HL Deb 21 November 1995 vol 567 cc236-94

3.7 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Wednesday last by Lord Denham—namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:—

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the subjects which it is proposed that we should discuss today on the adjourned debate on the gracious Speech cover a pretty wide spectrum—the environment, agriculture, local government and education.

I thought that I should address first the issues which feature in the Government's forthcoming legislative programme, but the fact that there may be no legislative proposals on some of the topics which I have mentioned does not, of course, mean that they are any less important.

Education is a vital matter to any country and, indeed, every individual. Knowledge, skills, the ability to understand and the ability to reason are vital if our children and grandchildren are going to compete properly in the economy of the world.

The children who started school this autumn will have working lives which will reach beyond the middle of the next century. We do not know what kind of future will be facing them or what opportunities will be open to them. But we do know that competition will not stand still. Around the world, people are demanding the highest possible standards of education and training, and we, in this country, must provide no less for our children. And that we intend to do.

We need to raise the standards for every child; we need to provide greater choice in the educational system; and we need to give our young children the proper kind of foundation so that they will be able to compete in a progressively competitive world. We have also to recognise that each child is an individual. Mercifully, they are not all clones, yet. Each child is a different person—with his or her own peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, talents and ability. We therefore need to provide diversity and choice in education.

The provision of education and training has undergone, under this Government, the most wide ranging set of reforms since the 1944 Butler Act. We have introduced: a national curriculum; regular assessment; inspection and enforcement; and the publication of performance tables. Having introduced so many improvements to our education system, we realise that continuity is also important. A lot of the improvements which are still needed can be made within the existing legislation. But, in some areas, new provisions will be needed.

The Government, therefore, propose to bring forward legislation on three aspects of education in England and Wales. I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Henley will enlarge on his department's proposals when he comes to reply. I will, though, outline them briefly now.

First, the Government intend to make pre-school education of four year-old children more widely available than it is at present. This will be done by having a voucher system which aims to provide every four year-old in the country, for the first time, with three full terms of good nursery education. Part of the purpose of this new scheme is to put choice and, therefore, one might say, power—it is an unpleasant word—into the hands of parents. Parents and, indeed, children have different needs. And it is right that parents should be able to choose that which they think is right for their child.

Secondly, we are introducing legislation to allow grant-maintained schools to borrow commercially so that they can finance their capital expenditure.

The giving of responsibility to institutions—as opposed to imposing it on them by central government—has been an important part of our education reforms. Grant-maintained status—which, in fact, means self-government—is the logical step beyond local management and we think that it is the best way of running schools. It puts responsibility into the hands of those who care most about a school: the headmaster; the headmistress; the teachers; the governors; and the parents.

The ability to control and manage the resources of a school, including its land and its buildings, is fundamental to self-government. The Bill will provide that control. School assets, which are financed from the public purse, must, of course, be safeguarded. Borrowings will be subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. This will enable increased investment to be made and it should enable schools to benefit from the private finance initiative.

Thirdly, the Student Loans Bill was introduced on 17th November in another place. It will extend the choices which are available to students and it will enable the private sector financial institutions to be brought into the system. Again, this provides choice. Students will be able to choose whether to seek a subsidised private sector loan and, if so, which lender to approach.

It is likely that most subsidised student loans will eventually come from the private sector. After all, it is the private sector which is best equipped to provide loan services on this scale. But students will still have the guarantee of a subsidised public loan through the Student Loans Company if they do not want a private loan.

In addition to their proposals on education, the Government intend to bring forward legislation to make better provision for housing and to promote the smooth running of construction contracts.

The housing legislation would implement the proposals which were contained in the Government's White Paper on housing, which was published in June. It will be another step in our efforts to stimulate the growth of home ownership. It will help what are called "social tenants" to buy. It will also help to provide social housing at rents which are affordable to households which are on low incomes. And it will bring more private finance into the improvement of social housing.

The main housing proposals will give tenants of new social housing the right to buy their homes with assistance through a purchase grant. They will ensure that social housing is allocated to those households which have the best claim to it. They will allow commercial providers to compete with housing associations for grants to provide social housing. But there will be safeguards to ensure that housing standards are maintained.

The legislation will also help to tackle anti-social behaviour by tenants of social landlords; to replace the system of mandatory renovation grants with discretionary ones; and to make letting simpler for small landlords. Our proposals will also improve the safety and quality of houses which are in multiple occupation.

The legislation will also provide a statutory right to adjudication in construction contracts and it will regulate the procedures by which payments are made. It will also simplify the present arrangements for the registration of architects.

The areas where no major legislation is planned for the new Session but which are, nevertheless, very important are agriculture, local government and the environment.

With regard to agriculture, we set out our aims in the rural White Paper which your Lordships debated, at some not immodest length, about two weeks ago. I do not wish to rehearse again all that was said then. I would say only that what we want is an efficient and prosperous agricultural industry; one which is able to take advantage of the huge technological advances which are being made; one which can provide high quality raw materials at competitive prices; and one which can take advantage of, as well as support, the other countless industries upon which agriculture depends and which depend on agriculture.

We also wish to see an agricultural industry which is able to safeguard and enhance the rural environment. This is an important objective which found widespread support among your Lordships. But, in order to achieve our objectives, we will have to overcome a major obstacle; that is the present common agricultural policy. This is, at present, too costly, too inefficient and too wasteful. It can disadvantage the consumers and the food industry and it often provides incentives for production without paying proper regard to environmental considerations.

We think that the common agricultural policy ought to be reformed. There is a case for having reductions in production-related support, with the remaining support aimed more towards environmental and other specific objectives. Reducing production-related support will, in time, lead to the eventual abolition of supply controls, such as quotas and set-aside, whose sole purpose is artificially to limit production.

These constraints inhibit both competition and efficiency, and they prevent the normal economic development of the industry—as well as making it difficult for new people to come into the industry. The changes which we would like to see come about must take place within the framework of a common European Union agricultural policy. This would avoid having competing national subsidies between member states, which would capsize the whole concept of the single market.

We want to take every opportunity to shift the common agricultural policy in the right direction. This will not be an easy task. The majority of member states are reluctant to consider any reforms which they see as going beyond those which were agreed in 1992. But at least the United Kingdom Government's determination to see a change has started a whole debate on the subject. Great oaks from little acorns grow and one hopes that this will grow too.

I think that external pressures will begin to build up on the common agricultural policy in the next few years. For example, both the renewal of world trade negotiations in 1999 and the prospective enlargement of the European Union to include the countries of central and eastern Europe will be powerful engines for change. And, as we move ever closer to these events, I think that other governments will recognise the logic of our case both on the need for reform and on the direction which that reform should take.

The marketing of agricultural produce is also important. There are some good examples in Northern Ireland of what can be achieved. A Dutch supermarket chain has agreed to obtain all of its supplies of beef from Northern Ireland. One might ask, why? The answer is that that is what its customers want. The Northern Ireland meat inspection services have recently been recognised by the United States Department of Agriculture as matching its own high standards. This gives great opportunities for export. Those two developments are based on what is probably the best computerised animal record system in Europe.

Local government is a major part of the public sector and it has a tremendous impact on the day-to-day lives of all of us. It provides care to the elderly and vulnerable; it shapes the environment in which we live by the planning process; it has responsibilities in education, highways, trading standards and a plethora of other activities. It also has the role of community leadership for its area, which includes, of course, drawing together willing partners in a variety of different common causes.

Perhaps the most vital partnership is the partnership between central government and local government. That is why the Government welcome the Select Committee, which your Lordships recently established, which is to look into the state of this relationship today.

The number of activities which are carried out by local government means that, by any method of calculation, local government is big business. Of all the money which government disburses, 27 per cent. is spent by local authorities which actually sign the cheques. No government can—or should—ignore the consequences of expenditure on that scale.

We will, therefore, continue to watch the level of local expenditure. We have to balance the requirement, on the one hand, to spend money on local services against the wider considerations, on the other hand, of the level of public expenditure, taxation, and the state of the economy as a whole.

The Government have created the conditions in which local authorities can provide excellent services. The outcome of the local government review is, by and large, settled, and compulsory competitive tendering for professional services can now take place.

During the last year, we have introduced various measures within the private finance initiative in order to encourage joint ventures between local authorities and the private sector. That enables private sector capital and expertise to be used to improve the condition and the management of the local authorities' assets. We are keen to hear what local government has to say about the private finance initiative. We will certainly look at any problems and we will introduce changes should that be necessary.

Local authorities operate in and with the environment. One of the major pieces of legislation in the last Session was the Environment Act, which received Royal Assent in July. Among many other matters, the Act places Ministers under a duty to give the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency guidance from time to time on their objectives. That guidance must include guidance on the contribution which the agencies should make towards sustainable development.

We published the first drafts of that guidance for wide consultation when the Act was under discussion in another place. More than 100 organisations and individuals commented, and their responses have helped—certainly the Government and, I have no doubt, others too—to develop our thoughts on what is a very difficult concept.

In that regard, I, personally, found fascinating the debate which your Lordships held towards the end of the last Session on the report on sustainable development by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. In the light of the comments which we have received, we are now preparing revised draft guidance, and this will soon go out for consultation with the agencies and others. Subject to any further views which may be expressed, we will lay the draft guidance as orders before the House and in another place.

Perhaps I may just single out one more example of the way in which environmental policy is developing. There is to be a new tax on the waste which is put into landfill sites. It will be introduced on 1st October 1996 and is something of a departure both in environmental and in fiscal policy terms.

In announcing his proposals for the tax, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he was determined not to impose additional costs on business overall. He indicated that the revenue, which will he raised by the tax, would be used to reduce the employer's national insurance contributions. That is the first time in the United Kingdom where a new tax will be used to promote environmental objectives. We intend to use taxation to help to protect the environment.

We are moving in a rapidly changing world, when technology is moving at a breath-taking pace. To some of us, that is frightening, Too often—and more often than not, I slot myself into this jolly category—it is incomprehensible. But it is hugely exciting, and it provides us all with enormous opportunities. One thing is certain. Nothing and no one can afford to stand still.

The future—the successful future—depends on us all, in whichever sphere we happen to operate, taking advantage of all the opportunities which are open to us, and of all of the new and constantly improving technology which is available to us. These are exciting times which are full of opportunity. And it is up to all of us to make the most of them. In Her Majesty's gracious Speech, we have outlined how the Government propose to play their part.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that there is before your Lordships this afternoon a rather complex menu. It is to do with the environment, education, agriculture and local government. Your Lordships might think that each of those subjects would merit a day of debate but, practice as it is, we have to go along with that. I shall do my best to make some sort of coherent theme out of it all in my remarks.

I propose to say something about the environment and then move on to a few observations about education with which my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris will deal in greater detail when he winds up from these Benches. I shall spend a little more time on the housing proposals which the gracious Speech put forward and which the noble Earl outlined before returning to the whole problem of local government and where its future lies. I put it in that manner because the theme that I wish to argue before your Lordships, which seems to run through all the matters we are discussing today, is that the Government have, perhaps wilfully, misunderstood the nature of pluralistic democracy and in doing so have, over the years and step by step, legislated in a direction which I believe must now be changed.

I start with the environment. Immediately on the theme of pluralistic democracy, I move into what appears to be unexpected territory—the matter of Wales. Strange as it seems, I did not hear and I have not since read any mention of Wales in the gracious Speech. I realise that Wales is something of an embarrassment to the Government in many respects. But I should have thought it reasonable for the Principality to expect some passing reference. After all, Wales does exist and has its own problems and rights.

I am aware that Wales has a new Secretary of State who has, as it were, still to find his feet. To give credit where credit is due, he is certainly making an effort. For example, we have heard that there are certain connections with Yorkshire which are said to establish his Welsh identity. It is true that there was a Norse chieftain in and around York when Norsemen were settling on the north coast of Wales, so perhaps there is a connection. That gentleman's name—and I use the word "gentleman" in its loosest possible term—was Erik Bloodaxe. I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Hague would wish to claim descendancy from that particular chieftain. Then again, I wish to be fair. His immediate predecessor in that office may well have wished to claim such a descendancy. But that is another story and I shall leave it where it is.

The new Secretary of State has of course taken a further initiative. He has made efforts—I think, in his own words—"to get to know Wales". Word has it that he has embarked on a tour of the Principality, staying mainly in what are known as bed and breakfasts. It is certainly a worthy aim which is to be encouraged. At last we have perhaps a modern Gerald of Wales, with the difference of course that Mr. Hague is not the Archdeacon of Brecon and that he carries before him to light him on his way not the Cross of Jesus but the Good Pub Guide.

Noble Lords may think that I am being too flippant but I have a serious point to make. Not so long ago, on 7th November, as the noble Earl pointed out, your Lordships debated the Government's White Paper entitled Rural England: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside. As the noble Earl said, that was a very distinguished debate, the last of a long series of environmental debates in the last Session which, as he said, took in the major and complicated Environment Bill, debates on sustainable development, and various Private Member's Bills dealing with environmental issues. Some of your Lordships may think—and I have some sympathy for this view—that we have had enough environmental debates for the moment. But there will be, indeed there must be, more to come.

We look forward to White Papers which complement the English White Paper and which recognise the existence of other areas of the United Kingdom. Their titles will presumably follow respectively the English precedent: Rural Wales: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside; Rural Scotland: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside; perhaps even Rural Northern Ireland: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside. All those will be a real treat. I invite the noble Lord, Lord Henley, when he replies, to confirm that they will be before us in this Session. While he is about it, he may wish to comment on the somewhat novel constitutional doctrine which their titles embody.

The rural England debate also raised another serious point. Following the clear view of the House expressed earlier that day, various noble Lords declared their various interests—some pecuniary, others unpaid. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, went so far as to declare an interest of a financial nature in observing the speed limit when travelling between his country home and his London home. I thought that that was a little eccentric. Personally, I should have thought that it was a question of obeying the law. Indeed, if I may say so, we had many lectures from the noble Earl in his former incarnation as a Home Office Minister on the virtues of obeying the law. But I cannot comment further on what his financial circumstances might be should he fall into that unfortunate speed trap which he probably detects to be round about Chelmsford. Where I can, and will, comment is on the extent to which owners of land are in receipt of taxpayers' money purely in respect of their land ownership rather than on the economic activity, which is usually agriculture in one form or another, based on that land.

Perhaps I may be quite open on the matter, and declare my own interest. I, too, have what might be called agricultural interests. I am afraid that they are very small by reference to the standards of noble Lords opposite. I am the owner of some 13 hectares of—as we now have to call them—grassland in the uplands of mid-Wales. Radnorshire now being declared to be an environmentally sensitive area, I have signed with the Welsh Office what is known in the jargon as a "Tier 1" agreement. In return for a duty to maintain my land in an environmentally acceptable manner, which I hasten to say I do anyway, I receive an annual payment from the Welsh Office (in other words, the taxpayer) of just over £600.

