HL Deb 20 May 1997 vol 580 cc263-303

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Wednesday last by Lord Merlyn-Rees—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."

3.7 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, I look forward very much to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside. As an internationally renowned architect of great distinction and with many other interests, I know that he will make a very valuable contribution to our debates.

Looking at the list of Members of your Lordships' House the other day, I was particularly struck by the number of former education and employment Secretaries of State who now grace the Lords. I believe that when the new Members soon to be introduced have taken their seats there will be 13 previous employment or education Secretaries of State in this House. I cannot disguise the fact, nor should I, that 11 of these—or, as my statisticians tell me, 85 per cent.—are on the Opposition Benches. Perhaps there should be a small prize for any speaker who can produce the full list, with dates, before the end of the debate. I particularly look forward to help and support from the two distinguished Labour former Secretaries of State, my noble friends Lady Castle of Blackburn and Lord Glenamara. I am sure that I shall benefit greatly from their wisdom and experience.

I wish to open our debate by saying how privileged I am to be presenting details of the Government's measures—ambitious measures—to improve the standards for all in our education system. It is a privilege not only for me as a member of Her Majesty's Government, but also as someone who has personally spent a number of years—some would say too many years—in the field of education. I am also pleased to be presenting details of three other Bills, to which I shall briefly return later.

I will now turn to the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech: raising standards in education. Oscar Wilde wrote: The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound". I would not go as far as Mr. Wilde. But I would say that urgent and, in places, radical changes are needed to our education system. The government measures before you offer the "change" which is necessary to equip every young person not only for their working lives but for life in the 21st century. As we move towards the millennium, we cannot afford to continue with a second rate education service. Our commitment to achieving a first-class education system can be judged by the speed at which we have secured space in the forthcoming legislative programme.

We have a long and tough journey ahead of us. The measures I shall highlight shortly are pivotal in helping us to prepare for that journey. We must not be side-tracked from our number one priority of raising our education standards.

There are two Bills that we shall introduce: the first will withdraw from the assisted places scheme, in order to pay for smaller class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds; the second will introduce a number of measures specifically aimed at raising standards. As a grandmother, with a five and a half year-old in a primary school, I do not believe that any child of that age should be in a class with more than 30 children in it.

Since the early 1990s we have seen a worrying increase in pupil to teacher ratio and class sizes. In January 1996 around 440,000 five, six and seven year-olds were in classes with more than 30 pupils in England alone—an unacceptable level.

One of our first tasks will be to reduce class sizes for the five, six and seven year-olds. We will finance this through the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. It is right that we use these resources to benefit all children not just the few who benefit from the assisted places scheme. We believe that the money that we save from the assisted places scheme should be used for the benefit of all of our children in those crucial early years of schooling. We should not continue with subsidies for the privileged few to attend private schools. We shall, of course, honour those who have been offered places for entry this September and those already in assisted places can remain. But from September 1998, no further intakes to the scheme will be made. We intend to raise standards in our state schools, not to use scarce resources to buy places in independent schools.

I have mentioned briefly the need to raise standards in education. Raising standards is at the heart of our education policy. This Bill on raising standards, which will follow a White Paper in the summer, will set out government measures particularly aimed at raising standards.

This Government, unlike the last, are totally committed to tackling the poor standards in our schools. We shall "go back to basics" and begin with the three Rs. In last year's national tests only half of our 11 year-olds—finishing their crucial primary school years—reached the standard in maths which is expected of their age group. In English, I am afraid that the story was only marginally better where only 57 per cent. met the required standard.

All of the international indicators show that we are way behind our competitors in the three Rs. We need to bridge that gap. The place to start is in primary schools. We have, therefore, set ourselves demanding, but achievable, targets to respond to poor standards in literacy and numeracy. These targets were announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on 13th May.

It is now time for action. The rhetoric must end. We shall take steps to tackle the weakness in basic skills and raise standards. We shall do so by promoting a firm mastery of mental arithmetic (and ensuring that our children are not over-reliant on calculators), and by improving poor levels of reading by various methods including through the teaching of phonics. We have turned these objectives into targets, targets which are demanding but necessary in order to raise standards. By the time we reach the national tests in 2002 our intention is that 75 per cent. of 11 year-olds will reach the required standards in maths; and for English, 80 per cent. of 11 year-olds will reach the standards expected for their age.

We cannot do that alone. To take forward these ambitious targets, we have set up a Literacy Task Force, and formally established a Numeracy Task Force (both of which will include membership from the field of education). We shall work with LEAs to deliver those performance improvements.

Over time, we shall also ensure that "baseline assessment" is available for all children in the basics of language and literacy, mathematics and personal and social development.

We must also raise the standards for those who have special educational needs. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will agree that each child with special educational needs must be treated as an individual, recognising that the specific needs of those children will vary enormously. All children—and young people—are entitled to an education which gives them an equal opportunity to succeed.

I shall not disguise our commitment to, where possible. integrate children with special educational needs into mainstream schools. Equally we must also recognise that for some children special facilities are essential. In March this year, we published our consultation paper, Every Child is Special, which identified: nine key areas for raising standards of special education". Over the coming weeks we will be explaining how we can raise these standards further. Providing for children with special educational needs is one part, and an essential part, of raising standards for all children.

If I may, I would like to pause at this juncture and mention my department's commitment to helping those with disabilities. As I said earlier, the Queen's Speech sets out an ambitious but achievable programme of legislation. But I accept, of course, that there may be some who are disappointed that the programme does not include a Bill to establish a commission with a disability remit.

Let there be no doubt, that should not be seen as any lessening of this Government's commitment to comprehensive and enforceable anti-discrimination legislation. We shall be consulting widely and developing our proposals in partnership with interested parties. The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment and Equal Opportunities have already begun to meet representatives of disability and business organisations in order to inform their view of the best way forward. We shall build on those initial links.

