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House of Lords

Wednesday, 24 June 2009.

3 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Justice: Northern Ireland


3.06 pm

Asked By Lord Cope of Berkeley

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, the Government recognise the excellent bilateral relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Siochana and are ready to consider any proposals for legislative or administrative change that would assist them in policing across the border.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for looking into this matter and answering the Question. However, the Government have been considering proposals to speed up the process for some time. The difficulty is that a statement taken in one jurisdiction is not admissible in court in the other jurisdiction in either direction, and a piece of evidence on one side of the border cannot be taken to the other side, either for investigative purposes or for production in court, without involving three separate sets of officials—in Belfast, London and Dublin—and thus it takes six months or so to move a single piece of evidence. This is simply not acceptable and must be sorted out as soon as possible.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to alert us to the fact that these delays are long and unacceptable. As part of the overall programme looking at cross-border policing issues, work is going on to establish what causes the delay outlined by the noble Lord in relation to letters of request and so on, and I shall come back to him in due course.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, will the Government ensure that the legal difficulties are resolved, if necessary by legislation, before the devolution of policing and justice takes place?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I take on board what the noble Baroness has said but I do not think that it is absolutely necessary for these delays to be sorted out before devolution, because I am not sure that devolution will make a big difference in relation to the delays. However, I shall certainly come back to her on that point.

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Lord Laird: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the security forces in Northern Ireland have examined in detail recent transcripts of a court case in Cork of a Mr Ted Cunningham in which he alleged that a Mr Philip Flynn, who at that time was chairman of the Bank of Scotland’s Irish division and was the wealth management consultant to Sinn Fein/IRA, was involved in the raid on the Northern Bank?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I do not have that information to hand, but I shall certainly come back to the noble Lord.

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that it is the Government’s view that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland has worked very hard to minimise delays and is indeed a very competent service? Will she encourage it to consider the use of hearsay provisions, such as are available on the mainland, to ensure that documents and evidence which may be useful in Northern Ireland prosecutions can be made useful as quickly as possible without the need for cumbersome procedures such as letters of request?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I certainly endorse what the noble Lord has said in relation to the excellent service provided by the DPP in Northern Ireland. It does its utmost to minimise delays. On the second point raised by the noble Lord about hearsay provisions, I do not think that I could commit myself to that, standing at this Dispatch Box this afternoon, but I shall certainly come back to him.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I have a very simple question. What is the reason for this delay, which is unjustified?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we are talking about two jurisdictions; two different countries; two completely different systems; and in each of the jurisdictions there are many people who need to be consulted. The delay is the result of eight or nine different people needing to be consulted about these cases.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, the Question refers to difficulties with evidence from Northern Ireland being accepted in the Republic of Ireland. Are there similar difficulties with such evidence being accepted in any of the other 25 countries in the European Union?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is a jolly good question. I know that the speed of justice, when it comes to relations between two nations, is extremely slow. Therefore, I imagine that there will be difficulties with cases that involve cross-border matters, or the United Kingdom and another member state of the European Union. I am sadly confident that there will be similar delays. If that is not the case, I will come back to the noble Lord.

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Baroness Paisley of St George's: My Lords, it would be a great help, not only to Northern Ireland but to southern Ireland and London as well, if this matter could be expedited. It would bring to justice much more quickly those who have committed offences in any part of Britain, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. It would be to all our benefit.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I recognise the importance of the issue to the people and the police services of Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. However, I must point out that there is an excellent partnership between police forces on both sides of the border and I would not want this very important issue to cloud the fact that there are great relationships, involving great trust and mutual assistance, and that a lot is being done to improve the operational relationships between the two police forces.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, are any discussions taking place with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to speed up matters? If so, is any progress being made?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, discussions are taking place at all levels—between the Governments, police services and ministries. There is progress, but it is slow.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I endorse what the noble Baroness said about the relationship between the two police forces. I have the honour to sit on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and our committee has recently been looking into the matters that gave rise to the Question. Will the noble Baroness draw to the attention of her colleagues the report of the committee that I mentioned? It was drawn up not only by a Joint Committee of both Houses of this Parliament, but a Joint Committee of both Houses of the Irish Parliament as well. The committee said that it is unacceptable to go on hobbling police forces in adjacent counties in the manner that I described, particularly when the relationships are otherwise very good.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is indeed an excellent report, and I understand that the Government will respond to it before the next meeting of the committee on 19 July.



