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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister for Education has recently set out our view that no rural schools should be closed on financial grounds alone and that there must be a credible educational justification for closure. We have invited authorities to apply a test of proportionate advantage to any proposed closure of a rural primary school, demonstrating when the educational and financial gains outweigh any negative effects on the community,
Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that interesting and quite helpful Answer. I am aware of the statement made by the Minister for Education on 21st March. Can the noble Lord confirm that there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools in Scotland? Can he say whether, when considerations other than financial ones prevail and a rural school under threat is kept open, financial resources must be made available by the local authority, which must make savings elsewhere, or whether the Government will make available additional resources?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, the additional cost of provision in rural areas is recognised by the annual grant settlement for local authorities. It is for the local authorities to strike a balance in how the money available to them should be spent. That is their responsibility and their duty. The policy in Scotland is
Lord Palmer: My Lords, if and when schools must be closed, what is the Government's policy with regard to redundant schools? Our local school in the Scottish Borders was closed in 1964 and is still empty and unused.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I am well aware that in many cases local schools after closure have been turned into major resources for the local community, providing, for instance, community facilities or small workshops and opportunities for local enterprise.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I agree with him that local authorities have a difficult task in balancing the financial and educational aspects of falling school rolls? Does he agree that it is essential that local authorities are allowed to get on with the job of removing from the system the huge overhang of empty school places? Does he further agree that we should indicate to the Liberal Democrat Party, which believes in devolution, that these matters ought to be left to local authorities?
Lord Sewel: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his observation. Not only do I believe that the Liberal Democrat Party believes in devolution; it believes also in a strong and effective system of local government and local decision-making. I take the point which the noble Lord makes about the overhang of excess capacity. There are indeed quite proper savings which can be made and we are encouraging local authorities, in the appropriate circumstances, where the balance of argument is clearly in favour of closure and reorganisation, to adopt such policies.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, following the answer which the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is he aware that there are in fact many primary schools in Scotland--my own local primary school is, I am afraid, an example--which were closed many years ago and have not been put to any of the good uses which the Minister suggests?
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is she aware that that question is currently before the political committee of the WEU so that the parliament of the WEU will be considering it actively in the immediate future? It would be helpful for WEU delegates to have guidance on the issue from the British Government. It would be helpful also to know the factors which the Government are taking into account in reaching that level of guidance.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware that the matter is being discussed, but decisions on how the assembly strengthens its links with the Duma, including more regular dialogue, are for the assembly. The assembly already has links with the Duma. Assembly members organised a joint seminar on European security with the Duma in Moscow in November 1996 and Duma parliamentarians attended a plenary session of the assembly in Paris in December 1997.
There are exchanges between the WEU and with Foreign Minister Primakov in trying to build that relationship. Of course Her Majesty's Government also have parliamentary exchanges which we hope indicate the general tenor of the relationship which we should wish to pursue.
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, in view of what my noble friend said in relation to guidance for the parliamentary delegates to the Western European Union, perhaps I might ask whether the practice of Foreign Office briefing for the WEU and, indeed, the Council of Europe delegation still continues under the present Government as it did under the previous government, whereby, when the agenda was available for the plenary session, a Foreign Office briefing was given to the delegation which represented the British Parliament at both those organisations.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, are the Government following up the Birmingham Declaration of 1997 which was agreed under the British presidency at which the Permanent Council of the WEU was tasked to take forward relations with Russia and the Ukraine?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that we are reaching a clearer understanding of the WEU functions. Those in your Lordships' House who have been taking an interest in the progress of the Amsterdam Bill, on which we have currently reached the Committee stage, and the Amsterdam Treaty will be aware that that treaty retains the principles which were established about the WEU in the Maastricht Treaty. It confirms also that the WEU will be the channel through which the EU can call on an operational military capability in support of its own non-military crisis management activity.
Lord Kennet: My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that, given the difficult circumstances of its birth and the continued threat under which it lives, the Duma will have need of all the contacts, discussions and clarifications it can have with all western parliamentary international assemblies, not only the WEU but also the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the North Atlantic Assembly? The further we go in that dangerous business of expanding NATO, the more it will need those contacts.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend would expect, Her Majesty's Government would not agree with his description of the expansion of NATO as dangerous or difficult. But he is right that we are in the business of building confidence. That was the reason behind the founding Act which your Lordships have discussed on previous occasions. All opportunities we have to build confidence not only between the Duma and the WEU but between the Duma and other countries and between the Duma and NATO are worthwhile undertakings which Her Majesty's Government pursue.
Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me in principle that dialogue between parliamentarians is generally good and should always be encouraged? Does she agree with me also that a core aspect of the Government's foreign policy is to support co-operation among European countries in order to enhance the political stability of our Continent as well as improving prosperity for all?
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