There has been criticism about the ministerial titles of my honourable friends. I make clear that the Government are not short-changing the interests of disabled people simply because the word "disability" does not appear. Rather, we are strengthening our commitment to the proper representation of their interests by ensuring that they are recognised and taken into account fully across all of our policies and programmes. That is because we believe firmly that disabled people deserve the same access to education, employment and social opportunities as everyone else. They deserve it in their own right. No one should doubt this Government's commitment to working towards that goal.

In the meantime, the Disability Discrimination Act will remain in place. The Government recognise that the Act is flawed. It is neither comprehensive nor easily enforceable. But it is the first legislation of its kind in Europe. Let us be sufficiently open-minded to recognise that there might be useful lessons to learn from these early stages of implementation of the Act, when we come to introduce our own legislation.

The Act's secondary powers also allow us to alter and even broaden the effect of the legislation. We shall want to consider using these powers where they would prove most beneficial; for example, we shall wish to look closely at the current threshold in the employment provisions of the Act.

If I may, I should now like to turn to the issue of failing schools. Our policy statement in the area is quite clear: We will not tolerate failing schools". We have inherited nearly 300 schools which, sadly, are failing. We are determined to get to grips with the issue of failing schools—I am not afraid to say that we shall tackle this head on.

The Government have today identified a number of failing schools—18 of them—which are making limited progress after a considerable period on special measures. We shall be providing extra help for those schools through consultancy from experienced headteachers and through intervention with their LEA. Any failing school which is unable to improve will be closed and a fresh start ordered.

Those schools which are improving will be encouraged and supported in order to continue the improvement. We shall do everything that we possibly can to help those schools succeed. Where good schools co-exist with bad, we shall bring them in to support the "failing school" on a path to success. We have called for urgent action on the schools which are failing and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State gave details of this earlier today.

It would be wrong to join the bandwagon of pundits who see no good in our teachers or their standards. I have no intention of doing so. But we must ensure that where the teaching standards are weak, these are addressed. We shall raise these standards in a number of ways. Perhaps I may give your Lordships two such examples: we shall make provision to establish a general teaching council—similar to that which has been operating in Scotland over the past 30 years—to, "speak for and raise standards in the profession". In addition, the council will be responsible for regulating the teaching profession and for promoting teaching as a career. We shall consult widely on the council's composition and functions.

As I am sure noble Lords will agree, effective leadership by headteachers is a key to raising standards. We shall ensure that headteachers are fully trained to take on the responsibilities placed upon them. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced on 15th May our plans to introduce a mandatory qualification for all new headteachers. In future, no one will be appointed as a new school leader until that person has demonstrated that he or she is fully trained to accept and carry out the responsibilities of leadership. The qualification will be useful to governors when appointing headteachers.

Parents are quite rightly asking for an increasing say in how schools are run. We accept that parents are key stakeholders in their children's education. To respond to this, we intend to increase "parent power". We shall introduce measures which ensure that more parents are appointed as governors and, for the first time, parents will have representation on local education authorities. However, partnership needs to work in both ways. One of our major objectives is to promote a culture of responsibility for learning within the family. We shall do this through contracts between all schools and parents. These contracts, which already exist in a number of schools, will set out roles and responsibilities for each party: parents will be expected to ensure that their children attend school regularly, accept the school's code of contract and support their child's learning. The school will offer suitable and challenging learning and, of course, keep parents informed. Again, we shall be consulting on the precise details.

Although it is not part of this Bill, I should like to mention briefly the Government's plans on nursery education. We have made no secret of our intention to abandon nursery vouchers. We shall honour our commitment to continue with existing vouchers, but no new vouchers will be issued beyond the first term of the school year. However, let me make clear that this Government are committed to ensuring that nursery education is in place for all four year-olds who want it. Targets will also be set for raising standards of our nurseries and we shall extend the entitlement over time to nursery provision for three year-olds. As someone who started her career 30 years ago studying the expansion of nursery education, this gives me enormous personal satisfaction. Further details of our plans for three and four year-olds will be in the forthcoming White Paper.

There has been considerable debate recently about the most effective school structures—grant maintained, selective and so on. Unlike our predecessors, this Government's priority is standards, not structure. We spent far too much time over the past decade in unproductive wrangles about structure. They have caused nothing but division and bitterness and have wasted energy and effort which could have been put to much better use. We want to put all that behind us. Our concern is to ensure the best possible quality of teaching and learning in every school. To do that teachers, governors and others will have to be involved in the whole process. The Government have made clear that they intend to introduce a new framework of foundation, community and aided schools which will better promote those wider objectives of raising standards. The framework will replace grant-maintained status and will incorporate existing grant-maintained schools. These plans were set out in our policy paper, Diversity and Excellence. We shall include provisions to implement these proposals and to repeal the existing legislation on grant-maintained status.

We shall be issuing further details of the proposals as soon as possible. They will be worked up in consultation with the partners concerned, including the GM sector itself. We stated in our manifesto that GM schools will prosper in this new framework, as will every school. There are some excellent GM schools, just as there are many excellent LEA schools. We welcome, and want to work with, all those who are prepared to work with us. We want to foster and encourage excellence wherever it occurs, irrespective of legal status and artificial boundaries. Any talk of abolishing GM schools is nonsense. GM schools will continue to serve their local communities, and will have the same opportunities as all other schools to flourish in the new environment.

