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7.03 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, in light of the fact that I cannot be here tomorrow, I shall speak today about my portfolio—children, schools and families—so do not expect answers from the Minister today.

On the Children and Young Persons Bill, I welcome the focus on transparency in care planning. It is vital that the voice of the child in care is heard. Many children in care feel isolated, which is why it is very important that mechanisms and resources are put in place to ensure that each child can really influence his or her care. It is frustrating for a child to hear a lot of good intentions and then for nothing to happen or for their view to be ignored.

I also welcome the move to address the child’s educational needs and put the designated teacher on a statutory footing. How can a child attain good grades when he is constantly moved around and forced to go to the school with a vacancy rather than to the best school in the area? Friends are important to children. They can be devastated when dragged away from their friends, and often the result is that they protect themselves by not making any. They become isolated, introverted and lonely. That is not a life that any of us would want for our own children. Most of us with adult children know that their need for us does not go away when they leave education. Indeed, they never go away. Yet the corporate parent sends children out into the world with little or no backing when they reach 18. It is right that those in foster care should be able to extend their time with their foster parents if they wish, but I would like that right to be extended to those in residential care and for there to be a set of transitional arrangements until they are 25.

Evidence from the Children’s Society shows that, despite government guidance that says that advocacy providers should ensure that their services are accessible to disabled children, a quarter of those surveyed said that they had not been able to respond to a referral from a disabled child. These children need a statutory right to an independent advocate. All children in care need someone to talk to who is independent of the local authority and who will promote their interests without fear or favour.

Every year 300 frightened children arrive in this country, unaccompanied minors who arrive here fleeing from who knows what. Unlike other children in care, local authorities do not have parental responsibility for most of them. That makes it difficult for them to access help and advice about their asylum appeal and harder for them to settle down here. I will suggest a system of guardianship for these children. It is a great pity that the Government have not taken the opportunity to commit themselves to therapeutic services for all abused children, including children in care. Abused children are damaged not only physically but mentally and emotionally. These scars take years to heal and need professional help to do so. If such children are to grow up happy and well balanced, if we are to put a full stop to the recurring cycle of violence and abuse against children, we must act. Sadly, far too often, abused children go on to abuse their own children

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because it is the norm for them. It is all they have ever known. That has to stop. One important contribution to stopping it would be for the Government to change their attitude to parents hitting children. Sadly, despite the overwhelming opinion of the professionals that was recently expressed in the Government’s consultation, they have told us that the country has no stomach for giving children the same protection under the laws of assault that adults enjoy.

When the Government of Sweden became the first of a dozen European countries to give their children this legal protection more than 20 years ago, the Swedish population did not demand it either, but that Government took a lead and had a massive public education programme in which they explained why it was harmful to hit children and showing parents better, safer and more effective ways of instilling discipline. The whole attitude to children in Sweden changed. The Swedish jails are not full of caring parents who occasionally lose their temper, as the Government lead us to believe would happen here if we followed the Swedish example. The law should set a standard of protection that our most vulnerable citizens should be entitled to expect. How can it be right that someone can beat a small defenceless child as long as he does not leave a mark but, if he raises a hand to someone vandalising his car, he may be in trouble with the law? Let us not be deceived. All over the world there are police and security forces, expert at inflicting pain without leaving a mark. That should be as illegal in this country when it is done to a child by its parent as it would be if it was done by a police officer to a suspect in custody.

The Education and Skills Bill, which will extend the compulsory education leaving age to 18, is, as we understand it, full of duties and penalties. It is a great clunking fist, taken to a matter that would respond much better to options and persuasion. We will seek to amend the Bill to bring a better balance between enablement and compulsion. By proposing to spend £600 million over a decade on a complex registration system and on hiring inspectors to go around checking on small businesses, Ministers are missing the point. Yes, of course it is a problem that around 200,000 16 year-olds drop out of education. But the right approach surely is to look carefully at these young people, detect the reasons why they drop out at that age and fix them. Many of those young people have already been failed by our education system. Are we then going to penalise them if they say, “Enough, I don't want any more of this”? Many of them do not even have the basic skills to go on to further education. That is what needs fixing. Many of them have had behavioural or health problems and have been excluded from school for long periods. For many, the curriculum has been irrelevant. Many of them need money. The Government are about to introduce a set of national diplomas in the practical skills that young people need to get a job in our increasingly technological world. Why not wait and see how well that works before dashing off a piece of legislation forcing young people to stay in education?