That in itself is of no particular significance compared with the set-aside payments which are made to a number of noble Lords. It raises an important and serious point. Here I follow the noble Earl. If landowners are to be paid taxpayers' money by virtue of the simple ownership of land—through whatever conduit the money arrives—should that not be declared openly? Further—and again I agree with the noble Earl—if, as I hope, the trend is to lay the burden on the owners or long-term tenants of land to desist from maximising their agricultural profit and accept restraint on their normal activities to improve and, in some cases, restore the countryside, should not the price which the taxpayer pays for that wholly benign procedure be openly and honestly declared by the recipients when the House is discussing the relevant matters? I do not wish to pursue the matter too hard at present. For the moment, I shall leave it there. But I have to warn your Lordships that I doubt very much that it will go away.

Of course, no such personal matters affect noble Lords when we come to education. Indeed, noble Lords opposite frequently claim that the fees charged by independent schools to which they send their children are a monstrosity. It has even been suggested that tax relief should be available—in other words, that those who can afford to send their children to independent schools should be in receipt of further taxpayers' money. That, I confess, has always seemed to me an odd argument.

However, what is equally odd is that those who can afford to send their children to independent schools and who, for the most part, do so, seem to pursue with almost hectic enthusiasm continual change in other people's schools—in short, schools attended by children whose parents can afford no other. I say that it is odd which is, perhaps, the mildest expression I can use, not least because, as the noble Earl said, the gracious Speech announced further education legislation despite repeated ministerial commitments that there should be no further education legislation in the lifetime of this Parliament following the mammoth 1993 and 1994 Education Acts. Indeed, the then Secretary of State announced the Bill which became the Education Act 1993 as, the last piece of the jigsaw". Now it seems that the jigsaw is made of some sort of extendable elastic: it can be enlarged to accommodate the latest whim of whatever new Minister is in charge.

However, there is, again, this rather more sinister theme running through the Government's programme. After taking control of higher education—nationalising, some called it—they now seem determined to take direct control of secondary education; all, that is, except the independent sector. The Prime Minister outlined proposals during September and October in both speeches and newspaper interviews designed to encourage schools opting out of local authority control. He seemed to start with voluntary aided schools, but it became clear that he would like to see all secondary schools opt out; in other words, wholesale nationalisation. Now, for the moment, those plans appear to be on hold. They do not appear in the gracious Speech, and I hope very much that the Government have no plans to follow that track during this Session. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, will no doubt give us that assurance later.

When we come to housing, the same theme of central control becomes fully apparent. Local authorities have been denied their right to use their own money to build houses for rent. Instead, there has been an attempt to push the burden on to housing associations whose major source of funding is, as your Lordships know, the centrally-controlled Housing Corporation. Further, in our view, the housing White Paper made no effort whatever to address what we regard as the real housing problem.

What is the real housing problem? The problem is this—and it is dire. For a start, homelessness and housing needs are at levels which are wholly unacceptable in a civilised society. No fewer than 120,000 homeless households were accepted by local authorities for housing in 1994; a further 50,000 households are in temporary accommodation, much of it inadequate; over 1 million households wait for a new home on the local authority waiting lists; 100,000 to 125,000 new homes at affordable rent are needed annually; one in 13 homes is officially unfit for human habitation; one in six homes requires urgent repairs costing over £1,000; and some £6 billion is needed to make homes in the private sector fit for habitation. All this ignores the problem of those who were persuaded to buy their homes—often by heavy discounts forced on local authorities—and who now find themselves saddled with mortgages and a sharp decline in the value of the asset which has been mortgaged.

That is the measure of the real housing problem. But the Government's White Paper entitled—and I have to assume that this is some sort of a joke—Our Future Homes, does nothing to address the causes of homelessness. It simply blames those who suffer from it; it abandons home owners to debt, disrepair and repossession; and it turns its back on tenants in the private and public sector.

We shall be debating those matters when the housing Bill announced in the gracious Speech comes before your Lordships. I do not want to pre-empt that debate by going into detail, not least because my information is that the Government do not yet know precisely what is going to be in the Bill. But one thing comes out very clearly from the White Paper. More burdens will be laid on local authorities, the overall resources available for social housing, despite what the noble Earl said, will fall, and the existing problem will be with us for many, many years to come.

It is on the problems of local authorities that I wish to conclude. Since 1979 the count for Bills affecting local government stands at 216. Of those, comfortably more than 60 can be considered major Bills. Key functions in areas such as education, urban regeneration, local transport and environmental protection have been taken away, many to be moved into unelected bodies of government appointees. Local authority discretion over spending has effectively been removed by the mechanism of central government handing out 84 per cent. of revenues and being prepared to cap the rest. Ministers have imposed, and continue to impose, burdens on local authorities without making resources available to undertake them. Ministers have also awarded themselves a plethora of powers to specify, determine or designate outside the realm of parliamentary scrutiny. Finally, we have had the ludicrously botched structural reorganisation in England and an imposed reorganisation in Scotland and Wales.

The balance has clearly shifted away from local and towards central government. Your Lordships, as the noble Earl pointed out, have rightly set up a committee to study the matter. It may well be that noble Lords opposite feel that all is well. Why not have centralised government? What does it matter? I will tell your Lordships why it matters. There are many reasons but two are quite fundamental.

First, civic spirit is the guardian of the local community and the local community is the bedrock of democracy. It was de Tocqueville who said, I see most French communes, whose accounting systems are excellent, plunged in profound ignorance of their true interests and overtaken by such invincible apathy that society seems to vegetate rather than live. On the other hand I see in American townships, with their untidy budgets lacking all uniformity, an enlightened, active and enterprising population". Which description do your Lordships think fits Britain today?

Secondly, local democracy engages local people in the political process, a process from which, by all reports, the population of Britain is more and more alienated. It also provides a training ground for politicians with a future in national politics. It was, after all, Professor von Hayek, who, I understand, is a favourite philosopher of the party opposite, who said, Nowhere has democracy worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing a school of political training for the people at large as much as for their future leaders". Local government which is simply a series of agencies for central government will not do.

It has been rightly said that citizenship is not just a matter of exercising choice between one product or service when permitted and voting once every four or five years. The ceaseless exercise of political freedom is not just a right; it is an obligation on every member of any sophisticated community. The time has come for a clear and unambiguous lead—a strong commitment to the value of local government. The gracious Speech was the proper place to do that. It is to the Government's continuing shame that the speech contained not a word on the matter and the Government will certainly live to regret it.

3.44 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee:

My Lords, I attended a public meeting last night at which the main subjects for discussion were local services and local finance. At the end of the meeting a member of the public approached me and asked, "It may be a naive question, but could not the local authority ask people, perhaps by a referendum, whether they would be willing to pay more council tax in order for the local authority to be able to spend more on education?". It was not a naive question; it was a good question. The answer, sadly, is no, the local authority cannot do that because of government rules. It cannot spend at the level at which many among its local community might want because of government rules and government capping.

That question illustrates the fact that for all the fine words we hear, the Government are far less interested in real choice than they are in their own control. I believe that the measures announced in the name of quality in the fields of education and housing are rather more to do with centralisation and with an unwillingness to allow diversity and localised decision-making. That is damaging to public services and dangerous to the democratic process.

I suspect the political event of the month will be the Budget rather than the Queen's Speech, but it is of course impossible to disentangle the two. As regards education, like the lady who suggested to me that council tax should be set at a higher level, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe that spending on education is a good investment at all ages, including in the early years. I shall not be conveying new information to your Lordships when I say that research in the United States has indicated that £1, or $1, invested in early years education provides over time a sevenfold return in higher tax revenues from better qualified workers, reduced reliance on social security and reductions in juvenile crime. That is why we on these Benches urge high quality education for all three as well as four year-olds whose parents want it and why we are opposed to the nursery voucher scheme.

The scheme will do nothing to train staff nor to provide infrastructure by way of buildings and equipment. Vouchers will not ensure quality nor will they deliver provision where none now exists. Indeed they may well lead to reduced provision. To fund the scheme almost £550 million will be taken from money currently available to local authorities, with the Government putting in only £165 million of new money. Therefore, to conclude the argument rather than discuss the detail of it in a tedious fashion, I hope your Lordships will accept that that will lead to reductions of 50, 60 and up to 90 per cent. of the SSA funding for under-fives currently available to local authorities.

Another concern I have is one which I appreciated after listening to practitioners involved in early years education. The content of the education on which the SCAA (School Curriculum Assessment Authority) is now consulting so concentrates on achievements which are easily measured that I fear parents will look at the "hard" targets—league tables can be misused in this way—when considering their choice of provision. Early years education which concentrates, for example, on the alphabet at the expense of self-assurance or self-awareness is not overall good education.

It is not surprising that there has been so little enthusiasm for the pilot projects for nursery vouchers. Only four authorities—three Conservative and one composed of Conservative and Labour councillors (not members of my party) who have reached an agreement on a conditional basis—are proceeding with the scheme. Those are not pilot schemes. In such a vital area is it not important that the Government proceed on a pilot basis? Instead, the Bill has been announced and we know that the full scheme will go ahead without the possibility of learning from the experience of the first schemes to be introduced, even if one supported those schemes. I suspect that it is necessary to go ahead at this speed so that vouchers will drop through letter-boxes—I say this cynically—on the eve of the general election before the general public see the problems.

Turning to grant-maintained schools, the Government's proposals betray how frantic they are to see the grant-maintained scheme grow when clearly it will not grow without artificial boosts. The fast-track procedure for voluntary-aided schools has been announced on top of such a fast-track consultation, allowing only half the time that the department itself suggests should be given to such consultations. The fast-track procedure to allow schools to proceed removes the requirement for parental ballots. The reasoning which supports that alteration is that: ballots can be unnecessarily stressful experiences for head teachers, governors and parents and the prospect of being unable to address the particular question without having to engage in much wider debate deters some schools from seeking self-government". My Lords, there should be a debate. Matters such as this should be discussed widely, not narrowed down to the minutiae, avoiding the real debate and real discussions.

The proposal to allow grant-maintained schools to retain 100 per cent. of the proceeds of their asset sales is another similar proposal. It is quite wrong, when local council tax payers are continuing to pay off the debt created by the acquisition of an asset, to allow a particular school to sell it. We have restrictions on capital expenditure in education which in some ways are much tougher than the restrictions on revenue expenditure, and there is a growing backlog of repairs. It will be an accident of history which determines which schools have what are termed surplus assets, although I am not aware of many schools which have assets which are surplus. Although I believe that the Prime Minister has commented that playing fields should be protected, I wonder, given the temptation to realise capital assets, whether schools will be able to resist that temptation.

Should it be a priority for legislation to permit grant-maintained schools to borrow commercially? That is another indicator that, despite their early statements of even-handedness as between the various education sectors, there is not such even-handedness. The proposals will advantage the grant-maintained sector. This is not the politics of envy. The proposal will advantage certain schools within that sector. When one considers the overall need, it cannot be good planning to fail to address capital spending priorities overall but merely to allow untargeted windfalls.

My noble friend Lord Addington will refer to the student loan scheme, but I hope that in replying the Minister will explain to your Lordships the benefits to students in the changes to the scheme. Will the money raised by transferring the scheme to the private sector benefit students? I suspect not. After all, students can borrow from the private sector now.

Another area of investment which we on these Benches regard as vital is housing. Investing in good quality housing is good long-term investment. Investing in the construction of homes and schools is a very good way of getting people back to work as well as providing them with accommodation. But this year and next it is estimated that over 12,000 more construction workers will lose their jobs simply as a result of last year's cuts in housing association house building.

We are well aware, because the debate is now widespread, that the value of investment in housing is not merely directly financial. It affects people's health, education, stability and access to meaningful work. People who lose their homes become trapped in a downward spiral with their escape routes shut off. To be topical, investment in housing is investment which supports families. Two of the main causes of family break-up are lack of homes and jobs and insecurity of homes and jobs.

Almost 20 years ago my late noble friend Lord Ross of Newport, then Stephen Ross MP, introduced the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, which had support from all sides because it was recognised that homelessness was a long-term problem. If we return to a position where temporary accommodation and 12-month contracts are the norm we shall be taking a huge step backwards in the battle against homelessness. From these Benches we shall fight the repeal of the homeless persons legislation.

The long waiting lists for housing are clear. As has already been mentioned, the real problem is the severe shortage of affordable housing to rent in this country. Fewer houses were built last year than in any year since the Second World War. If rumours about Budget cuts are true, only 16,000 new properties will be built next year. That is fewer than the number of people on a large city's waiting list alone.

Turning from quantity to quality, reference has been made to renovation grants and renovation of homes to a proper standard. Yet the Government propose to scrap the mandatory scheme. I would be the first to accept that the present scheme is not perfect; it is quite bureaucratic and complicated. However, is this not merely a smoke-screen to hide a further reduction in funding?

The Government's economic policy over the past few years has hit home owners badly. Attempts to pump up the housing market have accompanied an anti-inflationary policy, and the whole has led to more than a thousand homes being repossessed every week and more pressure, day by day, on local authority waiting lists. One and a half million people are thought to be trapped in negative equity. The Government's response has been to abdicate responsibility. Their Bill is not likely to provide a long-term programme of investment in homes.

It could have been a sensible policy to encourage housing association tenants to buy their homes, but the policy is flawed. The dogma of "right to buy" raises its head again. We were glad to see the alteration in the schemes for rural areas, but the real problem—the numbers problem—is not being addressed.

We on these Benches would have a very different housing Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, we do not yet know quite what the Bill will contain, but I doubt that it will allow local authorities to spend accumulated capital receipts on a phased basis. It certainly will not make clear the continuing duty of local authorities to offer secure tenancies to families made homeless through no fault of their own. It is unlikely to provide new powers to bring back into use some of the 800,000 empty properties in England. Nor is it likely to lead the way to investment in our young people by making councils responsible for providing accommodation for homeless 16 and 17 year-olds who currently slip through the welfare net and are treated as neither adults nor vulnerable minors. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe in choice and diversity. We do not believe that the route to it is to concentrate on increasing owner-occupation as a matter of dogma.

On this topic I can do no better than repeat a comment made in response to the consultation on the recent White Paper by the Catholic Housing Aid Society: Permanence is essential for stability. Stability is essential for the creation of a sense of home". Today's debate extends to the environment and local government. We may see next week in the Budget the proper co-ordination of environmental and economic matters—for instance, a substantial increase in investment in public transport to improve the economic infrastructure and encourage a switch to public transport in order to reduce pollution or a shift in taxation from the ownership of private cars to the use of private cars—but I doubt it. We may see a switch from taxation on what we want more of, employment, to what we want less of, pollution and the depletion of resources, but I doubt that too. We are likely, I admit, to see some extra spending on education, and I welcome that. However, it is unlikely to be of the order of the £1.4 billion estimated to be required simply to stand still.

The speaker at the meeting which I attended last night made a sensible point. Budgeting should be about investment as well as taxes. There is a wealth of support for investing in people and building for the long term. Although I was glad to hear the Minister's words about the importance of local government, I was surprised at his words that the Government have extended the scope for local government to provide good services. That has not been the experience at the coal face over the past few years.

I end, as I ended last year, by saying that I would have been glad to have heard these words in the gracious Speech: "My Government place the highest value on local democracy".

4.1 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, I shall avoid the challenge taken up by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, of producing a coherent speech on the wide range of issues before us today. I shall confine myself to speaking on education. The paragraph on education in the gracious Speech is thin in content. I suspect that for most people that will be regarded as a mercy. Those in education at this time want stability rather than further change.