The education of our nation should not stand still. We must learn throughout life to retain employment through new and improved skills. We shall promote "continuous learning" in the workplace and, through the further education sector, we shall support broader A-levels and upgraded vocational qualifications. Employers have the primary responsibility for training their workforce, but individuals should be given the power to invest in training. We shall invest public money for training in "individual learning accounts". We shall kick-start this innovative programme by helping up to 1 million—yes 1 million people—by providing a contribution of £150, alongside a small investment from the individual. We shall encourage employers to make voluntary contributions to these funds. Our new "University for Industry" (collaborating with the Open University) will bring new opportunities to adults who wish to develop their potential further. The University for Industry will be a public/private partnership, commissioning software and developing the key links to extend lifelong learning.

And we shall not forget our children as they get older. As they near school leaving age, they have vital decisions to make and many routes that they can take. We are committed to giving them every assistance and the Bill will introduce measures to improve vocational training. It will provide far more experience for 14 to 16 year-olds and give young people in work the right to continue their studies. After all, this age group is the vanguard of the taskforce of young people for the next century.

The previous Government's policy on student loans and fees was unfair and unwieldy. We have submitted evidence to Sir Ron Dearing's National Committee of Inquiry. In line with our manifesto commitment we would like to improve and expand higher education, funded by the repayment of the costs of student maintenance by graduates on an income-related basis with longer payback periods. We await with great interest Sir Ron's findings.

At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned three Bills which will be taken forward by the Department of the Environment. There will be a Bill to deal with the phased release of set-aside capital receipts. As I said in my opening remarks, the Local Government (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill will enable the Government to fulfil our manifesto commitment to the phased release of these capital receipts from the sale of council houses. It will amend the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to enable the issue of supplementary credit approvals which take account of capital receipts set aside for the repayment of debt. This is a major breakthrough to free local authorities from the shackles.

The Regional Development Agencies Bill to establish regional development agencies will fulfil our manifesto commitment to support local economic growth. The agencies will have a range of functions, including encouraging inward investment and helping small businesses. I know that my noble friend Lady Hayman will say more about that later. The Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill will provide for an assembly and a mayor for London, both directly elected if Londoners vote in favour, as we expect they will.

As regards agriculture, there are a number of measures we shall be pursuing including measures on BSE. We shall make early progress on the lifting of the export ban on British beef. The Government will pursue further reforms to the common agricultural policy in order to provide more effective support for farming communities and to redirect CAP funds for the benefit of the broader rural community. The common fisheries policy requires a long overdue change. We shall explore measures to achieve a more effective conservation of fish stocks; we shall also safeguard the future of our fishing industry.

As I mentioned at the start of the debate, I am privileged to be opening the debate for the Government—the first debate by a Labour Minister of education or employment for the past 18 years in this House. Eighteen long years have passed and the new Government need to act quickly to reverse the trend in falling standards in our schools. The government measures aimed at raising these standards are at the heart of the Queen's Speech. All of the measures—ambitious measures by anyone's standards—we have set out in the forthcoming legislative programme. They confirm our commitment to start immediate work in raising standards in education, health, employment and other priority areas.

3.33 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I start by saying how much we on this side of the House look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside. I thank the noble Baroness for providing me with what I hope might in future be some valuable information; namely, that there are some 13 previous Secretaries of State for either employment or education in this House and fortunately 11 are or will be on this side of the House. I dare say that with the burden of legislative business coming from her department over the following years I shall find those 11 extra colleagues of considerable use. I shall certainly seek their expertise.

I repeat the congratulations I offered to the noble Baroness and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on their first performance in a major debate. I served some two years in the now merged Department for Education and Employment, from the merger until the election. It was a job that I greatly enjoyed and I was greatly honoured to have been asked to do it. I dare say that the responsibilities I had are somewhat different from those of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, but I am sure that she will find that job equally exciting and stimulating. I am sure that she will also find all those in the merged department wonderful people to work with who will be enormously helpful.

I do not envy the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, her new role in environment, transport, the regions and, dare I say it, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. I think she will find herself, as the Lords' spokesman for such a large department, at the Dispatch Box far far more often than she cares to think. The Government in both their manifesto before the election and in the gracious Speech put education very much at the top of their priorities. I, because of my former responsibilities and my responsibilities on the Opposition Front Bench, intend to concentrate my remarks on education. When my noble friend Lord Lucas speaks towards the end of the debate he will deal with some of the other matters that have been raised by the noble Baroness and will also respond to some of the points relating to those other departments.

Before I get on to education matters I wish to say a word or two about disability matters because the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, raised them. As I said yesterday, I welcome the fact that the disability unit and all disability matters have been brought into the merged Department for Education and Employment. That is a welcome step and it is a much more appropriate site for such matters than the Department of Social Security. Although I do not agree with the analysis of the noble Baroness as regards the Disability Discrimination Act being an inadequate Act, I welcome the fact that she gave some reassurance that she would see that that Act was given time to work and that lessons were learnt from that Act so that disabled people could benefit as much as possible and play as full a part in society as they ought.

Raising educational standards is a good on which we can all agree. Obviously where we differ is on the means of achieving that good. I wish to say just a little about what we have achieved over the past 18 years. I do not believe that those achievements have been recognised by the party opposite. I think we have achieved a great deal. We have seen some great changes in the world of education. We, when in government during those 18 years, quite rightly pursued a policy of extending choice to parents and creating greater diversity in education; of delegating power to schools to allow them to develop as they wished; and of creating a whole range and variety of different types of schools allowing parents greater choice over which of those types of school they would like to make use of.

At the same time we brought in mechanisms to ensure that standards were maintained, with a national curriculum covering the whole of England and Wales and with proper and regular inspection by a new independent inspectorate. I remind noble Lords that before we had that new independent inspectorate in the form of Ofsted, secondary schools could expect to be inspected something in the order of once every 60 years. With the creation of Ofsted we saw every school being inspected, roughly speaking, once every four years. If the noble Baroness likes to complain about the number of failing schools, at least we now know they were failing. Before we had Ofsted we did not know that.

