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House of Lords

Thursday, 20 March 2008.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by Lord Harries of Pentregarth.

Royal Assent

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the Appropriation Act.

Iraq: UK Forces

11.06 am

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, UK forces still have an important role to play in Iraq, mentoring and training the Iraqi security forces and frequently supporting them in active operations. In line with our strategy, which was set out by the Prime Minister in October in another place, we will take decisions on the next phase of our military presence this spring. As always, this will be based on military advice and conditions on the ground.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. As the time approaches for the total withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, will Her Majesty’s Government arrange a suitable way of honouring those who have died and those who will return to this country from the field of conflict? Secondly, as the presidency of George W Bush draws mercifully—dare I say that?—to an end and he is replaced by another President of the United States, is it possible for Her Majesty’s Government to facilitate meetings on Iraq between the three main contenders for the presidency so that they might talk about the future and bring about substantial changes?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, on the first point, we will certainly consider the appropriate time for commemorating those who have served and, in particular, those who have lost their lives. It is important that we should do that at the appropriate time, as I am sure every Member of this House would agree.

On the point about the three main contenders in the United States elections, that is somewhat outside my domain, tempting though it would be to try to arrange that kind of debate. I note, however, that one of them is in London at the moment and is offering his support for the work that British troops have done in Iraq. That support should be welcome.

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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, is it part of the role of our Armed Forces who remain in Iraq to help the Iraqi authorities to recover full working control of the port of Basra from the militias?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we have made it clear on many occasions that security is vital in Iraq, but in getting self-sustaining progress we must also concentrate on good governance and economic development. A great deal of work is being done in Basra, and we have people there who are putting a great deal of effort into ensuring that economic development is as quick as possible. There was a conference in Kuwait recently, which was attended by many potential investors and senior Iraqi figures in order to deal with how we can help to regenerate the Basra province in all its aspects.

Lord Soley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a good time after these questions to remind ourselves that one of the most important roles for the British Armed Forces in Iraq is to train the Iraqi armed forces, particularly the army? If any criticism is to be had, it is because we disbanded that army far too quickly after the conflict, instead of training it then. No one should be talking of withdrawing the forces until we have a fully trained Iraqi army which is able to control the state in the way that should have happened much earlier.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. The UK has made a significant contribution. Other countries have also been effective in training members of the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi police. The UK has trained more than 20,000 members of the Iraqi army and 22,000 members of the Iraqi police forces. It is important that the Iraqis are able to take over their own security. There have been significant developments in Basra and the recent very successful operation in Shatt al-Arab was led by the Iraqi armed forces, supported by the British. Progress is being made, but there is still some way to go.

Lord McNally: My Lords, did the Minister see today Hans Blix’s assessment of the Iraq tragedy five years on? He said:

It is all very well praising the bravery and courage of our armed services, but if politicians make the wrong decisions and send them into wrong areas, the Armed Forces pay the penalty. Therefore, should we not have an inquiry into how those wrong decisions were made and how that advice was ignored five years ago?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I am in a difficult position in one way because I served on two of the inquiries that took place and I heard Hans Blix speak on more than one occasion about these issues. There will come a time when we have another inquiry. I do not think it is when we have our Armed Forces serving on the ground as they are at the moment. But I would remind the noble Lord that the inquiries we have had put into context many of the statements made at that time. Looking again recently at the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Iraq

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and WMD, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea if Members refreshed their memories about some of the things that were said at the time, rather than misremembering some other things.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, if there is to be an inquiry, will it include the conduct of those who seem to be saying that, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, almost said, it was wrong to depose Saddam Hussein? Had the Government of the day decided to leave Saddam’s security forces in situ, howls of protest would have been heard the world over. Hindsight is a great tool, but sometimes it is used wrongly.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. Life under Saddam was very difficult for the vast majority of people in Iraq. There are still some difficulties, but they are of a totally different nature. We are working hard to create stability and good governance. There have already been national elections. People are developing plans for provincial elections and the outlook for ordinary people in the long term in Iraq is a lot better than it could ever have been under Saddam Hussein.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, just for the record, does the Minister accept that we on this side share the view of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that there should be an inquiry, but we believe that it should be now? We owe it to our troops to go ahead with that inquiry at the earliest opportunity and it should not be delayed.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we owe it to our troops to concentrate on supporting them in the actions that they are taking at the moment. If we have an inquiry, as the Government have made clear there will be, it should be at the appropriate stage, and that is not now.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, when will the Government apologise for the catastrophe in Iraq, for bringing terrorism into that country, and for increasing the risk of terrorism in our own country?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I do not accept that somewhat, perhaps I may say, simplistic analysis. As my noble friend pointed out, life under Saddam was very difficult for many people. In some respects, he kept a lid by the force of fear on many problems that were there for a very long time.

