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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, on the point of information that I am allowed or not allowed, the noble Baroness rather dismissively referred to political colleagues at the LGA. It was an official of the LGA who wrote to me personally, and to LEA leaders, sending copies to me as vice-president of the association. The letter stated that a full set of applications had been received. It was very unfortunate that that official was deemed to have breached a confidence.
There are two points in relation to that. First, I do not believe that he breached a confidence. The box of applications was simply sent to the LGA, and there was no requirement for confidence to be kept. Nor would he have sent out letters so publicly had that been the case. He would have been much more covert. I do not believe that this particular officer was guilty of the kind of action to which he would have had to resort in order to be covert. Therefore, I heard about the matter officially and was free to go into the LGA offices to see them.
My question to the noble Baroness is this. As a Member of the Official Opposition and a Front-Bencher involved materially in the making of this legislation--as a Member of Parliament, party to the whole of Parliament--why am I not allowed the right to that information? Why were an official of the LGA and council leaders written to by that official? I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would give an answer to that question.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we have had this debate before. It was made absolutely clear that the information was given to the LGA by an official of my department on a confidential basis. The noble Baroness denies that that was the case, but I assure her that it was. The information was then passed on.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that brings me to my second point. I believe that that response calls into question the character of the official. I defend the right of the official, who was not asked to keep the information confidential and was not under the belief that that was what he had to do. If the noble Baroness can give me proof that that was the case, it will call the character of the gentleman into question. I do not believe that that is the case.
I wish to rejoice with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, because I hope that the Bill works. But he is privy to much information which I was not, as a Member of these Benches. There is nothing in the Bill as to how it will work. There are four clauses which say very little. The Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 22nd December. On 5th January, before it had even started its Committee stage in the House of Commons, the bidding documents had gone out to all the potential bidders. The closing date was 10th March. It was still proceeding through another place and it is now proceeding through this House.
The bidding is over, the considerations have been made, action zones have been named and still the information is denied me as a Member of the Opposition. I do not wish to confuse this with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor; we wish the action zones well. This is a way of tackling failing education. However, I believe that the way in which it has been set up will not tackle failing education. There are huge problems, as will be manifest as time goes on. It would be helpful if the Minister could write to me to give us an idea of the breakdown of the money. It is not surprising that there is a great deal of excitement out there; the action zones will receive £1 million each year for three years. There is no promise about what happens after that, but it is serious money and there is great excitement.
Some of the areas in the country with the worst education and the most failing LEAs have not received action zone status. Some authorities, not reputed for having failing schools, have received action zone money. We do not know why, we do not know the criteria for considering the bid. The Minister has not imparted any of that information, we are completely and utterly in the dark about it.
The noble Baroness made comments about me being something of a wet blanket about the policy. I am not. I said right at the beginning that innovation is good when trying to tackle some of the challenges in education which have eluded good teachers and good
There is nothing in the Bill or the bidding documents that tells us what is the process for discussing with parents their involvement in ceding powers to a forum, or even when the national curriculum is to be disapplied. At least when it is disapplied under the present system in a school that has good reason for it to be disapplied, there is a process to go through. There is no process here, no process laid down, there is nothing in the Bill and nothing in regulations. Those are my complaints about this.
I shall leave the matter for the moment, but I must say to the noble Baroness that I hope I receive the information and see copies of the letters that have gone out and that the information can be made available to me. It will be interesting to see how long after my first request I receive the information. It would be helpful to have it before the Bill has gone through this House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this debate about the future of the Council of Europe. In my short time as a delegate to the parliamentary assembly, my understanding and respect for the work of the institution have increased exponentially. I took the trouble to look up the last time this House debated the work of the Council of Europe; it was in December 1994. The debate concentrated on the proposed admission of Russia to the Council of Europe. My noble friend Lord Kirkhill will remember the debate as he took part in it. On reading the debate, I was struck by how much the institution has grown and developed since 1994. I was also struck by how the issues surrounding human rights have remained much the same.
The first home truth I was told was that the Council of Europe is a talk shop. Of course that is true, but it is a talk shop with real moral authority. One has to look no further than last week's business in Strasbourg to see the respect which the Council of Europe commands. Last week we were addressed by the King of the Belgians, the managing director of the IMF, the president of the EBRD, the chairman-in-office of the Committee of Ministers, the chairman-in-office of the OSCE, Mr. Paul Murphy, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, and Liz O'Donnell, foreign minister of the Irish Republic.
On top of that, a number of reports were debated by the assembly, perhaps the most controversial of which addressed the situation of the Kurdish refugees in south-east Turkey and north Iraq. The debate stirred real passion and I believe it was a testament to the parliamentary assembly itself that it is the only forum where parliamentarians can directly tell their Turkish colleagues the strength of international feeling about the human rights abuses in Turkey.
The Council of Europe is an outreach organisation. It has knowingly and deliberately taken in members who do not meet all the criteria for membership. Last week some 50 national delegations were present, made up of 40 member states plus other visiting delegations. Yet this was not some international jamboree, it was an ongoing working session of parliamentarians addressing real issues in a way that countries' ministers sometimes feel inhibited in doing. I believe that the assembly, together with the European Court on Human Rights, works to ratchet up standards in practical ways which will affect people's day-to-day lives.
The second home truth my old and grizzled journalistic friend told me was that the Council of Europe is a waiting room for those who wish to join the European Union. I believe that point is untrue, but it raises profound questions about the future of the institution. If countries do come to see the Council of Europe as only a waiting room rather than as an institution which confirms a country's democratic vocation and commitment to human rights, then frustration and disillusionment will set in.
I believe that it is likely that the negotiations for European Union expansion will become ever more intractable and difficult and that the majority of members of the Council of Europe will not become members of the European Union in my political lifetime. It follows that both the European Union and the member
I am sure that my noble friend will point me to the second heads of state summit in October last year which set out an action plan for a united Europe. It is a laudable document. But I say to my noble friend that the fact that there has been no increase in the budget as a result of the summit reflects on the reality of achieving those aims. If governments are to will the end, they have to will the means. I also remind my noble friend that, with little exaggeration, our own Parliament has not got a clue what the 36 delegates it sends to the Council of Europe actually get up to.
And that brings me to the third home truth of my old, grizzled and somewhat tired friend; namely, that Parliament is not interested in the work of the Council of Europe. I would like to think that the only reason that this debate is not better attended is that it is now only 21 minutes until England kick-off in St. Etienne, but, sadly, I do not think that is the case. The truth of the matter is that Members are not interested in the Council of Europe because they are not told about its work.
And that brings me to the question of parliamentary scrutiny. There are many examples of conventions which this House could have scrutinized during the drafting stage. Parliament simply does not know the content of those conventions or, indeed, whether the Government signed them. I shall give two examples: first, the convention on human rights and biomedicine and, secondly, the convention on the prohibition of cloning human beings. I know that this House has a lot to say about bioethics and it is a loss to all parties concerned that it did not have a role in scrutinising that type of work. While I am on the subject it would be interesting to hear why the Government have not ratified either of those conventions. I suggest that scrutiny could take place within the existing committee structure which is currently used for scrutinizing European Union legislation. I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Communities, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, will treat that suggestion sympathetically as I believe that it will not only better inform Parliament, but will raise the status of the Council of Europe itself.
As I said in my opening comments, we have an opportunity to promote a greater understanding of the work of the Council of Europe through next year's 50th anniversary celebrations and I would hope that we take full advantage of that opportunity.
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