26 Oct 2006 : Column 1277

House of Lords

Thursday, 26 October 2006.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

Parliament and the Constitution: Public Information

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, we have funded the production of a Citizenship Foundation publication, Inside Britain: A Guide to the UK Constitution, which was launched on 10 July of this year. Copies have been sent to all secondary schools in England and Wales and to further education colleges.

We are also funding a number of other projects that are intended to support the education community in its commitment to explain how our parliamentary democracy works. These include six booklets which are being published by the Hansard Society and the production of a CD by the Hansard Society with the Association of Citizenship Teachers called “Big Ben and All That”.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that extensive reply. Does he agree that it is very important that information on Parliament and the constitution should be unbiased and accurate, especially information provided to schools and those applying for citizenship? The documents provided to schools are not at all bad, but the document produced apparently by the Home Office, Life in the United Kingdom, A Journey to Citizenship, is full of the most appalling errors and is grossly misleading. For example, it states that after 1945 “unemployment vanished”. And, under a heading, “The Thatcher Era”, it states:

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that not only would someone applying for citizenship and paying £9.99 for this document have wasted their money but they might well have jeopardised their chance of being accepted for citizenship?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, on the issue of unemployment, the document should have said, “after 1997 unemployment vanished”. As to what happened between 1979 and 1997, obviously the author was writing about his hopes, rather than what actually happened.

26 Oct 2006 : Column 1278

Of course, accuracy is incredibly important in relation to what is said. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comments about the material provided to schools. It is extremely important that schools are told about how our constitution and our Parliament work, because that is how our values are embedded—and that is important at the moment. I will take up all of the noble Lord’s points about the inaccuracies in the Home Office document.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, have all the figures been checked and, if so, by which statistician?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not sure to which figures the noble Lord is referring. The Home Office is not a figures department; it is much more a generality department, so there probably are no figures in the document.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor say whether a copy of all this material has been sent to Mr Jack Straw, who seems somewhat ignorant on matters of the constitution, judging from recent leaks about his intentions?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, talking about Lords reform in the House of Lords is always a bit of a hospital pass, I feel. We should continue our search for consensus. As for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, on historical material, in my experience, there is no one more experienced in history than the Leader of the House of Commons.

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the Life in the United Kingdom booklet to which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, referred and the Life in the UK website offer aspiring UK citizens no further educational resources? Yet, here in Parliament, we have the excellent Parliamentary Education Unit, which produces books and videos that are mainly directed at young people and would be perfectly suitable for immigrants to look at. It has also an excellent website called “explore Parliament”. Would it not be sensible for the Life in the UK website at the very least to have a link through to the Parliamentary Education Unit website, so that it would be easy for aspiring new citizens to access those excellent educational materials?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree entirely that the work done by the Parliamentary Education Unit is absolutely first-class. I also agree that, if there were links between that website and the Life in the UK website, that would be beneficial. I shall see whether that can be done.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, should not some information be provided clarifying the law on privilege following the extensive argument that took place last week among lawyers about whether a proceeding in Parliament on a Question on rape should be transmitted or published? I understand that some television companies bleeped on an unprecedented scale that proceeding in Parliament and lawyers blocked copy in national newspapers. Is there not now a need for clarification in some form of publication, and will my noble and learned friend consider writing to Members of the House on this matter?

26 Oct 2006 : Column 1279

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, that is a bit far from the Question, but it is a very important issue. I shall not refer to the specifics of the matter raised by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but Parliament has privilege so that there can be free debate in Parliament. There is no point in free debate in Parliament if the free debate is then kept secret by the media.

