5 Jun 2007 : Column 1015

House of Lords

Tuesday, 5 June 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Public Expenditure: Scotland

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the financial arrangements for Scotland are set out in Funding the Scottish Parliament,National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly: A Statement of Funding Policy, published by the Treasury in July 2004. The statement of funding policy will be updated in the normal way as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which is due to be published later this year.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I start with the assumption that my noble friend has read the Treasury’s latest figures on public expenditure per head. They show that in England the figure is £6,949, while in Scotland it is £8,414. I assume my noble friend will agree that those figures are clearly in need of a change. I recognise that he has a problem in that the only consensus among the leaders of the political parties is that there should be no change—for some reason, they like the formula—but surely my noble friend will accept that in the circumstances the least he can agree is that there should be a review of the current formula to see that we have one based on genuine need. I can assure him that if such a formula were agreed, I would be happy to see the name continue.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House will be relieved on that last point. I was not going to mention the name of the formula, of course.

We have no plans to change the formula at this stage. My noble friend, who is well versed in these issues, will know that the disparities in expenditure are not just due to the formula but reflect other aspects of the details of the expenditure allocations to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are also specific considerations in each case. But I hear what he says—he has been pressing for a review for a considerable time. In a sense, the issue is reviewed every time we have a Comprehensive Spending Review because the allocation of resources is determined at that point.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, as there is nothing sacrosanct about the formula and it was not part of the constitutional settlement between Scotland and the United Kingdom, is it not time, in view of the inequitable distribution of public funding to the territories of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, that the Government gave serious consideration to a mechanism other than the existing one for determining what will bring about the equalisation of the state’s capacity to provide services? Would the Minister look with favour on the example of the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission, which has existed since 1933 and is widely regarded as having produced equitable results all round in that country?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course the Treasury looks at all aspects of expenditure elsewhere that help to enlighten it on how it should proceed for the future, but the noble Lord will recognise that there is a vast difference between organising expenditure for devolved Administrations and organising expenditure in a federal structure, which is the Australian position. The noble Lord will also appreciate that the formula, as he indicated, was not the subject of debate during the time of the decisions with regard to devolution, and he will recognise, too, the strides that this Government are making to ensure that expenditure per head in regions is equalised by a wide range of government policies, which are helping to iron out some of the past inequalities.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that spending in Scotland is not only higher per capita but also does not shine in value-for-money terms. Will he join me in congratulating the new First Minister for Scotland on publishing the Howat report, which revealed the true horror of the inefficient spending of the years of the Labour/Lib Dem coalition?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the House might have wondered just at which stage the Official Opposition would join the Scottish National Party in its attacks on the Government, and we all think of the implications of that for the future in terms of the development of the Opposition’s own policies for the United Kingdom.

Of course there are disparities between the individual countries of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness will recognise that a very substantial tranche of money was voted for Northern Ireland in the wake of the recent agreement, and the whole House would see the reasons for that and the benefits derived from it. The noble Baroness may think that the case of Scotland merely shows ill judged expenditure, but that is not the experience of many people in England who look to certain aspects of social care, for example, in Scotland that reach higher standards than may be the case elsewhere.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, in light of the fact that massive contributions have historically been made to the United Kingdom economy by Scotland and Wales and on account of their structural and economic deficiencies, will the Minister kindly give an undertaking that no review would leave either country in a worse financial situation than it is in at the moment? Might I also tempt the House to consider whether, if there is to be a successor to the Barnett formula, it should be named “Barnett 2” or “Barnett revisited”?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we have made a determined attempt to improve the ratios of expenditure between the regions in England and have had some success in bringing up to the standards of the best those which in the past have been poorly served. If we had to look at an overall policy for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the same principles would obtain. As I have indicated, we are not proposing a wholesale revision. I add the obvious point that it is easier to countenance the concept of a wholesale revision than to deal with the Pandora’s box once it is opened.


