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On the group’s proceedings, and thinking back to the noble Lord’s distinguished period as a Minister, I have not always seen him as someone who has championed openness in meetings between groups which lead to policy decisions. As regards reaching agreement, surely he would accept that the members of the cross-party group should be allowed to get on with debating these matters. The White Paper will be out soon and I am sure that it will be subject to extensive debate, not least within your Lordships’ House.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend’s experience mirrors my own in any way. In decades of knocking on people’s doors and canvassing, I have still to meet someone who says that what troubles them most about politics is the lack of progress on Lords reform. By all means let us carry on talking, but can he reassure me that Lords reform will not figure prominently in any future legislative programme?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we talk of little else but Lords reform in Kings Heath. Of course, I would not claim that Lords reform is the number one political priority for the public in this country. None the less, it is a very important matter. Reform of your Lordships’ House could enhance the democratic arrangements in this country.

Noble Lords: Oh.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the fact is that this House does exceptionally valuable work. However, if it were elected, there can be no question that it would have increased legitimacy. After the work of the cross-party group, there was a White Paper which led to votes and the House of Commons voted for an all or mostly elected House. Surely we have a responsibility to bring before Parliament a White Paper which reflects how those decisions can be taken forward.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when we see the White Paper it will deal with the distant future? In view of that, will the Government consider adopting the sensible proposals in my Bill?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have had two very enjoyable days debating the noble Lord’s Bill and I look forward to many more. The fact is that we have the prospect of political consensus on Lords reform; we have the White Paper; we have the possibility of manifestos that will, in large measure, reflect the consensus within the cross-party group; and we have the opportunity to bring forward major legislation on Lords reform after the next election. That is the process to which we should stick.

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Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, when the Minister says that he looks forward to further days in Committee debating the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, does that represent a government commitment to give extra time to that Bill? Will the Minister say whether the consensus, constructed in the way that he has described, should be regarded as a broad or a narrow consensus?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is as broad as the noble Lord wishes it to be. On the matter of time, that is not in the hands of the Government, but of course I stand ever ready to debate Lords reform on every occasion when it is presented to your Lordships’ House.


3.23 pm

Baroness Northover: My Lords, with the permission of the House and in the absence of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Government the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper:

Lord Bach: My Lords, we are deeply concerned by the ongoing violence in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon over the past week. We fully support the high-level Arab League mission that arrived in Lebanon today. The UN Security Council, under British presidency, addressed the situation last Thursday. Informal discussions have continued since then, and we are working towards a formal meeting this week to ensure strong UN backing for efforts to restore calm and support democratic politics in Lebanon.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Given the fragility of Lebanon and the danger of it sliding back into civil war, does he agree that we should not do as we did in 2006, but this time should urge mediation and recognition of the real concerns on all sides in this dispute? Does he agree that we should encourage Syrian-Israeli negotiations, thus far blocked by the United States, so that these countries are no longer tempted to see Lebanon as their battleground?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we are, as I say, deeply concerned by the violence. We think that the first thing that must happen is that the violence must come to a complete end; it is hurting the Lebanese people and, as the noble Lady suggests, destabilising the region. All armed forces should withdraw from the streets and allow the Lebanese security forces to restore legitimate order. We are firm in our support for the Lebanese people and the Government of Prime Minister Siniora. Of course all sides must be listened to, but it is important to realise where this started.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister accept that Hezbollah’s strength and credibility relies largely on its effectiveness in resisting Israeli encroachment last summer, but also because it

