the Middle East and north Africa in a full debate.
The Statement rightly concentrated on the Foreign Secretary's discussions in the region. Not only have Tunisia and Egypt seen changes in government; Jordan has, too. Although the head of state there remains the same, which I readily accept is the difference between that country and Tunisia and Egypt, it is important that the king of Jordan has decided to instigate a full-scale change in that country, too.
It is also important that Tunisia has even in the short time since the revolution-if that is the correct term for it; I believe that that is how Tunisians are describing it-decided to sign up to the international protocol on the abolition of capital punishment and all forms of torture. I believe that it has also signed up to the international protocol on embracing the procedures of the International Criminal Court. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm those points, which were raised in debate on Friday.
Only a few days ago, when we made our various contributions to the debate last Friday, we were all wondering what the weekend would bring; it took only a few short hours to show us what would happen next. I have heard a number of commentators lament the fact that the military high council has in effect taken over in Egypt and say that this amounts to martial law. However, I hope the Minister will agree that the army has been a formidable force for stability in that country. Although people have understandable concerns about what will happen next and about the timetable for free and fair elections, nevertheless the army has brought relative peace to the streets of Cairo much more effectively than the police did earlier in the stand-off last week. Can the Minister tell the House any more about the timetable that we might hope to expect in the move towards bringing people from elsewhere in the political establishment into the Government-which would be a highly desirable development-and for free and fair elections? I agree with everything the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement about the freedom of journalists and the freedom of the press.
I make no excuse for returning to the issue of Jordan. Those of us who have been there recently-I am sure that many in the House have done so-recognise that Jordan is quite fragile at the moment and needs a great deal of international support, particularly in respect of the job market for young people. It has the terrible combination of rising house prices on the one hand, and the feelings of many young people about their lack of a future and being able to develop their jobs and careers on the other.
There is a quite distinctive view in Jordan among some in the business hierarchy that there has been insufficient economic reform to allow them to grow organically the way in which their economy works. The noble Lord might not be able to answer these questions now, but will he in particular address Jordan's
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The Statement is helpful as far as it goes. We all know that Yemen is an extremely fragile country, as it was before the recent developments. It has been one of the least stable places in the Middle East, and it is very important that the national dialogue with the opposition parties becomes a reality. I am very pleased to hear about the meetings with Friends of Yemen and I hope that we will have regular updates about what is happening in Yemen.
From the first moment I set foot in the Foreign Office, Yemen was a constant source of difficulty, but because it is such a poor country it sometimes gets pushed to the back of the hierarchy of countries in the Middle East. However, if things go wrong there, it will open the door, as the Statement makes clear, to a good deal of unhelpful activity, not least among the AQ operatives, who we know are engaged there.
The Statement does not say a lot about what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East, outside the countries that were visited. I understand that announcements have been made in Algeria about the possibility of lifting the state of emergency there. If that were true, it would be a very welcome development. Can the Minister say more about that?
Furthermore, it was good that the Foreign Secretary first visited Tunisia on his progress around the Middle East. While fully acknowledging that this was a fault of the previous Government, I believe that, on the whole, the Maghreb countries have not received the level of attention that they might have done in the Foreign Office. I hope that that will be addressed. They have a birth rate lower than that of other countries in the Middle East, and perhaps their problems seem less acute. None the less, they deserve our attention. Morocco has been a good, long-standing friend and has its own well-developed institutions, but we need to ensure that we keep engaged with those countries.
I am sure that we all agree with the Foreign Secretary on asset freezing. I re-emphasise the point about European co-operation. We all need to concentrate on trade. It is not exclusively for the Foreign Office, and I hope that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is fully engaged on these issues. Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that it would be a good time for that department to engage with those who have an interest in what is happening in the Middle East in business terms. I stress my own interest as chairman of the Arab-British Chambers of Commerce and suggest that perhaps it would be the right time to convene a meeting of the chambers of commerce, the Middle East associations and British expertise. There are a tremendous number of business councils, and perhaps
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I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he said about our excellent staff in Cairo. We touched on that last week. Dominic Asquith and his team there, and our team in Yemen, who have endured so much, have done an enormous amount to keep a steady hand on the tiller for this country.
