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House of Lords

Tuesday, 19th November 2002.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Lord Carey of Clifton

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable George Leonard Carey, lately Archbishop of Canterbury, having been created Baron Carey of Clifton, of Clifton in the City and County of Bristol, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach and the Lord Janner of Braunstone.

Current Affairs

2.43 p.m.

Lord Patel of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to increase awareness of current affairs in the population at large.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, news services perform a vital function. They provide a platform for open debate and allow members of the public to make informed and responsible decisions. One of the principles of regulation has been to ensure that high quality, impartial news is available to all viewers. That principle will be carried forward by the Communications Bill.

Lord Patel of Blackburn: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. Is he aware that a survey entitled Is Britain Dumbing Down? reveals a worrying lack of interest in current affairs and an obsession with show business celebrities? Does he think it worrying that 11 per cent could not name their own Prime Minister, let alone any other international leader? Sixty-six per cent did not know that Mr John Prescott or Mr Gordon Brown were Cabinet members. As we have decided to introduce citizenship tests for immigrants, should we not be equally concerned about the political awareness of our own citizens?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we would all share the concern about what was revealed in the survey to which my noble friend refers. There are surprising degrees of ignorance in the population about leading political figures, although all noble Lords will recognise that that is not just a question of personalities. The process and nature of our political decision-making is probably more important.

My noble friend will recognise that we seek, through the provisions of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, to increase awareness of the way in

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which our society works and of how people can influence it to their own advantage, when they are newly arrived in the country. My noble friend is right to draw attention to the question of whether awareness of those concepts should be broadened to include the whole population. The citizenship curriculum is now, of course, part of the curriculum in secondary schools as well as in junior schools.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Blackburn, made an important point about citizenship. Is the Minister aware that, in some of our northern towns, women who want to learn English are told to wait and come back in a year's time, before any avenues can be opened to them? Will the Government follow the example of the Canadian citizenship education programme, which makes information available to people in various languages, before they learn English? When does the Minister expect Professor Crick's announcement about citizenship education to be made?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I know a little about one of the northern towns to which the noble Lord referred. He is right to say that, if we are to increase the competence in English of substantial numbers of people—particularly women—in the ethnic minority communities, we must make provision for that.

The noble Lord will know that his question is most timely. I understand that the Secretary of State is to make an announcement this week about increasing resources for further education. Classes in further education will provide the basis of the provision of such learning opportunities.

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is a question of supply and demand? There is a great deal of supply of high-class information—through the Internet, the BBC and ITV—but there is not quite the demand for it. People do not seem to be as interested as they used to be. Will he increase the Government's efforts to improve citizenship education in schools, in the hope that we can re-connect our young people with politics, political debate and current affairs, so that we have a healthy and vibrant democracy in the future?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I can confirm for my noble friend that we intend to increase the level of citizenship education in our schools. He will recognise that that is a long-drawn-out process. As he rightly said, we face a distinctly disturbing drop in public interest in current affairs programmes. Some may identify the problem as the quality of the programmes or some element of dumbing-down among broadcasters, a view that they would, of course, reject. It is within the Government's power to regulate news and factual information in the licensing system and, secondly, to increase citizenship opportunities for young people.

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Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister began his Answer by underlining the importance of news services. Does he agree that much more would be known about politicians in Parliament if the news services generally reported what goes on in Parliament? Could that not be facilitated if Ministers—in another place, in particular—made a habit of always announcing all new policy initiatives inside the Chamber, so that the press would be there not only to hear them but to hear what Members of another place had to say about them? The public does not know that, at present.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord to the extent that it is important that Parliament is reported adequately and that Parliament is the forum for the announcement and debate of government decisions. The noble Lord will recognise that the basis of the reforms to the working hours in another place—we have also made changes—is the need to ensure that debates take place at a time when it is more likely that news providers will be able to focus on them. Certainly it is the case that morning sittings and Prime Minister's Questions, as one illustration, taking place in the morning will aid the provision of news at lunch-time.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, if I could pursue the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about public demand, is that not dependent on the public having a sense that they are up-to-speed with what is going on up here, and is not the volume and complexity of legislation an enemy to that? More importantly, would the Minister accept that unless the public feel that Parliament is vulnerable to its own views and insights, it will never be interested in what we do? Is it not true that if, as is the case, the other place has not seen the Government defeated in a single vote since they came to power, that, of itself, creates a sense on the part of the ordinary person that their views are not worth expressing?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am tempted to apologise for the fact that the Government enjoy such a large majority in the House of Commons, if that is the kind of response which will keep Liberal Benches happy in the short term. Let me emphasise the obvious point. A great deal of what we do in Parliament is focused on the needs of the nation—not just legislation, but the debates that take place on the current issues of the day. It is regrettable that the way in which we have so organised ourselves in the past may have been such that, as far as news is concerned, debates have not always been at their most newsworthy.

I maintain that the reforming agenda is against the background of an awareness that we need to make our discussions and debates more newsworthy,

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carried out at a time which reflects the news agenda of the media, and that is the basis on which we are now proceeding.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, we are in the tenth minute.

International Criminal Court

2.52 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to sign a bilateral immunity agreement with the United States on the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we have held preliminary discussions with the United States on the possibility of a bilateral agreement. We shall ensure that any agreement which emerges will be consistent with our obligations under the statute of the International Criminal Court and within the guiding principles agreed by the European Union Foreign Ministers on 30th September.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for confirming that preliminary discussions have taken place. Will she also confirm my understanding that Her Majesty's Government have made it clear that they are, in principle, willing to sign a bilateral agreement with the United States? Can she also confirm that two staunch allies of the United States—Canada and the Netherlands—have made it clear that they are not willing, in principle, to sign an immunity agreement? Does she recognise that the praise that the Government have received from these Benches for pushing the Bush Administration on the multilateral route so far as Iraq is concerned, and for resisting those on the far reaches of the Right in Washington who wish to undermine international law and institutions, also causes us to question why Her Majesty's Government are not doing the same to uphold the principle of international law and international institutions on this other important principle?

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