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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, while I welcome the plans to teach languages in primary schools, is the Minister aware of the research that shows that the best time to teach languages to children is before they are seven? They learn the language more easily and it gives them an ability to learn another language later on in life. In view of that, do the Government have any plans to extend the teaching of languages in primary schools to the beginning of school and even into nursery school? To resource such a scheme, would the Government consider adopting the Liberal Democrat policy of encouraging gap-year students from other European Union countries to train as language assistants and to come to teach in our primary and nursery schools?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, we are very interested in using students from other countries to come here and support the policy. Noble Lords may have read in some early press reports that we are also considering the role of our own language undergraduates, who could support us in that regard. We are at this stage looking specifically at children of seven years of age and up. However, I recognise from my own visits to early years settings and primary schools that many offer language opportunities. We will of course continue to support and encourage that and keep the strategy under review. Our ambition is to have the quality language support and education that all noble Lords wish to see.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the Minister help teachers in this regard? If there is an entitlement for all children to be taught a language within the course of this decade and if there is an obligation in law for schools to be obliged to make that provisionI point out that the teaching of the language is dependent on an ad hoc arrangementat what point is the school in breach of its obligation and at what point can the parent draw on that entitlement for their child?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, within the primary area there is as yet no statutory requirement on a school to make such provision. We have set out an eight-year timetable to enable all schools to offer that to children. The local education authority comes into that arrangement as our partner in ensuring that that is available. We have deliberately not used in the strategy the perhaps more simplistic approach of saying, "We will enable every primary school to be able to offer French by having at least one teacher who speaks French"; rather, we have sought to be more diverse. We have deliberately said that we believe that our eight-year timetable will provide that. It is our intention to make that not a burden on schools but an opportunity. Our job is to work in partnership to ensure that that can be delivered. However, it is not as yet an entitlement in law.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the agreement is very much alive. Devolved government had, unfortunately, to be suspended. Other institutions, such as the North-South Ministerial Council, were necessarily bound up in that suspension. Many aspects of the agreement remain fully in force, including the important guarantee of consent to constitutional change. We are intent on pursuing the many reforms and benefits flowing from it.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that response. I had anticipated, knowing him a little, a monosyllabic response. Does he agree that any attempt to continue the cross-border
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we should do our utmost to co-operate fully with the Government of the Irish Republic. That is in the interests of everyone living south or north of the Border. There is continuing and, I suggest, appropriate contact between the two Governments because that will be the way forward for all of our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.
Lord Laird: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the Belfast agreement was sold to the unionist community in Northern Ireland on the basis that it was safe to take part in cross-border bodies because there would be a unionist veto? Does he share my disgust that a few days ago the Irish Government, without consulting anyone else, rewrote the Belfast agreement to take out the unionist veto and unionist consent? We were simply taken out of the decision-making loop. That has produced a system that appears to involve joint authority between the British Government and the Irish Government. Does he understand the disgust that we in Northern Ireland feel now that there is a clear breach of the Belfast agreement? A document that we were told could not be amended has been amended by the Dublin Government. Does he agree that if, in a few months, there has been no continuation of devolution, there is likely to be no North-South Ministerial Council or implementation bodies?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not believe that the Belfast agreement could properly or reasonably be described as having been amended. There is the veto in that agreement which I referred to earlier; namely, no constitutional change without the approval of the majority of those living in Northern Ireland. That is critically important. However, it would be foolish and irresponsible for the British Government not to co-operate as fully and appropriately as possible with the Irish Government. That is in the interests of everyone living on the island of Ireland.
Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that a rather warped, black-lettered and strict constructionist interpretation of the Belfast agreement is wholly negative and does not help the process to continue? It is vital for Northern Ireland in particular that cross-border business and other transactions continue to take place. I am sure that he will agree that we cannot suspend normal activity in Northern Ireland simply because we currently have an abeyance in the devolutionary settlement.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The Belfast agreement is an instrument for our common purposes and we need to make it work. I believe that it has worked very significantly and I am confident that it will continue to do so. The noble Lord is right to say that we cannot
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, the Lord Privy Seal said that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland is paramount. Does he recall that in selling the Belfast agreementI was one of the negotiatorsto the people of Northern Ireland there were three interdependent strands? Strand one is not now in operation. The Assembly was suspended and is increasingly unlikely to be in place by May. That being the case, can the Belfast agreement continue indefinitely without an Assembly at Stormont?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not believe that the Assembly is increasingly unlikely to be re-elected. Our aim, hope and purpose is that there should be Assembly elections in May, as the Secretary of State has said on many occasions. I repeat my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton: the Belfast agreement is an instrumentan agreementfor our purposes. It is not the terminus of our efforts; it is a useful way of going towards that.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that governments anywhere who share a common frontier have to be in constant co-operative arrangements with each other regardless of the particular institutional form that that may take? As a supplement to that, can the noble and learned Lord give us any good news regarding the harmonisation of fuel duties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot deal with that specific matter. But the noble Lord's general pointas so often is the case, if I may respectfully say so, in his comments on Northern Irelandis a civilised and reasonable approach. We cannot wish away the boundary; we cannot wish away our past separate and joint history.
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