The purpose of the privilege rule is that, so long as there is an accurate account of what is said in Parliament, it can then be broadcast or put in national newspapers. If the account is biased or unfair, that is not right. If you name someone, as in the example given, then, so long as the context is set out fairly, there is no legal restriction on it being published. We need to look at that. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is absolutely right to say that it would appear from some elements in the media that the conclusion reached by the lawyers was that, because it would not have been privileged if it had been said by someone outside Parliament, a fair account of it could not be given in Parliament. The best example of that is that those proceedings were not even broadcast on the BBC Parliament channel, and that could not have been a fairer account of what happened. So I think that we need to look at the matter and that a definitive account of parliamentary privilege needs to be given in both Houses of Parliament.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I will return to the Question. The document referred to by my noble friend does not just contain inaccuracies; it has fundamental mistakes. I shall give one example—certainly it gets worse for the Members opposite:

Thus, Jim Callaghan is completely written out of history. That is a classic example of why history—not citizenship—should remain compulsory for all pupils to the age of 16. If the Home Office cannot get it right, who can? Unless we have a solid grounding in history, how can we begin to understand and build citizenship?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree entirely about the importance of history. If the Home Office is not adequately referring to Mr Callaghan, that is of deep and profound regret. I see the noble Lord, Lord McNally, nodding enthusiastically, because he was a part of that. Sadly, my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington is not in her place, but the omission of Lord Callaghan is terrible.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we are into the eighth minute. It is a good Question, but we will have to move on.

26 Oct 2006 : Column 1280

Russia: Anna Politkovskaya

11.14 am

Lord Giddens asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Minister for Europe have all called for a thorough investigation into the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. EU leaders repeated this call during their meeting with President Putin at the Lahti summit on 20 October. The Russian prosecutor-general has taken charge of the criminal investigation, which I hope will bring those responsible for this terrible and troubling crime to justice.

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I am not wholly persuaded by it. Over the past six years, no fewer than 12 journalists have been murdered in Russia. In not a single case has anyone been brought to justice. What representations have the Government made in those previous cases, and why does the Minister have so much confidence that this one will be resolved?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, let me start by saying that I am not confident that it will be resolved, but I expect to see a serious attempt to resolve it. We have had regular, open and frank discussions with Russia on human rights and the murders of other journalists; we routinely have such discussions through structured EU and bilateral dialogues and through ongoing contact at all levels with the Russian Administration. FCO Ministers have met a number of Russian NGOs as well this year and discussed their and our concerns with Russian Ministers. We fund, through the FCO, projects to provide financial support to the NGOs that are involved in the training and work of journalists.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, Anna Politkovskaya most annoyed the formal and informal powers that be in Russia in her reporting of events in the north Caucasus—in Chechnya, in particular, but also in North Ossetia, South Ossetia and elsewhere. Are the Government doing their best to ensure that the deep corruption of the Russian army, which she exposed, and the appalling behaviour of the local authorities throughout those troubled republics are not lost sight of, that the OSCE continues to pay attention to them, that the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, continues to cover them, and that we do not allow the Russian authorities to continue to behave in such an appalling way in that region?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we try to exert as much influence as we can in routine meetings and special bilateral meetings on all these issues. We also do our

26 Oct 2006 : Column 1281

best to ensure that the Council of Europe’s decisions are binding on Russia, as they are on all others. I may stand corrected on the figures, but I think that there are nine outstanding issues still to be resolved. We will not stop in this argument. Human rights are a fundamental issue and are raised at every opportunity.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, many will notice that the Russian authorities do not welcome independent voices on the Chechnya issue, on which Anna Politkovskaya was working at the time of her death. We have given a lot of support in the past to freedom of the press in Russia through the British Council and through the Know How Fund, and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is about to open in Oxford. Can my noble friend tell us that we will continue to encourage—indeed, that we will expand the encouragement and support that we give directly to—Russian journalists who are working for freedom of the press in that country?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I give that assurance straightforwardly. It is part of our forward programme and has to remain part of it. The burden of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, in his Question shows why that is the right thing to do.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Minister agree also that the worrying reduction of the freedom of the press in Russia continues apace, not only in these tragic murders, which have to be investigated, but in incidents behind the scenes, including much harassment of journalists all the time? The legislation in the Duma is inadequate for the real protection of a free press, which is essential to expose criminality and wrongdoing, as well as terrorism. What will the Government do to make the extra points to convince the Russian Government of the need for new legislation in the Duma?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, in the discussions that I have described, which go on consistently, Ministers and officials have tried to emphasise that across the whole canvas of human rights there needs to be real development and a cessation of the push-back against many of the NGOs—certainly, in the areas of journalism and freedom of the press, that could not be clearer. We will continue to argue that human rights dialogue is absolutely vital. There has been progress in some areas, and it is critical that that does not slip back.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, is right to imply that the record on the murder of outspoken journalists in Moscow and Russia is miserable. Will the Minister keep us up to date with the progress that he and his colleagues make in ensuring that human rights values are upheld in the Russian Federation? We all recognise that Russia is a difficult place to govern. I am sure that he is aware that a $1 million reward is out for any information about the murder of this lady. One of the Moscow newspapers said that she,

