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House of Lords

Tuesday, 24th February 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

WEU Parliamentary Assembly

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will seek to ensure that the Council of Ministers of the Western European Union adopts an open approach to the Parliamentary Assembly; and that the Council provides information relevant to the interests and responsibilities of the assembly where that information is available to national parliaments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Western European Union has an important role to play in fostering parliamentary and public discussion of European security issues.

The WEU Permanent Council sends a detailed formal report on its activities to each plenary session of the assembly. The Council also maintains a regular dialogue with the Parliamentary Assembly, comprising extensive opportunities for written and oral exchange of information and views. Her Majesty's Government strongly support that dialogue and the efforts to ensure it is open, effective and relevant.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it was regrettable that last year the Council of Ministers refused to provide information to the Parliamentary Assembly? That was information which would certainly have been available in other parliaments, as it is in our own. Does my noble friend share the suspicion that the action of the Council of Ministers at that time was a cover-up for those member states which, while proclaiming eagerness for the development of the European defence pillar, maintain inadequate defence provisions themselves and certainly have an unfair record of security burden sharing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the extensive arrangements for dialogue already in place, which I described to your Lordships' House, have not always worked as well as they should. It is important to make them work better. To be credible, an intergovernmental defence organisation must be able to protect information which member states consider affects their security. I am afraid that that inevitably places some restriction on how fully the WEU Council can share its deliberations with the WEU Assembly, particularly on issues where member states disagree.

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Lord Moynihan: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, even if the Amsterdam treaty gives explicit recognition that NATO is the foundation of our common defence, it also gives explicit recognition of the possibility of an EU and WEU merger and the first steps towards a common defence role for the European Union? Given that Article J7 of the Treaty of Amsterdam states that the,

    "Union shall accordingly foster closer relations with the WEU with a view to the possibility of the integration of the WEU into the Union",

what guarantees can the Government give that, despite the possibility of a merger enshrined in treaty form for the first time, they will not acquiesce to such a merger in the future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, to turn the EU into a defence organisation would undermine NATO. The Amsterdam treaty makes clear, as Maastricht did not, that there can be no EU-WEU integration unless and until all member states agree and their national parliaments approve.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, is it not correct that the late President Kennedy used to regard NATO as being based on two pillars--the North American pillar and the European pillar? Has not Europe been way behind in setting up an effective European pillar to NATO?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we should understand the nature of the WEU. It is not there to perform collective defence tasks in the way that NATO is. It is there much more to deal with crisis management in Europe.

Women's Refuges and Support Services

2.40 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to improve the supply of and support for women's refuges and ancillary services.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Government wish to promote and facilitate local action to support victims of domestic violence, whether through the provision of refuges or outreach and other services. Capital funding is made available to local authorities and through the Housing Corporation for spending on local housing priorities, which can include refuge provision. Funding arrangements for a range of support services, including refuge and outreach services, are currently being examined by the interdepartmental review of funding for supported accommodation. The Government's objectives for future funding arrangements were published for consultation in November 1997.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that the number of available refuge places is still less than one third of the figure recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee

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in 1975? That estimate itself is widely regarded as an under-estimate. Is she further aware that ancillary services, in particular help lines and support for children, are cases where spending a little money might end in saving rather a lot?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I certainly take the noble Earl's point that the ancillary services are very important. The Government recognise that refuges offer valuable respite and support, enabling victims to rebuild their lives. In 1995 the Women's Aid Federation in England estimated that there were around 340 refuges for victims of domestic violence run by women's groups plus 78 units of move-on accommodation, representing 2,104 family places. However, it is important to recognise that, as the noble Earl pointed out, there is a whole range of accommodation and support packages for victims which can be used by local authorities. Refuges are one--but not the only one--of these. Women have a variety of needs and preferences and it is important that they can be met at a local level. On that point, just over 20,000 households were accepted by local authority housing departments as homeless in 1996 giving violent breakdown of their relationship as a reason for the loss of their last home.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that it is not only the immediate local authority that is involved? It is important that women should be able to move out of an area where the husband or the violent party who created the problem can immediately find them. For that reason the problem tends to bridge a number of local authorities. Would it not be desirable to have specific funding to bridge different areas rather than just giving funding through the support grant?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we do have to look at the areas of funding. A review is going on which has recognised that funding for services is often fragmentary and can be precarious for some of the services. The noble Baroness asked about local authorities looking after women who are seeking safe accommodation outside their own areas. Under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 local housing authorities must assist all applicants who are eligible, unintentionally homeless and in priority need. But my department is currently revising the guidance on Parts VI and VII of the Housing Act and is looking at the scope for strengthening the guidance to local housing authorities about their responsibilities in this area.

Lord Meston: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the problems of demand are not confined to England and Wales and that last year refuges in Scotland were reported as having been overwhelmed, having had to turn away some 4,000 women and 6,000 children for lack of space? Does that not argue for an urgent rationalisation of the funding of refuges on a long-term and secure basis?

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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am aware of the concerns that have been raised in Scotland on this issue. We have to make sure that the Government's response is co-ordinated. The Cabinet sub-committee on women's issues has a role to address all forms of violence against women and there is also the ministerial group, chaired by my honourable friend Mr. Alun Michael, specifically working on domestic violence. In addition, the Department of Social Security is leading an interdepartmental review of funding for supported accommodation. All those reviews involve the territorial departments as well as the departments--the Home Office and the Department of Social Security--that are immediately involved. However, I note the presence of my noble friend Lord Sewel on the Bench beside me. I am sure that he will take on board the noble Lord's point.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, am I to assume that this will be a devolved subject and that therefore the concerns expressed by my friend on the Liberal Benches will not be a proper subject for discussion in this House?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am advised that it is suggested that the funding--certainly the local authority funding for refuges--would be a devolved issue. However, there are wider issues than simply accommodation. There are the Home Office issues involving domestic violence, the criminal law and enforcement against offenders, and the Government have a coherent approach to those.

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