On the Middle East peace process, we are friends of both Israel and Palestine. The Statement talks about visionary boldness, and of course something visionary is greatly needed at this juncture. The fact is that the Middle East peace process was running into the sands. Last week, we discussed whether a two-state solution remains possible, and some of your Lordships believed that it was. Some were enthusiastic to resume talks on the two-state solution while others had more doubts. In that regard, this country and our Foreign Secretary ought to be speaking out. I was pleased to hear what he said last week, and I hope that he will continue to push on this issue. We have a particular role in it, and I do not believe that this country is as despised and disliked in the Middle East as some Members on some Benches intimated last week. I believe that this country is very highly respected in the Middle East, and I find nothing but friendship and enthusiasm for us. Yes, there are issues about Balfour and the history of the situation, but most of the interlocutors in the Middle East recognise that this country has a particular role and that it is distinct from that of the United States. We can bring pressure to bear not only on our friends across the Atlantic but within the European Union. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that we will continue to do that.
On the Gulf states, there is still a problem in Bahrain, which relates to the difference between Sunni and Shia and the fact that the ruling royal family is of one persuasion while the large majority is of the other persuasion. Further attention also has to be given to Syria, which is an important country in the region. I hope that the noble Lord will say one or two things about it. Finally, Saudi Arabia, difficult as it might be as a country-some people regard it as impenetrable-must be addressed by the Foreign Office. It is not just a matter of trade in Saudi Arabia; it is a matter of the Foreign Secretary and others at Secretary of State level addressing what is going on in Saudi Arabia. It is high time that that important country received ministerial attention in country. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that that will happen shortly.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very comprehensive response and comments on the region, which she knows well. She referred to a whole range of issues, not all of which I shall be able to answer in detail in a few minutes; I hope that she will understand that, as I am sure your Lordships will. Of course, I will supply any
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The observations that the noble Baroness made at the end are completely correct. Obviously, our relations with Saudi Arabia are extremely important. The country is an ally whose significance in the world order as well as in the Middle East is unquestioned. It is certainly our intention at all times to strengthen and maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has just been to Syria and described in the Statement how he has talked with President Bashar Assad. We obviously do not see eye to eye with Syria now, but it is important to maintain and strengthen our relations with that country.
The noble Baroness also mentioned Bahrain. There have been undoubted difficulties, which are of quite long standing, over Iran's sometimes malign influence on Bahrain's stability. She is right that there are problems that have to be faced. We will give supportive attention to them, as Bahrain remains a close friend.
Let me go back to the Middle East peace plan, which is at the centre of all our thoughts. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has stated clearly that he regards this as a moment of real urgency, when the windows that may now be open could close. In recent days, he has spoken out strongly on the need for movement on all sides. I do not think that there is any doubt or disagreement on that. Of course we must move forward. Whether that view is taken in Jerusalem by the Israeli Government is still an open question. No doubt they are seeking to establish their view in light of what happens next in Egypt. It is certainly encouraging that the new Egyptian authorities have made it clear in their first hours that they want to respect and maintain international treaties, presumably including the Israeli-Egyptian treaty. These are still uncertain times and it would be a bold man who forecast exactly how these matters are going to develop.
The noble Baroness rightly emphasised the need to give more attention to the Maghreb countries. These countries are full of resources and talent and are in a position to play a more decisive role in the new world landscape in which we are all operating. I assure her that my colleagues at BIS are fully focused, as is our Trade Minister, on the situation and on the need for a strategy of generosity and support in relation to the economic aspects. It is slightly sobering to ponder the state of the Egyptian economy at the moment. The shops and the economy have been closed down for two or three weeks. There is an estimate that the whole exercise has cost the Egyptian economy more than the equivalent of £1 billion, which for that economy is a serious blow. The investor confidence aspect has taken a hit, and all this will need to be repaired. We stand ready to do everything that we can to maximise that process of repair.
