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The centres can provide any information about the EU required by the public, but some of them focus on specific parts of the community that they serve. For example, the excellent centre in Gloucester, run by Penny Krucker and Mary Wormington, does a huge amount of work with schools and young people
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Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves the websites, and so on, supported by the Foreign Office and Brussels, could she tell us whether those reveal some of the disadvantages of the European Uniona few of which I alluded to in my remarks?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, these websites provide factual information. Whether people looking at them perceive that information to be positive or negative is up to them, but they provide purely factual information.
I go back to the Peoples Network. All libraries have access to the internet, from which people can download information. There are more than 30,000 computers in our libraries and in the vast majority of cases access is free. There are also sources of information such as European documentation centres in some universities and European information centres, usually located in chambers of commerce.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, pointed out, next year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. We see this as an opportunity to look forward and to promote wider awareness and discussion of the role of the European Union. We are supporting a number of activities related to this. In particular, we are planning to support an interactive schools event, which will encourage British schools to link up with other schools across Europe to discuss issues that matter to young people.
More broadly, the Government believe that the European Union has a role in helping to tackle many key issues of public concern, such as security, development and environmental protection. Citizenship classes, which noble Lords mentioned, can help to raise awareness of how individuals can influence decisions at the EU level on issues that matter to them, including through participation in European Union elections.
The European Parliament also launched in November a new resource for citizenship teachers about the European Parliament and other EU institutions and EU countries, which comprises a teaching pack containing an interactive CD-ROM with video clips, teachers note and student activities. I am also pleased to say that next year, under its lifelong learning programme, the DfES will relaunch the Leonardo, Erasmus, Comenius and other Socrates programmes. These are first-rate EU-wide programmes, which will be well known to noble Lords. However, while children, students and young people in other member states readily take up the
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Her Majestys Government are actively engaging with young people on EU-related issues. Indeed, next Monday the FCO is hosting an outreach event to try to encourage more schools to take part in the European Youth Parliament, an educational foundation that organises events at which people can debate contemporary European issues. They may be in favour or against the European Union, but it is very good that they have an opportunity to debate these issues. Geoff Hoon will take part in an online discussion in the new year, along with a range of opinion formers, to discuss EU issues with young people. I hope that noble Lords will therefore agree that the Government and EU institutions are already taking action to promote the wide availability of information, free of charge, about the European Union and its institutions.
I must take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about the undemocratic system. European legislation has to be agreed by both the European Council, made up of the Ministers of member states, and the European Parliament, whose members are elected. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, believes, I think that, if people do not have information about the European system of governance in which they live, they are not empowered to use that democratic system to the best advantage.
As I stated, the Government wholeheartedly support many activities to ensure that information about the European Union is freely and widely available to people in the UK. This is an ongoing task and we will continue to improve awareness and to try to encourage a well informed and mature discussion about the European Union and its role, and the part that we play as a member. We work closely on this task with the European Union institutions and their representatives in the UK. We very much welcome the contribution that this House makes through its work on scrutiny of EU legislation and through debates such as these to raise the profile of the European Union and to underline its relevance and importance.
We also support the idea of town twinning. We particularly welcome the fact that the legal framework is such that it enables local government to co-operate and form partnerships with local authorities overseas. Such partnerships nurture mutual understanding, enable work on issues of mutual interest and can be of economic benefit. Many interesting examples have been cited by noble Lords today, and I note the beacon of Eastleigh, which was cited by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. However, we do not support the idea that public buildings should be forced to provide such information or that government and public buildings should be compelled to fly the European Union flag. With regard to flag flying on other buildings, individuals, local authorities and other organisations may fly the flag whenever they wish, subject to compliance with any local planning requirement.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, the flag of the European Union is not classed as a national flag under current town and country planning regulations. It therefore requires advertisement consent from the relevant local planning authority before it can be flown. That includes government buildings.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Could she tell us now, or write to me on, how far the order has got that would alter that situation and in effect give the European Union flag the same status as the national flag?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Department for Communities and Local Government is proposing to revise the regulations to extend the list of flags exempt from advertisement consent to include those of the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, as those are international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. I realise that that does not answer absolutely the question raised by the noble Lord, and I will write to him on that issue.
While the Government support the broad thrusts of initiatives to encourage information about the European Union, familiarity with its work, and partnerships such as twinning, we have strong reservations about the elements of compulsion contained in the Billalthough I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, has said that there is no element of compulsion. We still have some strong reservations about the Bill, because what the Government are doing already makes the Bill not absolutely necessary. The Government are fulfilling our obligations in relation to the provision of information about the European Union to the public. The Bill is full of interesting ideas, which will be looked at in detail. I again pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate. I look forward to the continuing, valuable contribution of this House to the discussion about the vital task of communicating with the British public about the European Union.