Schools: Bullying

11.14 am

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the Government take these findings very seriously. There is already strong guidance to schools on combating bullying, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires all schools to prepare disability equality schemes. We are developing specific guidance to help schools tackle bullying related to special educational needs and disabilities, and that guidance will be issued later this spring.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, but is not the bullying of and physical hurt to such vulnerable disabled children on this scale deeply shaming, not only for its perpetrators but for the educational environments in which it thrives? Moreover, is he aware that, in four out of 10 cases, it does not stop when reported? Why has Ofsted not been commissioned to carry out, as in Northern Ireland, a thematic review of the responses of schools and children's services to the bullying of and physical hurt to disabled children? Again crucially important, why are most schools still not complying even with the legal requirement to have a disability equality scheme?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I first pay tribute to my noble friend for his outstanding work in the field of disability and special educational needs over the years and with Mencap, with which he is closely associated. In respect of the Disability Discrimination Act and the requirement to publish disability equality schemes, which he rightly highlighted, those provisions assumed the force of law for primary schools only last December and for secondary schools the previous December, so they are very recent requirements. However, they have the force of law and it is essential that schools comply with them. Ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made so that children with disabilities are not bullied is one key element of those schemes. I will draw the comments that my noble friend made about Ofsted to the attention of the chief inspector and ask him to contact my noble friend directly about them.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, will the Minister accept my congratulations on the publicity campaign that the Government carried out to publicise their guidance on homophobic and cyber bullying? Will the Government carry out the same level of publicity campaign to ensure that everyone understands the guidance to which he just referred about the bullying of children with SEN and disabilities?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments about the guidance on homophobic bullying, which has been a big problem in our schools over the years. We will see that a similar level of publicity and promotion is given to the new guidance on the bullying of children with special educational needs.

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I echo the thanks to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester and salute him for his dedication to this issue. I agree that this type of bullying is totally unacceptable. Will my noble friend the Minister say how he intends to monitor what will be implemented in terms of how much

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children with disabilities are believed when they complain about being bullied? That continues to pose a problem for many schools.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. It is essential that incidents of bullying are monitored. However, the prime requirement is that those incidents should be monitored, properly recorded and dealt with at school level. That is precisely what we recommend and lay out in Safe to Learn, the guidance published to schools last September in respect of bullying.

The guidance on the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act is substantial. A lot of materials including DVDs are sent to schools to help them address the issue of the reasonable adjustments that should be made. They set out how schools can effectively record incidents and see that they are dealt with. However, it is not practical for us to accumulate at national level the sort of statistics to which my noble friend referred. The key requirement is to put in place a structure that ensures that these issues are dealt with to the satisfaction of parents and pupils, school by school.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister agrees that the figures produced by Mencap are appalling. Do they apply to England only, or do they cover the whole of the United Kingdom including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am not absolutely sure, but I think that they apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. But of course as the Minister responsible for England I take them extremely seriously in respect of England. As a Government, we have clear responsibilities in this regard.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, can the Minister tell us how he is strengthening support for and the continuing professional development of classroom assistants, who very often work directly with such children? They must have the confidence to protect them.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right to highlight the importance of classroom assistants. A large proportion of children with special educational needs with statements will have dedicated assistants who work with them. The training and materials we provide in respect of the Disability Discrimination Act are available to assistants as well as to teachers. The guidance also applies to them, along with any training that schools provide. Moreover, schools should use some of their training days to deal with issues such as bullying and behaviour management. That training would apply to both assistants and full-time teachers.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, if children know that they cannot get away with bullying, they usually do not do it. Much of this is down to the quality of the staff. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to improve initial teacher training in the latest effective anti-bullying strategies? Concerns have been expressed that not enough is being done in this area, which places newly qualified teachers at a disadvantage.

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Lord Adonis: My Lords, behaviour management is a key issue in teacher training, so these issues should be covered. But of course it is experience in schools which is vital for preparing teachers. The greater focus in teacher training now being put on experience in schools rather than sitting in the lecture halls of teacher training institutions is better equipping teachers to deal with these issues. However, it is an ongoing matter and we are seeking over time to improve at the national level the quality of materials and training available.

Food: Government Departments

11.21 am

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Government are taking a number of steps under the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative to increase tenders from small and local food producers. The steps include funding workshops and projects to improve their capacity to supply the public sector and encouraging buyers to increase opportunities for them by, for example, specifying seasonal produce and breaking contracts down into smaller lots.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he is as concerned as I am that only half of the purchases made in the expenditure of £2 billion between July 2006 and July 2007 were of British produce. Surely that is to be bitterly regretted. Indeed, only 25 per cent of the bacon purchased was British. Is it not time for the Government to think across departments and adopt a standardised, integrated approach in order to find a better way of introducing British food into departments?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, one size does not fit all; it tends to be the case that the pig industry specialises in pork. The fact is that there have been considerable improvements over the past few years. Although the MoD has been severely criticised in the past, this year 100 per cent of its gammon will be sourced from the UK. The way the MoD’s figure are measured suggests that only around 40 per cent was from the UK, but it is closer to 60 per cent. Massive progress is being made in schools, for example. In some areas of the country, such as Derbyshire, Norfolk and Lancashire, 100 per cent of the produce—the meat; chicken and pork—used for school meals is British. A lot of work is going on. It is also incumbent on producers actually being able to supply what the market wants, and not the other way round. Producers are simply suppliers and they have to be in a position to supply what chefs and the market want. Part of our process is to ensure that they are geared up to be able to do that.

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Lord Barnett: My Lords, while we would like all departments to buy British food, what would be the answer given by the Government if the National Audit Office found that it was not value for money in comparison with other food?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, going for the lowest possible price tender is not necessarily the best value. While this is not an implied criticism, I have to say that the NAO report on this subject—it is available in the Library—which is confirmed by a recent NFU centenary report on procurement performance, shows that the worst of the government departments, at 40.3 per cent, is Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Teverson: My Lords, I do not know how to follow that one.

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