We saw the creation of local management of schools delegating power to schools. We saw the creation of grant-maintained schools. We saw the creation of the specialist colleges specialising within the national curriculum in languages, sport, the arts and technology. We saw the creation of city technology colleges. We have not heard from the Government what their plans are on the city technology colleges. We have heard some rumours that they wish to see them go, but again I would welcome assurances from the noble Baroness when she replies to the debate that that is not the case. We saw the creation of the assisted places scheme, a scheme of which we are proud, which allowed many children from less well off families to experience education other than in the maintained sector—in the private sector. I shall have more to say about that in the future.

We saw more information provided to parents through prospectuses and the performance tables that we have now extended to the primary schools. Against the opposition of the party opposite and much of the Leftist education establishment, we saw testing extended to all seven, 11 and 14 year-olds, and the results of those tests made available to parents so that the parents could make a proper, informed choice about the appropriate school for their child. They would know exactly how their child and the school were performing in relation to others rather than simply having an LEA impose a school on the parents with the only choice thereafter being brought about by moving—that is, choice by mortgage—rather than through proper parental control.

Despite the rhetoric of the claims made by the party opposite over the years, our reforms were yielding considerable results. There was a steady increase in the results at GCSE. Much the same applied to the results at A-level. Despite what some critics say, standards were not declining. We saw new qualifications such as the GNVQ designed to bridge the academic vocational gap. We saw that qualification increasingly recognised as a means alongside A-levels for entry into university. We have seen the numbers of 18 year-olds going to university double and double again during those allegedly sterile years. We now have almost one in three 18 year-olds going on to university; and one in two can expect some degree of higher education at some point in their lives.

Yet the manifesto of the party opposite on higher education could only say that South Korea sends a higher percentage of its children to universities. It did not mention comparative graduation rates. When the noble Baroness winds up, I shall be interested to know what they are. Nor did the manifesto mention that, after Denmark, we have the second highest graduation rate in Europe. That is an achievement of which we can be very proud indeed.

In the gracious Speech the Government stressed the priority of education. As I said earlier, that is not one with which we can argue. Two Bills were promised in the gracious Speech: first, a Bill to cut class sizes by abolition of the assisted places scheme; and, secondly, a Bill which will, contain further measures to raise educational standards, develop a new role for local education authorities and parents, establish a new framework for the decentralised and equitable organisation of schools, propose reforms to the teaching profession, and respond positively to recommendations from the National Committee of Inquiry into the future of higher education". I wish to press the noble Baroness on a number of aspects relating to the proposed legislation. First, as regards the assisted places scheme abolition Bill (whatever it may be called), last Wednesday the Lord Privy Seal mentioned that there would be two Bills requiring our agreement before the Summer Recess: that relating to the referendums on devolution and another concerning the assisted places scheme. We had an assurance, I think last Thursday, given by the leader in another place that, although the usual time limits will not be adhered to with regard to the referendums Bill, that will not be a precedent for other Bills. I take it, therefore, that the Government will adhere in this House and in another place to the proper minimum intervals as laid down in the Companion to the Standing Orders and will not attempt to railroad this measure through without proper parliamentary scrutiny. I take it that the noble Baroness will be able to give me that firm assurance and that the measure—although the Government will try to make it sound deceptively simple, it is not that simple; it affects a great many people—will have proper parliamentary scrutiny in this House and in another place.

That brings me to my second question relating to the assisted places scheme and the Government's proposals. The gracious Speech said that the Government would cut class sizes, using the money saved as a result of their phasing out of the assisted places scheme. How much money do the Government believe will be saved? When the noble Baroness replies, will she give me the proper net figure after the cost of absorbing the extra children from the assisted places scheme into the LEA schools, into the maintained schools? Will she also tell us how long it will be before those savings come through? How many extra teachers will the savings pay for? By my fairly simple reckoning, with matchsticks, it will be just a small number of extra teachers for each local education authority. What effect will that have?

Further, how will the legislation enforce the proposal? Will it become illegal to have classes with over 30 children? Will parents who wish to send their child to a popular school be turned away from that school in order to keep the numbers artificially down, forcing those parents to use schools which they do not wish to use? I should like the noble Baroness to tell us a little about the mechanics of the Bill and the Government's proposals.

I turn now to the second Bill and the manifesto commitments of the party opposite, now the Government. We are promised a further Bill to raise standards. Despite the stress laid by new Labour on education, one cannot help but fear what the reality will be. Labour, new, old and, dare I say it, very old, has been running education in some local education authorities for years. The results, I think that all of us would agree, are not happy. When the noble Baroness responds, will she list the 10 worst performing local authorities? I suspect that all of them will be traditional Labour strongholds.

If one takes Islington, why is it that 43 per cent. of all parents, including the Prime Minister, choose to send their children out of the borough? Indeed, will it even be possible for them to do so under the new legislation?

Obviously I do not wish too much to hark back to the past and to all the Leftist dogmas in education which have been supported by Labour and by its fellow travellers over the past 30 years. I wish to look at what is being proposed and to ask a number of questions. We are now promised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, a White Paper followed by a Bill. I dare say that much of it will build on what is in the manifesto. Much of that we can support, because much of it we have already initiated or encouraged schools to do. I note that the manifesto refers to earlier assessment of children, better basic teaching, grouping of pupils by ability, and attainment in primary and secondary schools. That must have stuck in the throats of quite a few members of new Labour, or even old Labour. But it is something that we have encouraged for some time. The manifesto refers to better testing and assessment, with target setting of approved results. Again we have been doing that for some time and have encouraged it. Much of this comes pretty oddly from the mouth of Labour, old or new.