3.15 pm

Asked By Lord Hylton

Lord Brett: My Lords, since the ceasefire in January, humanitarian access to Gaza has improved, but still not nearly enough humanitarian supplies or construction materials are getting in. The UK Government continue to take this issue extremely seriously. At the Sharm

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el-Sheikh conference in March, there was broad international support for greater access to Gaza. We welcomed this and have sustained our lobbying of the Israeli Government on the issue.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, have we or have we not had responses from Israel to requests made by our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary? Given the scale of malnutrition, homelessness and deprivation in Gaza, will the Government support Egypt’s proposal for a technical and humanitarian committee nominated by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to organise access for essential incoming supplies? Will they also bear in mind the fact that UNRWA has offered to verify the end use of such supplies?

Lord Brett: My Lords, as I have said, the UK Government and others continue to press the Israeli authorities to allow greater access. The Government have no knowledge of the details of the proposal that the noble Lord enunciated about a new committee. The UK’s priority is that humanitarian and recovery aid should reach the people of Gaza. We have well developed international mechanisms for doing that, including the UNRWA, the World Bank and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We strongly support the UN’s role in this. However, recovery and reconstruction will necessarily involve consultation with numerous local and international actors. We are doing all that we can to ensure greater access.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, in which he demonstrated that his Administration will take a more pragmatic approach to resolving this issue, will Her Majesty’s Government be working closely with the Americans in order to encourage the Israelis to ease their border restrictions for humanitarian aid?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the Government continue to work closely with the United States, our European partners and all international actors who share our view that what is required in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is dialogue. That dialogue comes about by getting the international actors to put pressure on the local actors. The fact that this was done in the form of a speech by the American President is an opportunity for a step forward, which the UK Government strongly support.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, despite what he indicated in his initial Answer, food and building supplies and even children’s toys and crayons are being blocked from going into Gaza? DfID has just had to pay £40,000 simply to store vehicles that have not been allowed into Gaza since February. Is it not time that the international community put a stop to this and indicated to Israel that it is hardly in its best interests to have this kind of image of what it is doing going around the world?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes important points. Only 25 of some 4,000 forms of humanitarian and other supplies are allowed in. Many

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will echo her sentiments. However, I do not think that she has to lie awake at night worrying about whether the UK Government and others have made those points to the state of Israel. They are central to the discussion and we hope that those arguments will bear fruit.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, what evidence is there to suggest that Hamas will co-operate with Israel in coming to the aid of the beleaguered people of Gaza?

Lord Brett: My Lords, not a lot, on the basis of what we know. The United Kingdom Government do not communicate directly with Hamas. The Arab League has given that responsibility to Egypt. There is therefore only an indirect dialogue. I do not believe that in our task of providing assistance there is a requirement to talk directly to Hamas.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, what information do the Government have about negotiations for the formation of a national unity Government in the Palestinian Authority, which could have a positive influence on the problem in Gaza? Will he confirm the views that his noble friend expressed in this House some months ago that, should a national unity Government be formed, the British Government will deal with them in a perfectly straightforward manner?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the noble Lord makes important points, both of which I can answer in the affirmative. I can give him the absolute up-to-date information on the formation of a national Government: the Egyptian proposal is supported. I will see whether there is information that I can add in a written reply to the noble Lord. On the second point, the UK Government’s position remains the same as enunciated previously.

Lord Winston: My Lords, on a point of information, will the Minister tell us whether he has any evidence that Israel is concerned about the smuggling of weapons with supplies into Gaza? It would be helpful to have an answer.