Yes, of course, all adults should have an entitlement to training to enable them to attain a level 2 qualification. That has long been Lib Dem policy so

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I am not going to argue with that. But for some young people, it would be better to let them do it a little later. Last week, I heard about a 16 year-old girl who had a child at 14. Of course she should be given every opportunity and help to get qualifications so that she can support her own child, but it could be that she needs to spend her time with the child just now. After a couple of years, when the child is at school, might be a much better time for her to complete her education or training.

What about a young person going through an episode of ME or some other debilitating illness? Mental age is not the same as chronological age. To put these duties on someone at an absolute age is ridiculous. I hope that the Government will think again and do things differently. Young people should have funded options and high-quality choices at 16, not duties and penalties.

With 50 per cent of children leaving school without five good GCSEs, this is not the time to do this. The Government should provide resources to ensure that every child with special needs has professional help to get over those problems. That should be the right of those children and also the right of every other child in his class whose own education is disrupted because the poor over-stretched teacher is distracted by the need to cope with a disruptive classmate. That is the way to spend £600 million.

7.12 pm

Lord Moran: My Lords, I will revert to the topic that the rest of us have been debating. It is a good many years since I worked in the foreign service, but I still have one concern that troubles me: the extent to which the Government and Parliament, not excluding this House, are increasingly out of touch with public opinion.

Informed public consent to major policies is a necessary basis of the democratic system that we have sought for so many years to establish in this country. Obtaining that consent is an essential part of good governance, and if the population at large concludes, as it appears to do at present, that the Government—and still more the European Union which is responsible for most of our legislation—have no time for its views, its disillusionment with politicians and political institutions will increase. That does not bode well for parliamentary government in our country.

In the field of foreign policy that we are discussing today—or were—the most explosive issue is Iraq. When we debated Iraq in this House on 24 September 2002, it seemed probable that before long the United States would attack Iraq. The question was whether or not we should take part. I argued then that we should not, and that we should go to war only if we ourselves were threatened or if vital British interests were at stake. Since neither of those applied, I said that I did not believe that it would be right to send our young men there to face being killed. But Tony Blair decided that we should take part and the result has, sadly, been a disaster. Matters became still worse when his Government went on to involve us in

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fighting in Afghanistan, which my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig has told us, may go on for years: a grim prospect.

The country was not consulted before the key decisions were taken. Everyone is made miserable by the continued loss of British lives in conflicts that essentially have little to do with us and appear likely to increase the risk of terrorism and to make the situation in the Middle East progressively worse. We are now left with no option but to disengage and gradually withdraw without too much loss of face.

Now we have a new Prime Minister and perhaps the trickiest foreign policy issue that he has to face is how to deal with the proposed EU reform treaty. We shall have to discuss that in detail early next year, but at this stage, although some aspects of the treaty appear sensible and necessary, it is clear that, as now drafted, it involves further pronounced steps towards European integration and brings much nearer the prospect of a country called Europe run from Brussels. It will result in the loss of our national veto in some 50 different areas and will give more responsibilities to Brussels where there will be a European Foreign Minister in all but name presiding over a European diplomatic service. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, has already quoted the Economist. It also said on 27 October:

The argument has of course been about whether there should be a referendum as was promised by the Labour Party in its manifesto. We have been here before. Many of us will remember the debate in this House on 14 July 1993, when a distinguished Conservative, the late Lord Blake, proposed that there should be a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. The Conservative Party shamefully bussed in numbers of backwoodsmen to achieve a massive vote to defeat that very reasonable proposal. It did the party no good at all. Now we have a Labour Government seeking for their part to deny a voice to people outside Westminster on a major step towards an integrated Europe. Polls show that seven out of 10 British people oppose the treaty, but the new Prime Minister seems prepared to ride roughshod over public opinion. Westminster appears isolated and cut off from the rest of the country, like Tewkesbury during the recent floods.