Lord Dykes: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister, not only for coming today, with her very busy schedule but for spending time on this important but, for obvious reasons, fairly brief debate. She has added a great deal of important argument to the background to this proposal for legislation. It is precisely because people in this country, who are not in any way fanatical about Europe one way or the other, feel stronglyI have had quite a lot of mail on this subjectthat the Government hesitate all too often in the face of a difficult press, and that further institutional and legislative arrangements to provide more information on a regular basis, more prevalent and in more places but entirely permissive and definitely not mandatory, would serve this country well.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, on the issue of compulsion, one of my colleagues has quite rightly pointed out to me that while the noble Lord may say that the Bill does not imply compulsion, the fact is that it is couched in terms such as shall be and not may be, hence the element of compulsion.
Lord Dykes: My Lords, as the Minister is well aware, there are always those equivocations that come inevitably from the way in which a Bill is drafted. I cast no aspersions on the expert advice that I received from the Public Bill Office and so on. That is why it is so much more helpfulif there is a reasonable response at least and perhaps more than that on Second Readingfor us to get a Bill into Committee and discuss those issues in more detail.
I return to the point I was making before. There is a definite, unequivocal emphasis here that this is what people would decide to do if they wished to, as managers of town halls, central government public buildings, and so on. That definitely applies to the demonstration of the flag and to all the other matters in the Bill. It would be absolutely ludicrous for anyone to seek to bring compulsion to an area such as this. There is no financial provision in the Bill, and there is no need to have a financial outlet or penalties if people do not subscribe to its provisions. This is just a matter of increasingat the margin to start with and then on a broader basisthe corpus of legitimate, neutral and public objective information on the European Union and our membership of it in public places where people access information.
We understand that, undoubtedly on most occasions, this information will be provided free to the managers of the buildingsthe people organising the displays in the foyers of town halls, public libraries and other public buildings. We know from Google and the way that the internet and websites have developedfor example, Bloomberg with its stock exchange and quotationsthat all the information is provided free if people wish to look at it by pressing a series of buttons. No complexity is involved. I also emphasise that providing masses of irrelevant and unnecessary information as a service would be crazy. The idea is to provide basic information on the background of our membership of the European Union.
I do not wish to take up too much time because a very important debate on assistance for the disabled follows this one. Therefore, I shall try to be brief in my remarks without being discourteous to colleagues, who made important and worthwhile points.
I was very impressed by, and grateful to, the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for emphasising what town-twinning achieves in terms of personal, individual and group relationships. It has been extraordinary to witness that in the development of the twinning between Harrow and Douai. It happens to such an extent that official entities can recede from the scene and leave it to private initiative. My noble friend Lord Chidgey mentioned how well it works in his area.
I thank my noble friend Lord Watson for making some very important points. He mentioned how extraordinary it is that the European flag is seen on
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Of course, there are bound to be lots of party battles about the EU in the UK. They may be more pronounced than in some other member states, which is distressing for those who want to move on to the next stage of the agenda. We have been a member for 33 years but some people still couch the debate in terms of existential commencement rather than moving on to other subjects. We should bear in mind that the British public overwhelmingly seem to accept our membership of the EU.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, rightly asked what kind of information would be involved. I repeat that I believe that you would find brief and succinct information on the website cited by the Minister. It is simply a case of increasing the informations physical availability, spread and presence in more obvious public buildings, centres and libraries.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, what provision would there be for the Euro-sceptic case to be presented alongside the kind of information to which the Minister referred? In other words, how and by whom are the information and statistics envisaged by the Bill to be compiled?
Lord Dykes: My Lords, without making it too complicated, the obvious point is that, if the owners and administrators of the public buildings decided to have some kind of European displayit might be very small, middling in size or more extensive, depending on their inclinationsthey themselves would decide on the information that they wanted from the available official public websites, including the respectable leading news agencies and other sources. That is the only answer that one can give. I should be distressed and disappointed if it did not include neutral, objective information on peoples severe doubts about policies in the EU. That is also an essential part of the process.
None the less, I suppose that it would mainly involve giving background, statistical and other information for students and so on. The details of the administration would be worked out once the scheme had started. People would make changes, having seen how the scheme was received. If, in a public library, no one paid any attention to the EU display, it might be decided to discontinue it, to have it on a much smaller scale or to change the content.