I wish to refer to two proposals in the gracious Speech. First, there is the expansion of nursery education for four year-olds. How will that be provided in rural areas? Much of my diocese is remote. Villages are distant from one another. There is still a network of rural schools across North Yorkshire. But how will the provision for nursery education be made to work in those remote rural areas? If nursery education were to be provided only in certain centres, it would do great damage to the network of local rural schools in particular should families begin to send their four year-olds into the nearest town. We need to maintain the network of schools in those remote rural areas. The provision does nothing to address what I believe is an even more important issue; namely, the involvement of parents in the early years of learning. If there is one key change that would affect fundamentally the learning capacity of our children, it is the involvement of parents at every stage of their children's learning.

I have a query regarding the proposal that grant-maintained schools should have borrowing powers. The basis of the Government's proposals is that the governors of grant-maintained schools should be able to use their property, land and buildings as security for borrowing on the open market. That presumably is intended to attract private investment into the education service.

For voluntary schools—both aided and controlled schools—the land and the buildings are not in the ownership of the governors. They are vested in trustees. Therefore governors will not be able to borrow money against land and buildings vested in another body. There seems to be a belief that somehow trustees will borrow money for governors, or that they will act jointly with governors in obtaining a loan. There are considerable difficulties regarding that possibility. Trustees are bound by charity law and therefore the sale or mortgaging of the trustee-owned parts of a school site is unlikely to be a real option for former voluntary grant-maintained schools.

We need to recognise that the interests of trustees and governors are not necessarily identical. The governors are concerned with the life of the school. The trustees may well have wider responsibilities and will need to have regard to trust assets in the long term, not merely with a view to meeting schools' immediate needs. If school trustees were to sell or mortgage away trust property, it would have the effect of frittering away the Church of England's historic educational trust assets.

There is a real concern. At present, it seems that the legislation will be permissive. However, if it were assumed that governors of grant-maintained schools will borrow, and if that assumption were taken into account when school finances were calculated, it would place those voluntary schools which had become grant-maintained at a great disadvantage, for the reasons that I have outlined. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some assurance that that matter is being considered.

It is ironic that the Government are apparently keen to bring private finance into schools, in particular into grant-maintained schools. Yet there is little recognition that in the existing aided schools—those which have not become grant-maintained—there is already a considerable provision of money from outside government sources. Aided schools have to provide 15 per cent. of any capital expenditure from whatever sources they are able to find in the Churches. Already in aided schools we make considerable financial provision. The 15 per cent. of capital expenditure is no longer required for those schools which have become grant-maintained.

That leads me to a sentence which is not in the gracious Speech. The matter was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I refer to the suggestion that church-aided schools should be offered a fast track to grant-maintained status. It was suggested by the Prime Minister in a speech earlier this year. He said: Many church schools have already become Grant Maintained". I have to say that it is not that many. With regard to the Church of England, 138 schools have become grant-maintained out of a total of some 4,682. With regard to the Roman Catholic schools, 130 have become grant-maintained out of some 2,300 schools. I recognise that the Government are disappointed at that slow response from aided schools, but there are good reasons. It does not seem that large numbers of church schools seek grant-maintained status.

The Prime Minister stated: If a school's governors—with the prime interests of parents at heart—and the trustees—representing the Church's interests—agree on moving to self-government, then they should be able to take that step simply and quickly. Subject to that consultation, we will introduce legislation in the next year". There is considerable resistance to that suggestion from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. That resistance is not because we are opposed to grant-maintained status for church schools. The Church of England Board of Education, of which I am chairman, will offer advice to governors which will set out a range of factors which need to be taken into account when a school is deciding whether it ought to become grant-maintained. We are not opposed to grant-maintained status. However, we are strongly opposed to the proposals to differentiate between church-aided schools and other schools. My colleague, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds—who is chairman of the Catholic Education Service—and I have already seen the Secretary of State to express our resistance to these proposals. That was further supported by a statement from the Catholic bishops' conference last week and by a statement from my own board. We are making very similar points. We do not believe that a wedge should be driven between church schools and other schools.

We believe that, if these proposals have any merit—and we are by no means convinced that they have—they should be applied to all schools, and not to church schools only. Perhaps I need to repeat the point made already by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee; namely, that the period for consultation upon this significant proposal is very short. It has been extended by one week, but we are having to respond extremely fast to proposals that will affect very considerably the status of church schools.

Not only do we feel that we do not want a differentiation between aided schools and other schools; we also feel that proposals to do away with the parental ballot would be ones that we should want to resist strongly. The Churches have come slowly and lately to the notion of parental ballot; but we have been convinced that we should be concerned about parental wishes. The parental ballot was the Government's creation, and was reinforced in the 1993 Act. In the Churches, we could not acquiesce in a situation whereby our aided school parents were treated differently from other parents in this respect. It would be unfair to parents and it would lead to a perception either that the Church attributed less importance to parents than others did, or that the Church sought special and privileged treatment. My board is stating firmly that it opposes any different treatment for aided school parents over the matter of ballots.

There is a suggestion that the proposals put forward should be extended possibly to all categories of schools. Clearly, that would overcome some of the Churches' difficulties. We should not then be in the situation of saying that our schools were being treated differently from other schools. But were that to be the case, this set of proposals becomes even more far-reaching. It should certainly not be introduced on the basis of the very slim consultation paper which has so far come out and the very short consultation that has taken place. This should surely come about only with the production of a White Paper, which should then lead to proper legislation in a Bill devoted exclusively to this particular matter.

I believe it is accepted that church schools, aided and voluntary, Roman Catholic and Church of England, and other church-aided schools, make a very substantial contribution to our education system. These schools are sought after. They are popular. Many are over-subscribed. They are of good quality and produce excellent results. Above all, they have the capacity to treat each youngster as an individual. That is a matter to which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred in his opening remarks and which we all believe to be important. As such, they need to be preserved and enhanced. We shall look to see that any government legislation improves quality and provision in our church schools.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I, too, welcome the proposed expansion of nursery education and I shall confine my contribution to this issue. It is indeed gratifying that the Government have finally bowed to the overwhelming arguments that nursery education gives a child a good start in life and that this is even more true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Parents and educationists have long argued this and now, finally, there is a response in the gracious Speech.

My quarrel with the Government, however, is about the method of implementation. My quarrel is with the voucher system, which I believe is an experiment with market forces rather than a well-planned and well-resourced initiative.

I live in the London Borough of Wandsworth, one of the four local authorities to take part in the pilot introduction of this scheme. I have a particular interest in the scheme since my daughter currently receives free nursery provision at our local primary school and my son will, in due course, receive his nursery education via the voucher system if the Government's proposals are carried.

The introduction of the scheme is a complex matter which will preoccupy this House in due course. But for now I address the simple question: who gains in Wandsworth? It is not four year-olds currently in LEA schools. They already have a free place. In Wandsworth, a full-time place costs some £1,900 a year and a part-time place some £1,100 a year. Thus, "choice" here means choosing to pay more to have a place in a private nursery. All private nurseries cost more than £1,100 a year, which is the current value of the voucher. Indeed, one private nursery close to where I live costs over £6,000 a year for a full-time term time place. It is not four year-olds who are already in private nursery, since by definition they already receive a nursery education. Therefore in educational terms in Wandsworth no four year-old will benefit in a practical sense. The only beneficiaries will be the parents of four year-olds in private nurseries. They will have a windfall gain of £1,100 a year to offset their current fees.

Some cynics have suggested that this is in itself an objective of the Government; namely, a bribe to parents to ensure their support. I do not subscribe to that view. I believe that there is more to this scheme than bribes alone. I believe that the voucher system is about putting in place a financial mechanism for expanding the nursery sector through increased parental contributions, not at this stage but in the future. The parallel here is with the expansion of the higher education sector, which has largely been financed by users taking out ever greater loans as government support is reduced. I have received no guarantee from Wandsworth that in the future I shall not have to pay something to bridge the gap between the voucher value and the actual cost of nursery education. If it is the intention of the Government to finance the expansion of nursery provision through requiring parents such as myself to contribute then they should say so and we can have a debate about it, rather than talking about choice, diversity and vouchers.

The scheme proposed has a number of practical limitations. First, greater bureaucracy will be introduced. A private company is to distribute the vouchers. For every LEA nursery place there will be two sources of funding, the LEA itself and a voucher company. That is hardly a strategy for minimising costs.

A second limitation is that there will be an incentive for LEAs to switch to part-time provision, since they will receive the same value voucher whether the child is in full-time part or part-time education. In my case this would not be a problem, as we chose part-time education for my daughter. It is the case, however, that most needy children who require full-time places may suffer. That cannot be right.

A third limitation is that the scheme fails to operate as an incentive to authorities already providing a high number of places and may instead result in penalising them. Currently, the pre-school education of three to five year-olds is discretionary. The announcement of the voucher scheme strongly implies that it is now an entitlement. Such a contradiction can be resolved only at the expense of LEAs which have already exercised this discretion and LEAs that currently provide education for three year-olds. Can the Minister guarantee that the education of three year-olds will not be affected by the introduction of this scheme?

I believe that an opportunity to strengthen pre-school learning has been lost. The introduction of market forces is at best an irrelevance and at worst will force down unit costs to the value of the voucher and thus lower standards. Private providers may seek to reap the benefits of a windfall subsidy to parents who are currently paying out of their own pockets. Employers may choose to withdraw existing childcare subsidies. I have already spoken about the additional bureaucratic burden. But worse than all of these administrative problems, the proposed expansion of the provision will not be targeted to the children who will benefit most. Markets cannot make a judgment of need but people and experts can.

We should develop a coherent, locally responsive service which embraces the full spectrum of providers to meet the needs of our children and the aspirations of their parents. I for one will do all I can to adapt the Bill that will come before this House to meet those aspirations.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I have listened with interest to wonderful speeches delivered by Members on both sides of this House. On whichever side of this House noble Lords may sit, it seems to me that they care about the problems of others. That is what we suggest to the Government of the day should be debated in the time to come. In my experience, it is very unusual for agriculture, the common agricultural policy or the reform of that policy not to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I wonder why. Perhaps the Minister in winding up tonight will tell us the reason.

Mention has already been made of Wales. I happen to be one of those who belong to that wonderful nation. We are saddened that we are not mentioned in the gracious Speech one way or another. Perhaps the majority of Members of the Government and the other side do not realise that the majority of those in Wales are keen to govern themselves. Members of all political parties except the Conservative and Unionist Party are in favour of devolving power to us. It is long overdue. I am convinced that we will have our own parliament sooner rather than later. If I am blessed with good health, I look forward to the day when I shall be able to listen to the debates in a Welsh Parliament in Cardiff.

The noble Earl referred to a new paper on rural England and the quality of Irish cattle. It was said that we could learn a great deal from the way that they marketed to the Dutch market. My personal view—I may be wrong—is that the only reason why Dutch people go to Ireland for beef is that they get it cheaper than if they buy it in England, Scotland or Wales. I am glad that they have that opportunity to send their beef to the Continent.

I know that noble Lords are not interested in the fact that I am now a retired farmer. The main reason for it was that under the new Agricultural Tenancies Act, which I favoured, last month I was in a position to give up my two holdings to two young families to start farming. I was very proud of that. I am indebted to the Government for introducing that Act. I hope that it will go from strength to strength, and that many more young people will be able to enter this proud industry.

I have many things to say, but first I should like to congratulate the Minister once again. He has gone public by saying that an inquiry will be held into the great deal of paperwork that farmers become involved in before they can claim grants and subsidies. It is a step in the right direction. I believe that farmers who apply for grants and subsidies face too much red tape and bureaucracy which can be cut if the Government initiative proves to be successful. I wish that inquiry too the best of luck.

I am proud to be a sixth generation hill farmer who has lived in the same area for a very long time. I have farmed up to 2,000 feet above sea level. Many years ago a well known Englishman, George Borrow, travelled from the top to the bottom of Wales. He passed through our village of Ponterwyd. In his book he says of our area that it is a place where people will live when crows will die. That is true of Ponterwyd and other villages like it in different parts of Wales. England, Scotland and Ireland. I believe that it is the duty of the Government of the day to look after the interests of people who have farmed the hills so well for generations and looked after the environment and the beauty of the countryside. They form the lowest paid sector of the agricultural industry.

Having declared my interest, I make a plea on behalf of hill farmers. A good third of them currently survive on less than £5,000 a year, which is well below the social security threshold. It is those farmers in the uplands of Wales and Britain who look to the Budget on 28th November for a measure of relief for this hard-pressed sector of the industry. The timing of the hill livestock compensatory allowance to coincide with the Budget offers the Government a very real opportunity to display an element of compassion. I honestly believe—the noble Earl knows it—that it is for the Government to decide what the HLCA is to be, not the common agricultural policy. Politically, it will be very difficult to cut the HLCAs a third time, particularly when the rest of the industry is doing relatively well. After all, these farmers are about the poorest group in the United Kingdom. For many of these families the only lifeline to keep them from going under is the HLCA. It is these farms that form the backbone of so many rural communities, not only in Wales, but in England, Scotland and Ireland.

In the past two years funding has effectively been slashed by the Government's failure to increase HLCAs in line with inflation. It must never be forgotten that HLCAs form nearly 25 per cent. of the total income of Less Favoured Area farms. The Chancellor will do himself no favours by denying help to the hard-pressed hills. They would soon lose their appeal to the public if they returned to scrub and dereliction. The very future of hill farming is now at stake. Hopefully, representations from the unions and other bodies have not fallen on deaf and insensitive ears. I know that the Farmers' Union of Wales, the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers Union of England and Wales have made representations to the Minister. I hope that in his wisdom he will accede to their request.

The sheep industry can continue to be one with a turnover of £3.5 billion, employing in excess of a quarter of a million people. On the other hand, badly guided by government policies and public misunderstanding, it could lose direction and go into sharp decline. Let us hope that Ministers can get their act together. Will they try to remember that they are dealing with living, thinking and caring hill farmers who are very worried human beings? That is the plea that I make on behalf of my own people wherever they live in any part of this country.

Finally, let me say how disappointed I was when I read a report from the Farmers' Union of Wales about the Government White Paper on rural England. I know that we shall debate that issue soon rather than later. A consultation with the YFC movement in this country was reported as follows: Concern that the Government's recent White Paper on rural England encouraged the disposal of county council smallholdings was expressed at a meeting between YFC and Farmers' Union of Wales representatives. The need to facilitate entry to the farming industry was one of the most urgent issues facing rural areas and should be one of the major issues in the run-up to the next general election, said FUW President Bob Parry after the meeting. During the meeting there was considerable common ground between the YFC delegates and FUW representatives who both regarded the problems facing young entrants as an issue of overriding importance". I hope that the Government will do something to help the young entrants who want to come into the industry. It may not be as successful as some of them would wish, but let us hope that we can do something to help those youngsters. With farming as the main economic activity in rural Wales, it is vitally important that we keep abreast of problems and consider all views. I hope that the Government will take heed of the meeting between the YFC and the Farmers' Union of Wales representatives and their request and that the White Paper for Wales will not recommend that local authorities should sell the smallholdings that we have by the hundreds in many parts of Wales. We must keep young people in the rural heartlands of Wales and other parts of Britain.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, this afternoon I should like to spend a few moments speaking about the importance of education as a form of prevention for some of the ills of our society today. Prevention is a long-term policy. Unfortunately, our democratic system tends to be biased toward short-termism and prevention is not very attractive to party politicians. It may therefore be an appropriate subject to raise from the Cross Benches.

