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Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I can answer only in the context of Nepal, where free and fair elections were held. A long-time insurgency has been successfully brought into the democratic mainstream; it prevailed at the polls and now governs in partnership with other parties in the framework of a democratic Parliament and constitution. While it is a fragile start, this appears to be a clear case of the success that one can achieve in many areas around the world when yesterdays freedom fightersor, in the eyes of some, yesterdays terroristsare brought back into the political mainstream.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, I should say to my noble friend that we are now in the 24th minute.
The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Mandelson): My Lords, the Post Office has increased the range of financial services and products available through the post office network with considerable success in recent years. The Government welcome these initiatives and will be exploring with the company the scope for developing and introducing further financial services which will be attractive to Post Office customers.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, and I look forward to the Statement which we are to receive later. Is he aware that there is very considerable support on these Benches and, I suspect, elsewhere for the views reportedly expressed by my noble friend in a letter to the Prime Minister on 30 October which was reported in the Guardian on Tuesday? It stated:
Is this not now exactly the right time when we should be looking at plans for a peoples bank based on the Post Office, the transfer of much more of the Governments own business to it and an end to any further branch closures?
Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I obviously cannot comment on private correspondence between myself and the Prime Minister, tempting as it may be, but I share very strongly my noble friends sentiments about the future of the Post Office. I do not have a master plan or a magic wand to transform the Post Office, but I do have strong faith in its future, not just as an anchor for local communities but as a serious business proposition.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, may I welcome the Secretary of State, and say how much we all look forward to that great day when we at last hear just one important announcement from him here in Parliament before it appears first in the media? Is he aware that much of British business, and post offices, are now in a battle for survival? Almost 5,000 post offices have closed since 1997 and it is anticipated that, by the time of the next general election, around a third of the entire network will have been lost on this Governments watch. These nebulous proposals would represent a considerable U-turn, and raise more questions than answers. The noble Lord chairs the Cabinet committee charged with reviewing the future of the Post Office network. When will he be coming forward with more detailed proposals, and when is he going to publish the Hooper report?
Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I hope that the Hooper report on how best to maintain the universal service obligation in a competitive postal services market will be published before much longer. I have already met Mr Hooper, and his findings are at an advanced stage. I believe very strongly that we have an opportunity here for the future of the Post Office, one that has been enlarged by the turbulence elsewhere in the financial services sector. The recent rationalisation of the network obviously has not been painless, but it has placed it on a firmer footing. I believe that more can be achieved to expand the Post Offices financial services to its customers, and that is precisely what I am going to examine.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, the whole House will endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, in welcoming the apparent progress towards stabilising the Post Office network. But, putting the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, into some context, does the Minister accept that, as we speak, many sub-postmasters will be contemplating whether to close their operations after the Christmas trading period? What comfort can he give them as to timing and to why they should stay open?
Lord Mandelson: My Lords, the programme of rationalisation undertaken by the Government has definitely placed the entire network on a much firmer footing. A government funding package of up to £1.7 billion is in place to support the nationwide network of 11,500 branches to 2011, providing reasonable access for all. This includes a network subsidy of £150 million a year to support some 7,500 non-commercial offices. So the Government are doing their bit. They have demonstrated their commitment, and we will maintain that commitment.
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the highly popular, efficient and straightforward banking service provided by the Post Office through the National Girobank was a very successful operation? It was a tragedy when it was, some would say sold off, but I would say given away to the Alliance and Leicester for £118 million. At that time thousands of people were waiting to open accounts with National Giro. In the further consideration that
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Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I take note of what my noble friend has said. In the first instance I am going to convene a group of government departments to identify the potential additional work that the Post Office may do. There are opportunities there and we want to examine them closely.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, does the Secretary of State know the identity of his very enthusiastic supporter who was responsible for the leak of the letter to the Guardian on Saturday and for the leak today of the policy announcement that he is going to give to the House later?