I was interested in, and will note, the noble Baroness's idea that the chambers of commerce, with regard to trade with Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region, should get together and work out how we
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The noble Baroness mentioned Algeria. She is right that we should keep a close watch on the situation there. My advice is that about 500 demonstrators gathered in central Algiers yesterday, the demonstration was banned by the Interior Ministry, a heavy security presence was deployed and a number of arrests were made. We understand that all demonstrators have been released. That is the latest comment that I can give. Clearly the whole underlying force of intercommunication and information, electronically driven by the mobile telephone, the internet and so on, is at work in all these areas and is giving a new impetus to public concern and desire for improvement and a widening of freedoms. That is endemic and is the pattern throughout the whole region. We should not be surprised that it is occurring everywhere.
I go to the beginning of the noble Baroness's list, and Tunisia, which has made certain commitments, although I am not sure that they cover every detail that she mentioned. Certainly, there has been a very positive response, as the Foreign Secretary made clear in the Statement.
As for the military in Egypt, I have to reiterate what is said in the Statement. We welcome commitments to a peaceful transition of power and an elected civilian Government, to changing the constitution and putting the amendments to referendum, as well as the commitment to honour existing international agreements, which I have already mentioned. We believe that it is important to set a specific timetable for these actions as soon as possible and remain concerned about the relative absence of public statements regarding a role for the opposition in the process. We urge the Egyptian Government to continue the broad-based dialogue with opposition groups and activists that has been started. That will help to reassure people that this process will lead to genuine change and not get stuck. That is our position. I emphasise that we urge a specific timetable.
The noble Baroness mentioned Jordan and Yemen. We share fully her sentiments on the need for support and encouragement for our friends, the Jordanians. It is a country with which the British have a long-standing and excellent relationship, and we want to support it. I was asked in the debate last Friday about aid to Jordan. As I explained, it is now regarded as a middle-income country and therefore does not necessarily qualify for all the DfID support programmes that it once had in the past. However, there is a substantial EU programme, to which we contribute a really good slice. We will continue, particularly in the present situation, following the excellent talks between my right honourable friend and King Abdullah of Jordan, to work out every way in which we can support Jordan through its period of government change, which we hope will lead to greater stability and not to more disruption. I am fairly confident that that will be so.
On the Yemen, I do not think that I have anything to add to the points made by my right honourable friend in his speech. He has talked to President Saleh and there are obvious dangers. There have been signs that the al-Qaeda movement or franchise, having perhaps-this may be a sound of hope-found themselves squeezed in Afghanistan and maybe even a little in Pakistan, is moving to other areas and spreading its activities through there and through the Horn of Africa. These are great dangers for this country. We have a direct and acute interest in helping these governments and societies to create the conditions of stability, openness and democracy in which the non-democratic and violence-based doctrines of al-Qaeda can finally be rejected.
I hope that that answers most of the noble Baroness's questions. As I have indicated, we are working together with the EU to develop packages to support both our bilateral efforts and other countries' efforts on the trade and economic side because it is livelihoods and prosperity that will bring the conditions in which these turbulent events can lead to better times for all.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we were foreshadowed a Statement on Afghanistan earlier today which I understand is, unfortunately, not taking place because there has not been agreement in the usual channels that it is a priority? Might I say to my noble friend that, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, we are sorry that an important issue such as Afghanistan is not being addressed when it should be, given the number of casualties that we are still encountering there?
On the Statement on the Middle East, I will try to be extremely brief because I know that several other noble Lords will want to get in. However, the Statement says that the transitional Government "should" include all parties in the new governance arrangements in Egypt. I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary had any reassurance that a broad swathe of existing parties-including the smaller liberal, secular ones-would indeed be brought into that transitional Government.
On assets, the Foreign Secretary stated that he would work with the EU and with other partners. While that is extremely welcome to us, the Statement calls for the freezing of the assets of Egyptian officials. That sounds to me rather narrow, as often we know-certainly from the Ben Ali family as well as the Mubarak family-that there are allegations that the extended family members hold significant assets abroad. The Statement seems to talk about just officials, so I would like some reassurance from my noble friend on whether existing money-laundering laws will apply to the assets of wider family members, if they are found to be under suspicion in that regard.
