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House of Lords

Thursday, 10 June 2010.

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester took the oath.

Sudan: Human Rights


11.07 am

Asked By Lord Chidgey

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the United Kingdom is deeply concerned about human rights abuses committed in the run-up to and during the elections in Sudan. This period saw reports of violations of political rights and freedoms, including harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest, detention and alleged torture. There have been worrying signs of a further crackdown by the authorities since the elections, including the recent arrest of an opposition politician. We continue to urge the Government of Sudan to address these concerns.

Lord Chidgey: I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Perhaps I may add to his comments the fact that recent laws passed in Sudan allow Sudanese security forces to arrest people and hold them for 45 days without review and with immunity from any charge for abuses which might take place during that time. As he mentioned, there has been the arrest of a senior opposition leader, Hassan al-Turabi, on rather spurious charges, together with the arrest of a leading editor from the Rai al-Shaab newspaper, Mr Abuzerr Ali al-Amin. Will he assure the House that the Government will take every measure that they can in the international call for the reform of these repressive laws in Sudan and for holding to account those responsible for the charges of torture?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I can only endorse the grim catalogue that my noble friend outlines. It is absolutely so. We will continue to use all pressures we can and to urge the Government of the Sudan back to a better path in their human rights performance. The outlook is not good and there are obviously many major concerns ahead in dealing not only-as we all know-with the continuing horrors of Darfur, but with the potential instabilities arising from the forthcoming referendum in the south. We continue to want the comprehensive peace agreement to work; that must be our main focus.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, Concordis, the Christian reconciliation organisation of which I am a patron, has just run two workshops in Upper

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Nile and Unity provinces. It tells me that there is a marked lack of international organisation presence on the ground and a real danger that there will be conflict arising from boundary demarcation disputes since the CPA is mapping the area from the air without discussing with local communities their views on the border. Will the Minister look into this? To what extent is he happy with the lack of engagement by the international community in the process leading up to the referendum?

Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord makes a very good point, which I will certainly feed into our thinking. As to international involvement in helping with the process leading up to the referendum and thereafter in managing its results, much more clearly is needed. We are doing our bit. We are increasing our staff in Juba, for instance. Our eye is very much on the ball about this, but we want others to work as well. We want to encourage UNMIS to get more involved and we have several other proposals for increasing our input. No one should for a moment assume that there will not be a very difficult situation, whichever way the referendum goes. Of course, there are wide forecasts that it will go in favour of some kind of autonomy.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, first, regarding UNMIS, does the Minister think that additional troops will be necessary to safeguard the referendum process, bearing in mind the violence that occurred in the recent elections? Secondly, does he think that satisfactory voting arrangements were in place for the disputed border areas in the recent elections? If not, what additional measures would he recommend should be taken before the referendum?

Lord Howell of Guildford: On the noble Lord's second question, I am afraid that there do appear to have been abuses in those and many other areas, and these matters will need to be monitored and safeguarded very carefully-more so than in the past. On the question of additional troops, by which I assume he means reinforcements for UNMIS, that is a difficult matter at the moment. We want some means by which the weak Government of Southern Sudan can somehow be strengthened in order to prepare for the enormous strains that lie ahead either way, whether the referendum goes for separation or not. Either way seems to point to more violence, danger and abuses.

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, given that the Governments of both north and south Sudan have little control of the country outside the few conurbations, and that the only organisations with an effective network across the whole of Sudan are the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, what plans might Her Majesty's Government have to encourage both Sudanese Governments to link with the churches in order to build stability and peace prior to the referendum?

Lord Howell of Guildford: I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. In all our urgings and advice, we take account of those important factors and will continue to do so.

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Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, may I recommend to my noble friend, who I am delighted to see has taken this very important post in the Government-it is well deserved-a recently published book called War Games by a distinguished Dutch woman journalist who is extremely experienced in this area? She demonstrates how many if not most humanitarian NGOs operating in this area are actually assisting in the repression and the inhuman activities that are taking place, without intending to. He may like to read it if he has time.

Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks and for his advice on my reading list. I will do my best. A number of insightful and valuable studies have been made into the effects-some good and some bad-of the various activities and intentions both of the non-governmental organisations, which are full of dedicated people, and indeed even of Governments, who sometimes, in thinking that their efforts will help, encounter all sorts of side-effects and consequences which had not been reckoned with.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, given the involvement of the Chinese Government in Sudan-particularly in the oil industry-and remembering what was said in the debate yesterday, what early contact is the Foreign Office going to make with the Chinese, and will they be asked to co-operate in the preparations for the referendum?

