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House of Lords

Wednesday, 2 May 2007.

The House met at three o’clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Diplomatic Service: Foreign Language Training

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, excellent foreign language skills remain essential for all British diplomats. We are introducing a new language-training policy after extensive consultation within the FCO. We will require heads of mission to be trained to a level where they can communicate fluently, locally and with the media, as many now can. Our training and examinations will align to a recognised international standard. More time will be spent overseas learning languages. Our teaching in the UK will become more flexible and cost-effective as we source our services from private-sector providers.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Will he give an assurance that the commercialisation of the FCO language services will result in greater efficiency and effectiveness and not be a cost-cutting exercise? Will he give further assurances, perhaps with a Statement to this House at a later date, that the security and maintenance of these services will be maintained at a time when Britain sorely needs such language skills to protect itself at home and to promote businesses and diplomacy abroad?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I think that assurances can be given on both fronts. We have a history of good language training, but it is not entirely efficient—it certainly could be done more efficiently. It is not sufficiently flexible for the users, whose needs must be paramount on occasion, and sometimes the provision is not as efficient as it ought to be. In some languages, for example, we use just 11 per cent of a teacher’s capacity, and the highest use is 55 per cent. We can do a lot better for those learning the languages, and we can certainly sustain the overall spread of the languages, which we unquestionably need. They should be usable in all the circumstances that my noble friend described.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, I was a little interested in this Question. I did not really think that it was necessary. I have a daughter in the Foreign Office who learnt Swahili before her posting abroad, and she seems to speak it very well. Does the Minister think the Foreign Office could teach her to speak English now that she has come back after four years in New York?

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Lord Triesman: My Lords, some tasks may be even beyond the Foreign Office. Embedded in that, however, there is a significant point. Sometimes diplomats spend not just years but decades abroad, and are not as familiar with the country they represent, whether in terms of language or anything else, as they might be if they were back here a little more often. One of the points about flexibility is to ensure that those who represent us abroad not only speak languages, but speak authoritatively for our language and culture.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I declare two distant interests: as a former and extremely satisfied affiliated student of the Diplomatic Service language school some years ago and as the parent of an official currently learning Mandarin at SOAS. Is co-operation with non-profit private-sector providers such as universities, which teach a whole range of foreign languages and which are also often understaffed, taking place? Given that moves in the NHS to private-sector providers have sometimes cost more than public-service providers, can we be assured that we are looking for cost-effective provision rather than just moving to the private sector?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the noble Lord knows from his experience, perhaps rather like mine, that whether universities are in the private or public sector is sometimes hard to define. I can certainly give the assurance he seeks, though. One of the reasons why I am confident that standards can be of the highest level is that I expect some of the providers to be institutions that are exactly like SOAS, where the record for doing this kind of work at the highest international levels is so great. We must make use of those kinds of resources in the mix. They are capable of offering what we need.

Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords, I think I am right in saying that at the moment 96 per cent of our heads of mission speak the language of the country in which they are accredited. I am glad that under the new arrangements that figure will increase still further. Does the Minister agree that, for the Diplomatic Service, professional language skills have never been more important than they are now? Does he also agree that for that and other reasons it is extraordinarily important that the Diplomatic Service and the Foreign Office get a good settlement from the present Comprehensive Spending Review negotiations?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, on that last point, I shall ensure that the Chancellor is aware of your Lordships’ wishes in the matter; they are egged on by a very considerable authority in that regard. It is vital that we speak all the languages that are required. It is not just a courtesy to the countries concerned but enables us to have a range of understanding. More flexible language teaching could achieve an even stronger idiomatic sense of a language and the culture from which it springs.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, now that DfID is not a part of embassies anywhere and its staff are often present in larger numbers than embassy staff, will they be taught languages, too?