Since the public seem to be opposed to the treaty and everyone, whether Europhile or Eurosceptic, is convinced that if there were to be a referendum people would vote overwhelmingly against accepting it, we should perhaps do more to find out what sensible people really want in our relationship with Europe. It would be useful to explore alternatives to the present state of affairs, where we are dragged grumbling towards a United States of Europe, which a number of noble Lords who have spoken seem content to accept, or we could take the drastic step of coming out without more ado. My own view for a long time has been that we should loosen up or leave.

I was interested to see that a round dozen Members of this House signed a letter from Global Vision business supporters which appeared in the

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Financial Times on 17 October. It called for Britain to negotiate a new relationship with Europe, preserving the benefits of free trade and co-operation on policy areas where we and our neighbours have common interests, but opting out of the journey towards political and economic union.

Members of the other place have their constituencies, agents and surgeries which ought to give them a sense of what people out there are thinking, but nevertheless the message often does not appear to get through. In this House, we have none of that; we can rely only on the findings of polls, comments in the media and our varied personal contacts, but collectively we can get a sense of what people think. Nevertheless, at present, neither we nor the other place seem to respond adequately to the feelings of the country as a whole. Parliamentary democracy in Great Britain is not answering the helm. To some extent that is due to the party system. Politicians forget that they are a very small minority. Members of the three principal parties in this country altogether amount to about half a million people. This compares with more than 1 million members of the RSPB and 3.5 million members of the National Trust. Moreover, people are put off by what they hear about the whipping system, which does the image of Parliament no good at all.

The fundamental problem is that our Governments, of whatever party, are usually determined to do what they want to do and to disregard opinion outside. Prime Ministers come to Downing Street with all sorts of good ideas, but once they get there, they lose touch with the country outside Westminster and deny the people as a whole a voice on the road ahead. This was the line taken by Charles I, and we know what happened to him.

It is surely important that on foreign policy and defence, in which the lives of our citizens are often at risk, we should pay much more attention to the view of the country at large. This should be so obvious as to be not worth saying, but sadly this is not the case. I believe therefore that we should all work to get the Government and Parliament to listen much more to people outside Westminster, to take their views seriously and to pay real attention to what they say.

I sat up when I heard at the beginning of the gracious Speech:

That sounds new and encouraging. We must watch to see what the Government do. The European reform treaty will be the first touchstone.

7.21 pm

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I will say a little about cluster munitions and wind up by talking about the European Union. I welcome the changes in the Government’s policy on cluster munitions, as announced earlier this year by the Secretary of State, who said that the Government would ban the use of dumb cluster munitions. Your Lordships will be aware that each cluster munition or cluster bomb may have anything from 50 to several hundred bomblets. The problem is

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that they do not all explode when they hit the ground. Those with a high failure rate have been called “dumb” and those with a low failure rate have been called “smart”. The trouble is that that distinction does not work in practice. Most of the smart cluster munitions or cluster bombs are also dumb.

Recently, Chris Clark, programme manager of Mine Action Co-ordination Centre South Lebanon, said that although several military users maintain that the M85—one of the cluster munitions with a self-destruct mechanism—has a failure rate of less than 1 per cent, the evidence on the ground in south Lebanon is that the weapon has a failure rate of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that there is no basis for believing that improving the reliability of cluster munition fuses or adding a self-destruct feature can be the sole or primary solution to the cluster munition problem.

Nearer to home, the Select Committee of the House of Commons has said that, even for submunitions with self-destruct mechanisms, the potential to inflict death or injury on innocent non-combatants entering the field after engagement is substantial. Two Select Committees in the Commons challenged the Government’s premise that the failure rate of the M85 is 2.3 per cent and called for them to acknowledge that the failure rate could be as high as 10 per cent.