Many of our social ills today can arguably best be dealt with by prevention and prevention through education. For some of them there is no other solution. In particular, in my view, there is an urgent need for young people in schools to have better preparation for the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood. They need to learn how to make responsible choices and to respect the rights of others, particularly the powerless and children. Your Lordships will hear in a moment why I refer particularly to children.

I want to focus now on one example of an area in which prevention is the only solution because cure is impossible; namely, lone teenage motherhood. Curiously, in numerical terms it is a less great problem than many of your Lordships and, I suspect, the Government may suppose. Births to lone teenage mothers—lone mothers under 20 years of age—comprise only 10 per cent. or 12 per cent. of the total births to lone mothers in this country. Nonetheless, those 24,000 or so lone teenage mothers are a very important minority. They are mostly girls who lack any supportive family. They have either rejected or been rejected by their family. When a girl of that age becomes a lone mother, the stress and loneliness in bringing up a child can indeed be very hard to bear, especially when living in accommodation provided by local authorities and consisting of small boxes and one-room flats often in very unattractive blocks.

Those mothers are at an age when most of their contemporaries are enjoying their youth. So, although the mother usually sets out with the best intentions in the world, she is in a situation which offers a very poor prognosis both for the happiness of the mother and for the satisfactory rearing of the child. The cards are stacked against such a child. It must be said that a great many of them subsequently enter that sad underclass which is developing in our society. We in the Stepney Children's Fund see many of them.

The reasons for early teenage pregnancy are becoming better understood by those who work in the field, although there is still a need for research. Of course, one must include carelessness and ignorance. Eagerness for independence and for status seem to be the most important driving forces and sometimes, pathetically, the need for someone to love. The Government believe that income support and housing are important influences and I am sure that they certainly contribute. But I do not believe that they are usually the prime motivation, although a young 15 year-old said to me the other day, patting her rather distended tummy, "I'll soon be getting my fag money". It can be at about that level.

At the Stepney Children's Fund I have been amazed at how little young people understand about the sacrifices as well as the pleasures that are involved in parenthood and how little they know about the needs and demands of young children. In America a doll has recently been invented which contains a computerised system that sets off a siren every two hours. The only way to stop it is to hold the doll in your arms and stick your thumb in its mouth for 20 minutes. Noble Lords may not believe it, but apparently that has been quite effective in dissuading a number of young ladies from becoming pregnant. That is a true story.

Research in America and also in this country at Exeter and York Universities has shown that properly designed and well delivered courses in schools, directed at both boys and girls, can lead to a significant reduction in early teenage pregnancies and motherhood. Such courses need to be interactive. They need to involve discussion groups and outside speakers. In particular, suitably trained peer group counsellors or advisers have been shown to be very effective. They need to include relationship education, life skills education and education about parenthood and the needs of children. Sex and drugs education simply become part of such a course.

The Government have provided an education Bill which requires schools to prepare young people for the responsibilities of adult life and they have provided inspectors to see whether or not they are doing so. The Government, or so they believe, have provided the money to accomplish that task. Why, then, do the majority of schools still not teach those matters to their pupils? That is the state of affairs which exists in the country today. I believe that the reason is that the effectiveness of such courses depends upon their being very well designed and well delivered so that they engage the interest of the pupils. That means well trained teachers. Often teachers lack the confidence to deliver such courses and are reluctant to take on the job. So the courses are not delivered, or are badly delivered, in schools.

For some years Relate, the Children's Society, the NSPCC and other organisations have been developing training materials for courses of that kind. Recently I was approached by Relate, the NSPCC and the Children's Society, who want to get together to form a training team to deliver such courses of education. Initially, such training would be targeted at schools in high risk areas such as some of the inner cities, where lone teenage motherhood is most prevalent.

The cost of such a pump-priming scheme to develop teacher training in schools would be £150.000 a year for the first three years. Thereafter it would be self-financing. As there are between 20,000 and 25,000 births to lone mothers under 20 each year, it seems reasonable to suppose that at least 5,000 of those births, at a most modest estimate, could be prevented. That means that the cost per mother and child would be £30. Apart from the misery saved for the mother and the possible emotional damage avoided for the child, that £30 would be recouped in the first week in terms of the benefits that would not have to be paid to the mother. It is an absurdly good investment for the taxpayer.

Your Lordships may therefore be surprised to hear that the Department for Education and Employment felt that it could not provide one penny piece towards supporting or encouraging such a scheme. I hope that the funding can be found, perhaps through the private or voluntary sector. It would be terribly sad if the Government were to be seen not to want to support such an important initiative. It may be true that there are "no votes in prevention" but there are votes in caring—and what we are talking about is caring. I hope the Government will think again.

Finally, if the noble Lord, Lord Morris, when he replies, were able to give an indication as to whether the Opposition, if they were to form a government, would be prepared to support education for better relationship skills, life skills and parenthood, that would be extremely helpful.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his interesting comments about the population size. Instead, I shall declare my interest straightaway and then draw your Lordships' attention to the parts of the gracious Speech which deal with agriculture and Northern Ireland, in both of which areas I have interests to declare. First, I farm in Scotland and I am a forest owner. Therefore, anything I say may have some relevance with regard to the hill livestock compensatory amount, arable farming in Scotland and set-aside.

The gracious Speech has a strong reference to combating fraud. There is no more doughty champion of that aspect than the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and all of us would support him. The gracious Speech states that the Government will take measures in Northern Ireland to, facilitate economic development". It is on that tiny aspect that I should like to detain your Lordships for a short time. I hope there is no libellous link between major fraud and activities in Northern Ireland but those of us in Scotland who are involved in combating fraud in the common agricultural policy are often maddened in trying to discover the various rulings that are applicable to agriculture, let alone to very valuable income in the specially disadvantaged areas, a point so well recorded by the noble Lord, Lord Geraint. We have to try to discover the rules applying to the arable areas and we have to discover the rules applying to set-aside. Quite often the rulings move at least once if not twice a year. We have to try to discover the applicability of those rules to our areas; we have to try to provide information to the Ministry of Agriculture; we have to await the announcements; and we have to await the actual payments. The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, pointed out that the payments too can cause considerable concern. Payments are detailed from year to year. They arc filtered through the green pound. By the time the payments come into the hands of the farmer, some very interesting algebraic formulas have been persevered with.

I think all farmers agree that it must be right to continue the fight against fraud. Exactly the same campaign is carried on everywhere in the United Kingdom, not least in Northern Ireland. The year 1984 was for many farmers a benchmark year. It was the year when the European Community made the first serious efforts to reduce agricultural spending. It introduced quotas for dairy production. One benchmark figure that was given to me is easily remembered. In 1984 the cost of disposing of the surplus milk produce of each milking cow throughout the Community was £108. Very swingeing quotas were imposed with varying effects throughout the Community. After two years the total number of milking cows had been reduced by around 15 per cent. I inquired about the cost of disposing of the surplus milk produce after two years of quotas. I was told that in 1986 the figure was approximately £106 per milking cow. Your Lordships will see that even when stern efforts are made to reduce common agricultural policy expenditure, even without the fraud, it is fairly difficult. Farmers will find methods to improve their efficiency.

It is a great pleasure to find that several aspects of my speech have been touched upon already by my noble friend the Minister in three flattering comments concerning Northern Ireland agriculture. He referred to computerisation. Anyone who has been across the water will appreciate that agriculture needs excellent computerisation to keep track of all the four-footed bovines. Thank goodness sheep do not necessarily come into that formula. The success story alluded to by my noble friend would never have come about without the enormous effort and professionalism of the Northern Ireland farming industry. That industry is different from the industry elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In Scotland and England—not so much in Wales—there is a fairly large arable sector. However, in Northern Ireland, as in Wales, dairying and stock are the two most important sectors. Currently there are around 6,000 dairy farmers in Northern Ireland, a figure which reduces every year by about 1 to 2 per cent. An enormous benefit is that the average size of the Northern Ireland herd is near the Euro-perfect size of about 40 cows producing about 200,000 litres. Above that the advantages from the common agricultural policy are definitely reduced.

There are other facets to Northern Ireland agriculture, let alone to the rest of the agricultural industry in the United Kingdom. Over the past 10 to 12 years farmers have not necessarily been producing their crops, their milk, their meat and any other output just for the sake of production. Marketing and quality of production are riding in first place. Indeed, in Northern Ireland strenuous efforts are made to assist in quality assurance. The Department of Agriculture has promised £60 million over the next five years for the rural development programme which is targeted at increasing the quality of the produce from the industry.

The gracious Speech refers to facilitating economic development in Northern Ireland as one of the priorities of the Government in this parliamentary year. I stress to your Lordships that those words more than anything else will bring about a continuing quality of life, let alone peace—I shall not talk about the peace process—for 1.5 million brave and excellent people among whom I had the privilege to work for six years.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I wish to make a contribution on nursery education and grant-maintained schools. The case for nursery education is overwhelming; it has been supported on many occasions in your Lordships' Chamber from all sides of the House. We are now presented with this mouse of a policy: nursery vouchers. The main requirement in nursery education is to provide new places. Vouchers of themselves will not create new places. Last year the Secretary of State herself described a voucher scheme as "unwieldy" and this year described it as "not the favoured option". There are some quick changes there.

The Government have admitted that parents with vouchers will not be guaranteed a place. The Secretary of State has said that the vouchers are worth £1,100 each. The cost of a full-time nursery school place is twice that amount. The substantial difference will obviously be of considerable importance to many parents. I was interested and delighted that my noble friend Lord Ponsonby made specific reference to that difference, speaking, as he said, as a parent with children now at school.

The Prime Minister said at the 1994 Tory party conference that there was "a cast-iron commitment". Those were the words he used. They are misleading words. It is interesting that a briefing note issued by the Department for Education and Employment should use almost the same words. It said that there could be, no cast-iron guarantee of a place, at least in the first instance, until new places are introduced in response to parent demand". Do education Ministers ever get out of their offices? There has been overwhelming demand for nursery places from parents for years and years. The money being spent on introducing the pilot scheme is understood to be considerable. The figure that has been mentioned is no less than £22 million. That kind of money, or any kind of money involved in this scheme, should be spent directly on providing more places.

The funding of the scheme needs to be looked at closely. The bulk of it is to be found by reducing SSA for all local education authorities. This is to be achieved by taking the £1,100 to which I referred, which is the value of the voucher, from the LEA for each four year-old it currently educates. The LEA may or may not recoup the money through redeemed vouchers. If they do not, that money is lost to the LEA. That is yet another blow to local education authorities. If that is not the position, I hope that the Minister who is to reply will clarify it. It is of quite fundamental importance.

There are huge gaps in the proposal, all directly related to whether high-class nursery education will he achieved. The phrase "high-class education" has not been mentioned so far, but presumably that is the aim of the Government in this field. For example, we need to know about the curriculum, about staffing, and not least about qualified staff and accommodation. The completely inadequate voucher scheme as it stands will not meet any of these important objectives. The Government are simply paying lip service to nursery education. It is a confidence trick being played not only on parents but, more importantly, on young children. The fallacies and contradictions will be exposed when we examine the Bill in detail. Once again, it is being done in the name of parental choice. The noble Earl who initiated the debate today referred on a number of occasions to parental choice.

The Government continue to press their policies relating to grant-maintained schools. During the Summer Recess the Prime Minister said that he wanted all schools to be grant maintained. By any normal or common sense standard the policy has been a failure in spite of the huge incentives offered to schools which choose to change status. After some three years, 1,100 schools out of 25,000 have chosen to opt out. When these statistics are put to Ministers they respond by saying, with great pride, that one in five children in secondary education in England is in a grant-maintained school. One in five in one sector of education is counted as a success? As The Times pointed out recently, at the present rate it will take 100 years for all schools to become grant maintained.

Huge sums have been given to some schools—I have examples here—and the system has been condemned by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Many schools are said to have been deliberately over-compensated at the expense of local authorities whose budgets, as I believe we all know, are already overstretched. The committee also said that some double funding has occurred and that that is unacceptable. I remind your Lordships that this is a committee with a built-in Conservative majority. The system is apparently to continue but there has been talk of the so-called "top-up" percentage being reduced. I ask the Minister to comment when he replies.

Perhaps the most significant statistics relating to opting out are those for the last academic year showing that only 50 schools voted to opt out compared with 555 in 1992–93 when the policy had just begun in the immediate aftermath of the last general election. That has been pointed out on a number of occasions from this side of the House. The Government, never at a loss for excuses, trot out yet another one. They say, "Ah, we are only concerned about giving parents and governors a choice, not about the number who decide to opt out." That was certainly not the original aim and purpose of the scheme, and the Prime Minister's recent statement confirms that view.

I turn to a disturbing development in the saga. When the Prime Minister made his reference only two or three months ago to all schools opting out, there was an implication that some other way of opting out might be considered. He referred specifically to what was called a "fast-track" for church schools. The clear intention was not to have a ballot at all or something like that. Your Lordships will remember the devastating response from the Churches to such a suggestion. So strong was the reaction that not a word has been heard of it since. I had hoped that we would have a contribution from the Bishops' Bench today on the matter. We have had the most comprehensive and devastating contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. I hope that even if the Government take no notice of other people contributing to today's debate they will take full notice of what was said by the right reverend Prelate. There were some wicked reports at the time that the Prime Minister had not consulted the Secretary of State for Education about the proposal. I suspect that there was some truth in that. I suspect, too, that the Secretary of State would have advised strongly against it.

The right reverend Prelate referred to a meeting held this weekend. Perhaps I may embroider the point by quoting the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference. Those taking part did not mince their words. They called the proposals "discriminating and divisive" adding that they isolate the churches from their partners in education and this we deeply regret". That was confirmed by what the right reverend Prelate said a few moments ago. The Church of England says that it is "strongly opposed" to the idea, one bishop saying that it was, un-Christian and not compatible with Christian principles". I hope that even this Government will heed the strength of feeling about their ridiculous idea.

It was because of this situation and other rumours that I asked the Minister an Oral Question on 17th October. I asked the noble Lord to give an assurance that the Government will not dispense with ballots. After all—I stress the point—this is surely of the utmost importance. I remind your Lordships that the Government's philosophy is based wholly on what they call "parental choice". We hear that phrase time and time again in relation to this and other areas. Ever since the establishment of grant-maintained schools we have been told that it is the parents who decide these matters, not the Government, not education committees and not politicians. The Government say that it is entirely a matter for parents.

It was very revealing that in the answers he gave to me and some of my noble friends, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said that he could not give an assurance on the continuation of ballots. The words he used were ominous. He referred to "smoothing the path" and perhaps, even more significantly, said: For the moment grant-maintained status remains voluntary but we believe … that the benefits of GM status are so great that they could and should be extended. where possible. to all schools".— [Official Report. 17/10/95; col. 665] Your Lordships should note the words, "for the moment". I hope that the Minister will be more forthcoming and—I hesitate to say this, because he is an honourable man—perhaps more honest and more specific when he replies to the debate.