Lord Dykes: My Lords, now that the Minister has said these encouraging words about the Post Office, does he agree that one should build on the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and persuade the BERR and Treasury mandarins to give up their obsession with meddling with the Post Office, leave it alone and let it operate as a commercial organisation, making at least a reasonable revenue profit, and get away from privatisation? This is the peoples Post Office. Does he agree that now is the time to have a wholehearted reassurance package for the entire Post Office organisation?
Lord Mandelson: My Lords, I do not think that we are meddling. We are investing and assuring the future of the Post Office and the maintenance of its national network. The fact is that the Post Office is an established and trusted brand; it is not starting from scratch in the financial services sector. It therefore has a lot to build on, and we want to see how that can be done.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, after the consideration of Commons amendments to the Employment Bill, with the leave of the House my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton will repeat a Statement on the future of the Post Office card account.
I hope that with this amendment I can set the tone for todays considerations. I am sure noble Lords will have welcomed the Governments constructive response on this issue when the Bill passed to the other place. We have listened to the powerful and thoughtful arguments that noble Lords and others have put forward on whether those responsible for running the immigration system should have a legal duty to make arrangements to ensure that, consistent with their primary duty to secure our borders, their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of childrenin other words, a duty equivalent to that required of other public bodies and persons listed in Section 11 of the Children Act 2004.
We agree that making the UK Border Agency subject to this duty is the right thing to do for children and young people, and now is the right time to do it. My right honourable friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, Beverly Hughes, committed to making the UK Border Agency subject to such a duty in Committee in the other place. However, rather than using this Bill, which will apply only to England and Wales, as the legislative vehicle, we believe that the Immigration and Citizenship Bill is more appropriate. I know that I am not allowed to do this, but I have the draft Bill in my hand. In particular, it allows for a UK-wide solution which I know was the will of this House and will mean it can be appropriately scrutinised along with other immigration reforms.
As noble Lords are aware, on 14 July 2008, the Home Secretary published a draft partial version of the Immigration and Citizenship Bill, which included in Part 11 Clause 189 on the duty regarding the welfare of children. I hope that noble Lords are reassured that it will have the same effect in relation to the UK Border Agency. The clause uses the same terminology by providing that arrangements must be made to ensure that,
The duty will also apply to designated officials when they are exercising immigration functions and to those contracted by UKBA to provide any services in relation to the discharge of relevant functions.
Officials in my department continue to work extremely closely with those in the Home Office, and the draft clause will be refined further to ensure that there is a statutory power to issue guidance and a requirement in law to have regard to it. This ensures a complete read-across to the Children Act 2004 Section 11 duty, which also includes provision requiring those subject to the duty to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State.
The agreed intention between the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families is that the guidance planned to underpin the duty provided for in the Immigration and Citizenship Bill will be joint guidance, developed by both departments, and will build on the existing UKBA code of practice for keeping children safe from harm to provide a blueprint for effective safeguarding practice and the promotion of child welfare within the Immigration Service.
I know that noble Lords share the Governments view that the effectiveness of the new planned duty can only ever be judged by the extent to which the cultural shift which has already begun within the Immigration Service continues and becomes embedded fully. Of course there will be new independent inspection arrangements to help monitor the changes we expect.
I am confident that we have taken an important step forward, a step that is a testament to the powerful argument, expertise and experience of this House. I am also confident that the draft clause in the partial draft Immigration and Citizenship Bill, subject to further minor refinement, will, as I have described, provide the right degree of parity with agencies subject to the Section 11 duty in the Children Act. Given the progress I have highlighted today, I am sure that this House will support these amendments.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, it seems a very long time since we last met to debate this Bill, and I intend to speak only once in considering all these Commons amendments. I am pleased that now the Bill has returned to us from another place, we are faced with a more robust piece of legislation. There has been genuine cross-party co-operation to get to this stage; we welcome that, because we all have a keen interest in the welfare of children. The more improvements we can make to that welfare, the better.