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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I answer questions about what DfID staff will be asked to learn with the greatest trepidation. In the places that I have visited, they try to deal competently with the different linguistic communities. If that can be enhanced by the programmes that we now plan, it would be a great advantage.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the reformulation of the service, which takes into account new policy challenges to the Government. For instance, I have in mind improving languages in environmental policy where we need to speak to new colleagues in the world. Can he ensure that the process is accelerated to make sure that there is a proper match with Britain’s needs in a contemporary world?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I think so. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, there is much knowledge of the way these things are developing and of the sorts of issues which must be addressed by a language in a particular context. Therefore, there is every prospect of our being able to build on what we have done and to enhance precisely the areas that my noble friend described. It is a matter not simply of having a larger lexicon, although that helps, but of understanding the real relevance of the discussions that people want to have with us.

Asylum Seekers: New Asylum Model

3.07 pm

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, in cases processed under detained fast-track arrangements between 1 April 2006 and 31 March 2007, 800 appeals were determined, of which 781 were dismissed. The new asylum model became fully operational in March 2007, so meaningful data on decision quality for non-detained routes are not expected to be available before the autumn. Up to 20 per cent of all decisions will be assessed against criteria designed with the UNHCR.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I fully accept that, as the noble Baroness, says, it is too early to judge the NAM. But the question for me is whether the NAM is prejudging asylum seekers. From what I hear, case workers are still inadequately trained and underinformed. Does she agree that the cards are stacking up against genuine asylum seekers? I include here the merits test and the lack of provision for legal aid. Some asylum seekers even go into hearings without any representation.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not accept that the odds are stacking up against asylum seekers. The whole point of introducing the new model is to heighten and improve the quality of the decision-making. On a number of occasions, the noble Earl has rightly highlighted that quality is

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the important thing. The quality of the decision will be better. The training now comprises a 55-day foundation training programme. Higher executive officers will be responsible for making the decisions. They will track those decisions right the way through and have ownership. We believe that that is a much better system, which will develop high quality. Legal assistance is available.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, will the Minister describe how these new provisions will help young people who have been admitted to this country as unaccompanied minors and then find themselves waiting months for decisions, which can blight their future because they can lose university places or other opportunities? Could she describe how this new model will help those young people?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the importance of the asylum model is that, from the moment a person makes an application, they will have the fullest opportunity to disclose all the information on which an informed decision will be made. The quality of the person making the decision will be greatly enhanced, because they will be better trained and at a higher level, and there will be continuity from beginning to end. The noble Baroness will know that one of the challenges has been that the procedures have been passed from one body to another. Continuity is a matter of real importance, and this model delivers it.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, do immigration staff have access to in-country reports when trying to make the initial decision? If so, what advice is being offered on asylum seekers and refugees from Darfur and Zimbabwe? In light of the recent court decision on Libya, do the Government intend to review their Memorandum of Understanding with that country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I will deal with the last issue first. The noble Lord may not be aware that those matters are being appealed, so I can say nothing at all about them. In relation to in-country reports, the answer is yes. As I said earlier, one of the very important things about making sure that the training is greatly improved and enhanced is to enable those who come to make the decisions—the case owners—to do so on an informed and intelligent basis that is intelligible not only to them but to anyone else who may review the efficacy of the decision.

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Strangers into Citizens campaign? Do the Government support that campaign, which proposes that failed asylum seekers may be offered an amnesty if they qualify in terms of language and duration of stay?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am not aware of the precise details of that campaign. Noble Lords will remember that we had an amnesty, which we indicated was a once-and-for-all amnesty. The whole

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point of our new procedure is that it will be fast, fair and accurate. It will do two things. First, it will allow those who have genuine claims to be speedily accepted and, secondly, it will enable those who do not have bona fide claims to be dealt with appropriately.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the new asylum model include a reference to those who have made contributions to British efforts overseas? We were given what many of us considered a very unsatisfactory answer the other day about the possible asylum applications of people who had served as interpreters or drivers with forces in Iraq. Is there room in the new asylum model to pay particular attention to those whose lives may have been placed in danger by their assistance to British troops and others in difficult circumstances?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the important thing is for each case to be looked at on its facts and for a proper determination to be made about whether it would be safe and satisfactory for that person to return. If it is claimed that, as a result of services rendered, there is a greater risk, the court and the process can take those factors into account in making an informed decision.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, this Question concerns asylum seekers and the new asylum model, on which the Government should be congratulated. What worries people are illegal immigrants in this country. Will the Minister touch on that particular concern of the people?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for offering his congratulations. This model is materially better than the model that we had before. The process has improved. In 1997, we used to take about 20 to 22 months to deal with applications; we are now dealing with most of them within seven months and some, under the new model, within two. That makes a major contribution for those who are validly applying for asylum and, equally, for those who have no right to asylum and should be properly removed, which is, as my noble friend said, a concern for many.