However, there is much else that fills one with considerable disquiet or even alarm. I shall list some aspects. Are the remaining grammar schools really safe, as was implied during the election? Already we have CASE (the Campaign for State Education), with Labour activists in some areas gearing up to attack the remaining grammar schools. What support will the Government provide, or will they allow the elections to be so rigged against the schools that they disappear? The manifesto merely says that their future is up to the parents affected. I shall be interested to know how those parents affected will be defined. Will they be defined in somewhat wider terms than in, say, the referendums on devolution? I understand that only those in Scotland will be allowed to vote in Scotland but not those with wider interests. I dare say that as regards grammar schools and elections the definition of parents affected will go considerably wider than parents with children at the school.

What about the Government's plans for partially selective schools, in particular those in the grant-maintained sector? What are their plans for the specialist schools? Will the schools still be allowed to select on ability or aptitude within their own areas? What about the grant-maintained schools generally? We are told that they will still exist. However, what we know from government intentions is that they are to be emasculated and returned to local education authority control.

That brings me to the vital question: what exactly is the new role that is promised for the local education authorities; and, dare I say it, will that new role also apply to Islington and other such authorities?

Returning to the manifesto, what is the better homework provision? How on earth will that be enforced? Is it even a matter in which governments should be involved? Is it not far better left to the schools themselves to achieve?

Finally, what changes are proposed for A-levels? The Government have threatened changes; they have threatened to widen the scope of A-levels. But do they not accept the Dearing recommendations of barely two years ago which left them as they are but with a number of changes?

Those are just some of the questions that I wish to raise. No doubt I, my 11 colleagues and many others will wish to raise a great many more in the course of the debates on the education Bills that we face over the coming years. No doubt the noble Baroness, myself and others will have many a late night debating some of those measures. Over the past few years in government I have become rather used to late nights. I certainly welcome the opportunity to allow both noble Baronesses the opportunity to get used to them in exactly the same way.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I begin, a little unusually, by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to the Opposition Benches. It is a somewhat unusual experience for me to see him in profile rather than, to borrow the Minister's phrase of yesterday, full frontal. I am not sure it is a terribly great improvement.

I listened with care and interest to all the noble Lord's remarks. As I have said before, it is often easier to agree in Opposition about those matters to which we are opposed than about those upon which we agree. The noble Lord made a few remarks with which I am in agreement and I shall turn to them later. I listened to his perhaps inevitable comments on the achievements of the past 18 years. I believe that those achievements came about more in spite of, than because of, the previous Government. As the noble Lord rightly said, there were achievements. However, life was certainly not made easier for the education world.

Today I want to look to the future, not to the past. I am sure that that will be the tone of the debate. I wish to begin—the latest in a long line of people—by offering the Minister very warm and sincere congratulations on her appointment. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady David, she and I were at the University of Sussex a week ago today. We had lunch with the vice-chancellor and a number of his staff. I am sure the noble Baroness will bear me out when I say that there was a very warm welcome for the Minister's appointment—not, I hasten to say, on party political lines but because, to use their words, "she is one of us; at least she is from our sector of education, someone who knows and understands the issues and problems involved and will know what she is talking about".

I am sure I do not need to remind the Minister that with that warm welcome come high expectations. I do not need to tell her that to fulfil those high, perhaps unreal, expectations will be a very tough job indeed. However, to the extent to which she tries to fulfil those expectations she will certainly receive the support of the Liberal Democrat Benches and we will do all that we can to support her.

The fulfilment of some of those expectations will depend upon the recommendations in the Dearing Report, of which we shall no doubt hear more later in the Session. At this stage, I welcome the Government's commitment at least to a positive response to those recommendations. Clearly, our debate will be better informed when we see exactly what they are.

I am also very pleased to see the Government recognising at the start of their term the importance of life-long learning. I welcome the statements made by the Minister herself on that subject, on the importance of making life-long learning accessible to all, about breaking down the barriers. She, better than most of us, knows the importance of that. Given her background, I should expect no less; nevertheless I welcome it.

I also welcome her comments today about disablement—and the transfer of the disability unit to her department—which we, too, wholly support—and her determination to tackle discrimination in the area of disability. It is a subject of particular interest to me because my late but not lamented Member of Parliament had some part in scuppering the original Private Member's Bill in another place. We have felt deeply ashamed of that ever since. Therefore any measures that can be taken to tackle the issue will receive a warm welcome from us.

The gracious Speech expresses almost at the outset the commitment: The education of young people will he my Government's first priority". It is a priority that we share, as it is, I am sure, on all sides of the House. We recognise that the Government have got off to a cracking start. The first 10 days have gone at a phenomenal pace which I suspect will not be maintained even for the first 100 days, never mind the next five years. Speaking personally, I hope that the pace is not maintained; if it is, I believe some of us will struggle to keep up. But in a sense the first 10 days are the easy part, as I am sure Ministers will recognise. It may not feel easy to them, given the rapid learning curve they face; however, it is the easy part. We come soon to the real challenges.

One of the main challenges is to change the climate in education. If the Government are to succeed in the endeavours shared by all of us they must change that climate from one of blame to one of shared responsibility. Any approach must work in partnership with all sectors of education and all those in education. I recognise that to be the intention of the Government—certainly their stated intention. The Secretary of State got off to a good start in two ways. The first was his meeting with all the DfEE staff. I was not there, but from all reports it seems to have gone very well, as I am sure was recognised. It is clearly impossible for him to meet specifically with all the other people in the education world. However, his letter to head teachers and governors set the right tone and that is welcome too.