On Bahrain, I suppose that my noble friend will not have seen the report of Amnesty International that came out just about an hour ago. However, human rights abuses continue unabated in Bahrain-as he knows, because I have discussed it with him in the past. I hope that we will look at that report extremely carefully to see how we might indeed be a candid friend to Bahrain, particularly as I understand that we are involved in training the security services there.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am grateful to my noble friend. On her last point, she is right that the Amnesty International report has just come out and we will obviously be studying it carefully. I am not aware of the question of the priorities of Statements on Afghanistan but there is absolutely no relationship between the particular day-to-day timings of Statements and the importance of issues. Everyone recognises fully that the Afghanistan situation is deeply serious and central for the foreign policy of this country and of many others; everyone recognises, with great sadness, and salutes the courage of our soldiers in Afghanistan; everyone offers deepest condolences to the families of those very brave young men and women who have given their lives, including the most recent ones. I do not think there is any connection between my noble friend's concern about Statements and our deep feelings about the seriousness and centrality of the Afghan issues.
The noble Baroness asked about our view about all parties being included in a transitional Government. That appears to be the broad intention, but I emphasise what my right honourable friend said in his Statement: it is not for us to dictate or place a template on how the Egyptians organise their processes of government and how they move forward. It is for them. The more that the western powers try to assert their pattern, the more counterproductive that will be. This is a very important lesson, and I am not sure that everyone has fully grasped it yet. It is for Egypt as a nation to restore its own respect and redeem its own feelings about its possibilities in the world and recognise that it is potentially a great nation, not a suppressed and oppressed people. That appears to be going forward, but it is for the Egyptians to decide.
As for the freezing of assets, the Statement indicates that we are now looking at this matter. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking at it very carefully. These are very early days, and it is not possible to give details about the nature of the assets held. However, if anything is held illegally, the processes of law enforcement will apply to it. I can assure my noble friend of that.
Lord Judd: My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us will be greatly reassured by his firmness in saying that it is not for the outside world to run the show but for the people of Egypt to take forward the opening that they have generated? In this context, does he also accept that many of us will be greatly encouraged by his tone in saying that while we thank and, indeed, congratulate the army on its restraint and the role it has played, it is a holding role, and history and the world will judge the army on how it enables the people to make a success of the opening they have generated. We need to see firm indications of how that is to be done as soon as possible.
On Yemen, there is a very difficult situation, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments because while acute poverty is not the whole explanation, the grave problem of Yemen is, of course, related to the instability associated with that country. We must therefore be very careful about not appearing to say that enabling the people to enjoy greater prosperity and material well-being is somehow conditional upon
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Lord Howell of Guildford: Those are very wise words from the noble Lord. He rightly says that as far as the politics and democratic future of Egypt are concerned, we can support and assist and offer our skills and experience, but we cannot lecture, dictate or harangue. The more we and other outside powers do so, the more counterproductive it will be.
I agree with what the noble Lord says about the military. They will be judged by how they proceed. We are entitled to watch, to hope, to note some encouraging aspects as well as-one must be realistic-those that are bound to take time, if I may put it like that, and possibly to show a degree of patience as well as a desire to see things go the right way. I also agree with what he says about the pattern in Yemen. The terrorism, the divisions, the civil war, the problems in the north, the other difficulties, the poverty and the many other internal challenges that Yemen has faced in recent years add up to a very difficult situation. There is no one button that can be pressed to bring it all to a happier state of affairs. We have to proceed with great care and understanding in that country.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I noted what the Statement said about assets. The Minister will be in the picture about certain small, discreet but very helpful initiatives that the Government of Switzerland have taken as regards the Middle East. Will HMG at least consider following Switzerland's lead in freezing temporarily the assets of the Mubarak family in this country until such time as it can be determined which assets are personal, family assets and which belong to the state of Egypt? In this context, I hope the noble Lord will agree that accounts and valuables in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands should be included in any process.