EU: Governance

3.15 pm

Lord Cavendish of Furness asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, there is at present no consensus among EU partners on the way forward with regard to the constitutional treaty or any new treaty. These issues will be discussed at the European Council in June. It is too early to speculate on the outcome of those discussions.

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The Government’s approach to the discussions was set out in a Written Ministerial Statement on 5 December 2006.

Lord Cavendish of Furness: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Will he reject out of hand any proposal originating from the German presidency and dressed up as a questionnaire that existing treaties could be amended by using,

Will he give an undertaking that any future EU treaty will be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny well ahead of the final text being agreed?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I think that the questionnaire is a questionnaire. It will be open to all the member states to answer it in the terms which they judge to be in the best interests of their people, and so will we. I do not think that there are German proposals yet, although I confirm, because it is implicit in the question, that the German presidency may be being overambitious in what it seeks to achieve. Changes which we consider to be of merit will no doubt be fully discussed, and I confirm that the treaty would still require an affirmative vote in a referendum were it to be introduced.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, assuming that a positive European Council takes place in June, as I am sure the Minister hopes, the next four periods of presidency are likely to show growing moves among member states, 18 of them having ratified the previous text, for a modern treaty text which will improve the functioning, efficiency and democracy at the margin of the 27-member European Union. Will the Government play a full part in that process, to ensure that we meet the wishes of other partners as well as looking after our own national interests?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we must try to ensure that the European Union works efficiently and effectively now that it has 27 member states. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken about the advantages of an amending treaty process rather than the constitution, which looks, to put it candidly, moribund. The reality is that we must find good ways of working, but I insist, and I believe that the Government will continue to insist, that the outcome, whatever it is, must be seen to be decisively in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom as well.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords—

Lord Grenfell: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for giving way.

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Is the Minister fully aware of the huge importance of proper parliamentary scrutiny, not just of the result but also of the process? Is he aware that we have a very small window of opportunity between the European Council on 21 and 22 June and the parliamentary Recess which starts on 26 July? Does he agree that it is extremely important that we are kept fully informed of the process and, as it comes out from the discussions at intergovernmental level, the substance of the discussion? There is absolutely no point in our being able to debate the matter in Parliament after the IGC under the Portuguese presidency has met, when the stable door will have been closed. Will the Minister therefore agree that it is very important that, in the short interim before the Summer Recess, as much information as possible is given to us so that your Lordships’ Select Committee on the European Union can begin looking at it and analysing what has been agreed?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I certainly agree with that. The whole House will be aware of the invaluable work of the committee. I obviously cannot speak for the management of the House’s business, but my intention would unquestionably be to see the thorough scrutiny we have just heard described so well.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, it was encouraging to hear the Minister describe the constitution as moribund. It is also important, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, reminded us, that we should have a full debate and not merely be told to discuss it when the matter is settled. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has said that the Government have made it clear that there should not be anything that has the characteristics of a constitution. Can the Minister give us a broad idea of what those characteristics are, so that we know what to watch out for?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear in April that it is not simply a question of the name or the words “constitutional treaty”; it is setting out an approach and giving effect to fundamental changes in the balance of government between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and the constitutional relationship between any member state and the European Union. That would be a fundamental characteristic, and quite different from arrangements—which might be sensible—to make the current 27 members work more effectively.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister would accept a permanent president of the Council, a Foreign Minister and a legal personality, as well as getting rid of most of the remaining vetoes? If that is so, will it not make a fundamental alteration to the nature of the EU? Under those circumstances, should not the promise of a referendum be honoured?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I do not want to add to the recent words of the Prime Minister. I have just described them and cannot embellish them in any way.

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