We also welcome and support the setting of targets. It is important to have standards of measurement. However, I have some worries. I see some clouds on the horizon. I wish to caution the Government, in their enthusiasm for raising standards and achieving targets, against being over-prescriptive and over-controlling from the centre. It is a very easy trap into which to fall, albeit from perhaps the best and most benevolent of motives.

I feel uneasy about even the description, "failing schools". I wish to examine more closely the announcement that I understand is being made today about the naming of 18 such schools. While I do not doubt the intentions behind that, I worry about the fulfilment of those intentions. Inevitably, there is a little too much "name and blame" in that approach, a little too much recrimination. While I know that heads are enormously important to the management and success of schools, I am instinctively wary of so-called "super" heads. Most heads are super in some way or another and that worries me. I fear that at least part of that approach is motivated by a desire of the Government to be seen to be tougher than the Tories. I very much hope that I shall be proved wrong. We shall wait and watch with interest, but with some concern, especially if the measure is to extend beyond 18 schools.

I worry about the over-prescriptive inclinations of the Government. My worries were enhanced when I read the article in the Independent on 23rd February this year in which the now Secretary of State said that he intended to, lay down from the centre exactly how reading should he taught". We heard again today about the Government laying down regulation regarding minimum homework levels, and so on. All of us, as parents, grandparents, school governors or even sometimes in the education profession, will have personal views about what is appropriate in terms of the teaching of reading, the amount of homework set and so on. But it is not for us as politicians to be prescriptive. It is for teachers to teach, not for politicians to tell them how to teach and how to organise their classes. It is our job as politicians to set the policy framework, to determine the priorities and targets we wish to see achieved and, above all, to provide the resources to enable our professionals to do the job for which they are trained. Ultimately, it is not politicians who will raise education standards, it is our teachers. We need to give them the tools and the climate in which to succeed.

There is tremendous good will for the Government in the education world. If we are to succeed in our common objectives, the Government must build on that good will and treat teachers, governors, schools and local education authorities as equal partners who deserve to be listened to and heard. There is a difference.

In that context, we would certainly welcome the establishment of a general teaching council. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will remember a debate in this House not long ago, in the not too early hours of the morning, on exactly that subject. I suspect that the noble Lord will recall that in rejecting my amendment he prayed in aid the fact that there was not general agreement on the nature of a general teaching council, and, furthermore, perhaps more surprisingly, the National Union of Teachers appeared not to be wholly in favour. I commented at that time that it must have been the first time in 18 years that the then Government had prayed in aid the National Union of Teachers and delayed going ahead with very necessary measures because "there was not general agreement". Nevertheless, that is in the past, and we shall not dwell on the past.

During the election and subsequently, the now Prime Minister said that he had three top priorities: education, education, and education. The Liberal Democrats share those priorities and we have an equal commitment to the three "Rs"—our three "Rs"—resources, resources and resources. While partnership is vitally important, so too are resources. All the fine intentions cannot be fulfilled without additional resources. Yet the Government are committed to keeping within the previous Government's spending plans, at least for the next two years. That means less money, not more money, for education in the coming financial year. That is one pledge from opposition that I fervently hope that the Government will break.

I recognise though that the Government are committed over time to increasing the share of gross domestic product spent on education. But an increase of 0.1 per cent.—the lowest perceptible increase in gross domestic product—will mean an additional £3 billion a year to be spent on education. My party and I will be the first to welcome that, if and when it happens. The nation expects it to happen; education deserves it to happen. We need to know from the Government where that money will come from, given the commitments they have made elsewhere. I have said many times in this Chamber that the problems in education cannot be solved simply by throwing money at them. But I have always matched that by saying that they will not be solved without that additional money.

I turn now to the specific proposals: first, the assisted places scheme. We welcome the proposals to phase out the scheme. One reason why I personally welcome it is because presumably this is the last year when we will have to go through the ritualistic annual debate on the subject where we all try to find different ways of saying the same things. Education spending is about priorities. All spending is about priorities, particularly education. Spending money, scarce resources, on a relatively small number of people cannot be the right priority. Reducing class sizes must be a higher priority. So we wholly support the Government's intentions there.

But why only class sizes for five to seven year-olds? I accept that if we can only have part of the cake, that is the right place to start. But what happens to children when they reach the age of seven? Here perhaps I should declare an interest. I am governor of a junior school which caters for children from the ages of seven to 11. But that is a problem which the Government need to recognise and address. What will happen to children at the age of seven, whether they move to a different junior school or simply progress to a primary school? If they deserve smaller classes at the ages of five to seven, equally they deserve smaller classes at ages seven to 11 and beyond. We need to reduce class sizes for all children, and that is a commitment which my party has made.

I said at the beginning that there were some remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, with which I agreed. His comment about the funding of the reduction in class sizes was one of them. I do not believe that the money which will be released from the assisted places scheme will be enough to provide for the full funding and the full consequences of reducing class sizes to 30. It is not simply about having more teachers, although we need to know where they will come from and how their training will be paid for. It is about providing more classrooms and in some cases more schools. So the costs—welcome though the expenditure will be—are considerable and the money to be released over a long period from the assisted places scheme will simply not he enough.

We are promised a White Paper on educational standards which we shall read with interest. Much of what has been trailed for the contents of that White Paper we welcome. I have already welcomed the general teaching council and we welcome the requirement for qualifications for head teachers, provided it is linked with proper support and training, not only for head teachers but for all teachers, especially those who wish to become head teachers.

In connection with the White Paper, one part concerns me: the publication date and, more particularly, the consultation period which I understand is likely to be throughout the school holidays. That seems an unfortunate time in which to consult on something so important for the future of education. If most of those mainly affected by the changes are taking their well earned annual holiday, it does not seem to be a good start for a government who, I believe and accept, are genuinely committed to full and proper consultation. There have been humorous remarks about sending the consultation paper to camp sites and gites in France. But it is a serious point. I hope that the Government will consider not necessarily delaying publication of the White Paper but at least allowing a consultation period that recognises reality and enables those most concerned to respond.