26 Oct 2006 : Column 1282

Unfortunately, of course, she looked evil in the eye and ultimately lost the battle for her life. Does the Minister accept that that is a fine epitaph to an obviously wonderful crusading journalist?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do. I am horrified by the murder, as I suspect all Members of the House will be. It was described by Vladimir Putin as a crime of loathsome brutality, although I must say that he went on to say that he did not believe that she had had a huge impact. We have said that it is a terrible crime. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said that we condemn the murder and call for a thorough investigation into it. We will continue our work. As I said, we are supporting NGOs working to promote media freedom. This year, we have supported a project with the International Federation of Journalists and the Russian Union of Journalists to promote media independence and capacity. I make that point because it is incumbent on us, apart from deploring a loathsome crime, to support those who carry on the fight for which she gave her life.


11.21 am

Lord Tyler asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, officials from my department recently met contractors from University College, London, and the Veterinary Products Committee’s medical and scientific panel to discuss concerns about the scientific viability of the project. We have recently received, on 20 October, the panel’s written appraisal of the contractor’s proposed approach. A decision will be taken once the advice has been considered.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but I am sure that he is aware that the hundreds of victims of organophosphate poisoning will be disappointed at the lack of progress.

As I hope the Minister is also aware, successive Ministers in successive Governments have constantly said to these unfortunate people that more research is needed. Can he explain why this has been drawn out for so long? In particular, why have the concerns been raised at this late stage in this important study by UCL? Why were they not raised much earlier? Finally and most importantly, can the Minister really accept that the misery of the many organophosphate victims is less important than the millions that have been made by multinational chemical companies? Which side are the Government on?

26 Oct 2006 : Column 1283

Lord Rooker: My Lords, reading the briefing for this took me back a few years, when I was dealing with this matter and the noble Lord came to see me—as, I suspect, did the next questioner. The delay has been unforgivable.

I shall be happy to see the noble Lord and arrange for him to see officials. I know he came into the department 18 months or two years ago. One of the key issues causing problems with the contractor’s proposed approach to this part of the study has been the inability to put together a control group. I have not seen the advice that came in last Friday; it is being looked at for advice to the Minister, Ben Bradshaw. There has been a complete inability to find a control group of, for example, sheep farmers who have retired away from farming, because farmers tend not to retire in that sense. That has been a central cause of the delay.

Given the chronology of this—the years it has gone on for—it is unforgivable. It is bound to lead to suspicions on the part of those who think that there is a connection between organophosphates and ill health that there is lethargy in the department. The issue must be cracked once and for all, but we need better scientific evidence than we have at present.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister was right to assume that I would be the next to ask him a question. Can he explain why MAFF, as it then was, spent four years negotiating with the main contractor? The design was agreed with in-house scientists and independent external reviewers. They have been offered 12 different groups for controls, which have been turned down.

Why, on every occasion that sheep dip research has shown that there are problems with organophosphates and sheep farmers, has the medical and scientific panel criticised the control groups? There was the Institute of Occupational Health in Birmingham, the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh and now this. Is it not time they got it right?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have every sympathy with the noble Countess’s approach. The only good thing that I discovered when I returned to the issue after some years was that the work done in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the containers used for OPs was successful in that you cannot buy them now unless you have a certificate. The containers separate the product from the person. Following their introduction, there has been only one report of an acute adverse reaction in a human to OP sheep dips. To that extent, progress has been made, but it does not help those who believe that they are suffering an illness as a result of OPs.

The situation is complicated further because the alternative to OPs—Cypermethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid—kills fish because sheep shake themselves after being dipped. It has been withdrawn, so, at present, there is no alternative to OPs. However, the matter must be looked at further, and I will be happy to see the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page