I saw some of those unexploded cluster munitions when I visited the Lebanon earlier this year. Clearly, if cluster munitions are being tested in non-battle conditions and they land on hard ground, they are more liable to explode, because of the impact with concrete or whatever. But it is not like that in the real world. Some land on soft ground and some have their fall slowed down by vegetation—trees, olive groves and so on. The result is that there can be a very high failure rate. In the Lebanon, some landed on hard surfaces, but even there the failure rate was higher than in test conditions. Certainly there is a failure rate.

Given all that, is there any military use for cluster munitions? I am bound to say that the evidence is that there is no proper military use for them. Perhaps in the middle of the Cold War, with visions of 2 million Soviet troops massed for an attack, cluster bombs or munitions theoretically might have had an effect. But that is not the world we are in, as most military people would agree.

Perhaps I may speculate a little on what is happening within the Government about this. I suspect that there are different opinions. I know that the Government officially speak with one voice, but we know that there can be different opinions. From the little that has come out, I think that DfID and the FCO would like to see these wretched, terrible weapons banned. The problem is that in the MoD there are differences of view.

Among those in your Lordships’ House with a great deal of senior military experience, it seems that there is little support for cluster munitions. I have talked to colleagues who say that. This is partly to do with the munitions’ doubtful military effectiveness and the fact that they kill civilians long after the

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conflict has ceased. Civilians—farmers going about their business, children playing or whoever—step on them. These people are liable to have their legs blown off or to be killed. That is not calculated to win hearts and minds. Most military thinking these days is about winning hearts and minds when the conflict has moved on. I very much hope that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will see his way to banning all cluster munitions in the near future.

I am delighted that we have two very able Ministers on the Front Bench. My noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown in his previous career had a very senior position at the UN and before that at UNDP. I shall not quote him against himself, except to say that I know where his sympathies lie. I suspect that I also know where the sympathies lie of my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, in her new job today. But I know the line that we will get, because it is still official government policy while it is being considered. I hope very much that the Government are considering this matter hard.

On the EU, a lot of the arguments about the reform treaty were ably put better than I could put them by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I do not want to go over that, except to say that I just cannot think that the argument for a referendum has been made. Unless we are going to become a plebiscitary democracy as opposed to a parliamentary democracy, I do not believe that there is enough substance in the reform treaty to justify a referendum. It is not that sort of change. I very much hope that the Government will stay firm on that.

However, it is important that the Government argue their case harder than they have been doing. There has been too much silence on EU matters from successive Governments, with the result that there is a vacuum which is filled by the Eurosceptics. The British public have the right to be better informed and the Government have a real responsibility to play their part in saying what is going on and what the key issues are. The amount of misunderstanding on this is manifest. The Government should argue better or more passionately the case for EU enlargement. Accession of further countries that meet EU standards is good not only for those countries but also for Britain.

The role of the media is an important factor. I believe passionately in a free press, but there is something not quite healthy when four of our most important national newspapers are owned and controlled by one person who neither lives in Britain nor is British. Surely Rupert Murdoch has too much power and influence on British policy on the EU, especially on the referendum. Unless the Government speak much more loudly to counter this, he will persuade more people of his views. Of course, he has the right to own British newspapers. I do not argue against foreign ownership. I just wonder whether there is too much ownership of newspapers in one person when they are being used in a blatantly propagandist way on some of the issues to do with the EU, the treaty and the referendum.

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I very much hope that the Government will continue their policy of supporting the accession of Turkey. Of course, Turkey has a long way to go, but those of us who met the Turkish Prime Minister when he was in Westminster last week will surely have been impressed by his positive views on Turkey moving forward and his views on Turkey’s relationships with the EU and with Britain. I appreciate that there is a problem concerning Cyprus which has to be resolved, but I believe that Turkey’s membership, in the fullness of time when it meets our standards, would be only of benefit.

Let me say finally and briefly that I visited Moldova a few weeks ago. It is the poorest country in Europe and obviously its interests are to move closer to the EU. That will be a long way ahead, but it has been much damaged by Romania joining the EU, so that the EU border now lies between Romania and it. I hope very much that the Government will accept that Moldova has a strong case for sympathetic support in its bid to get closer to the EU.

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