We welcome the abolition of nursery vouchers. I listened to what the Minister said and I will read carefully the Official Report tomorrow. It was not clear to me exactly when the vouchers are to be abolished, nor indeed how. I hope that we shall have further clarification.

We welcome the commitment to provide nursery education for all four year-olds, but that is a very modest commitment given that for most four year-olds it is already available. The commitment needs to be to high quality nursery education for all three year-olds as well as four year-olds. That was and remains a top priority for the Liberal Democrats and we were committed to funding it. I hope that the Government will soon recognise that they too should be committed to funding it.

There is one other major issue I wish to mention. It is of considerable importance in the part of London from which I come as it is for local education authorities in much of outer London, around London and in other metropolitan areas. It is something known as the "Greenwich judgment", the judgment which forbids LEAs from giving priority to children in their own area. It is causing major problems to LEAs in all parts of the country of all political complexions, including the still relatively small number of Conservative LEAs. I had some correspondence on the subject with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, when he was Minister. If I remember correctly, his refusal to do anything about it was because, first, he did not recognise that it was too much of a problem and, secondly, because of the Government's misguided but understandable concerns about grant-maintained schools. The present Government clearly do not share that priority and I hope that they will give a commitment to reversing the Greenwich judgment. If that is not possible or they are not willing to act, I hope that they will look seriously at regularising and rationalising the arrangements for school admissions which are causing enormous heartache to parents in many areas who need to have it sorted out.

There are many other issues in education on which I should touch, but I will take no more time except to say that I recognise that the Government have a mandate for their education policies. I hope that the Government will recognise that the Liberal Democrats also have a mandate for their own educational policies. My 46 honourable friends in another place were all elected on a very high profile pledge to increase resources for education, if necessary through taxation. We shall use that mandate on every occasion to press the Government to provide the resources necessary to do the job.

Promises without a price tag are meaningless. It will be the job of the Liberal Democrats, with our increased mandate, to ensure that the Government meet the price of their promises.

4.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, I begin by saying that I look forward with anticipation to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, who is to speak immediately after me.

I welcome the pre-eminent place given to education in the gracious Speech. Our nation faces a number of difficult issues in the years ahead, including the future of work. I believe that those issues are capable of resolution, given a society of men, women and young people for whom lifelong learning is a habit and an expectation. I wish the new administration well in their task. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, on her appointment in the Department for Education and Employment and also the noble Baroness the Minister who will reply to the debate.

The contribution of the voluntary sector to the maintained system of education is massive. At the primary level, a third of all schools and a quarter of all pupils are in the voluntary sector. The contribution at secondary and higher education levels is also considerable. Those of us with responsibilities in that sector, not least those in the Churches, share the aims of the Government to raise standards. We look forward to working in partnership to realise those aims.

The gracious Speech sets out some of the ways in which the Government propose to deliver means for achieving those aims. The emphasis upon cutting class sizes is to be welcomed, especially at the primary level. I regret that there has been little emphasis as yet upon parents as first educators. I listened carefully to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, when she spoke about parents and contracts with schools. I did not hear the emphasis for which I hoped; namely, that it is not only within educational institutions that learning is delivered, particularly in the very early years when basic language is learnt.

Nevertheless, the significance of primary education cannot be over-estimated. I beg to differ slightly from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in that I believe that the infant years of five to seven have a particular importance and that the necessity of proper support and provision at that stage cannot be over-estimated. I certainly would wish class sizes at that level to be smaller than those for higher age groups. In those years are learnt the skills upon which all learning depends: the skills of literacy and numeracy. Without those basic acquisitions, a child cannot move on to other forms of learning. The need for proper staffing at primary level, and particularly infant level, is paramount.

As we heard, that is to be achieved by phasing out the assisted places scheme. The Churches' view on this proposal is divided, not least because many of the independent schools are Christian foundations. Therefore, I simply give my own view on this matter, which is that whatever position is taken about assisted places, if priorities have to be chosen, the provision of support in primary schools must come first. However, I echo the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Tope, that the arithmetic must be made to add up and must include the additional resources which will be required in the maintained sector for those who, under the present assisted places scheme, might have been in independent schools.

The emphasis upon standards, made so strongly by the previous Government and echoed by this one, is right. But standards at every level will depend upon standards of literacy and numeracy. Many of the proposals which have been made by the Government will receive support certainly from me and I expect from others on the Episcopal Benches of your Lordships' House. We opposed the Bill to launch the nursery voucher scheme without proper trial and we look forward to its abolition. I welcome the words of the noble Baroness the Minister about special educational needs. I believe that the voluntary sector should play a full part in giving provision for those who have such needs. I was glad to hear the emphasis on the standards expected from heads and hope that the training that they are given will include not merely educational training but some emphasis upon other aspects of education, particularly upon values, morality and spirituality. I shall return to that point in a moment. We support strong action to deal with failing schools and look for Church involvement when those schools are Church schools.

I am glad to note the new role intended for local education authorities. I hope that it will mean that the equivocal and indeed at times inconsistent attitudes of the past will be replaced by clear responsibilities and clear support. In the Church of England we have had good relationships between local authorities and diocesan directors of education. Other providers of voluntary education on the whole have the same experience. I spoke earlier this year to the Society of Education Officers, and to many chief education officers. I stressed to them the theme of partnership. We look forward to developing that further with local education authorities.

