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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21st March 2001.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Council of the Isles

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the development of the Council of the Isles is satisfactory.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the British-Irish Council--as the Council of the Isles is more properly known--has met three times, once at summit level and twice in sectoral format. The council has agreed an initial programme of work to include: the environment, social inclusion, the knowledge economy and drugs. Drugs will be the main substantive item for discussion at the next summit, to be held in Dublin. The date of this meeting has been postponed, most recently to allow continuing political discussions on the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. In the meantime, work continues at official level.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire : My Lords, I thank the Minister for that informative Answer. If it is simply to be the "British-Irish" Council, does that imply that the association with the council of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands is an entirely subordinate, third-level matter? Has the idea of a Council of the Isles on which the Scottish and Welsh, as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, would be represented as part of a broader picture bringing together British and Irish interests in the wider constitutional context, now been left behind? Are we down simply to a British-Irish forum?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: No, my Lords; it was intended that the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man should also be included. I am happy to be able to say that officials will meet on the issue within the next few weeks in Jersey, to indicate the continuing importance of places such as the Channel Islands.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, of precisely what islands is the Council of the Isles the council? My understanding is that it was the council through which in the old days the Lord of the Isles governed his estate. If any of the Scottish islands are involved, is that not a devolved matter?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the places involved are: Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

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Lord Hylton: My Lords, do the Government consider that the council could be a helpful context in which to carry on further implementation of the Belfast agreement?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the council is referred to in the Belfast agreement. It is intended to improve the totality of the relationships between all of these places.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, no one whom I have asked in the past week beyond the Palace of Westminster has known what the council is. Will the Minister undertake to make the workings and meetings of the British-Irish Council easily accessible to the public so that knowledge of it may increase?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not know to whom the noble Baroness talks on a regular basis, but the council was referred to specifically in relation to the Good Friday agreement. It is an important part of the agreement and the work that it does is important.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister consider that Scottish-English relations might usefully be discussed within the council? I have heard a number of leading Irish politicians talk about the utility of the Council of the Isles in future, particularly following any change of government at the English level, and about how they would be actively interested in mediating the peculiar triangle that is Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, which are quadrilateral with southern Ireland.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I think that improvement in the totality of all the relationships, which is the purpose of the Council of the Isles, would be helpful for all of the places involved.

Crown Immunity

2.40 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Wirral asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to remove Crown immunity under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, including the present immunity which extends to the Palace of Westminster.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government announced their intention to remove Crown immunity from the statutory enforcement of health and safety law in the Revitalising Health and Safety strategy statement which was published in June last year. In Parliament the situation is somewhat different. However, we have the agreement in principle of the House authorities to apply health and safety

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legislation to the Parliamentary Estate. Both of these measures are being considered for the safety Bill that the Government are currently drafting.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, will he accept that there is a degree of impatience about the issue because the same commitment was given by the previous government? So far as concerns the Palace of Westminster, the reason why it has not been possible to move as fast as some of us would have liked has been the lack of accommodation. The fact that the Minister's right honourable and honourable friends at Her Majesty's Treasury have authorised the expenditure of a substantial sum of public money on a property known as Portcullis House will mean the release of a substantial amount of accommodation within the Palace of Westminster. Will the Minister ensure a fair balance in terms of the use of accommodation between the House of Lords and the other place? Will he ensure not only that the changing and dining facilities for our staff are upgraded, but also that accommodation for Members of this House, for their staff and for others who work within the Palace of Westminster conforms to the necessary legislation?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I fear that it would not be proper to reply to the bulk of that supplementary question, as it is a matter for the House authorities, in terms of budgets and their relationship to another place, rather than for any government Minister. The Government have a commitment to legislate--indeed, reference was made in the Queen's Speech to pre-legislative scrutiny in relation to a safety Bill. We are currently drafting a Bill that will include provisions to remove Crown immunity from all Crown properties. As I say, the Parliamentary Estate is slightly different; however, the Bill will cover that as well and will ensure the direct application of health and safety legislation to the Palace of Westminster and the enforcement of that legislation.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is ironic that successive governments have legislated for all of us, especially for any wrongdoing, but have used Crown immunity to protect themselves and to exonerate themselves from any wrongdoing? Does my noble friend recall that in the Commons some years ago some of us managed to get Crown immunity lifted in relation to dirty and dangerous kitchens, which previously could not be inspected? We also managed to get Crown immunity lifted for service personnel who wanted to make claims for negligence during training but could not do so. I welcome my noble friend's historic announcement. It will strip government of their historic defence, and it is a genuine indication of open government. When will it be done?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I accept that this has been a problem in regard to health and safety legislation for many years and that it has become caught up with the legal and almost theological arguments about whether

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the Crown can sue itself at law. What is really important here is the protection of those who work on Crown properties and for Crown employers, as well as for those who pass through such premises. That is what our legislation will be designed to remedy. As I say, the safety Bill is currently being drafted. It was referred to in the Queen's Speech and will be enacted by this Government in this, or possibly the next, Session.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, can the Minister hold out any hope that, under this new regime, the temperature of this place will be kept at a reasonable level above freezing point?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, although I have deep sympathy with the noble Lord's predicament, again, it is hardly a matter for the Government; indeed, it is a matter for the House authorities. Should the noble Lord wish to address such a question to them, I have no doubt that he will receive a warm answer.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, will the Minister accept that many staff employed in this building work and live in conditions that would be totally unacceptable anywhere else in the country? Does the noble Lord further accept that there is no way that the Government, this House or Parliament itself can shelter behind anyone else's responsibility? If they wish to deal with the situation, nothing can stop them--or does the noble Lord believe that that is wrong?

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