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is seen as the party that is most supportive of Palestinian rights under Israeli occupation? Would not the greatest encouragement to stability and peace in Lebanon be if there was seen to be effective and real progress towards the goal of Annapolis—in other words, real progress towards peace and stability in Palestine?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we all want to see Annapolis followed through and peace and stability in Palestine. However, it is important to realise that Hezbollah’s actions in the current crisis, in particular the blockade of the airport and the port, have been unacceptable. The only way towards a solution to this particular crisis is if all parties come together for negotiations. Using our presidency of the United Nations, that is what we are determined to ensure.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am sure that we would agree with that. However, has the Minister—slightly contrary to what has been said—received reports that non-Arabic-speaking fighters are also operating with Hezbollah in a number of Christian areas and in west Beirut, indicating that the Iranians are far more involved than they claim to be? Has the Minister anything to say about that? Secondly, has he noted that Condoleezza Rice has said that the best way to support democracy in Beirut and in Lebanon is to support the Lebanese security force, the Lebanese army? Is that our view as well? That in itself is quite controversial given the role that it has played in the past few days.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I have no knowledge of reports of foreign fighters fighting with Hezbollah. As the noble Lord will know, however, our belief is that Iran is closely connected with Hezbollah in a number of different ways. We believe that we should continue to give support to the Lebanese Government.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I bow to the others’ expertise in this area. However, are Her Majesty’s Government not more worried about the Palestinian issue and the growing rift between Sunni and Shia, which could spread over the whole of the Middle East? We tend to ignore this, but do we not do so at our peril?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. The rift between Sunni and Shia is to be found in the Lebanon as it is to be found in the rest of the Middle East. Our job must be to do our very best to make sure that that country has proper government and can move to choosing a new president as quickly as possible.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if the issues of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine are closely interwoven, one discipline that the international community should adopt is to make any approaches on these issues as inclusive as possible? Does he not agree that it is essential to avoid driving people into the arms of extremists by talking only to our favourites?

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Lord Bach: Yes, of course, my Lords. However, we do not think that it is right and proper to have dealings with people who use violence as a weapon of first resort. We have attempted over a number of years to have contacts with Hezbollah, but we feel that the blame for the present serious situation in the Lebanon must be put down to the actions that it took in the middle of last week.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that Britain alone has limited influence over the Lebanese situation. Can he tell us with which other Governments and through which other frameworks Her Majesty’s Government are primarily working?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord will know better than me that the countries with the greatest historical influence in the Lebanon are France and the United States. We are working very closely with both those countries, but we are also working closely with all EU ambassadors in Lebanon. Our presidency of the United Nations is an important factor in this, and we are dealing with other members of the Security Council in the hope, as I said earlier, of getting a formal meeting later this week. We are working very hard indeed on the issue.

Education and Skills Bill

3.30 pm

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Government: Legislative Programme

3.31 pm

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the draft legislative programme made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, building a more prosperous Britain and a fairer Britain is the purpose of the draft legislative programme published today for debate in this House and in the country. In this Statement I will focus on both the immediate action the Government are taking to help to steer the economy safely through the current global economic problems and on the changes, including a new welfare reform Bill and a new education and skills Bill, that are needed to make Britain a fairer, more prosperous society and to meet the challenges of the future.

“Our immediate priority for the coming Session—at a time when food and fuel bills are rising and mortgages are more difficult to obtain—is to help family finances. In the next few weeks we will set out the elements of our economic plan as we steer our economy safely through the global downturn, the credit crunch and international oil and food price rises.

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“Legislation in the Queen’s Speech on the economy will include a banking Bill so that Britain underpins its banking system with the best protection for depositors. In addition to action that we will take on fuel bills, to help small firms’ finance, and internationally on oil prices and food prices—and the benefit we gain from three-year public sector pay deals now covering 1.5 million workers—my right honourable friend the Housing Minister is today announcing: a £200 million fund, reallocating money to purchase unsold new homes and then rent them to social tenants or make them available on a shared-ownership basis; £100 million for shared-equity schemes to allow more first-time buyers to purchase newly built homes on the open market; and, for the first time, an offer of shared-equity housing open to applications from all first-time buyers, subject to a household income limit.

“The Queen’s Speech will also introduce a savings Bill, not just to help home ownership but wealth ownership generally, giving 8 million people on low incomes access to a national savings scheme, with each pound saved matched by a contribution from the Government.

“On housing we will look at whether further action is required in light of the study by the Office of Fair Trading into the sale and leaseback market and the rise in second-charge mortgages to ensure that what should happen does happen—that consumers are treated fairly.

“With a second public sector efficiency review now under way, we are setting the objective of greater efficiency and value for money in public administration as we move to achieve the lowest Civil Service numbers since 1945.

“Advancing our enterprise agenda, the Government will also consult on the idea of regulatory budgets—for the first time giving departments that seek new regulation a strict annual limit on what they can impose.

“As well as taking decisive action to help families and businesses weather the current economic storms, the Government have a duty to equip this country to meet the challenges of the future, with welfare and education reform to help people rise as far as their talents can take them; and, in the education, health, policing and community empowerment Bills we are announcing today, a commitment to new standards of excellence in services and to the transfer of more power and resources to parents, patients and citizens—measures which, alongside our constitutional renewal Bill, reshape for a new age the respective roles and responsibilities of citizen, community and government.

