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5 Dec 2006 : Column 1058

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, given that many of the most important constitutional changes in this country, including the Parliament Act 1911, have been achieved without consensus, does the Lord Chancellor accept that, while consensus may be desirable, it is not essential?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I said that it was necessary. I think that for the reform of this House, at this time, consensus is necessary.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the search for consensus began with the royal commission? When that body first met, its members were strongly divided between those who wanted a totally elected House and those who wanted a totally appointed House, with all shades of opinion in between. Under the very skilful chairmanship of that commission a real consensus was achieved. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that the consensus achieved then is still worth taking very seriously?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the search for consensus began with the Civil War, and that was not altogether a thunderous success.

We are talking about a search for consensus after the report from the commission of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Many people are now going back to the report and saying that there is a lot of good in it that perhaps we should have adopted at the time.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, will my noble and learned friend confirm or deny what he said earlier? Most of us recognise that the Prime Minister had said specifically that he was ruling out the use of the Parliament Act. Does my noble and learned friend deny that?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I would not say what had been said in a party meeting.

Schools: Academies

3 pm

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, despite improvements in recent years, too many secondary schools are still failing to achieve high standards for the majority of their students. Academies have established a successful track record, as measured by fast-rising key stage 3 and GCSE results, positive Ofsted reports, strong parental demand and independent evaluation. We therefore believe it right that academy status should be available more widely, lifting the cap of 200 that was imposed two years ago.

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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I think that the Prime Minister might have waited until after the National Audit Office report in January. Given that the Government’s often-quoted reason for establishing academies is to rescue failing schools, is the Prime Minister expecting 400 schools to fail by 2010, which is about 10 times the current number? Why have the Government removed the requirement for sponsors to put £2 million up front for each academy? Is it because the vast majority of them have contributed none—or in some cases not the full amount—of the money that they promised? Is this not really about the Prime Minister’s legacy?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we never said that academies would only be replacements for failing schools; we said that they might be established in areas where standards are insufficiently high or where communities could benefit from schools with a stronger vision, ethos and leadership than exists at present. That would encompass the 400. On the changed sponsorship arrangements, we have linked those specifically to the integration of the academies programme and the Building Schools for the Future programme, which means that all the capital requirements for schools that become academies are now dealt with on exactly the same basis as for local authority schools in the area. It seemed reasonable to us that the contribution of the sponsor should take the form of an endowment for the schools rather than a contribution to the capital costs, as was the case before academies were integrated into the main local authority capital programmes.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, the Prime Minister was reported as saying that he wants a large rise in the number of academies to secure his legacy. Given that we on these Benches support academies, from whom is the Prime Minister protecting his legacy?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, academies have nothing to do with the Prime Minister’s legacy; they are there for the good of the country. We on this side of the House want steadily rising standards of educational performance and opportunity to be available to communities that have been deprived of them for too long. That is why we are establishing academies, and it is right that we should be—as we always are on this side of the House—ambitious in the targets that we set, so that equality of opportunity can become a reality in all communities, including more deprived ones.

Baroness McDonagh: My Lords, my question comes from a different experience. My community in Mitcham spent many years trying to turn around two failing schools with some of the worst results in the country. We did so without any success until we approached the Minister for help to turn the two schools into academies. In a few short months, the change in the standard of behaviour inside and outside the schools is absolutely amazing.

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: Question.

Baroness McDonagh: My Lords, is the Minister aware that 1,000 parents attended a recent open day to find out how their children could attend these schools? Why is his ambition so low when these schools succeed and there is a demand in these communities for them?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great knowledge of the situation in Merton. I visited those two academies; they are making outstanding progress in replacing schools that were not sufficiently popular or high performing in their community. I pay tribute to the two sponsors: the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Peckham, who does outstanding work for education across south London, and the Church of England, which is acting as the sponsor for the second academy and sees this as part of its mission, according to the Dearing plan, to expand the number of secondary schools that have a church sponsor in accordance with local parental demand. No one welcomes this development more than the parents who live in Merton; they now have the opportunity of sending their children to two rapidly improving schools where previously they were denied that opportunity and their children often had to travel many miles out of their locality to get good-quality secondary education.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for his announcement of the extension of this opportunity. Does he think that there are lessons to be learnt from the sort of experience that we have just heard of that might be applied across the whole education system?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, that question would require a very long reply. However, I believe that the engagement of external sponsors, including the Church of England, has made an enormous contribution to the education system through academies and, potentially, through trust schools. In the diocese of Liverpool, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have come together to sponsor an academy jointly. I could not possibly speculate whether that has lessons for the relationship between those two churches in the future.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is it correct that academies are not under the same obligation as other schools to admit children in public care and, if so, why not?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the funding agreements that regulate the establishment of academies, which are binding legal agreements between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the sponsors, require academies to give priority to children in public care. The obligation does not arise under statute in the same way as it does for maintained schools, but it is enforced. I can assure the noble Earl that, in practice, academies take their duties in this regard very seriously.

