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House of Lords

Monday, 8th November 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Lord Gavron

Robert Gavron, Esquire CBE, having been created Baron Gavron, of Highgate in the London Borough of Camden, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord McIntosh of Haringey and the Baroness Blackstone, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Telephone Services: Use by Government Departments

2.42 p.m.

Lord Jacobs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What measures they have taken to ensure that Government departments are taking advantage of the low prices available in the United Kingdom for internal and overseas telephone calls.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, each government department is responsible for ensuring that it achieves best value for money from all the goods and services which it procures, including telephone services. Advice and services to departments on achieving best value across the range of information technology and telephony services are available from CCTA--the Government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency.

Lord Jacobs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As the Government are leading a crusade for lower prices in Britain, will they insist that government departments, such as the Foreign Office, use an alternative supplier to British Telecom for overseas calls, thereby saving the taxpayer 60 per cent off the lowest BT prices? Furthermore, will the Minister inquire why, in the House, noble Lords pay the standard BT rate of 20p per minute for calls to the USA rather than 4p per minute, which is the rate offered by alternative suppliers?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I said in my Answer, it is at present for each individual department to try to obtain the best deals available. The advice given by CCTA to the departments states that,

    "The increased competitiveness of the UK telecommunications market offers the opportunity to drive down telecommunications costs by taking advantage of the various discount schemes offered. However, departments also need to be more creative in the way they negotiate with suppliers, challenging them to provide innovative solutions to the delivery and charging of the telecom service".

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In July this year we announced the setting up of the Office of Government Commerce, which is designed to have a central buying agency role for all of government. The CCTA will be transferred to that office on 1st April. Therefore, we are doing everything possible to try to ensure that the Government obtain the best value. The cost of telephone calls from this House is a matter for the authorities of this House rather than for the Government.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, have the Government investigated the use of Internet telephony, which would save the Foreign Office even more money than my noble friend's suggestion?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I said, the advice given by CCTA to government departments is that they should investigate innovative solutions to the delivery and charging of those kinds of services.

EU Inter-Governmental Conference

2.44 p.m.

Lord Moynihan asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to publish a White Paper in advance of the forthcoming European Union Inter-Governmental Conference.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, yes.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I welcome that extremely helpful and succinct reply from the Minister. What important assurance can she give that, at the forthcoming IGC, the Government will agree to give up our second Commissioner only if we are compensated through vote reweighting in the Council of Ministers? Does the Minster accept that, far from emerging from Amsterdam with an agreement that will give Britain greater weight in the Council of Ministers as promised by the Foreign Secretary, the Government's position resulted instead in a situation where we are legally bound to give up our second Commissioner by 2003 in a treaty which only envisages a satisfactory vote reweighting formula?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we do not accept the noble Lord's suggestion that the Government have failed in that respect. Our position remains as it was at Amsterdam. We believe that it is in the interests of a more efficient Commission that large member states should be prepared to give up their second Commissioner when the EU expands, provided that a satisfactory agreement is achieved on the reweighting of votes in the Council.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, on this tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, may I thank the Minister for her detailed and satisfactory reply to the noble Lord's Question? Does she not agree that, if we are to achieve the great project of making

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the European Union correlate to the whole of Europe--eastern and central Europe as well as western Europe--changes in institutions are absolutely necessary? Will she further agree that to follow a policy of what is called "national individual flexibility" would destroy the whole spirit and nature of the European Union? Does she accept that it would be far better to emphasise the importance of subsidiarity and of the significance that national parliaments can play in scrutinising and examining European legislation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that participation and co-operation is a better way forward. The IGC rightly concentrates on the institutional changes necessary for enlargement, which will be a challenging position. We are going to consider the size and composition of the Commission, the weighting of votes and the possible extension of qualified majority voting. We are looking at the mechanisms which will enable us to deliver well for ourselves and for Europe.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the problems vis a vis the European Union and the British public is that very little is known by so-called ordinary citizens about Europe? Will the Government therefore contemplate publishing a summary of the White Paper referred to in the Question in plain English and to make it accessible to ordinary people, thus enabling many more to relate to and understand what is going on in Europe?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord is saying. Of course, we shall take those matters into consideration. Nevertheless, we hope that when the White Paper is issued it will be written in plain English so that we may all have the benefit of the information contained therein.

Young Offenders: Activity Courses

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider activity courses for young offenders a success.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, recent Home Office evaluation of probation programmes that use demanding physical activities points to a range of positive outcomes. The best practice identified will help probation services to improve their work. However, we shall not know the full position until the results of reconviction studies are available. We do not consider that activity-based programmes should be either seen or used as a soft option. They must be part of a programme tailored specifically for

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individual needs from the Government's programme, which is designed to reduce reconviction and offending rates.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, whilst I thank the noble Lord for that reply, does he not agree that very many millions of pounds are spent on the various projects without definite results? Would he perhaps like to follow the example of the Simon Weston Spirit, based mostly in Liverpool, which has been extremely successful in its work to help young offenders to mend their ways?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the information that she provides. I am sure that that is an example which the rest of the country will seek to follow. We believe that our programmes are successful. Some three thousand plus people are placed on them annually and the indications are that the reconviction rates are on a parallel with other levels of reconviction rates for other forms of sentencing. Therefore, we believe that on evaluation those programmes have merit. Clearly, we need to keep them under review at all times.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, will the Minister accept that the reoffending rates among unemployed youngsters are twice as high as among those with jobs? Will he consider the initiative taken by the Ministry of Defence to include ex-offenders in the services? Also will he consider whether a similar initiative can be taken by other government departments; and whether employers can be encouraged to ensure that targets are set in employing ex-offenders?

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