2.45 pm

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the Government are not at present proposing to establish a royal commission on the constitution.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply, which is disappointing but not surprising. Did he see what the Prime Minister-designate was reported as saying in The House Magazine of 21 May 2007? He stated:

Does he not agree that a royal commission, the establishment of which would ideally be supported by all political parties and go into their general election manifestos, would be precisely the best way of achieving that national consensus? Its terms of reference could cover not just the composition and powers of this House, on which there is a settled view among the great majority of our Members, but the role of the other place, its relationship with the devolved Assemblies and Parliament and, indeed, the funding of political parties.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I did not see that article, but I entirely agree with its comments on seeking national consensus, as you would expect. Royal commissions have done an excellent job. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in his place. As Members of this House will know, his royal commission on House of Lords reform produced an excellent document, but it did not ultimately achieve the basis for consensus which everybody hoped it would. To believe that a royal commission would cover all the things that my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester mentioned and would hope to produce a consensus and a way forward seems optimistic.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord believe that it would have been right if, 10 years ago, the Government had set up a royal commission before they started to dismantle the independence of the judiciary, got rid of his own post of Lord Chancellor, broke down the United Kingdom, changed the electoral system and created a muddled and rejected form of regional government in England? Would it not have been better to have had such a royal commission 10 years ago and, perhaps, it would be better late than never?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Absolutely not, my Lords. We came with a number of very clear ideas on constitutional reform, the Human Rights Act, freedom of information and devolution, and we put them into effect. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who came to his view in favour of an almost wholly elected House of Lords without the benefit of a royal commission.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord confirm that it is pure coincidence that his Department for Constitutional Affairs was abolished in the very week that the Prime Minister-designate proposed a written constitution?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Yes, my Lords, pure coincidence.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that a royal commission would embody the principle which many people are anxious to see returned to our public life—that voting is important but that without proper and structural accountability it is dangerously incomplete? Does he not agree that a royal commission would be preferable to what we will otherwise get, which is constitutional change on a wing and a prayer? These Benches are happy to supply the prayer, but we want to be assured of the quality of the wing.

The Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for the prayer. I wonder whether royal commissions are the appropriate way to deal with constitutional change now and whether there are ways of communicating with the public in a much larger way. I wonder whether bringing together the great and the good and saying this is the way that constitutional reform should take place is the appropriate way to deal with it. I suspect that the day of the royal commission determining what constitutional reform should take place may be in the past. For example, there have been three royal commissions on the press—in 1947, 1960 and 1974. As we all agree, the press is now in a perfect state of grace, but it may well be that three royal commissions did not do that trick.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend recall the words of the late Lord Wilson of Huyton, who said that royal commissions take minutes and last years? For that reason I commend the proposition to him.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am aware of the words of Lord Wilson. Some royal commissions have achieved a huge amount. Who can forget the seminal royal commission in 1919 on royal commissions themselves? But by and large, as I say, there may be other ways to do constitutional reform.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, if a consensual constitution is indeed the aspiration of the Lord Chancellor and his colleague the Prime Minister-designate, will he look with favour at the historical example of the Scottish convention, which produced consensus and is lasting? In considering how to advance his goals, will he bear in mind that, because we do not have a written constitution, there has been a propensity to reform in bits and pieces? Somehow these things need to be pulled together, because they interact. Will he also bear in mind that, without entrenchment, the possibility of a standing convention might be given favour, particularly if it involves the public as he suggests it might?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am aware of the achievements of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. There is much that we can learn from it. In some ways, that convention is an indication of the fact that you need to reach wider than a royal commission perhaps can. I also accept that it is important in any constitutional reform to identify its effect on the rest of the constitution. However, I do not agree that that leads to the conclusion that you can reform the constitution only when you can identify all the reforms needed. Noble Lords will recall—many of them were here at the time—that the 1969 convention on the constitution produced by Lord Kilbrandon was useful but ultimately did not provide a blueprint for a way forward. We have as a nation successfully transformed and amended our constitution on a bit-by-bit basis, and we have done it because there is not a written constitution. While I am sure that it is worth while to set out our values in writing, it would be a bad idea to have a written constitution, because it would be too rigid and would have a profound effect on parliamentary sovereignty.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, notwithstanding the excellent advances made by this Government on the constitution, as described by my noble and learned friend, would he not agree that a few loose ends need tying up, as my noble friend Lord Faulkner indicated? Can I advise my noble and learned friend not only against royal commissions, for the reasons that he has given, but against anything like the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which has produced the kind of dog’s breakfast that ends up with me getting elected to the Scottish Parliament, rather to my surprise? I instead suggest a parliamentary commission consisting of Members of the Commons and the Lords and the three devolved parliaments to look at the constitution in an integrated and comprehensive way. After all, we are experienced in this. Those are the people who could look at the matter effectively.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, first, I regard the presence of my noble friend here and in the Scottish Parliament as the final and complete endorsement of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Secondly, a range of bodies need to be considered, and a parliamentary committee is one of them.