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Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill

3.06 pm

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Middle East and Afghanistan

3.07 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman) rose to move, That this House takes note of developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is almost one year since the first fully free and fair parliamentary elections took place in Iraq. Twelve million Iraqis registered for those elections. More than 75 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote despite intimidation and death threats from those hell-bent on ensuring that democracy did not take root. They voted for a non-sectarian Government in which the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds all work together. It reflects the Iraqi mix of strengths and weaknesses, yet these groups have never governed together in the past and had never attempted to do so.

In Afghanistan, too, it is almost a year since the inaugural session of the National Assembly, following successful presidential and parliamentary elections. The people of Iraq and of Afghanistan have overwhelmingly rejected the brutal dictatorships of Saddam and the Taliban. Yet today, Iraq is riven by sectarian violence and in Afghanistan the Taliban is fighting in an attempt to reimpose its fanatical ideology, devoid of any humanity.

Deeply ingrained grievances are dividing faiths and sects. A titanic struggle is under way between those committed to peace, stability and progress and those wedded to a perpetual cycle of violence. To avoid further descent into even greater instability and bloodshed than we are seeing now, we need a comprehensive strategy for the “whole Middle East”, as the Prime Minister said. That means supporting moderate and democratic Governments, building up partnerships with key strategic allies, promoting reform across the region and supporting further development.

Conflict and grievance across the Middle East feed off each other and fuel the flames of hatred on which the fanatics prey. We are striving to help Iraq bring the violence under control so that the political process can take firm root and the economy can grow. We are helping the Government of Afghanistan bring security, stability and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan by helping them defeat the Taliban and bring the narcotics trade under control right across the country.

We must reinvigorate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It is the one issue above others, as the Prime Minister has said, that,

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We have to keep up the pressure on Syria and Iran to follow a sound path, be constructive partners in the international community, play by the same rules as the rest of us and thus share in our progress and prosperity, rather than becoming increasingly isolated at the margins. We have to mobilise all the forces of moderation across the wider Middle East to take on the reactionaries and extremists and expose their ideology for what it is: empty, meaningless and without hope; a cult of death, never a force for the sanctity of life.

As the Foreign Secretary said recently, we are at a critical juncture in which the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance. The sectarian attacks are undermining the progress that Prime Minister Maliki’s government of national unity, which is only six months old, has made towards reconciling Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shia. It is a Government truly representative of the Iraqi people, with Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Christian cabinet ministers, including four women. We are urging all of Iraq’s leaders from across the political spectrum to get behind their Prime Minister and support his efforts to create a truly united Government and win the confidence and support of the public.

Iraq needs, above all else, a basic level of security. Last week the Security Council unanimously agreed to an extension of the mandate of the multinational forces in Iraq until the end of 2007. Prime Minister Maliki has made tackling the violence his highest priority. While the situation is particularly difficult and dangerous in Baghdad and the neighbouring provinces, it is worth the House remembering that just four of Iraq’s eighteen provinces account for over 80 per cent of the violence. The other 14 are relatively peaceful. Of course, in recent history it has never been genuinely peaceful. The uncovering of mass graves holding the remains of those murdered en masse by Saddam’s secret intelligence forces—systematic, targeted and efficient murder—tells a story that is wholly at odds with a history of peace.

Prime Minister Maliki has made it clear that the state must assume full control and have a monopoly on force. New legislation is expected by the end of the year on the demobilisation of militias and the integration of the military forces. As both the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary have said, we have a clear strategy for transferring security from the multinational forces to the Iraqis. Two provinces, Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar, have already been handed over to the Iraqis, and the security situation there remains stable. We and the Iraqis hope they will be ready to take over Maysan province in January and Basra in the spring.

Even when all the provinces are handed over and the number of British forces in Iraq is reduced significantly by the end of next year, we will continue to train and mentor the Iraqi army and police for as long as they request our help. To help for that long is our sovereign choice as the United Kingdom state, taken knowingly by us and at no one else’s diktat.

I take this opportunity again to pay tribute to the courage and determination of the British forces and civilians working in difficult and often highly

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dangerous circumstances in Iraq. In Basra British forces have been working alongside the Iraqi army in a joint operation, Operation Sinbad, first to re-establish security across the city and then to help improve the provision of basic public services, including water and sanitation.

