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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is not in his place, has been a distinguished propagator of information technology in this House for more years than I have been here, and I pay tribute to him for it.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, as a governor of schools, and associated with education at local level, my impression is that the new information technology greatly reduces exclusion. Almost every child can use it. Does the Minister accept that it is we who are excluded because we are too old to have been taught when we were at school?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, those of us who are wise in these matters learn from our children. I thought that that was common. One starts by learning how to use the video and goes on to learn how to use the PC.
I take the serious point behind the noble Baroness's remarks. It is an essential part of our policy to extend information technology in schools, and indeed in libraries, where we are spending £70 million on digitising materials, and in training librarians in information technology.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the New Opportunities Fund, when the National Lottery Bill is passed, will have a major programme for training teachers in information technology. We do not yet know how many are lacking in that training, but the programme is universal. Those who are lacking and wish to be trained will be trained under this programme.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. Perhaps I may express my sympathy, and I am sure that of all Members of the House, to those who lost family members in the flooding at Easter. At the same time, I pay tribute to the emergency services and individuals who helped during the crisis. I thank the Minister for mentioning the review. In fact, I was given, hot off the press at one o'clock today, the preliminary assessment from his department following the Easter floods. Is it possible that other agencies can be included in the review? At present only the Environment Agency is involved. Might not water boards be included?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. We on this side of the House join her in expressing our condolences. There were five fatalities, and many thousands of people suffered serious inconvenience and loss. The noble Baroness makes a very helpful suggestion. It is quite likely that the independent review will wish to interview the other agencies she mentions. We shall certainly draw attention to the point.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of the floods at Easter and at other times are the result of building on a floodplain? Will the inquiry take that point into account and ensure that, where applications are submitted to build houses on floodplains, the experience over Easter and previously will be taken into account, and that such building will not be allowed?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, there were probably many factors contributing to the extent of the flood damage. It resulted from rains which in many areas were the worst this century--worse than those of 1947--though, owing to the good work of the Environment Agency and the emergency services, the damage was less. My noble friend puts his finger on a very important contributory factor--namely, the excessive building that has taken place, particularly over the past 20 years, either above or within the floodplains. Surface water runs off built-up areas at nine times the rate it runs off fields, so excessive building is a major factor. Like the noble Baroness, I come from Northamptonshire. I remember the floods in the Nene valley. There was very little building at that time: now extreme amounts of building have taken place. I know that the Environment Agency is aware of the situation and has frequently drawn the danger to the attention of local planning authorities.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I was aware of the general position, not of the particular point. The noble Lord's statement is very helpful. The Government have issued further advice to local authorities to bear that factor in mind when planning permission is requested.
Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, further to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, does the Minister agree with the preliminary report of the Environment Agency that a stronger presumption is needed from today against building in a floodplain, and that in addition flood balancing for all development is needed, which is something of a new proposal? What impact will that have on the Government's policy for building another 4½ million houses in the next few years?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I should point out that what the report referred to, which I believe will be placed in the Library later today, is the response to Ministers that was urgently requested by my honourable friend Mr. Elliot Morley. The independent review will be produced in two stages; one at the end of the month, and one in the autumn. The point raised by the noble Baroness is perfectly fair; namely, that the report has implications for any plans for massive building. Planning authorities will have to consider those plans in relation to the flood basins.
For instance, in the Northampton area, which suffered badly and where there have been criticisms of the warning system, it was not necessarily the fault of that system because the rivers were flowing at a level that did not constitute a red alert. However, the water running off the surface was so acute that floods resulted more widely than the river system. Noble Lords have raised a very important point.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I beg leave to introduce a Bill to render unlawful certain kinds of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.
Viscount Cranborne rose to call attention to the impact of the policies of Her Majesty's Government on the authority of Parliament and its ability to scrutinise and control the actions of the Executive; to the Government's duty to account first to Parliament for all their actions; and to Parliament's place at the centre of the nation's affairs; and to move for Papers.
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in introducing the Motion standing in my name, perhaps I may begin by saying how much I look forward to today's debate, and to the speeches of the many distinguished Peers who are to contribute, especially my noble friends Lord Biffen and Lord Dartmouth. We greatly look forward to their contributions in particular.
Much lip service is always paid to Parliament as an institution--alas, often today, I fear, accompanied by a lament deploring its decline. It is my contention that parliamentary government is indeed under attack, not from the outside but from the very government that derives its authority from being able to command the consent of Parliament itself. Were your Lordships, by some chance, to agree with that contention, perhaps your Lordships would agree also that it follows that any government that insist on behaving like that saw off the branch on which they find themselves perched.