I was extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey. This is a dry-as-dust Bill but he made a very moving speech about the human aspects of town-twinning, what it means for Europe and what it means for the UK as a leading European as well as an international country. We have moved away from the terrible history of what good Europeans like myself would describe as European civil wars, as well as national wars, and peace has now come with human contact. His references to town-twinning were telling on a bigger scale than our modest arrangements in Harrow.
I was not disappointed by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and agreed with a lot of what he said, which does not necessarily mean that I will support his Bill if it makes progress in this House or elsewhere, but we shall see. I doubt it, but perhaps he might change the Bill or its title.
Without wishing to be unkind, I was disappointed by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Astor. They were reactionary and lugubrious in the traditional flavour of the Conservative Party as it faces the European issue. The public constantly see that, and it is one reason why the Conservative Party is under test and examination for its anti-European chauvinism, and it is a pity that the noble Lord is not prepared to give such a modest, almost technical, measure more support. If he wishes to display other flags, that would be very good idea. I would love to see the flag of the Commonwealthif there is a single flag, but I am not sure that there isor the United Nations flag, which is displayed on UN day, but ought to be displayed regularly as well. We are an international country set in an international universe, so that would be all to the good, but it is nothing directly to do with the Bill.
I repeat my thanks to the Minister, whose credentials in this field are impeccable. She knows more about this subject than anybody else, so if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading and it goes into Committee, if she were therein spite of her work schedule, which I know to be very heavyshe could elaborate some of the Governments ideas about extending the information matrix to the public in these matters, particularly next year with the celebrations for the treaty of Rome, but also on all the other aspects, because people continually say that it is not possible to read anything objective in the newspapers about Europe and ask where they can get such information from.
As noble Lords know, the Bill received its Second Reading on 14 July this year, but there was no time for it to complete its remaining stages. So, here we are again, full of hope that noble Lords will support the Bill and pass it through all its stages. I said at that time that the purpose of the Bill was to transform the lives of Britains 11 million disabled people from frustration to fulfilment by providing a legislative framework for rights to independent living. It is an idealistic and a practical proposition, and it is a blueprint for the future of disabled people.
The Bill aims to change the whole ethos of the debate on disability from a discussion on how we take care of helpless people to a discussion of equal citizens who happen to have a disability. So how can we best help them cope and exercise the same choice, freedom, control and dignity that we all expect? I want to pay tribute to the Disability Rights Commission, its chairman, Bert Massie and its staff for their extremely constructive assistance. The extraordinary Caroline Ellis has worked extremely hard to make the Bill a success, and I put my warm appreciation on record. She has been of more help than any noble Lord has the right to expect, and I am deeply grateful to her for her efforts.
The springboard for the Bill is the appalling discrimination that disabled people still suffer. In realistic terms, they are second-class citizens and are treated as such. The Prime Minister has said that one in five British adults is disabled and that they can find themselves cut off from the opportunities that other people enjoy. They are more likely to live in poverty, to have fewer educational opportunities and to experience prejudice and even abuse. Most have low expectations. Only 50 per cent of disabled people of working age are in employment, compared to 80 per cent of non-disabled people.
The question before the House today is this: how can we rescue this one-fifth of our adult population from being an underclass? The answer must be nothing less than comprehensive legislation that will provide real opportunities of equality and independence and place specific duties on public authorities. There will be a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and implement a national strategy for independent living.
Before I explain the provisions in the Bill, I shall say one further word on one urgent need for it. Seventy per cent of our councils offer services only to people whose needs are judged as critical or substantial. The rest can go to pot. The rights that they have are disgracefully minimal. For example, their right to services means help with being washed and fed, rather than comprehensive assistance and rights that would help towards independence. There are no positive rights in existing legislation to enable disabled people to choose where they live and no legal protection against their being forced to live in institutions against their wishes. That really is scandalous. There is no legal entitlement to advocacy, except in limited circumstances, or to communication support. It is simply impossible for disabled people to have independence when they have no communication support and no advocacy. There are no rights of support to cover a disabled person who moves to a different part of the country. They have to start all over again and negotiate a new care package from scratch and from many different sources. It is an awfully confusing business. The Bill provides that right.
People with mental health needs have no right to assessment or support for their needs. The notorious postcode lotteries prevent the provision of services all over the country. It is luck rather than judgment as to who actually gets whatfancy that in 2006. I hope that, like me, other noble Lords feel ashamed and angry at this neglect. It is basic neglect.
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