Asylum Seekers: Verification of Claims

2.53 pm

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I cannot comment on the individual case, which is under consideration by the courts. The Government are committed to meeting their obligations under the refugee convention and have a long history of offering protection to those in genuine need. Accurate, well considered decisions are a key to a robust, fair and firm asylum policy. That is why we are committed to raising the quality of asylum decisions.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her Answer, but surely the recent case of Shoman Ahmed Mohammed highlighted the dangers and deficiencies in the current system for assessing asylum claims. He was already at the airport being expelled from Britain and returned to the Sudan when, happily and at the last minute, his lawyers obtained an injunction to prevent his expulsion. Had he been returned to the Sudan, he would have been at grave risk of torture and death. Is it not vital that Her Majesty’s Government immediately re-examine the asylum application system to take into account a much broader range of evidence, including especially that from family members and others close to the asylum seeker who might be at risk of murder? Please will my noble friend ensure that the current defective and ineffective system is re-examined without delay?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I remind my noble friend that I cannot comment on that case because it is subject to an appeal; therefore, it would be improper for me so to do. However, I hope that I will be able to reassure him that the new asylum process that we have put in place does in fact do all that he would wish. It heightens and improves the quality, it has enhanced the training, and it ensures that one case worker looks at a case from beginning to end; we believe that the sort of review that my noble friend described has been undertaken and are developing a system that now has far higher quality.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity of congratulating the noble Baroness on her birthday.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I would be delighted if what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said were true. In fact, for future reference, my birthday is on 19 August.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, regarding the case of AH and others, in which the period of appeal has now expired, I assume, have the Government decided to accept the appeal verdict and are they now refraining from the option of internal relocation to Khartoum, so that no Darfurian is sent back to that city? Will the noble Baroness accordingly give instructions to have the country report on Sudan amended to take that judgment into consideration and instruct immigration officers who have to consider applications by people from Darfur that those officers should not consider internal relocation to Khartoum as an option?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is referring to the recent case of Re AH and others in relation to Sudan. The court found that the Darfuri would not be at risk of persecution or other ill treatment in Khartoum, but, in its interpretation of a legal test on refugee law, the court found that it would be “unduly harsh” to expect a non-Arab Darfuri to relocate to Khartoum, because they were ill-equipped for city living and the conditions which they would be likely to face in Khartoum. That issue is subject to appeal. We do not believe that it is right that someone should be considered to be a refugee simply because, although they could safely relocate within their own country to a place where they would not be at risk of persecution, they would, by doing so, face a drop in living standards to a level experienced by many of their compatriots. That is the issue of law that is subject to appeal.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly said that the rules of the House prevented her answering the supplementary question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Janner. Do not the same rules apply to the speech made by the noble Lord in his supplementary question?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have tried to differentiate between the active case and the point of law. The point of law is subject to open debate, but I have tried to explain that I cannot talk about the facts of the case and I hope that all noble Lords will adhere to that procedure, because that is what we are all bound to do in this House.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords—

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I think that we should hear from the Bishop.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, in light of the fact that people who are about to be deported quite often have significant medical problems, are the Government willing to review the current principles under which they offer guidance on who should or should not be deported in those circumstances?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate will know that individuals, at any stage during their application, are able to bring forward fresh information on which determination can be made. If there is such fresh information, consideration can be given to it, but we do not believe that our current policy is either unfair or in any way unjust. It enables people who have valid claims to make them and allows those claims to be properly interrogated.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I noted the assurance given by the Minister, for whom I have great respect, about the new asylum model, but is she aware of the particular concern that we have about, for example, Zimbabwean refugees? I refer to the many cases where there is clear evidence that people have literally been taken away at the airport and then either tortured or subjected to profound pressure of various kinds. Those people are still being returned and, in some cases, appeals are being made by the Home Office against the decisions of the courts. Will the Minister therefore please take up the suggestion of her noble friend Lord Janner and have another look at the way that the system is currently operating so that Britain maintains its high reputation for not having any part in the possibility of torture against those who are disliked by wretched and rogue Governments?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness that we are doing everything that we can to ensure that the information that we get on in-country positions is as robust as possible. We are deferring enforced returns of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe until the ongoing litigation is finally resolved, so returns are not occurring at the moment. I certainly assure the noble Baroness that we take very seriously the need to preserve our high reputation in relation to asylum seekers, giving them appropriate succour and ensuring that our system is as robust and fair as we can possibly make it.

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