We are, and not for the first time, dealing with some of the most vulnerable groups in society. The statistics and stories which we have all learnt since the Bill first arrived in your Lordships' House have assured us of that. It is therefore in everybodys interests that we have been able to make such progress.
I am delighted that the Government have looked so favourably on placing a duty on the UK Border Agency to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the exercise of its functions. The phrase that I used on Report was,
For the benefit of anyone who may have been confused by the amendment which came back from the other place, which seeks to remove the clause that your Lordships House had added, I should state that I am delighted that the Government have thought seriously about this issue and am enormously grateful that they have decided that the measure would have more thorough application if an equivalent clause was inserted into the forthcoming Immigration and Citizenship Bill. For the sake of protecting vulnerable children, those provisions cannot arrive soon enough.
Barnardos has voiced a number of concerns, which the Minister has addressed. However, we share with it one concern: that the transition between the code of practice to safeguard children, to be issued under Section 21 of the UK Borders Act 2007, which will be laid before Parliament shortly and come into effect in the new year, must take into account the new stated policy intention of promoting childrens welfare. There must be a seamless transition between the codes and the guidance for staff working on the ground.
I said that the Bill has seen true cross-party co-operation. We on these Benches have been encouraged by the Governments constructive approach. We look forward to the outcome of the pilot social care practice schemes, and hope that positive findings will be acted on in due course. We of course welcome the greater support offered for disabled children and their parents, and the greater emphasis that is to be placed on family fostering and fostering closer to home.
I look on the progress that we have made with great pride. We have taken a good Bill and made it better. As I am stepping down as spokesperson for the Opposition on the children and families brief at the end of this parliamentary Session, I am delighted to end on such a happy note.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I add my thanks to those expressed to the Minister and congratulate her on picking up this important issue and running with it in a way which is not the same as your Lordships had proposed but is perhaps even better. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, because it was her amendment that led to your Lordships House initially discussing this issue, to which the Government have listened so effectively. It is a great tribute to her work that she is able to step down from her portfoliowe regret that she is doing soon such a high note. I thank her for all our cross-party work together during the years since she joined your Lordships House.
I share her concern about whether the new clause in the Immigration and Citizenship Bill should be equivalent to what your Lordships had done. The Minister has today reassured us on that matter, and did so in writing in her letter of 7 November, for which I thank her. She has also made it quite clear that her department will remain engaged with the Home Office on this issue throughout the process. I share the concern of
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Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on what has come from the Commons. It is an excellent Bill. Those of us who spent great time on it could never have expected the outcome that we are hearing today. I am sure that we are all extraordinarily grateful to the Minister for pursuing the matter in the way that she has, because we have at last established the principle that all children within the borders of this country will be treated as children who can be safeguarded and whose development can be considered. However, will she say something about the training of the staff who will be dealing with this in the UK Border Agency, and how they will be absolutely clear about protecting children? I work in an organisation that spends a lot of time thinking about safeguarding, and we still have problems ensuring that every member of staff is clear about the issues.
I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on the opposition Front Bench. She has made a huge contribution to children and families services and will be missed in that contextalthough, no doubt, she will make her contribution elsewhere.
I look forward to the implementation of this legislation. I ask the Minister for reassurance about implementation timescales, because, having worked in this field for many years, I know that while we have lots of legislation, implementation is what really makes it countand then the monitoring of how that implementation moves forward. I feel privileged to have worked on this Bill.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I add my thanks and congratulations to the Minister and say how welcome it was to hear her mention the close co-operation between the officials in her department and in the Home Office on this matter.
We all congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on the work she has done; we shall miss her leadership on discussion of the new Bill. Like her, I was slightly concerned when I saw the Commons amendment in its bare form, because of the time that it will inevitably take to introduce a new Bill. Time is my concern, because of the very large number of immigrant children who have disappeared beneath the radar.
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