Lord Brett: My Lords, the answer is self-evident. Undoubtedly, Israel is concerned about what it sees as an attempt to smuggle arms and other ordnance, as is shown in the way in which it is denying access to goods that other people consider to be perfectly reasonable. We have to find a way through that meets the security concerns of the Israeli Government and the absolute and urgent needs of the Palestinian people.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the problem has gone on for a long time and there are two directly conflicting interests, both of which one has a great deal of sympathy with. On the one hand, there is the humanitarian need and, on the other hand, there is Israel’s need for security. Will my noble friend please come back to the House with a Written Answer on the Egyptian proposal and how that might work, with international scrutiny of what really is going over the border?

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Lord Brett: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her question. Any noble Lord can table any Questions for Written Answer. I invite the noble Baroness or indeed any other Member who wishes to table Questions to do so, so that they can be given serious consideration and Answers provided. This is not just a question of humanitarian aid. At the moment, dry goods and basic foods are available. What we need is much greater access to provide for reconstruction, without which Palestine cannot hope to get away from the state that it is in at the moment.

Schools: Drop-out Rates


3.22 pm

Asked By Lord Geddes

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as non-remunerated, non-executive chairman of Trinity College London, the international assessment and examinations company.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the Government’s aim is that all schools manage and minimise their levels of pupil absence. Therefore we expect schools and local authorities to intervene early on pupil absence. The number of persistent absentees in secondary schools has fallen in recent years but we are not complacent about the need to find ways to keep those young people in education who are most disaffected.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The trend is going down, which is to be welcomed. Is it not a terrible condemnation that the most recent statistics state that 31,000 14 year-olds are still dropping out of school? Does she acknowledge the importance of stand-alone qualifications such as the Arts Award, which enable young people of all backgrounds to develop their skills across the arts as well as leadership qualifications? Will she give an assurance that government support for such qualifications will not be jeopardised by the impending changes to the education funding system?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord appears to suggest that a large number of 14 year-olds fall out of formal education through being persistently absent from school. We are unsure about whether hard evidence for that assumption exists, because our figures show that the number of absentees continues to fall year on year. There is no doubt that we need to be imaginative about how we keep those 14 year-olds who, for a variety of reasons, are not staying in school—some have chaotic lives and some are disaffected with traditional teaching. This can involve part-time school, one-to-one teaching or the kind of qualifications that the noble Lord has mentioned, which I am not familiar with, so I will need to come back to him on that. However, there is no doubt that vocational training off-site and all of those areas are important in keeping our 14 year-olds in school and engaged with education.

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Lord Judd: My Lords, what arrangements are in place for children who are excluded from school or for whom mainstream schooling is not working? How rapidly can such arrangements be brought into operation for the children concerned?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point, which leads on from the Question, about improving the alternative provision and getting children back on track. In 2008, we produced a publication on that. We are concerned to provide education for the 135,000 pupils a year who need to spend time outside mainstream settings, many of whom are very vulnerable. For example, we have online directory providers and we are working with the voluntary sector to use organisations, such as Barnardo’s and Nacro, to provide the sort of programmes that will help to get those children back to school or will provide them with the right qualifications that they will need to move on with their lives.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords—

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, in the light of the answer that the Minister has just given, why is it that the budget for the young apprenticeship programme, which has been extremely successful in helping young people at risk of dropping out of school and giving them pre-apprenticeship vocational skills, has been capped for the past three years, whereas it is grossly oversubscribed?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that we will discuss this matter later today. Our objective is that those young people should be able to participate and should have access to apprenticeship schemes. I know that this item is being considered by the new department, BIS, and the DCSF. Our objective is for all young people to participate in education or training at least until their 18th birthday. They should be offered the right kind of progression, whether it is apprenticeships, A-levels or a more formal education, at the right time.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the reasons why 14 year-olds and 16 year-olds are dropping out of school is that many of them have now twigged that this year there is much less chance of going to university? The applications for universities this year have increased by 60,000. The Government’s cuts mean that hardly any extra places will be given to universities. Why are the Government cutting funding for universities at the top of our education system when Gordon Brown is saying, “We are going to increase public services”?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it is quite difficult to be lectured by the noble Lord, for whom I have the utmost respect, about the number of university places, given that this Government have massively increased them and are not cutting them.

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