There is more to he said about parental choice. I press the issue because parental choice is important. We on these Benches subscribe to that view. I stress it also because the Government are not being entirely honest. If the Government place so much importance on it—as they do—it is crucial that their policies are examined in detail.

The Government give the impression all the time that parental choice in schools is being met. At this time of the year, when so many children are in their new secondary schools, many parents have come to realise that choice of school is a myth. It is simply not possible to give parents universal, unfettered choice. We all know that in every area some secondary schools acquire a good reputation, whether justified or not. It is natural that parents will want their children to attend those schools. Inevitably, in many cases there are not sufficient places for all who wish to attend. What happens then? Parents can appeal, of course, but figures given in a parliamentary Answer are significant. Appeals against refusals of school places rose from 20,981 in 1989–90 to 41,927 in 1992–93, the latest date for which figures are available. The short answer to my rhetorical question is that many parents do not have the choice about which the Government so loudly trumpet.

The basis of my complaint and concern is not that sufficient places should be available to meet the wishes of all parents. That would not be practicable. My concern is that the Government deliberately and continually give the impression that all parents have a choice of school. Let the Government be more honest and make it clear to parents and children that there is no such thing as complete freedom of choice.

The Government have restricted choice in yet another way. The present legislation on choosing to opt out provides for a ballot of parents; it also provides that some governors should be parents of children attending that particular school. The decision taken in a ballot on whether to opt out or to stay within LEA jurisdiction is permanent. However, some of the parent governors after a certain period will no longer have children in the school and that in itself could lead to a change of opinion among parents about whether opting out or staying in is best for the school. In fact, that is happening now. Opinions do change, mostly on the basis of experience, but it is not permissible to have further ballots to allow a different view to be expressed.

The Minister may recall that when the Bill was being debated in your Lordships' House amendments were tabled to make provision for a possible change of opinion. Some of those amendments were tabled by noble Lords opposite. The Government argued that chopping and changing would affect the running of a school—and that would be true if it happened. But it would not happen. No one ever suggested such a thing. Suggestions were made about periods of seven, 10, 12 or even 15 years. A good case could be made for all of those periods. But the Government are so besotted with the principle that they will not permit the expression of other views. They pay lip service to parental choice in education and do little or nothing to try to meet the legitimate aspirations of parents or the shortcomings of the present legislation.

It is tempting in a debate of this kind to deal with a number of the shortcomings, not to say disasters, of the Government's education policies. We remember the ballyhoo attached to the Government's boasting of school inspections every four years, which we know now will not be achieved, at least in primary schools, as I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge. There are present and future difficulties attached to ever-increasing class sizes, and other major problems.

We can take some consolation from the present position. This is the last Queen's Speech for a full parliamentary Session from a Conservative Government before the next general election. I am certain that the people of this country will ensure that it is the last Conservative Queen's Speech for many years—and their record on education will make a significant contribution to that defeat.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Kenilworth

My Lords, the last few gracious Speeches have provided a number of environmental legislative measures which have now become law, underlying Her Majesty's Government's commitment to the pursuit of sustainable development and in keeping with the objectives set out in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

This gracious Speech has almost no reference to further environmental legislative measures save for the environmental permutations of the construction of the high-speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel.

As a noble Lord with particular knowledge and expertise in landscape architecture, having my own landscape architectural practice, I wish to touch briefly on two issues. I refer first to the protection of ramblers' rights which are represented by the Ramblers Association in the light of the sale of much of the Forestry Commission's land and, secondly, to Her Majesty's Government's plans for the decommissioning of the North Sea oil rigs.

There has been much media interest recently over the controversy that since 1991 walkers have lost their freedom to roam over 136 square miles of woodland despite repeated ministerial pronouncements on safeguarding public access to land sold by the Forestry Commission. Government figures show that, of the 35,000 hectares of woodland sold since agreements were introduced in October 1991, only 506 hectares have been safeguarded. Currently, 108 publicly owned woods are up for sale, but only 12 carry any guarantee of public access.

As we are all aware, privatisation of Britain's forests has been taking place since 1991 but recently there have been a number of ugly confrontations between landowners, particularly farmers, and ramblers wishing to exercise their rights to walk through their fields. I understand that walking is the most popular recreation in Britain today and I have enormous sympathy with the ramblers' protests over the increasing threats restricting access to their long-established walks.

However, I do not feel that bridleways should be given the designation, as they have in several cases, of byways, allowing off-roaders legal access. There have been numerous complaints about byway lanes wrecked by four-wheel drive vehicles and scrambler motorbikes which have caused irreparable damage, particularly when the conditions have been wet. Often the damage to the tracks has been so bad that it has not been possible to take horses down those lanes, let alone walk along them.

Can the Minister give any assurances both as to the protection of ramblers' rights and as to whether there will be any legislation preventing four-wheel drive vehicles and scrambler motorbikes from wrecking byways?

The second issue I wish to address is that of the decommissioning of the North Sea oil rigs. Following the Brent Spar fiasco last year, the debate has raged as to the cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits of the clean seas policy.

According to the UK Offshore Association, there are 219 installations on the UK Continental Shelf, including steel and concrete fixed platforms, floating production platforms, loading units and subsea production systems, and about 7,000 kilometres of pipeline. The association believes that 75 per cent. of the platforms are likely to be brought ashore for abandonment. That therefore leaves 25 per cent. for which a long-term solution must be found in order to safeguard the environment for future generations.

As to the choice of onshore or offshore disposal, I am of the opinion that there ought to be a combination of both. Whatever the claims of Greenpeace—that as much as £630 million could be saved by the Government and the oil industry if the UK co-ordinated an international approach to the removal of most North Sea oil and gas platforms—I am of the opinion that deep sea platform operators will face far lower costs with offshore abandonment than onshore disposal. It must be appreciated that onshore disposal of deep sea rigs such as the Brent Spar would not just cost much more, but could give rise to major safety hazards in their transportation to the shore. My suggestion is that deep sea platforms should be considered case by case and alternative uses for such platforms be considered, such as heliports or emergency rescue centres.

In the light of the closure of several shipyards in Scotland, with the resultant loss of jobs, have the Government considered developing a platform-abandonment facility, perhaps re-opening yards such as Ardyne Point in Argyllshire or Loch Kishorn in Wester Ross, which are currently mothballed? Certainly there needs to be a co-ordinated discussion among the oil industry, Government and the environmental campaigners to reach satisfactory compromise on this issue.

I certainly welcome the ruling that after 1st January 1998 no installations are to be placed on the UK continental shelf unless their design and construction is such that entire removal upon abandonment would be feasible.

Finally, I wish to touch briefly on education for dyslexics. As a child I suffered severely from dyslexia, but was fortunate that my parents were in a position financially to arrange specialist assistance and send me to a school supposedly able to assist me and cater for my problem. Despite that, I grew up in an environment where dyslexics were branded stupid.

If children with dyslexia are not properly taught and treated in their early years, that can result in lifelong disadvantages. I welcome the Government's initiative on nursery vouchers for children aged four to five years as that will enable a greater number of children with dyslexia to be diagnosed and helped at the most important time in their lives.

Current statistics from the British Dyslexia Association and the Dyslexia Institute show that 4 per cent. of the population suffers from dyslexia and that, if properly treated at an early age, the costs per child can be fairly low. However, if left to later in life, the cost of remedial treatment rises dramatically.

A popular phrase is, "If he or she cannot learn the way you teach, you can teach the way he or she learns". Bearing in mind that 15 per cent. of all school leavers have poor reading skills, the value of the special teaching methods is obvious. Can the Minister in his winding up speech give any assurances of further assistance for the treatment of dyslexics?

5.16 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, in a debate about education it is nice for once not to be the first speaker to mention dyslexia.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Addington

My Lords, that was said with a little too much feeling!

The noble Lord, Lord Kenilworth, was right when he said that if dyslexia is spotted early in a child's education there is far more chance of being able to deal with it and to give support. But that depends upon having teachers who are trained correctly to recognise the problem, as is the case with all other hidden disabilities. If these disabilities are not spotted—dyslexia has forced its way into the public's awareness, but there is also dysphasia—there is a danger that children will be branded as stupid, as has often been said, or will be overloaded with the incorrect remedial help, which may compound the problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned young people being disaffected and taken away from school. Their problems are often compounded by this type of disability which may alienate children. It is nice to be able to start a speech by agreeing with someone on the other side of the House. I hope that the Government will pay attention to this problem.

When I heard that there was to be further legislation to deal with student loans, a vague hope arose within me that something might he done about them: for instance, that something might be done about the long vacuum in financial support during the long vacation when students have to find a job, obtain money off their parents or other relatives or go hungry. Unfortunately that has not happened. We merely have a piece of legislation which will mean that we have to create more bureaucracy and once again invite the banks to become involved.

When the system was first introduced, the banks indicated a clear "no" to becoming involved in it. That may have been based on the experience of boycotts in relation to other issues, particularly South Africa. The banks decided that they did not want to become involved in something that was potentially unpopular. It has been reported to me—I do not know whether it is accurate—that the tender documents provide that when tendering one must not talk to others who are tendering. The tenders must be done independently. So it may be that the Government smell that there may still be problems about becoming involved in the scheme.

The real problem with the scheme is that all it will do is to offer different repayment terms. What is strongly suspected by many involved is that if one can pay back one's loan rapidly, one will be charged a lower rate of interest. One wonders who will be able to take advantage of such a system. Can any student guarantee that they will receive a certain level of salary at the end of their course? That is highly unlikely. It will probably be those who have parents who will say, "Very well, we will advise you on the correct way to take out this loan, and we will assist you to repay it quickly". Or the case may be put, "We will allow you to repay your loan over a longer period of time but we will charge you a higher interest rate". I hope that the Minister will tell us that that will not occur, because it will mean that those who come from the poorest social backgrounds and who, rightly or wrongly, have the lowest expectations will pay the highest rates of interest.

Neither of those solutions is successful. Indeed, as a central body must co-ordinate the private loans, the end result may be increased bureaucracy and bureaucratic costs. Although there may be PSBRI advantages to the scheme, it is difficult to see what other advantages can be found. It is a short Bill—only four clauses—and three minutes on it is probably enough.

I wish to make one further point. We have heard a great deal about grant-maintained schools being allowed further financial freedoms and the freedom to dispose of their own assets. We have also heard that the Government are going to try to defend the rights of those schools as regards their playing fields. Indeed, we have heard the cry for greater sports provision and more competitive games in schools. However, the point has not yet been made that school sports fields are assets not only to the schools but to the local communities.

One of the greatest advantages that we have in our sporting culture—despite the fact that we may lose internationally more than every now and again—is that we have a culture of participation. Participation at junior level in football, hockey and cricket is dependent upon publicly-owned facilities; otherwise the teams cannot participate in their sport. The school playing fields are a vital part of that system. Well maintained sports fields are essential to teams who are raising their standards and aim to go higher than just participation level.

If such sports fields are lost various sports activities will be cut off in certain parts of the country. I do not say that there would a catastrophic situation overnight but there would be gaps in provision. There would he an overloading on the playing facilities in public parks and a lowering in the standard of grass-based pitches. If too much sport is played on such pitches their condition deteriorates and competitors cannot enjoy their sport so much or aim to play at a higher level. As regards the disposal of assets, will the Minister assure the House that community-based activities are given at least as high a consideration as any directly associated with educational needs?

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to discipline. Self-discipline is often acquired through sports, especially for the male of the species. It is a way in which people can learn to do something under their own steam. The great danger with the Government's cry for more compulsory school games is that people will associate school sports with being forced to do something as opposed to wanting to do it. Adult participation is based on the idea that one wants to he out there and that one is doing it oneself. Young people are being given a second chance to be involved. Will the Minister assure the House that the non-academic use of school facilities will be borne in mind if grant-maintained schools should wish to sell off any of their assets?

5.24 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and to associate myself completely with his remarks about school playing fields. I represent in one part of Wiltshire the National Playing Fields Association, which has the honour of having His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh as its president. Its object is to ensure that school playing fields are not sold off by local councils and to encourage an increase in their number.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers in his opening remarks mentioned the Select Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Tombs on the subject of sustainable development. That was itself a debate on the environment, which is the subject I should like to discuss. The report was erudite and wide-ranging and the debate demonstrated the conflicts that arise in maintaining sustainability in the developing environment, which have to be considered and which become a charge on the public purse which we are beholden to satisfy.

In that debate my noble friend Lord Ferrers gave an excellent definition of a sustainable environment; that it is one which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising future generations' inheritance. I hope my noble friend will confirm that that is what he said. I wish to ensure that we do not compromise the inheritance that we pass to future generations.

One problem is inner city pollution, which has many elements. However, perhaps the pollution caused by inner city public transport and delivery vehicles creates the biggest problem. Would my noble friend, therefore, consider the use of alternative fuels for those vehicles? In that context, I recently attended an interesting seminar on the use of natural gas vehicles or NGVs. I assure your Lordships that I have no commercial interest in them but they appear to be a relatively easy and rapid answer to the problem.

The exhaust fumes are less damaging to the upper atmosphere and, being lighter than air, they rise directly into the atmosphere without affecting the public. In that respect they are unlike petrol and diesel fumes which, as your Lordships know, lurk about at ground level and cause great distress to pedestrians, bicyclists and many motorists. I have for many years driven a diesel car under the happy delusion that I am serving the cause of the environment. I now find that my best endeavours are at risk and that I must buy a vehicle which runs on natural gas, which will be very expensive. If NGVs are to be promoted they will require promotion through the Government. The Select Committee report clearly stated that we should promote such vehicles.

Perhaps the best legacy that we can hand on to succeeding generations is the immensely important concept of the Stonehenge Millennium Park which has been planned by English Heritage in consort with the National Trust. I spent four days last week at the Stonehenge conference in Salisbury, where every possible view was expressed and every interest represented and heard under the excellent chairmanship of Dr. Robin Wilson. The conference proceeded quickly—there were no lawyers present!

The conference came to a number of conclusions, among which was the need to green over the A303 and the A344 in the immediate vicinity of the stones, as required by English Heritage and the National Trust. The conference supported in principle the plan for a long tunnel, with which I entirely concur.

It is clear to me that Stonehenge, as a world heritage site, is of an international importance which lays upon us a duty of care that far transcends any budgetary considerations. We have placed the care of the heritage site with English Heritage, while the National Trust has the inalienable right of protection of the Henge, established as it is by Act of Parliament. I suggest therefore that those opinions and requirements are of paramount importance.

It is not just the stones, remarkable as they are, and the immediate world heritage site which are important but there is the fact that Salisbury Plain immediately to the north, the Henge and the Avebury Ring make up a legacy from our forebears and ancestors who inhabited the area some 10,000 years ago. They found Stonehenge to be a special place and 4,000 years ago they started to build a monument to that special place.

I think it is true that society's memories of its past form the basis of the present culture and so we, in our turn, must pass on to future generations our own memories and the memorials that we have inherited, without all the extraneous 20th century trappings with which we have surrounded it.

The Millenium Park will provide an area of tranquillity, which the Salisbury conference noted as a necessary objective. It will remove all visible road transport from the immediate area and return the stones to their setting in antiquity.