Economic regeneration is also critical to the future stability of the country. Billions, not millions, of dollars are needed to get Iraq’s services working properly. Much of that investment must come from Iraq’s own substantial resources, but the support of the international community will continue to be critical to Iraq’s economic progress for the foreseeable future.

The international compact—a joint Iraqi-UN initiative launched in July this year, which brings together the UN, the World Bank, regional financial organisations and a number of states including Iraq’s neighbours—will, we hope, provide a framework for Iraq’s future economic growth and integration into the regional and global economy. The United Kingdom has committed £644 million to support Iraq’s reconstruction; we have disbursed over £500 million on helping the Iraqi Government plan and invest in basic services including electricity, hospitals, improving oil production levels and generating jobs.

The challenges in Afghanistan are different but no less daunting. The Taliban has tried to fight its way back in a major offensive against NATO forces, including our own, in the south of the country. British forces and other NATO partners have responded with exceptional bravery; as a result, security has improved. As the Prime Minister reiterated during his visit to Kabul on 20 November, and again at the NATO summit, we remain firmly committed to helping the Afghan army and security forces extend the Government’s control across the country. We will do that for as long as it takes and because it is our sovereign choice, done at no one else’s diktat.

At the summit, NATO members agreed on the need to meet force-level requirements, to provide further equipment and to increase flexibility in troop deployment. Germany and France agreed that in an emergency situation their troops could be deployed to help those in difficulty. We are confident that the remaining gaps can be filled in the coming months. As the Prime Minister said, the mission in Afghanistan is not yet won, but the NATO summit made significant steps in the right direction to ensure that it is.

The narcotics trade, exploited as it is by the Taliban, remains a major obstacle both to security and to economic progress. It feeds corruption. Of course, this year’s increase is disappointing and reflects the challenging security situation and limited law enforcement capability in the period before NATO moved into the south. However, in those parts of the country where governance, security and development have improved, reductions achieved last year have been sustained and in some cases have fallen further. The Afghan national drug control strategy is starting to have an impact. We and our partners will continue to support it.

The effort in Afghanistan is truly international; we have over 30 partners in the NATO mission there, with well over 60 nations contributing in different ways to

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Afghanistan’s security, reconstruction and development. The UN mission in Afghanistan oversees 16 UN agencies on the ground, all helping the reconstruction effort. Despite the difficult security situation, Afghanistan continues to make progress. The economy has grown progressively over the past two years. More than 10,000 community councils have been elected across Afghanistan, implementing and setting up thousands of projects in health centres, providing water by sinking wells, or building schools. More than 5 million children—one-third of them girls—are now going to school. The Taliban used to kill girls for trying to go to school. More than 65,000 landmines have been destroyed in the past four years. The UK-led provincial reconstruction team in the southern Helmand province is working closely with the military to help improve educational facilities and water management and to help develop independent media.

Those are quick-impact projects, designed to improve the everyday lives of the Afghan people, pending the implementation of longer-term programmes. In Kandahar province, 1,000 wells have been dug and four large water reservoirs are in operation. New water supply networks have been created, roads and bridges built, power lines erected and transformers and generators installed. For the first time in decades, millions of Afghans face the prospect of a more peaceful and prosperous life. What testifies to this? Some 4.6 million refugees have decided to return home, one of the biggest return movements ever and an essential part of the reconstruction process. So there is hope. But we, the international community and the Afghan Government, must remain committed to the task.

I believe that there is now a glimmer of hope emerging for renewed engagement between Israel and the Palestinians. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has stated, a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would be living, tangible proof that the region and therefore the world can peacefully accommodate different faiths and cultures. The ceasefire in Gaza and Prime Minister Olmert’s offer to hold talks with President Abbas, end roadblocks and consider a prisoner exchange are all recent and encouraging signs.

The United Kingdom continues to work closely with the EU, the US and regional partners to help strengthen Palestinian institutions and improve security. We have committed £30 million towards the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people, making the United Kingdom one of the largest donors to the Palestinians. We played a key role in developing the temporary international mechanism by which assistance can be channelled to the Palestinian people while bypassing the Hamas-run finance ministry. We have already announced that we intend to contribute £12 million through this temporary mechanism.

We remain concerned at the humanitarian issues affecting Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, which is why the EU is contributing some €650 million to the Palestinian people—more this year than ever before. We have offered President Abbas our full support in putting together a Government of national unity; that is critical to taking forward the peace process. Such a

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Government will enjoy our full support. We have made it clear that we would be prepared to work with any Government based on the quartet’s three principles: renunciation of violence; recognition of Israel; and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. I repeat that new energy is plainly needed in the peace process. The Prime Minister is committed to it and it is vital that the United States engages. But I also see a key role for the European Union. That should be a persistent role of negotiation, mediation and helping build durable regional systems.

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