I'm getting this in the wrong order, but events of the earlier part of the week were:
Monday, I ambled into our Whips office five minutes before Questions began at 14.30, and was asked to deal with a Question on the Groceries Code Adjududicator Bill, a piece of legislation I hadn't heard of before that moment. A rapid learning curve on Google solved the problem, see www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/110613-0001.htm#1106136000352.
In the evening I attended and spoke at a meeting of the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain on their report Unheard Voices on Irish Travelers in prison, a very competent and informative piece of work. (Press release irish-chaplaincy-in-britain.org.uk/Events.asp, full report in .pdf format will be on the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain site next week)
Also a meeting with the International Bar Association to discuss the failure of both the IBA, the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, and the US War Crimes Ambassador Rapp to persuade the Bangladesh government to bring their war crimes legislation and procedures into line with modern international norms.
Tuesday,in the Chamber from 15.00 to 22.30 speaking on the Education Bill and listening to 51 other speeches Extract from Hansard:
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I join in the congratulations which have already been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Edmiston, on his powerful and impressive maiden speech. I should also like to congratulate him on the wonderful example that he sets as a successful entrepreneur to others to engage in charitable works, something which I think is less common here than it is in the United States. I share an interest with the noble Lord in wanting to improve the lot of children in Africa, a subject which I look forward to discussing with him in detail, and to hearing him on on many future occasions.
I declare two interests: as chair of the Department for Education's Gypsy, Roma and Traveller stakeholder group and as president of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and Other Travellers. I am
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concerned by what this Bill does and what it does not do for Travellers, who are the most deprived educationally of all communities in England, as the DfE statistics demonstrate. Nine per cent of GRT children achieve good GCSE grades compared with 50 per cent for white British. Less than half of GRT children remain in school beyond primary education. Absence rates are 20 per cent compared with 5 per cent for white British. One in four boys is excluded for fixed periods. These figures help to explain why two out of three Irish Travellers in prison, where they are the second largest ethnic minority, cannot read or write, as a report by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain demonstrates. The education system has simply let them down.
In spite of these facts, the White Paper's emphasis on local authorities' role as champions of vulnerable pupils is not reflected in the Bill. This is critical for children in families that have become disengaged from the education system through exclusion, racist bullying, high mobility or inability to navigate the admissions process; but there is no definition of vulnerable children in the Bill or, indeed, in the White Paper. It is said to include the disabled, those with special educational needs, looked-after children and those outside mainstream education-categories which include many, although not all, GRT children. Is there to be a new clause defining vulnerable pupils and the relevant duties of local authorities towards them, as the Minister, Nick Gibb, implied at the meeting last Wednesday with colleagues?
I was unable to attend that meeting because I was asking a Question about the eviction of 50 Traveller families from the Dale Farm site at Basildon in Essex. The 100 children in those families will be dispersed all over Essex and beyond on to unauthorised sites where there is no access to water or electricity. The first priority of their parents will not be to find the children places in the local schools but how to avoid further eviction from their emergency stopping place. The children will drop out of mainstream education, becoming the responsibility of a champion local authority that has just kicked them off the site where they had been living peacefully for years. Should not the duty to vulnerable children take priority over the enforcement of planning laws?
The noble Lord, Lord Morris, mentioned the reductions of the right of appeal against exclusion, which has been criticised by the JCHR as contrary to Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, mentioned that exclusions apply primarily, but not entirely, to SEN children. It applies also to GRT pupils, who have the highest rates of exclusion of any ethnic group. But the Improving Outcomes research conducted for the DfE last year found that in the respondent schools, the great majority had no exclusions at all. Those and other results of the survey were in marked contrast to the national data, and the authors suggested that the respondent head teachers were those most likely to have an inclusive ethos. Without further research, cutting appeal rights could make a bad situation even worse. Will my noble friend undertake that regulations will not be made under Clause 4 until there has been further research to identify the reasons for the low
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rates of exclusion in the respondent schools and to let other head teachers know how those results were achieved?
Vocational education is valued highly by GRT parents and its availability has encouraged many young people from these communities to remain in education beyond school. But many local authorities had abolished the Connexions service and privatised careers advice, and that process continues to the point of extinction. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that young people need personalised face-to-face advice, and with the reference by my noble friend Lady Sharp to the collapse of all the help given to young people in career planning.
The offer of an apprenticeship to any suitably qualified young person who applied for one has been replaced, as remarked, by what Ministers claim is a more robust deal-a duty placed on the chief executive of Skills Funding to,
"prioritise funding for apprenticeship training for the same people who were covered by the apprenticeship offer and who have secured an apprenticeship".-[Official Report, 21/12/10; col. WS171.]
That means that applicants have to thread their own way through the choices available, get through the process of applying, and then go through the hoops of being funded, without the help and encouragement that would formerly have been available from Connexions and the Traveller Education Service. The Government say that they will ensure that vulnerable and disadvantaged young people have equal access to the redefined offer, but that again is not in the Bill but in regulations. Will my noble friend at least say in general terms how this is to be realised?
Clause 28 repeals the entitlement of key stage 4 pupils to follow a course of study in an area specified by the Secretary of State, which would have led to the proposed 14 to 19 diplomas. These pupils are now merely to be entitled to study the subjects listed in an obscure reference but not in the Explanatory Memorandum. It would be useful if my noble friend would publish consolidated versions of the earlier legislation referred to in the Bill so that we could understand what it means.
All these changes, exacerbated by the withdrawal of the EMA, are likely to undermine the commitment to proper vocational education by the Secretary of State that must have found a response in the homes of many GRT families.
Finally, as my noble friend Lady Sharp said, Part 5 abolishes various duties that schools currently have to co-operate with local authorities. The aim is to reduce the bureaucratic burden on schools, but there could be a loss of joined-up working that would affect vulnerable children. How can these provisions square with the Every Child Matters approach and with local authority oversight of school improvement?
My fear is that over this and the whole range of issues dealt with in the Bill, and in the face also of cuts having to be made in the voluntary sector, the axe will fall most heavily on the most vulnerable children, particularly those who are mobile and disengaged from the education system. Good intentions have done little for GRT children in the 50 years that I have been concerned with these problems, and the coalition, like all its predecessors, has yet to match its deeds to its words.
Wednesday, lunch with old friend Yvonne Terlingen, Head of Amnesty International in New York for the last 10 years, now in London. Then 16.00, meting with Sarah Wootton, head of the NGO Dignity in Dying, who want the lat changed so that terminally ill patients suffering untreatable pain, and of full mental capacity, can end their lives here in their own homes rather than having the trauma - and expense - of having to go to Switzerland.
15.15 meeting with Sandrine Tiller, Programmes Adviser, Humanitarian Issues, and her colleague who had just returned from Bahrain, about the arrest and trial of 47 doctors in Bahrain, and what more can be done to focus international attention on this unique case of doctors being penalised for observing the Hippocratic Oath to treat all patients who need medical care.
Then 17.00. a well attended meeting of the All-Party Group on Immigration Detention. The UKBA fills up all the places available in the detention estate, though something like a third of all detainees are subsequently released.