Lord Howell of Guildford: At this stage I can tell the noble Lord that we will note and are studying the actions taken by other countries, including Switzerland, and the moves that they have made. Any illegality will be met properly by the appropriate application of the law, as we have said. We will seek to clarify the situation regarding any asset holdings in this country. I know the noble Lord will accept that over the years these matters have been evolved-if that is the polite verb-in very complex ways and ways designed to make it extremely difficult to unravel where the ownership of these assets lies. All these matters will have to be unravelled and unravelled I hope they will be. We will certainly take the steps that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary described in his Statement, and we will take them firmly.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I think it is the turn of the Conservatives. We will then return to the Labour Benches. Perhaps I might encourage the several Labour Peers who wish to intervene to consider in the mean time which of them they would like to yield to first.
Lord Tugendhat: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of how welcome will be the Foreign Secretary's statement that we will be following a distinctive policy in the Middle East? Will he also take it from me that his initial remarks about the moment of opportunity in relation to the Israel-Palestine talks are a very welcome start? I very much hope that he will be able to press that case in the days and weeks ahead.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank my noble friend. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has indeed made clear his view that it is not up to us alone, but that we can play a distinctive and effective role. We intend to do so.
That begs the question of how that voice will be transmitted to the various countries of the Middle East. In Friday's debate the noble Lord said, very flexibly and in a very welcome way, that he would revisit the cuts to the BBC World Service. He also mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Surely we need to look at this in the round and look at what DfID is doing in the Maghreb and elsewhere. We should also look at strengthening our embassies. For example, when the Foreign Affairs Committee visited the Maghreb five years or so ago, we were very concerned about the low emphasis that we placed on that key area. Surely we should now revisit this and reconfigure all those various instruments that are available to us to convey the voice that is spoken of in the last paragraph.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I would make it clear to the noble Lord that the words I said on Friday were carefully chosen. I did not say that I would revisit the cuts; I said that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was looking at the proposals that had been put to him by the BBC World Service and examining the reasons and explanations for the decisions that it wants to take. At the heart of these is the view of the BBC World Service authorities, under whom these decisions have to be made, that the short-wave services are not the best way and the priority way of maintaining communication and our voice and influence in the Arab world. They point to the fact that-we debated this at length on Friday-although radio is still extremely important, up and coming are online services, a mass of television services, iPad services, mobile internet services and a thousand other things which are creating the opportunities to convey good messages and, I am afraid, some bad ones as well. Those are the conditions of the modern world that have empowered the street, as it were, more than ever. What I said on Friday reflects exactly the position at the moment. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is certainly
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As to the noble Lord's wider point, he is absolutely right-the situation has changed. As to whether that should have been predicted exactly, some of us indicated more than a decade ago that this sort of world was emerging. The situation has changed in the Middle East. There could be entirely new relationships between peoples and Governments and parties and politics and military forces. In these circumstances we must be agile and review the disposition of our influences and our programmes. The noble Lord is right about that and I agree with him.
The Marquess of Lothian: My Lords, at this time of emerging democratic awareness in the Middle East, will the Minister and his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs use their considerable influence to encourage the Palestinian Authority to adopt a true, full and honest electoral process in the months ahead so that those who speak for the Palestinian people in the future do so with a genuine mandate for the Palestinian people as a whole?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank my noble friend for that observation. Of course, this is the right way to go. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken on these lines and we will continue to use the influence that we undoubtedly have. We must always use that influence in the most careful and selective way. I believe that the Palestinian Authority is aware of the need to move forward using precisely these methods. It faces grave difficulties but we will certainly do anything that we can do to encourage it.