The archeological map of the world heritage site is a remarkable document. It is evident that even widening the present road to current department standards for dual carriageways would disturb at least 20 sites, each site being not just one barrow but a collection of separate archaeological remains—a set of remains which we, as life tenants, have no right to disturb.

That heavy expenditure will be incurred by the only option that will correct the damage we have done is inevitable as that option involves tunnelling. If I say, "shades of St Catherine's Hill", I hope that that does not send shivers down the spine of my noble friend. I think it is now acknowledged that that by-pass decision was a mistake. I sincerely hope that the fiasco will not be repeated at Stonehenge.

It is UNESCO which has declared the world heritage site. I ask my noble friend whether we are paying our dues to that body so that we may demand a contribution. Equally the A.303 is part of the European network of strategic highways and help should come especially from the EU. Perhaps, like every other country, we should for once put pressure on our own appointed commissioner, Mr. Neil Kinnock, to ensure that more of our net contribution comes back to us for that purpose.

One point that may be material is that within the timescale involved in any tunnel development, it may be that the department will have completed its trials on road tolling with smart cards, which may help either to discount the initial cost or alternatively to encourage the private sector to invest in this very important and therefore lucrative Trans-Europe Highway.

Thirdly and finally, I should like to say a few words on farming. That provides another example of our inheritance. What was once a virtually chemical free topsoil has been changed dramatically by CAP revenues and encouragements towards ever greater yields. I am not going to press the case of organic farming, albeit I cannot resist its mention. But in terms of restoring the legacy, there is, I am glad to acknowledge, the concerted effort reflected by the proposed reforms of the CAP. But I feel that is a slightly optimistic view if one takes into account the fact that Zeneca alone—an agro-chemical company of which your Lordships may know—showed a 13 per cent. increase to £1.3 billion, which resulted in a 5 per cent. increase in its share price this week. While we may be optimistic, it is evident that the markets remain entirely cynical. The CAP is on the IGC agenda and for that we must be grateful. Perhaps I may press my noble friend to ensure that our call for reform is heard and acted upon.

We have already prepared a legacy for our future generations in the form of BSE infected cattle upon our heirs and successors, about which there is nothing that we can do to alleviate the incidence over the next 30 years and, indeed, beyond that, for the incubation period is 30 years.

Frankly, I am amazed that in the context of a sustainable environment we still allow a nerve gas-derived poison to be used on our animal herds for the simple purpose of removal of the innocent warble fly, an affliction that has occurred all down the centuries. Suddenly we are ensnared again in productivity and we ignore the effect on the animal and potentially upon the public.

As is quite clear, today there is no shortage of beef and, therefore, there is no reason why we should press for those advanced methods. The 13th Report of the Select Committee on the EC beef and veal regime concluded about BSE: We endorse the views of many witnesses on the need to ensure access for British exporters to markets for beef currently not open on account of unfounded fears over BSE". It may be that those fears are unfounded but the fact remains that we have left that legacy for our children.

It is not only a potential danger that we face when we realise that farmers are deliberately and with the consent of the department applying that poison to our vegetables. Surely we should reconsider the use of organo-phosphates in farming altogether and relieve our farmers and stockmen of the need to keep a wardrobe of chemical warfare kit for use on hot summer days.

We are already suffering from the effects of DDT which was poured onto the soil soon after the war, especially on the chalk uplands, which is now established indissolubly in the water table. It is not just the siren attraction of CAP revenues that we must adjust but, as was said in the recent debate that I have just mentioned, there are farming methods friendly to the environment without going the whole hog into organic farming. And who am I to say that? There is a driven need for reform and for reforms which may have to be imposed if we are to leave future generations with a sustainable environment that they can enjoy.

5.38 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for the fact that literally mile after mile of roadworks on the A.1 today caused me to miss the first nine minutes of his speech. I am certain that the first part of his speech was as excellent as the second half and I am sorry to have missed it.

I intend to confine my remarks to agriculture and environmental matters and specifically to traditional country sports, at the risk of trespassing on the territory of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who is to follow me.

I was disturbed by the pronouncement by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on 19th October, speaking for the Home Office as she was, that the Government were neutral on the issue of field sports. Some reassurance was provided a few days later by the excellent White Paper on rural England to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has already referred. That was produced by two different government departments—MAFF and the DoE. Those two departments took a far more positive line. They almost eulogised country sports, albeit from an essentially utilitarian standpoint.

However, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has been kind enough to write to me, although I received the letter only two hours ago. It confirms that my original fears were valid. The message from the Home Office seems to be that field sports will be defended so long as they are legal, but the Government are agnostic as to whether they should remain legal.

There are two pegs in the gracious Speech on which I can legitimately hang those two anxieties. The first is the promise of further deregulation, because of course conniving at or acquiescing in a field sport ban would fly totally in the face of that promise. The second is the promise of continued resistance to terrorism—in this instance the growing terrorism carried out by animal liberation fanatics.

The Government really must make an effort to educate the urban and suburban majority in the realities of nature. Too large a proportion of that majority fondly imagines that lamb chops and hamburgers grow on trees and that, left to their own devices, wild animals die peacefully of old age tucked up snugly in their beds. The recent findings of Sir David Steel's "Countryside Movement" demonstrate just how much such education is needed. Of course, it would not budge the fanatics whose eyes are closed and who are totally impervious to reason, but it would help to sway back onto the right road the very much larger number of people who at present have some sneaking sympathy with the fanatics and who might be inclined to shelter them or even eventually to join them.

Perhaps this is the moment to declare interests. Although my forebears played a prominent role in establishing one of the oldest packs in the country, neither my immediate family nor I have ever hunted. I rather regret that now, but three-and-a-half years into my senior railcard is a little late to start. I do not fish. But I do shoot, but never more than half a dozen times a year, and usually less. Through the family tradition I have a certain minor interest in falconry, but it is a passive rather than an active one. In other words, I have very little "selfish or strategic interest" in the matter, to use a phrase coined by this Government.

However, I feel strongly about the maintenance of tradition and I feel deeply for the tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people—thoroughly decent individuals for the most part—for whom one or more of those traditional sports is an all-consuming passion. Their individual freedoms are being put at risk by a combination of ignorance, often wilful, and double standards. It will not do to say, "Leave it to the conscience of individual MPs". If a body of individual MPs tried to ban football on the grounds that it promoted violence, hooliganism, criminal damage and so on, there would be no question of the Government sitting on their hands and saying, "Well, it is just a matter for individual conscience. If they wish to ban it, so be it". On the contrary, the Government would pull out all the stops to kill the Bill.

It is not for me on these Benches to tell the Conservatives what they should be thinking. But I had always understood that the Conservatives stood fix the preservation of rural interests and values when they were threatened by urban Britain. I remember the late Rab Butler making that point so well in a speech in your Lordships' House a great many years ago. I also understood that the Conservatives stood for the maintenance of long-standing institutions and traditions, unless it could be proved that the latter were unusually cruel, harmful or whatever. In this case no such proof exists, as the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook,(a most distinguished zoologist, as your Lordships will know) made clear some years ago.

Some of the more intelligent opponents of field sports acknowledge that fact and concede, too, that large numbers of animals have to be killed every year for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, they maintain that it is distasteful that people enjoy killing—more accurately, the activities that culminate in a kill—and effectively demand that that enjoyment be outlawed, whether or not cruelty is involved. That leads us on to very dangerous ground. Many of us, perhaps most of us, find the idea of sodomy distasteful. Yet, quite recently, both Houses of Parliament voted to decriminalise sodomy between consenting adults. They were absolutely right to do so in my opinion. I know that not everyone agrees; indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, opposed it. But I have always maintained that what consenting adults do in private is no concern of the criminal law.

How retrograde it would be, then, to criminalise another minority activity simply because others find it distasteful. The word would go out that Parliament (with Conservative acquiescence) now officially decrees buggery to be better than beagling. Further, there are sinister precedents for the banning of sports and pastimes. The National Socialists in pre-war Germany—mainly ill-educated, urban people who were sickeningly sentimental about nature and the countryside while knowing practically nothing about either of them—banned fox hunting. It is significant that the National Front in Britain also supports a ban. When the North Vietnamese communists finally conquered Saigon in July 1975, they immediately banned bridge which they considered to be a reactionary, bourgeois and capitalist game. Anyone caught playing bridge risked being sent to prison for six months. Does one want to go down that sort of road?

In the matter of field sports, the Opposition parties should think twice about appealing to the tyranny of the majority, bearing in mind what the majority feels about capital punishment and immigration. They should also ponder the hypocrisy of supporting a ban on those field sports with relatively little electoral support but not on those with very considerable electoral support.

As to the Government, sitting on the fence and hoping that it will all blow over will not help them or anyone else. Let the Conservatives be true to their professed principles and boldly defend both tradition and individual liberty, while at the same time working to educate urban Britain and tactfully pointing out to the meat-eating majority the inconsistency of that majority's sentiments. Only in that way will a bitter, long-lasting and potentially dangerous clash between town and country be averted.

5.46 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monson, on bridge, buggery and beagling is, I believe, a little difficult. I thought that today's debate was supposed to be on agriculture. Therefore, I shall attempt to keep my few remarks within that subject. I do not rise to talk of the follies of set-aside or of the iniquities of subsidising the bulldozing of 700,000 tonnes of fresh peaches a year. I will not pause or muse on the underwriting of the growing of poisonous tobacco, on the inability of British cheesemakers to buy enough milk or on the failure of the common agriculture policy to have a beneficial effect on the social fabric of the countryside, while French villages become depopulated. I rise to bring to your Lordships' attention a sillier and more damaging example of the EU's current behaviour. I must underline that I am not anti-Europe; I am only anti silly Europe.

I am not opposed to a European policy for European fishing grounds, I am only opposed to the present one, which fails to conserve, omits to garner the maximum sustainable fish harvest and which, in some cases, discards as much as, or more than, is actually harvested. The total European fish catch is something in the region of 5 million tonnes, of which, even according to the European Commission's admission, we throw away at least 2 million tonnes. As most of the fish that we throw away are babies, the actual number of fish is probably even more than those which are actually caught and eaten.

The Western Atlantic Fisheries are suffering from a climatic change caused by the melting ice cap and by, funnily enough, the explosion in seal numbers because people are no longer allowed to buy a sealskin coat. Each seal—and there are 10 million of them—consumes two tonnes of fish a year.

On the other hand, the Eastern Atlantic has had a climatic advantage caused by the anti-clockwise movement of currents. There has also been an unforecast advantage created by oil rigs, whose positions, it now appears, almost exactly coincide with the fishery "good places" which used to be marked on the fishermen's charts at the beginning of the century. This is thought to be because where the oil has been found there is a slight rise in temperature. Consequently there has been a rise in water currents, food is sucked in and lots of fish circulate in these areas. I only learnt that this morning and I was quite astonished by the information. Round the oil rigs, which have a 500 metre exclusion zone for fishing, fish havens have become established.

The bad news, however, is the policy run by Brussels, quaintly called conservation. It is counter-productive. We know how to run proper conservation policies, or at least the Namibians do, the Norwegians do, and the Canadians have just learnt how to do so. Their policies could be an example for Europe to follow. That would then mean that the common fisheries policy could have some future.

By proper conservation measures I mean such things as different rules for different parts of the ocean. After all, a Highland sheep farm is run differently from a Mediterranean tomato enterprise. New mesh regulation would allow the escape of more immature fish. Also we need to use separator trawls with escape areas. Technicians can design gear to catch only the species required. This is not bought at the moment because there is no incentive so to do. The minimum landing size of fish must be increased to allow at least one year's spawning.

If a more sensible conservation policy is not adopted, there will then arise an overwhelming demand from people in this country for us to reassert control over our own fishing industry and fishing waters. It is an interesting historical fact that the original Treaty of Rome made no mention of a common fisheries policy. Had someone had the nous to challenge its existence in the European Court, it could well have been found to be extra-legal. However, someone noticed it, and into the dreaded Maastricht Treaty was slipped a clause retroactively to ensure that the common fisheries policy was legal.

Owing to constraints of time I have concentrated solely on what can be achieved by intelligent conservation measures. I have not talked of the British flagging of Spanish vessels, which by tonnage is 20 per cent., not the 4 per cent. figure given by the Government, which refers to boat numbers, and is consequently a totally irrelevant statistic. I have not mentioned, or digressed upon, the taste of the Northern Europeans for large fillets and larger fish or the taste of the Southern European and Mediterranean people for small fish. I have not dwelt on the effect of the possible arrival of the Bulgarian, Polish or Latvian fishing fleets, all of which are far too big for their own resource.

If we could address sensibly the conservation issue, there might be hope for other issues to be resolved equally sensibly. At the moment the common fisheries policy neither conserves the fish nor the fleet. It provides neither job security nor fish security. Unless these issues are properly addressed and the European Union pulls itself together, the fisheries policy will have to be repatriated, with all the dreaded consequences that that will produce.

5.54 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, before taking the first opportunity available to me to speak in the debate on the humble Address in reply to the gracious Speech, I begin by declaring my interest in the aspects of education in the Speech and also in the Government's policy, programmes and consultation. I speak as a member of Lancashire County Council, which is an education authority, as chair of the Association of County Councils and as a parent of a current student and a former student.

I wish to refer briefly to aspects of the Government's proposals for nursery vouchers. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby has referred in detail to many aspects of this scheme which cause concern. It was significant that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in opening this debate, referred to an extension of nursery education. I have two main criticisms of the Government's proposals.

First, the Government fail to distinguish between the extremely valuable and vital complementary provisions for pre-school children—there is a variety of provision. including pre-school playgroups and toddlers' clubs—and nursery education. Nursery education is unique in that it provides a properly resourced education service undertaken by properly qualified staff for the very young. Previous speakers have said that the proposed scheme will remove the capacity of some local education authorities to provide at the current level and will certainly not allow parents to buy the equivalent of full-time, proper nursery education.

Secondly, I wish to refer to the student loan proposals. Previous speakers have mentioned aspects of the Government's intentions with regard to student loans. I am sure that I am not the only person who is concerned that as a society we seem to be building a sense of well-being on greater and greater levels of personal debt. The student loan scheme run on behalf of the Government outside the independent sector and the banking system at least distinguishes for students to a degree between the offer of commercially provided loans and the official subsidised loan scheme. As previous speakers have said, students are already incurring large debts. This is causing some students not to complete their courses. Ironically, an increased drop-out rate increases the unit cost per student of a university course.

Already the banks enable students to borrow ever larger amounts of money. On the one hand, students are under pressure to borrow more and more money and, on the other hand, students who are fearful of their inability to repay loans at the end of their courses are dropping out.

The main area I wish to discuss is not mentioned in the gracious Speech and that is the proposals which are the subject of consultation regarding the Government's so-called fast track option for the opting out of voluntary aided schools. Previous speakers have said that the Department for Education and Employment is reneging on its own guidance which states that for major initiatives there should be a minimum of 10 weeks of working days for consultation. The Government have reneged on that by extending the period by one week to five weeks.