In one of last Sunday's newspapers, Mr. Matthew Parris suggested that we should not believe everything we see on television. I believe he called it, "a medium that depends on faking it". I venture to suggest that any politician knows that Mr. Parris is right. Whether allegedly impartial or not, every television news and current affairs producer has a point of view and television is more insidious than newspapers because of its greater visual impact and its supposed impartiality.
That supposed partiality in both press and electronic media has become part of the warp and woof of the body politic. I make no complaint about that. Indeed, we all accept that a free press is an essential prerequisite for political liberty. The price we pay--as your Lordships will be aware, that is the vulgarity of The Times newspaper--is small compared to the benefit. However, the media are idiosyncratic as to what interests them. They and the public become bored with issues, however important they may be. For instance, we know that African famines are newsworthy in inverse proportion to their distance from the nearest television camera.
The press is therefore an essential partner for Parliament, but it is no substitute. Parliament alone can hold a government to account systematically and continuously rather than merely episodically. The same can perhaps be said for public opinion, which the press more often reflects than it leads. Indeed, I suspect that the public's intermittent interest in politics is a good sign rather than a bad one. Eastern and central Europe talked of nothing but politics, and often still do. That seems to me to indicate more a dissatisfaction with the system under which they live and the current state of affairs than the reverse.
It therefore follows that Parliament must remain central to our system of holding governments to account. Sadly, there are signs that whatever lip service the present Government may pay to the principle, they do not agree in practice. At least one of their Members has openly come close to disagreeing in principle as well. He said,
Mr. Mandelson, for indeed it was he, was speaking to a conference in Germany in March this year. Your Lordships will agree that it is a remarkable statement by any standards. In two sentences it manages both to dismiss parliamentary government, which is the basis of our constitution, and admit that the Government will be guided by focus groups and the other entities that he mentioned.
Of course, general acceptance of Mr. Mandelson's principles would be attractive to the Government. They would avoid the rigours of parliamentary scrutiny, as I have already mentioned, and at the same time be able to claim the support of public opinion which is much easier to manipulate when it is deprived of the partnership of Parliament. Sadly, in making that remark, Mr. Mandelson was not forecasting; he was thinking about the present.
Let us consider the evidence--there seems to be a fair amount of it accumulating one way and another. For instance, the Government have used pre-legislative referendums on three separate occasions so far; that is, on devolution for Scotland, on devolution for Wales and on a mayor for London. I may be wrong, but I imagine few noble Lords will have read the Scottish Daily Express of 28th June 1996. It contains a statement by the present Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. Ron Davies, with which, rather to my surprise, I find myself wholly in agreement. Mr. Davies said,
It seems to me that Mr. Davies could have gone even further. He could have pointed out that pre-legislative referendums are a constitutional innovation in this country and that Parliament is the only institution that can examine the Government so that they answer all the questions. Only then, perhaps, after parliamentary scrutiny--particularly if the measure in question would
It is therefore far from clear that the people of Wales, unlike the people of Scotland, want devolution. It is, however, very clear that the Government used the Welsh referendum result to hurry the Welsh Bill through another place, not with only minimal scrutiny, but for large sections of the Bill, without any scrutiny at all. I need only refer to the questions of reform of health authorities, implementation of EU law, and loans to the Assembly. And I have no doubt that when it comes to the point, the Government will blame the usual whipping boy--the hereditary peerage--if this House tries to make parliamentary government work as it examines the Welsh Bill.
The same applies to the Scottish Bill. The people of Scotland at the moment overwhelmingly want either devolution or independence. Sadly, that is all too clear. But the Government used the fact that there are no rules in this country governing the conduct of referendums to handicap the "no" campaign and to advantage the "yes" campaign--just as they did in Wales. Not only did they rig the questions they asked, as we pointed out many times during the course of the Bill's passage through your Lordships' House, but they deprived the Scottish people of the option of voting for independence as well.
The present opinion polls in Scotland suggest that at least one-third of its people were deprived of the opportunity they would have preferred--independence--a rather higher proportion than the proportion of the Welsh people who approved of the Government's proposals for Wales. And, of course, we are likely to find, as we have with the Welsh Bill, that large sections of the Scottish Bill have not been discussed, even cursorily, in another place.