“In the next two decades the size of the world economy will double and 1 billion new skilled or professional jobs will be created. The new legislation we propose is founded on the new economic truth that the countries that have the best skills and the best education systems will reap the greatest rewards. So attaining the highest standards of education, as

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we expand opportunity, is the theme of our education Bill for schools and lifelong learning in the coming Session.

“First, it is unfair to consign any child to a poor school or even one that is coasting along without ambition to do better. So, having legislated this year for education to 18, there will be a second education Bill to support our plan to ensure that, by 2011, no school is underperforming. There will be the first independent qualifications system to guarantee to parents the highest standards and there will be more power for parents to receive regular information on their children's progress. We are expanding academies and strengthening reform to the accountability of schools to parents, giving them a bigger say on how to raise standards and whether new schools are needed in an area. It is also unfair—and a threat to our country's future prosperity—that many qualified young people are still denied access to an apprenticeship. By deciding to legislate, for the first time, for the statutory right of every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship, we expect the numbers of people starting apprenticeships—just 65,000 a year 10 years ago—to rise by 2011 to over 200,000, three times as many.

“Every adult should have the right to a second chance in education—to have the chance to make the most of their potential. It is not only a threat to prosperity but unfair that adults in work or looking for work are denied the opportunity to get the training they need to advance their careers, or even the time needed to do a course. So my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Skills is proposing today, for the first time, a major new change in workplace rights that will benefit both employees and employers, giving every worker the right to request time to train. We will also offer every adult a personal skills account so that they can access the training they need, with resources tailored to the individual.

“Leaving the unemployed without the skills they need to obtain work is costly for our prosperity and unfair to both benefit claimants and those who pay taxes. As part of the next stage of welfare reform, emphasising obligations as well as rights, the Secretary of State for Work will legislate in the coming Session for a duty on the unemployed to have their skill needs assessed and to acquire skills. We will consult on further radical reforms to ensure that no one with the ability to work is trapped on benefits for life. Those who can work should work, so new and existing incapacity benefit claimants will be required to go through a medical assessment and will be given a personalised programme to help them back into work.

“Fair treatment also means respecting that people need flexible arrangements to care for their children, especially as evidence now shows that flexible work is no obstacle to business success, so fairness and efficiency can advance together. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business will announce tomorrow that we will take forward the recommendations of the Walsh report

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to extend the right to flexible working to parents of older children. We will consult on the details of implementation with the aim of introducing the new rights from next April.

“Since last year we have secured cleaner hospitals in the NHS, better access to GPs and progress on waiting times. It is right, as we celebrate 60 years of the NHS next month, to introduce a new NHS reform Bill to continue the change and renewal of the NHS, equip it to offer a higher standard of care, focus it on prevention as well as treatment and make it more accountable to local people, giving patients real power and control over the service that they receive. We will establish a constitution of the NHS that sets out what patients can expect to get from the health service, including entitlements to minimum standards of access, quality and safety. For the first time, payments to NHS hospitals will be adjusted according to patient satisfaction and health outcomes, deepening our commitment to a patient-focused NHS.

“In the same way as we are tackling underperforming schools, we will take new powers, as part of a comprehensive NHS performance regime, to ensure that no healthcare provider falls below minimum standards. Just as we will consult in education on giving more rights to parents, we will bring forward radical proposals in health to put more power in the hands of patients, including new rights to information about their care, control of their own personal budgets and having more say over the decisions of their local primary care trust.

“Just as we will give both parents and patients more control, so we will give social housing tenants more say—greater choice over where they live and new rights to independent information on landlords’ performance. We will look at ways of rewarding good tenants and hold to account those who do not meet their responsibilities, as we crack down further on anti-social behaviour on our estates.

“Protecting the safety of the British people is paramount for any Government. Since 1997, we have significantly increased the numbers of police men and women, and introduced new community support officers and new powers for police and the courts to target anti-social behaviour, burglary, car crime and street crime. We have also taken action against terrorism.

“Our aim is not just a reduction in crime but that people feel safe in their homes and neighbourhoods. One way forward, as with education and health, is to empower citizens, giving them more direct say on how crime is tackled in their areas.

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