Lord Clinton-Davis: How do the Government intend to press the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority to resume the peace process? Is not that a matter of extreme urgency? Hamas and Hezbollah have repeatedly
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Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord speaks with great experience, feeling and wisdom on this issue but I know he is the first to understand that, although we can do our bit, many parties and pressures are involved. Some feel that it is all up to our American allies and that they should increase the pressure and recognise the urgency. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has indicated some of that feeling in statements he has made over the past few days. Some feel that renewed pressure should come from within Israel and the Palestinian Authority provided they can work together in a better way than they have done so far with the two elements of the Hamas people in Gaza and the authorities in the West Bank. All these tasks must be addressed. Therefore, the broad answer to the noble Lord's question is: yes, the urgency is recognised; yes, we will do what we can but we are not, alas, the only party involved, nor can our influence alone be decisive-I wish that it could, but it is not so.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: Does my noble friend agree that the single most important thing that can be done is to reassure Israel and Egypt of the continuation of the longstanding treaty between them? If a democratic Government in Egypt are to accept the peace settlement, it is necessary for Israel herself to look again at the settlements and the blockade of Gaza in order to persuade the Egyptian people to support, as they should, the continuation of peace with Israel?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My personal hope and, indeed, the hope of the Government is that that is the way things will unfold. However, we have to see the steps ahead. First, there is a military Government and the change of constitution, and then we have and must continue to press for their commitment to create the conditions for a democratic new Government in Egypt, with different attitudes from the Government of the past but with the same attitude to the treaty with Israel. Then that new democratic Government have to be incentivised, just as my noble friend was saying, to feel that they are going to get a constructive response from Israel. All these are sequences ahead for which we must work. My noble friend describes exactly what we want to happen. Now we have to see what forces can enable it to happen. Indeed, we have to be realistic and see what forces may prevent it happening.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that these welcome indications of support for Egypt and Tunisia and their economies, which will be in poor shape, risk an excess of individual countries and organisations all flinging themselves at the same object, with much confusion? Will he consider what went on after the collapse of Soviet Union domination of eastern Europe, when a co-ordinating clearing-house arrangement was reached, under which the United States, Japan, the European Union and all
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Lord Howell of Guildford: I have certainly heard such suggestions, including one, not from within government, that there should be an approach similar to the Marshall Plan, which goes back further than the eastern-Europe approach that involved successful co-ordination and worked rather well, if we look back at the history of that dramatic period at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The answer to the noble Lord's question is, yes, these matters are considered. Some have pointed out that there are considerable differences between the eastern European process involving the unwinding of the Soviet satellites and what is now going on, which is in its very early days, regarding the rise of people power, street views and new pressures on Governments in the Middle East. However, the proper answer to the noble Lord's question is, of course, that these issues and the lessons of history-the differences and the similarities-will be very closely considered by those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government who wish to formulate the most successful plans for the next moves.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat the Statement on Building Schools for the Future, made earlier in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:
"Mr Speaker, I am grateful for this opportunity to repeat the points made in my Written Ministerial Statement on Friday. On Friday, Mr Justice Holman handed down judgment on the judicial review brought by six local authorities, including Waltham Forest, following my decision to cancel BSF projects in their areas. It was of course deeply regrettable that any building projects had to be cancelled, but the scale of the deficit we inherited meant that cuts were inevitable, and the inefficiency that characterised the BSF schemes meant that we needed a new approach.
All the local authorities that pursued the action agreed that cuts had to be made, but, as the judge records, the local authorities argued that other unidentified projects should have been stopped, rather than theirs. The claimants argued that the Government's decision-making was confused and irrational, but the judge makes it clear that the decisions that I made were clear and rational. He states that,
The claimants argued that the chosen cut-off date for projects was wrong, but the judge also makes it clear that a cut-off date of 1 January reflected government-wide policy and helped to achieve that policy by making very large savings.
On two procedural grounds, the judge ruled in favour of the claimants. In essence, his view is that my consultation with 14 local authorities in relation to 32 sample schools and a further 119 individual academies projects did not go far enough, and that I should have included the six claimants in my consultation. He judges that I should have had rigorous regard to equalities considerations in reaching my decision.
The judge has not ordered a reinstatement of funding for any BSF project; nor has he ordered me to pay compensation to any of the claimants. Instead, he concluded that I must give each of them an opportunity to make representations, and must review the decision, in so far as it affects the six authorities, with an open mind. I am happy to do so.
The judge has made it clear that the final decision on any given school or project still rests with me, and that I may save all, some, a few or none. He concluded by saying that no one should gain false hope from this decision. I am grateful to the judge for that direction, for the fair and careful manner in which he appraised the evidence and for his support for the Government on the substantive decisions that we took to repair the economic mess that we inherited".