Lord Howell of Guildford: We have contact with the Chinese about this and the more general question of the degree to which they should carry responsibility for matters like human rights in difficult areas where they are very active in investment terms. There is no doubt that Chinese oil interests and the money associated with them in Sudan are a factor. We have talked to them. Our Chinese colleagues are reluctant to take a forward position and their doctrine is non-interference in local affairs, but actually they do face some responsibilities and, as we point out to them, will have to adjust to them in due course.

Children: Criminal Responsibility


11.15 am

Asked By Baroness Deech

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government have no plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility. They believe that setting the age of criminal responsibility at 10 allows front-line services to intervene early and robustly. This helps to prevent further offending, and it helps young people to develop a sense of personal responsibility for their behaviour.

Baroness Deech: I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Would he acknowledge that it is widely regarded as inappropriate to see 10 year-olds in court and very small children being examined as witnesses? Most of the rest of Europe has a much higher age of

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responsibility than we do and the United Nations is calling for it to be raised. Will the Minister kindly consider a package of measures: raising the age to 14; not holding trials of children in open adult courts; not questioning child witnesses in court; not using custodial sentences; and, of course, in this age of cuts, concentrating on preventing children getting into the criminal system in the first place?

Lord McNally: My Lords, having had less than a month's experience, I pay due deference to the experience of the noble Baroness. Whatever age group we pick will be arbitrary. I have looked at the international comparisons, which range from six to 17. I will obviously take back to the department the recommendations she makes for due consideration. However, I was very impressed by the mixture of processes introduced by the previous Administration which makes it a rare occurrence for very young children to be before a court. There is a mixture of reactions to their offending which seeks to achieve early intervention and progress for the children concerned.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while there may not be one perfect answer for all cases-the differences across the jurisdictions demonstrate that-it might be an idea if a judge had an element of discretion in the case before him not to allow what happened in the recent case to which the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred?

Lord McNally: The case that has been referred to is still under the jurisdiction of the judge concerned. However, it is interesting that he is going to give his opinions of the process to the Lord Chief Justice, who, in turn, will give his to the Lord Chancellor. I emphasise again, coming to this very green and very new, I was extremely impressed by the wide variety of responses. The idea that children aged 10 to 12 are automatically put into the court system is false. The number of responses that have been developed over the past few years are very impressive and much to the credit of the previous Administration.

The Earl of Listowel: Under their duty to consult children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, will the Minister and his colleagues consider speaking to 10, 11 and 12 year-olds in custody, particularly about their family experience? Will they further consider speaking to the teachers, social workers and psychiatrists who work with them on this matter?

Lord McNally: I certainly agree to that. I also take the noble Earl's point about the family. One has only to look at a very few cases to find that these children come from extremely damaged backgrounds. We shall look at making sure that their parents take responsibility for their actions. There is a very clear relationship between damaged children committing crimes and an appalling family background.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the last of the lengthy catalogue of recommendations from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to reinforce the previous Administration's legacy towards the early intervention to which he referred, was the least controversial, the most attractive and likely to be the

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most effective and least expensive? Will he add to that a dimension of support for the voluntary agencies, which are by far the most effective deliverers of these services?

Lord McNally: My Lords, the simple answer is yes. Whether the strategy of the previous Administration was working may be answered by figures released this morning that show a decrease of 20.7 per cent in the number of young first offenders. That has been achieved by avoiding knee-jerk reaction, using the voluntary sector and giving wide discretion. The direction of travel which we inherited is one which we intend to follow.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords-

Lord Richard: Will the Minister assure us that the report by the learned judge to which he referred earlier will be made public?

Lord McNally: It is above my pay grade. It is no use the noble Lord saying, "Oh, come on"; he knows darn well that I cannot make that kind of commitment. However, I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will note such a recommendation from such a learned QC.

Baroness Buscombe: In developing his thinking, will the Minister look at the tremendous amount of work done by the Conservative Party in opposition in 2001-02, when we looked in great detail at how we prevent young people getting on to the conveyor belt to crime? I think that that would help him. Will the Minister agree to do that?

Lord McNally: One of advantages of the coalition is that I am now able to look at the wide body of research that comes from all the parties. I do not think that it is a party political issue; nor is there a simple, ideological solution. However, as a complete newcomer to this issue, I think that some solutions have been found. As I have said previously, we fully intend to follow the direction of travel of the previous Administration, while of course taking into account the experience of our sister coalition party as well.