I speak on this subject from detailed knowledge, having been chairman of the education committee in Lancashire for 10 years from 1981 to 1991. Lancashire County Council has the largest number of voluntary aided schools in the country. Lancashire County Council has 12 grant-maintained schools and 692 primary and secondary schools—309 are county maintained schools, 309 are voluntary aided church schools and 74 are voluntary controlled or special agreement schools.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon spoke of the anxiety among diocesan representatives and Church authorities the length and breadth of England about any proposal which would discriminate between the parents of children in Church schools and parents of children in other schools. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to parental choice in speaking about the nursery voucher scheme. There would be no parental choice under some of the proposals upon which the Government are currently consulting: namely, shortening the statutory time limit for becoming grant-maintained; removing the need for statutory proposals as well as a parental ballot when schools seek self-government; and, alternatively, merely removing the need for a parental ballot.

The consultation includes the option of removing LEA appointees from governing bodies and arranging for all aided schools to become self-governing, except for those which opt to remain. How can the Government, committed as they are on so many occasions to parental choice, justify consulting on the removal of that parental choice?

However, it is not that particular aspect of the consultation on which I wish to concentrate in this short contribution. My experience is that in cities, towns and county areas there is a long-standing partnership between diocesan education representatives and the elected members and teacher representatives on the education authority. In the county of Lancashire the Churches' contribution through their representation on the education authority covers all aspects of education—the development of nursery education and the development of curriculum initiatives within the local authority. The valuable role that the Churches play in that form in ensuring that the predominant Christian religion, which is the majority religion within the county, plays its full part in the partnership. That is not to the exclusion of representatives of other faiths. In fact, at present there are representatives of two other major world faiths on the education authority.

I am deeply anxious that the proposals on which the Government are consulting so hastily would damage a partnership which has taken decades to build up to its current level. That would lead to a situation in which the consensus, democratic accountability and local co-operation would be fractured. We all know that consensual activity and democratic foundations can be broken far more quickly than they can be rebuilt.

In addition, in the county of Lancashire, as in other areas of the country, there has not been one single shred of support for proposals to rush through and railroad the opting out of voluntary-aided schools into a national system of education.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, speaking in answer to a question posed by my noble friend Lord Dormand, referred to the need to extend the benefits of grant-maintained status to all schools. That speaks of coercion. These are parents, governors and diocesan representatives who surely are entitled to have their views heard logically and calmly. Surely it is possible that the parents, diocesan authorities and teachers who have said no to grant-maintained status have rejected it because they welcome a system which they view as being more advantageous, more enduring and long-standing—that community consensus between Church and local authority. That community consensus has allowed us to build effective SACREs to consider religious education in a multi-faith society based on that original partnership in the education authority and recognising the multiplicity of faiths in our community.

It is possible that the parents to whom the noble Lord. Lord Henley, referred arc parents who wish to retain local consensus, local democratic accountability and the relationships which mean so much to them in so many areas of England. I hope that the fact that that was not included as a specific measure in the gracious Speech means that for once the Government are prepared to listen when such a wide spectrum of the community tells them that they are wrong.

6.6 p.m.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, I welcome the gracious Speech. I was particularly pleased to hear of the continued programme of aid to be focused on the poorest countries to promote sustainable development and good government, including respect for human rights. I consider it essential that increasing emphasis is placed on the promotion of sustainable development throughout the world.

In ensuring that sustainable development is promoted overseas it is important that the domestic dimension is not forgotten. I would have been happier if the gracious Speech had made more explicit mention of the importance of sustainable development at home.

I have been heartened by the recent debates we have held on sustainable development and by our recognition that the environment should be protected and enhanced for future generations. We are all aware of the importance of protecting rainforests or exotic coral reefs abroad. Our national parks may not be as exotic as the environments of some other parts of the world, but they are important nonetheless. Continued support is needed for the good work that is being carried out in the parks as they play a leading role in promoting sustainable development at home.

I look forward to the revised draft guidance relating to sustainable development mentioned by my noble friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside in opening the debate.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I shall try to follow the example of the noble Viscount, but perhaps not quite to the same extent. I am supposed to be winding up the debate but, of course, I shall talk about agriculture. I believe that we need to be reminded of the importance of agriculture because all the talk one hears is about sustainability—whatever that may mean—and about the environment and the preservation of skylarks. I agree entirely with all that, but agriculture remains a vital part of the economy of this country.

We produce three-fifths of the nation's food. Some 600,000 people are employed in agriculture which. with the food and drink industry, accounts for 14 per cent. of employment. There are enormously significant figures relating to the advance of agriculture. For example, in 1974 wheat yields were about four tonnes a hectare; in 1994 they were nearly eight tonnes a hectare. Those figures are enormously important for the economy of the country, the production of food, and feeding the nation. Food exports have doubled since 1973 and the volume of imports has fallen by 10 per cent., but we still have a £6 billion gap which the farmers of this country could fill.

The CAP has been knocked from all sides. The noble Earl. Lord Onslow. spoke rightly about the mess we have regarding the fishing policy. It is in much greater need of reform than the CAP. All parties are agreed that we have to do something about the ridiculous situation which has arisen in the CAP. It mostly arose because, for political and social reasons, the Council of Ministers never listened to the Commission when it sought to do something sensible.

So far as I can see, although there is nothing specific about agriculture in the Queen's Speech, the policy of our Government at present is fairly straightforward. A news release from the MAFF on the committee, set up to look at the CAP and agriculture in general, stated: In particular competitiveness should be promoted through progressive reductions in end price and other production related support". As a farmer one may regard that part of government policy as being not very good. If we are to have a competitive agriculture, we need some bottom end protection for the primary producers in this country. I agree completely that we have to achieve a far more sensible system than we have at present.

The news release states that, Member States are required to define and pursue measures to conserve and enhance the farmed environment, according to their own procedure". I beg leave to doubt whether the Government are as serious about the maintenance of the environment as I should like. The excellent booklet, Rural England—it has a nice picture on the front—referring to England and Wales, is full of good practical sense and practical examples of what should be done in the countryside. However, I deplore the tendency to think that that can be done cheaply or with CAP money. I hope that we shall receive some CAP money but I believe that the governments of the separate countries in Europe need to be firm in their support.

My noble friend Lord Geraint mentioned hill farming. In 1993–94 the Government reduced the subsidy to the poorest parts of the nation; namely, hill farming—in Scotland, it involves 90 per cent. of the agricultural area—by 28 per cent. That does not augur well for the Government's intentions to maintain the environment by means other than producer prices. The hills are the most deserving part of the agricultural environment. The average income of half the hill farmers is less than £10,000 a year. If the Government are serious they must demonstrate the fact by putting their hands in their pocket.

Perhaps I may refer to increasing competitiveness in agriculture throughout Europe. When Hungary, Poland, possibly the Czech Republic, and other eastern European countries eventually get their act together, with their enormous possibilities for increased production—under the socialist system they produced about a third more than now—they will have a certain amount of extra food again. We shall then need some bottom line against the type of dumping that we ourselves do in eastern Europe at present in order to give some stability to the industry.

A great deal of money needs to go into research. Although I have spoken of the surpluses that we may well have when eastern Europe and Russia get their act together, it is true that long term we shall need all the food we can grow. The signs are already apparent. Various international bodies have undertaken studies which indicate that China alone may have to import in the region of 250 million tonnes of grain by 2020. We have always known that with the world's increasing population we shall need food, but we believed that the poor of the world would be unable to buy it. However, in the Pacific Rim the signs are that they will be able to buy, and will need, the food. Therefore, I agree that we must ensure we have a modern, competitive system. We cannot do so by paying grants for hedges or dykes. That will merely be at the edge of the situation; it will make no difference.

Anyone who has anything to do with farming knows that the farmers, landowners, keep up the environment when they can afford to do so. When they have no money, they cannot spend it on the environment. Therefore we must have modern farming. Modern farming needs big fields. I realise that we have lost large numbers of hedges but one cannot turn back the environment and the methods. One has to replace hedges with something else. Let us plant areas of wood around the country which will replace the hedges and provide the environment. We cannot go back to having small fields and many hedges if we are to produce in competition with the remainder of the world.

The research into new methods, the control and improvement of pesticides, needs to continue. One cannot do without it. We cannot return to organic farming throughout the country. There is of course a niche; many people are prepared to pay for it. However, many others are not.

We need to put money into all the areas to which I have referred. I hope that the Government can assure us that they will not dish out pennies for the environment but will ensure that agriculture has a level playing field and can compete on proper terms with the proper backing which government should give it.

6.19 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, your Lordships may recall the title of an agreeable and popular film of recent months, "Four Weddings and a Funeral". The educational proposals in the gracious Speech, which we on these Benches find neither agreeable nor popular, could well be entitled "Three Lame Ducks and a Non-Starter".

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, summed up on agriculture. My noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel spoke at length and learnedly on the environment and local government. I shall confine myself to proposals on education. My noble friend Lord Williams referred to the 1993 Education Act as "the last piece of the elastic jigsaw". What we need is the consolidation of the 36 education Acts since 1944, more than anything new. Does the fiddling and twiddling with the system announced in the gracious Speech mean that consolidation has been postponed for this Session? I hope that the Minister in his reply will be able to tell us.

The schools, the universities, and above all the teachers, hoped at last for a brief period of peace and an opportunity to get back to teaching, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, pointed out to us. But no, there is to be more bureaucracy to install at nursery level, more disruption at secondary level and a depressingly bright idea about student loans.

Let us look at the first lame duck. Last year at the Tory Party conference, the Prime Minister said: I have asked Gillian Shephard to work up proposals to provide places for all four year-olds whose parents wish them to take it up". It is a pity about the grammar, but you get the meaning. What I am doing", he continued, today is giving you a cast-iron commitment that it"— whatever "it" is— will happen". So off went Mrs. Shephard to do as she was told, but it seems without any great success, because, as my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington said, the information pack issued by the DFE on 2nd November states that the voucher gives parents, "no cast-iron guarantee of a place, at least in the first instance". Never mind. The "cast-iron" cliché has survived, even if the cast-iron commitment has somehow been mislaid.

The Government clearly believe that nursery vouchers will be a vote winner: £1,100 dropping through your letterbox just before a general election, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, and just because you have a four year-old. Who could withhold their gratitude? The truth is that vouchers will give most parents money to spend on something that they are getting already. They will not pay for the true cost of nursery education. A full-time place has been estimated as costing £1,590 in a reception class; £2,660 in a nursery class attached to a primary school; and £3,250 in a nursery school. In the independent sector, as was pointed out, it costs more than £4,000 per annum.

Parents will have to search out sub-standard providers or top up their vouchers. It is an experiment with market forces, as my noble friend Lord Ponsonby put it, talking of Wandsworth, of which he knows from first-hand and long experience. Why do the Government not take up the suggestion made by my honourable friend Mr. Blunkett this afternoon to sit down with the LEAs, the private providers and the Pre-School Learning Alliance and work out a sensible system which will guarantee places for all four year-olds?

The voucher scheme will have a minimal impact on the actual provision of pre-school places, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said so clearly. It is aimed only at four year-olds, 91 per cent. of whom already have a place, and it offers nothing to three year-olds, only 45 per cent. of whom have a place.

Can the Minister guarantee that the education of three year-olds will not be affected by this scheme? My noble friend Lord Ponsonby asked him, and I repeat the question. Can he further guarantee that the necessary capital funding will be made available for the infrastructure development and for the training of nursery teachers? Can he deny that, if unit costs are driven down to the value of the voucher, standards will inevitably fall? And can he explain why no one seems to have a clue what quality assurance procedures will be introduced, or what they will cost, or who will pay?

The cast-iron truth is that no one except, presumably, the cast-iron Prime Minister, wants this scheme. Mrs. Shephard herself said on 7th April that vouchers were "not the favoured option", as my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington, reminded us; parents show no enthusiasm for them; and of all the local authorities in this country only four—Wandsworth, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Norfolk—could be persuaded even to give this scheme a trial.

The Government should listen to the voice of the people most concerned; namely, the parents. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that Labour is certainly concerned to encourage education and advice for parents and children—and since his speech I have taken care to procure information which I will give him later. The Government should surely withdraw this scheme and consult more widely before it does irreparable damage to the education of our youngest children.

As the second lame duck, in the sector of secondary education, the gracious Speech brings back on stage, if I may mix my metaphors, the tired old pantomime horse of the grant-maintained school. In his Birmingham speech to the heads of grant-maintained schools, the Prime Minister reiterated his "ambition to press forward with self-government … for more and more state schools". His speech included no less than seven new measures to increase the number of grant-maintained schools and to free up regulations governing their conduct. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us tonight why only two of those seven—on commercial borrowing and property disposals—made it to the gracious Speech. Has the Prime Minister ditched the others, or has the department simply been unable to keep up?

Commercial borrowing will, it seems, be subject to the consent of the Funding Agency for Schools, and the intention is obviously to shift the burden of funding for capital works on to the private sector. The difficulties of the scheme were splendidly observed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon in one of the most penetrating speeches I have heard on education for quite some while.

A commercial loan, of course, requires collateral. The Government propose to allow non-core assets of a grant-maintained school to be used to secure the loan. There are difficulties here. It is not easy to define "non-core assets", especially in the light of current plans to remove the statutory minimum teaching area and recreation space requirements in the school building regulations. Non-core surplus assets might at present include school playing fields if the area of these exceeds the area specified in the school building regulations—and if the statutory minima are removed. who is to say what is surplus? And yet the Prime Minister has said—do we not all remember it?—"I want playing fields kept—and I want them used". Pity, then, the head of a grant-maintained school who might be overheard muttering as he tries to flog off his surplus assets, "Damned if I do, and damned if I don't".

And commercial borrowing is likely to attract higher rates of interest than capital expenditure obtained through current arrangements. Where in this proposal is the value-for-money criterion so beloved by the Government? Quite clearly, schools would have to pay for borrowing out of the money they receive to educate children. And are the Government quite sure that governors of existing grant-maintained schools will look kindly on this measure, especially if it comes to be a substitute for existing access to capital resources?

This measure has been well described as not only inequitable but irrational and inefficient. I wonder how many, if any, heads of state schools will be lured over the brink into grant-maintained status by this feeble little inducement. And how utterly irrelevant it is to the real needs of secondary schools for decent premises, a reliable capital development programme and a fair complement of well-paid teachers. That is what they need, not the ability to crawl off to the bank.

There is one mysterious omission, the non-starter in my title, in the gracious Speech, which again I hope the Minister will be able to explain when he winds up. Throughout September and October the Prime Minister went about with the proposal for a fast track opt-out for voluntary aided church schools, for whom he said that grant-maintained status was the logical choice. Once again, it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon who gave the House the devastating figures involved.

The long-suffering Secretary of State was dispatched to sort it out, and she duly issued a consultation paper on 27th October. Options included the simultaneous transfer of all 3,975 voluntary aided schools to the grant-maintained sector unless governors, not parents, decided otherwise, and the removal of parental ballots in voluntary aided schools. What price parental choice now? What price the promise of the parental ballot in opt-out decisions which is the linchpin of previous packages of promises to parents? They are pie-crust promises. Is it surprising that in 1994/95 only 15 voluntary aided schools held ballots on grant-maintained status and 60 per cent. of them voted against it? The plain fact is that most church schools have chosen to remain in partnership with their LEAs.