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, before I respond to the substance of the Minister's Statement, it would be helpful to provide some context for the judgment that led to it. The Secretary of State had previously acknowledged that before 1997 there had been a failure adequately to invest in school buildings. The Labour Government were responsible for building, rebuilding or significantly refurbishing 4,000 schools, with 1,000 completed in the past two years. As a Government, we were on track to see a further 1,000 new school buildings in the next two years. Building Schools for the Future refocused schools investment on the strategic renewal of the schools estate. It was intended as a programme to renew the entire secondary estate and to plan and provide for changes in demand. Building Schools for the Future was gathering pace at the end of the Labour Government and was a success story.
I thank the Minister for his Statement, and for the clarity with which he set out the department's plans on the issue. However, I was surprised to hear him on the airwaves on Friday trying to downplay the judgment as minor and technical. Surely it is anything but that. Perhaps I may remind the Minister that the judgment said that the Secretary of State's handling of the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future was,
The two specific arguments that were accepted by the judge in the case were that the Secretary of State failed to consult, and that he failed to consider his public equalities duties. Neither of these points is technical or minor, and they say a great deal about the cavalier style adopted by the Government. Is it not true that this attitude is becoming something of a pattern? We hear constantly of challenges to government decisions on the grounds that they have not taken the time to follow proper and due process. I cite as examples the Home Secretary's failed attempts to limit immigration numbers and criticism about the Government pre-empting consultation on the forestry proposals alongside Parliament's consideration of the Public Bodies Bill. With this Secretary of State alone, we have seen the same reckless approach adopted in respect of school sports, Bookstart and the education maintenance allowance. On the latter point and in the light of this decision, I ask the Minister whether the Government plan to reverse their decision to cancel education maintenance allowance payments for current recipients.
Is it not time that the Secretary of State stepped back, learnt from those mistakes and adopted a more conciliatory approach to policy-making in the future, where partnership and consultation with stakeholders and service users are at the forefront of the approach to developing an education strategy? One of the most damning criticisms in the judgment is that, by failing to consult, the Secretary of State could not have had any of the crucial information required to make an informed decision. He therefore could not have known what impact his decisions would have on individual schools and communities. He could not have known, for example, which schools were in the worst condition, which were addressing the real needs of disabled students and which were meeting special equality considerations.
Given the seriousness of the judge's criticism, should not the Secretary of State's Statement in the other place have started with a word of apology or regret? Today, if nothing else, will the Minister put that right and now apologise to the communities that suffered the devastating effects of his Secretary of State's defective decision-making?
To restore public confidence and the confidence of this House, will the Minister now publish all relevant information and advice relating to the decision? Will he confirm reports that a leading QC warned the Secretary of State that councils had a "fairly strong case" against him? Why, then, did he proceed regardless, and how much public money has been wasted on legal costs? Can he confirm that there will be full and transparent consultation with all those affected to give parents, students and teachers confidence that they will receive a fair hearing? Should not the Secretary of State now remove himself from any further part in this decision?
This is a damning verdict on a Cabinet Minister by a High Court judge. He is a repeat offender and these are serious issues that need to be addressed. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, I start by saying a word in response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, on Labour's
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I spent much of the autumn talking to those in schools and local authorities and to MPs representing some of the areas where Building Schools for the Future projects have been stopped, as referred to by the noble Baroness. Much as they wanted their school building projects to go ahead, they all accepted that the way in which the scheme developed, silted up and accreted meant that it was a flawed process. Obviously, they all said that they would have liked their school building projects to go ahead but they did not seek to persuade me that the way in which the programme operated was perfect.
On the background to the decision taken by the Secretary of State-a point that is sometimes forgotten-I think I am right in saying that the previous Government themselves acknowledged, and said before the general election, that there would need to be capital cuts of some 50 per cent and that the education budget and building budget were not exempt from that reduction.
As for saying that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been reckless in his decision, I hope I made it clear in the Statement that the judge found that it was a rational decision, not a reckless one.
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