Lord Bach: I thank the Minister for his generous comments; the comments that we received from around the House when we were in government were not always quite so generous. Will he ensure that, when the cuts come, the important work being done in this field which he has been generous about is not cut? It is crucial that it remains, whether voluntary or statutory.

Lord McNally: We shall certainly do our best, because the figures also show that making short-term cuts often leads to government expenditure such that it would be cheaper to send young people to Eton than to keep them in custody.

Children: Vulnerable Children


11.24 am

Asked By Baroness Massey of Darwen

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, among other measures, we are committed to the goal of ending child poverty by 2020, to carrying out a wide-ranging review of child protection by Professor Eileen Munro, announced today, to publishing serious case reviews, to giving parents of children with special educational needs more say over their children's education and providing 4,200 extra Sure Start health visitors.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that vulnerability in children may arise from such things as abuse, disability, poor health, truancy and so on? Can he comment in more detail on one of those areas and say what the Government plan to do?

Lord Hill of Oareford: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the question and pay tribute to the work that she does in this area, and has done for a very long time. On protecting children at greatest risk from abuse, I hope that the independent review announced by my department today, to be led by Professor Eileen Munro, whom many noble Lords and noble Baronesses will know well from their work, will help us to put better systems in place. Most importantly, I was told this morning that apparently social workers spend up to 80 per cent of their time in front of a computer screen rather than working with the children, as they would like to be doing. If we can reduce some of those burdens and support social workers to do the job they want to do-and we all want them to do-we will be making some progress.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this Question is related to the previous Question that we discussed, about children who have come before the criminal courts? Is it not the case that there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of children coming before the family court in relation to both private and public legislation? However, while local authorities are working on safeguarding in that statutory area, they are certainly not working in prevention. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, pointed out, unless we work in the area of prevention, more children will become before both sets of courts. What will the Government do to ensure that social workers in local authorities have the time to do both their statutory work and to work with vulnerable families in their own homes?

Lord Hill of Oareford: To pick up on the first point, I echo what my noble friend Lord McNally said about the work particularly of the family intervention projects, which the previous Government introduced. Some of the early results from that were extremely encouraging in helping the most disadvantaged families and children early on. There were some very big reductions in problem behaviour. On the broader point about what we can do to help social workers have more time to do their job, that comes back to my earlier remarks. One benefit that we hope will come from the Munro review is that we will free social workers from what we might call the more pointless box-ticking activity to have more time to do the job that they want to do, which would encompass the kind of concern that the noble Baroness has.

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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I have two questions for the Minister. First, this House worked very hard on the Children and Young Persons Act 2008. Will the Minister commit to implement that Act in full? It is about promoting stability for some of our most vulnerable children. Secondly, will the Minister honour the previous Government's commitment, to which he has just referred, to roll out family intervention projects? We know that by investing in family intervention projects we project vulnerable children, and the results are tremendous.

Lord Hill of Oareford: In terms of the commitments that I can give, I have to make the broad point to which my noble friend Lord McNally alluded that unfortunately we inherit a financial situation in which, as the former Chief Secretary, Mr Liam Byrne, pointed out that there is "no money left". So it is simply not possible for me to give any undertaking at all about commitments going forward on funding. However, I can certainly say that in looking at issues of public expenditure, clearly the priority that the Government will bring to bear is to protect wherever possible the most vulnerable in society. The decisions that we have already started to take with regard to Sure Start and the funding to protect it are proof of that point. We shall continue to do that, but it is simply not possible to give firm financial undertakings for the future. This Government are confronted with the same situation with which a Labour Government would have been confronted, if they had got in: there is no money left, we have spent it all, and we will have to make cuts to sort out the deficit.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, is the Minister aware that figures placed in the House of Commons Library show that the use of restraint on young offenders in secure training camps has risen, despite the previous Government having given an assurance and a pledge that they would reduce its use? That was recommended by the independent review on the use of restraint, published in December 2008. Does he agree that the use of restraint on children as young as 12 in such institutions should be kept to an absolute minimum? Do the Government have any plans to introduce other methods of handling these difficult and very damaged children?

Lord Hill of Oareford: I have not seen the research that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, refers to. I would be happy if she could spare the time to discuss that with her, along with the broader issues that she has raised.

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, in these times of economic hardship, more children are likely to be at risk through poverty. What assurances can the Minister give that there are sufficient trained and experienced child protection officers, and what measures are being taken to recruit good people into that important service?

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