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House of Lords

Wednesday, 15th November 2000.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, at the forthcoming Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, they will put forward proposals to increase the funding and effectiveness of the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, education Ministers will consider a number of recommendations for improving the effectiveness of the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan--the CSFP. Separate reviews of UK support for the CSFP are currently being undertaken by the Department for International Development and the FCO. The purpose of the review by the Department for International Development is to examine how we can focus more effort on training trainers and providing more access to training in developing countries.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she agree that over the years the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan has been a remarkable example of Commonwealth co-operation? Is she aware that a list of its alumni shows literally hundreds of former graduates and fellows who have gone on to be leaders in public life in their own countries as vice-chancellors, Ministers and even Prime Ministers? At the Commonwealth meeting of education Ministers, will Her Majesty's Government do all that they can to ensure that other Commonwealth countries co-operate and contribute at least as enthusiastically as this Government have done? However, is she aware that the grant which this country makes towards the scheme is now in real terms 25 per cent lower than it was in 1992-93? Were we to increase that funding, would that not be a good lead in encouraging other countries to do even better?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, that the plan is a remarkable example of Commonwealth co-operation and that, indeed, the list of alumni is impressive. We currently fund two-thirds of the scholarships within the plan. The Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan was established in 1959. Therefore, it is right that it should be reviewed at this time. Through the review, the Department for

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International Development hopes to ensure that our priorities are being met in terms of poverty elimination.

We shall of course encourage our Commonwealth partners to co-operate and contribute to the plan, but we must recognise that they may have other priorities for their budgets. In terms of the grant, as I said to the noble Lord, we currently contribute two-thirds overall.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I agree with the Minister that it is a marvellous plan. However, can she explain why, during her travels, the Secretary of State extolled the virtues of the scholarships, yet since 1997 she has cut them in number from 10,473 to 9,000 and the training ones from 93,196 to 55,388? Will further cuts in funding be made, as has been the case in so many other areas?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and I have discussed this matter before. Our priorities for education in terms of the Department for International Development budget are quite clear. We are committed to the international development targets for universal access to primary education and achieving gender equality in education. Those are our priorities because, given our commitment to poverty elimination, we need to ensure that basic education is put in place in the poorest countries of the world. In some countries the amount of funding for tertiary and further education students is 20 times higher than that for primary and secondary education students. We are trying to ensure that our funding is balanced. However, given our overall priorities in terms of poverty elimination, we recognise that basic education must be put first.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the people who receive the scholarships are expected to use them for the benefit of their own countries? It is important that people should develop skills and obtain knowledge that will benefit the poorest countries. Therefore, they need to return to their countries with high educational standards.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that that is a priority in terms of the scholarships. The majority of graduates do return to their countries. Over 40 per cent of them work in education, but they also work in other areas of the public and private sectors. The aim of the scholarships is to assist developing countries and, indeed, some developed countries to make contacts and become involved in the network across Commonwealth countries and also to assist the development of developing countries within the Commonwealth.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, in the course of the review, will the noble Baroness give special attention to the need to assist scholars who are persona non grata in their own countries, particularly those such as Zimbabwe which do not comply with the Harare Declaration?

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Baroness Amos: My Lords, I shall find out whether that matter is covered by the review. We are expecting the review report to be completed next month. I am sure that the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission, which is undertaking the review, will have that issue well in hand.

Rail Track Repairs: Progress

2.43 p.m.

Lord Brookman asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the programme of track replacement, to bring some 2,000 miles of railway track up to satisfactory standards, can be completed quickly and efficiently.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, following a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister last Thursday, Railtrack announced that the bulk of track repairs should be completed by Christmas, with the remainder to be completed by Easter. Railtrack has checked 3,000 sites and identified 300 miles of track which needs to be rerailed. So far about 70 miles has been rerailed.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very clear Answer. Is he aware that rail manufacturing in the United Kingdom is carried out at Workington? Is he further aware that 30 per cent of the workforce at that plant are to lose their jobs by the end of the year? Is he aware also that it is the intention of the company, Corus, which was British Steel plc, to make steel at Redcar and ship it to France to make the appropriate length rails for use in our country? Does he agree with that? If he does not, will he do something to help that company to survive in the North West?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, my noble friend, with his distinguished record in the steel industry, will know that Corus, previously British Steel, has been supplying the vast majority of rails to Railtrack and, before that, to British Rail. In May of this year, Corus announced a five-year contract with Railtrack to supply rail and welding services worth in excess of £120 million, one of the largest contracts ever awarded.

I understand that part of the contract is for the supply of 72-metre long rails which the Corus plant in Workington cannot produce because of restrictions on the site. Corus has decided instead to supply those rails from a French plant--Sogerail--which Corus recently bought. I am told that Railtrack is sensitive to the potential for loss of rail-making capacity in the United Kingdom. But essentially it says that that is an issue for Corus. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree

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that it would be very welcome to have the rerailing of British railways undertaken, where possible, with rails made in Britain.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, will the noble Lord give some indication of what proportion of the 300 miles of track which requires renewal was laid during the past five years or so?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I cannot yet give those details, but that is a very interesting question. I am told that part of a new phenomenon which is emerging is that gauge-corner cracking appears to be affecting rails which are perhaps only one year old as well as rails which might be 10, 15 or 20 years old. So an expert working party has been set up by Railtrack to examine the question, which is not unique to Britain. I am told that that is happening also in France, Germany and Japan. It appears to be a new phenomenon which we are looking at very closely. I shall report back when I have more details.

Lord McNally: My Lords, as the Minister knows, among the heaviest users of long-distance rail are families reuniting for Christmas in the North West, the North East and Scotland. From what the Minister said today, is he giving an assurance to those families that it is sensible to plan those long-distance journeys at Christmastime or are we to have widespread confusion and chaos in the Christmas rush?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, as I said earlier, the bulk of the rerailing will be completed by Christmas. The Prime Minister is meeting representatives from the rail industry tomorrow and is looking to the industry to publish its national track recovery plan on 17th November, with sustainable emergency timetables which will come into force from 20th November. The meeting tomorrow is the latest in a series of meetings held by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to try to return normality to the railways as quickly as possible.

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