Could the resounding silence of the gracious Speech on the fast track proposal have anything to do with the fact that both Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have publicly rejected it? I repeat what my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington has said. The Roman Catholic bishops' conference has said that to deprive parents of their right to ballot is discriminatory and divisive. They are stern words from the bishops. Are the Government so naive and out of touch as to expect that such inane proposals will be greeted by the two fingers of blessing rather than the two fingers of scorn?

The third lame duck limping through the gracious Speech promised legislation to enable students to choose between private and public suppliers of subsidised loans. As my noble friend Lady Farrington has emphasised, the Student Loans Company has not been a shining and conspicuous success. Presumably, the banks who originally refused the job are to be dragooned, coerced or bribed into providing competition, a new choice and a fresh start. Can the Minister in his reply tell the House what rate of interest they will be permitted to charge? As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has said, this legislation will be utterly irrelevant to student needs. I detect a tone of weary despair in the comment of the chairman of the CVCP, Mr. Gareth Roberts. He has said: It is not important to us who owns the debt. What matters is the repayment mechanism, which as it stands is fundamentally flawed. Can the Minister tell the House when there will he legislation to reform the repayment mechanism? Perhaps the take-up rate may then rise.

The three proposals for education legislation are irrelevant, trivial and unimpeachably unimportant. The day after the gracious Speech they were attacked by one critic. He found no merit in the proposal for grant-maintained schools. He said that nursery vouchers would not work without increased funding, and he insisted that local education authorities had vital roles to play. That critic was none other than the chairman of the all-party Education Select Committee, Sir Malcolm Thornton, the Conservative Member for the constituency of Crosby. We on these Benches believe that he has got it just about right.

6.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, put it some hours ago, the menu that has been placed before us is rather complicated, and we have had a rather varied dinner. I will try to address a great many of the concerns that have been put. As a Minister in the newly-merged Department for Education and Employment, I wish to focus many of my comments on areas particularly in the education field.

The Government have emphasised the central role of education in preparing young people for their working lives in an increasingly competitive world. There can be no clearer sign of the importance that we attach to this than the decision of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to combine responsibilities for education, training and the labour market in a single department. The formation of the Department for Education and Employment gives us the opportunity to develop more coherent policies and programmes and to enhance the contribution of education and training to competitiveness. I believe that the merger has been widely welcomed. It was not welcomed initially by the official Opposition though I confess that I am now somewhat confused about their current position on the issue. Perhaps on another occasion noble Lords opposite will wish to inform me of their views.

The new department has been widely welcomed because it brings together all the policies and programmes designed to educate and train young people and adults, and to help unemployed people into work. Not least, it brings together the work of the two former departments on policies that affect the 16 to 19 age group. I hope that in doing so it will very much help us to bridge the academic and vocational gap that has been recognised as a relative weakness in the education and training system for a number of years. I believe that it will now be easier to manage and develop the framework of qualifications across education and training as a coherent whole.

Before I deal with the main education points I should like to make one or two brief remarks. First, I thought that the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that those who made use of the private sector in the educational field had no right to legislate on the state-funded sector was quite ludicrous and bizarre. Will he go on to suggest that those who make use of grant-maintained schools—I believe that there are some members of his party who do so—should similarly not legislate on LEA schools?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, addressed the question of spending. I accept that spending on education and training is a good investment. It is right that we should make that investment, but that does not mean that spending at any level will yield the returns of which the noble Baroness spoke. For example, we know that the level of spending at the recently-closed Hackney Downs School was far higher than anything else in that area, and was probably higher than a great deal of the private sector. That did not necessarily yield a better education for that school, which has had to be closed.

I also turn briefly to the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Morris, that an assurance had been given that there would be no further education legislation in this Parliament, following what was a pretty big Act. I believe that what my former right honourable friend, the then Secretary of State for Education, said was that there would be no further major education legislation in this Parliament. I believe that the proposals announced in the Queen's Speech do not counter that assurance. They are important and valuable in widening choice, but they are relatively limited in scope particularly in comparison with the previous Act; nor do I believe that they affect the desirability of consolidation of education Acts. The noble Lord quoted the number of education Acts that had been passed since the great Education Act ]944. It is not something that the Government will fail to pursue actively.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers dealt briefly in his opening remarks with grant-maintained commercial borrowing, nursery vouchers and student loans. Obviously, those are matters to which we shall turn in greater detail when the appropriate Bills come before the House. I should like to add a few points to what my noble friend said and deal with some of the misconceptions. I also wish to say something about the consultation paper on voluntary aided schools.

It is to the voluntary aided schools that I turn first. We believe that self-government has very clear benefits for schools and the communities that they serve. The performance tables this morning very much demonstrated that. We believe that those benefits are so great that they should in time be extended to all state schools. My department's consultation paper on self-government and voluntary aided schools is part of that process. Aided schools—I hope that the right reverend Prelate will accept that comment—are, we believe, a short step from self-government. It seems right to help them take that step quickly and easily.

But before making any final decisions, as we made clear, we want to hear a wide range of views. That is why we sent out the consultation paper outlining a range of options to well over 4,000 bodies. In the light of their responses we may introduce further legislation in the current Session. But let me make absolutely clear that none of those options is ruled out and none is ruled in. It was a genuine consultation paper. We shall listen to the comments made by the Churches and all others to whom we have sent that consultation paper and no doubt also to others who wish to comment in due course.

Let me say a few words to the right reverend Prelate about borrowing by voluntary aided schools that have become grant maintained. It is not the intention that the legislation should impinge on the rights and duties of trustees of former voluntary grant maintained schools. If the trusts allow, and obviously if the trustees consent, it may be possible for trust assets to be used as security for loans. If not, the school has the possibility of unsecured borrowing. Many grant maintained schools, if their assets are deemed essential to school funding and thus unsuitable to use as security, will be in that position. Therefore they would have to consider unsecured borrowing.

Obviously there has been much said about nursery vouchers. The noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Dormand of Easington, had considerable concerns. As we all know, there is already a wide variety of nursery provision available. We believe that the scheme should encourage that further. Clearly, new providers will not spring up overnight. The Government recognise that provision will be expanded over time. For that reason we started with a pilot before expanding the scheme nationwide. But we are confident that parental demand will stimulate interest in the market in all areas of the country, including the remote rural areas of the right reverend Prelate's diocese. Given time, new providers will come forward in response to that demand, and it will possibly include greater collaboration between the private, voluntary and maintained sectors.

Quality is an important issue, especially since the scheme is concerned with nursery education. All establishments validated to receive the vouchers, no matter to which sector they belong, maintained, voluntary or private, will have to offer a good quality education. They will have to work toward the same educational outcomes and be inspected on the basis of a single inspection framework. Therefore, parents need have no doubts about the quality of the provision that they might take up, no matter which type of provision they choose. The taxpayer will be assured that those places offer good value for money.

The scheme will be funded through a combination of existing local authority funding and new money. We propose to deduct existing local authority funding in such a way that no authority will lose where its schools maintain recruitment by meeting parents' and children's needs. The sum deducted from existing funding will be the voucher value multiplied by the number of four year-olds in maintained provision in the base year. So if an authority continues to recruit the same number of four year-olds, the same sum of money will flow to it through vouchers as was deducted. Therefore there should be no effect on provision for three year-olds. There will also be a significant injection of new money: £150 million to fund places for four year-olds not currently in the maintained sector along with the resources for inspection and administration.

We are convinced that the scheme will open up new and exciting opportunities for both providers and parents. For providers there will be ample scope for innovative partnerships, and establishments in different sectors will be able to work together for mutual benefit. For parents it will mean greater choice—even though the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, does not wish them to have greater choice—between a variety of quality places which meet the needs of their children.

I turn to student loans and the very brief question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and repeated by her noble friend Lord Addington, as to just what benefit they can give to students when they can already borrow from their banks. I stress that this is a scheme to allow them to borrow at subsidised rates from their banks and therefore at a cheaper rate but probably at the same rate as that provided by the Student Loans Company. It will give the students far greater choice. They will have the choice of either the Student Loans Company or banks and will have access to a better, more convenient and more comprehensive service through the lending branch networks of all the major banks. The banks will have the opportunity to tailor their products to the student's needs, so that the student can get exactly what he (or she) believes he needs.

We believe that lending on that scale and of that sort is best done by the private sector. We also believe that it is right to shrink the size of the state. That encourages the private sector to grow, which will lead to a more entrepreneurial and competitive economy. But, as I said earlier, the most important point is that the students themselves will benefit from greater choice and better services.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke of the importance of prevention in terms of stopping young teenage girls from getting pregnant and the problems that can arise. He wrote to me on that subject and, as he knows, I have replied. Obviously, schools can make a vital contribution but we must accept that it will not be possible for schools to solve all society's ills in any sense of the word. However, through their teaching schools can help equip young people with the knowledge and skills that they need to make healthy decisions now and in later life.

I find the noble Lord's views very interesting, though I am not sure that I can accept his figures on the necessary resulting financial costs and benefits. I must make it clear to him that, although the department has no funds directly to fund schemes of that sort, as my honourable friend Mr. Forth made quite clear earlier this year in a letter to the noble Lord, we provide funding for in-service training under the grants for education and training programme—the GEST programme. So schools and local education authorities can purchase in-service training for relationship training.

My noble friend Lord Kenilworth and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, touched on dyslexia and the needs of all those with special educational needs. As one who previously had responsibility for disabled matters in the former Department of Employment and who now has responsibility for disability matters across the whole range of the new merged department, I take with extreme seriousness the matters that they raised. They are very important ones. But the world has moved on considerably since, for example, the great improvements that we made in the 1993 Act and the changes that it made in particular to the statementing process. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will accept the importance of recognition at an early stage. Certainly I should be prepared to listen to any other of his concerns of an up-to-date nature. Obviously they are matters which ought to be addressed, if we can do so.

Let me move on, albeit briefly, from the educational world to some of the other points raised in this wide-ranging debate. I fear that I shall be able to touch on a mere tithe of the points raised. Certainly I have no intention of touching on the merits of beagling and buggery raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. All noble Lords can be assured that, where appropriate, a specific question that I failed to answer this evening in the short time that is available to me will he answered by means of correspondence if that appears to be necessary.

Turning to agriculture, the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, asked why there was no mention in the Queen's Speech of the CAP. Perhaps I may repeat what my noble friend Lord Ferrers had to say. There can be no question about the Government's commitment to reform of the CAP. My noble friend spelt that out in some detail. We will take every opportunity to persuade other member states of the need for change so as to build an efficient, prosperous and outward looking agricultural industry.

Perhaps I may give the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, an assurance of our commitment to those who farm in the hill areas. I speak as one with some small interest in that. We are committed to retaining farming in those areas. In 1996 direct livestock subsidies to farmers in those areas will total more than £615 million. The noble Lord will appreciate that the level of hill livestock compensation allowances in 1996 will, as usual, be announced in the Budget. The noble Lord will not expect me to pre-empt my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness. Lady Hamwee, put forward the idea that the Government's housing White Paper fails to address the problems of homelessness, housing need and poor repair in housing and the problems currently facing homeowners. That is quite ludicrous. On the contrary, the White Paper sets out a range of proposals which take a balanced approach to meeting housing needs. The White Paper makes a firm commitment to the continued provision of social housing over the next three years. On current plans we will provide about 180,000 additional social lettings in line with our estimates of need. The White Paper also sets out the Government's proposal to offer wider choice to social tenants by diversifying ownership of social housing.

Turning to the rural White Papers, I can confirm that there will shortly be similar rural White Papers for both Scotland and Wales. The titles of those have not yet been decided but I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that there is nothing sinister in the use of the word "nation" in the White Paper for England. Perhaps I may refer the noble Lord to a sporting competition. He will know that there is a Five Nations competition in the rugby world. It covers Ireland as a whole, three other nations on the mainland, and France. When the noble Lord suggests that the use of the word "nation" is sinister I say to him that he is inventing fears and raising unnecessary scares.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that the rural Wales White Paper will be entitled Rural Wales a nation committed to a living countryside?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord gives it that title. What I have said is that the two White Papers have not yet been given titles. The title with the word "nation" was given to the English White Paper. I used the analogy of the rugby competition, for which the Government have no responsibility whatever, where the word "nations" is used for the whole of the island of Ireland, the Principality of Wales, the Kingdom of Scotland, the Kingdom of England and the Republic of France. The noble Lord should accept that there is nothing sinister about that.

Perhaps I may also deal with his fears about our attitude to local government. I fail to recognise his description. Central government recognises the need to foster and support local democracy and does not seek to undermine the legitimacy or public standing of the other as an institution. Ministers and the local authority associations continue to develop constructive relationships. On many occasions Ministers address and speak to the various local authority associations. Those relationships have been fostered over the past few years. Guidelines announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in November of last year ensure effective and co-operative relations between central and local government.

In closing, perhaps I may return to the interests of my own department. Over the past 15 years we have achieved a great deal. Even since the late 1980s, when I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, was a member of a local education authority, there has been a transformation. We have moved the education agenda onto the practical issues of standards and choice that are of vital concern to parents, pupils and employers. The national curriculum has been introduced and developed, which was opposed by the party opposite; regular assessment has been introduced for all children at the key stages, again opposed by the party opposite; parents have been given access to information about their children's own performance and the performance of their schools. That has been enhanced by the publication of the performance tables—again opposed by the party opposite but no doubt accepted by the party now as it gradually shifts its ground onto Conservative ground. In The Times yesterday Mr. John Rae said: The publication of academic league tables has probably done more to raise the standards in our schools than any number of educational theories". Further, we have created Ofsted and improved the inspection regime. Schools now expect to be inspected once every four years. The average used to be something of the order of once every 200 years. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, that we are back on track to inspect all schools within that four-year cycle and we have every intention of so doing.

Choice and diversity have also been enhanced. The number of grant-maintained schools has increased from only 10 in January 1990 to more than 1,000 in 1995. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, for repeating the figures in another way. It means that almost one in five secondary children in England are in grant-maintained schools. City technology colleges have also multiplied. Altogether more than 100 specialist technology and language colleges have been established. All these initiatives contribute to raising standards and widening choice.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, mentioned our track record. We have seen a transformation since 1979. Then only 24 per cent. of our young people got five high grade GCSEs or the equivalent; now it is 43 per cent. and growing. Twenty-eight per cent. of our young people now achieve two or more A-levels. That is double the figure of 16 years ago. National vocational qualifications now cover 86 per cent. of the working population. Modern apprenticeships have been launched and businesses have been more closely involved in the development of training policy and provision. In the 1970s, when I went to university, only one in eight young people went on to higher education. Now the figure is nearer one in three and almost 50 per cent. of 18 year-olds can expect to experience some higher education at some point in their lives.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is answering a question which I did not ask. I wonder now whether he will answer the questions I did ask.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned our record and said that we would stand or fall on it. I was putting the record in perspective and making it quite clear that we have seen dramatic improvements. The noble Lord implied the opposite. If I may continue on the subject of higher education, we now graduate a higher proportion of our young people than almost any other country in Europe.

This transformation is still in progress. The formation of the Department for Education and Employment points the way ahead, the way towards integrated policies for education and training from pre-school days, through childhood and youth, and onwards towards a lifetime of learning.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.—(Lord Lucas.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.

House adjourned at two minutes before seven o'clock.