There are certain omissions in the gracious Speech, notably any reference to further education institutions. I listened carefully to the words of the noble Baroness the Minister and will read in Hansard tomorrow exactly what she said. The further education sector is the largest of all the education sectors. It is a sector which is often unrecognised and hugely underfunded. I have spoken at length with principals of some of those institutions and know the sense of anger which is around in many of them. For them, to talk of higher standards must seem like a shadow. They will be hard put to it to maintain standards, let alone increase them.

Arguably, the chief means by which the Government will have to achieve their aims in education are raising the morale of the teaching profession. In past years there has been a mood—again, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope—of placing upon schools the responsibility, indeed blame, for the ills of our society. It is a mood not calculated to encourage existing teachers nor good recruits to the profession. We all work best with affirmation and clear responsibilities. I sense in the educational journals that I am reading at the moment a new mood of optimism in the teaching profession. The Government will need to work creatively to sustain that mood. I, like others, welcome the possibility of a general teaching council. I have been glad with others in the Churches to have been involved in the preparations for such a council. I look forward to the Bill which will bring about that much needed and long awaited professional body. But raising morale will depend upon consistency and stability in government legislation. In the past, far-reaching and swift changes in funding, curricula and management have not helped morale.

There has been mention of the number of Members of your Lordships' House who have been Secretaries of State for Education. I dare offer the comment that that may be because the post holder has changed with greater frequency than was hoped. Perhaps I may dare hope that the present Secretary of State will remain in post long enough to provide that much needed stability.

I understand the desire of the Government to hit the ground running—a phrase of whose background I am not quite aware but I understand its intention. I hope that that desire will not conflict with the Government's intention to consult fully. Some of those in education remember the awful summer of 1987 before the 1988 Act. We trust that there will be no repeat of that experience.

The Churches continue to be committed to a share in the provision of education in the maintained sector; but we have anxieties. They include the need for recognition of the significance of the voluntary sector and the need for consultation. We wish to ensure that the role of the Church is preserved, for instance, in the future status of voluntary controlled schools. We wish to maintain the Church interest in former Church-aided and controlled schools that have become grant maintained. We look forward to consultation upon those and other issues.

In recent years there has been a growing debate in the areas of values, morality and spirituality and, indeed, a recognition of the significance of belief systems if we are to live with purpose and understanding. Those areas are central to an understanding of education in its widest sense. In that "widest sense" I include personal growth as well as the skills needed for employment. Church schools—many of them extremely popular schools as well as being excellent ones—have been at the forefront of this debate and we look forward to their continuing development. There is no such thing as value-free education; that has been one of the recognitions of the years immediately past.

I am glad to note that the Government have accepted the SCAA document on values. Though the Churches have been critical of certain aspects of it, nevertheless, we welcome the consensus achieved and look forward to the continuing discussion which may sharpen its thrust.

We in the Churches look forward to a constructive, creative and perhaps at times critical engagement with the Government in all areas of education. They are of supreme importance to our society and to the individuals who comprise it.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Rogers of Riverside

My Lords, in addressing your Lordships' House for the first time, perhaps I may begin by saying how much I appreciate the warm welcome that I have been given by noble Lords. As a newcomer my entry has been made much easier by the kindness and helpfulness extended to me, making my presence here much easier. As an architect, I have chosen to talk about cities, which are by their nature not totally uncontroversial. I hope that I shall be forgiven if encroach into certain political areas.

Cities are the cradles of our civilisation and the pinnacle of man's cultural and social achievement. They are the places where people come together and minds meet; where ideas take shape and gather momentum. Our future economic, cultural and social wealth are even now being determined by the interaction of people and ideas in our cities.

Cities have the power to humanise or to brutalise. They are made by people and people get the cities that they deserve. If we want them to humanise, we must plan them that way. If we want to plan, we must start with a vision and some values. By way of a vision, let me offer the oath of citizenship pledged by the ancient Athenians: We will leave this city not less but greater, better and more beautiful than it was left to us". But what makes a city greater and better? What kind of city should it be? I suggest that it should be a just city where shelter, education, health, justice and hope are equitably distributed and where all people participate in their government. It should be a diverse yet compact city which protects the countryside and allows people to live in reasonable proximity to their work. It should be a city of easy communication and contact; an ecological city which is efficient with its use of resources. It should be a creative city where innovation thrives; a beautiful city that challenges the imagination and moves the spirit.

Nine out of 10 British subjects live in cities. Britain is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. British cities are enjoying international recognition, and rightly so. Where once Britain was seen as hidebound by tradition, it is now recognised as being a creative society with thriving, creative industries. There is much in our cities that is equally creative, forward looking and exciting. But there is also still a great deal that is wasteful, inefficient and brutalising.

We can ignore the figures about increasing inequality; but it is harder to ignore the huddled figures sleeping in streets and doorways or trapped in decaying housing estates. We may flee from inner city dereliction and pollution and take to the suburbs. But in so doing we extend the urban sprawl into the countryside. We may bemoan the decline in public transport while we sit in our cars and poison the air. Meanwhile, urban air quality continues to decline. One in seven of our inner city children suffers from asthma. In London we have built more and more roads yet they carry almost 50 per cent. fewer people than in 1956. Fewer people take the bus and more people go by car. As a result, the average speed has dropped to the horse-and-carriage rate of a century ago. That inefficiency is said to cost London £15 billion a year in wasted time and resources.

Cities are deeply implicated in the global and environmental crisis. We must seek ways to make them efficient with their resources and circumspect with their waste. I suggest that if we want better cities we must plan them. I am well aware that Britain has plenty of planners—we have one of the most elaborate and empowered town planning and highway authorities in the world. The mechanism for control exists—there is no doubt about that—but some people believe that it lacks clear vision and purpose and that it is disconnected from cultural, environmental, social or political values.

The planners are predicting that Britain will need 4 million additional dwellings over the next 20 years. That is equivalent to the entire housing stock of London spread across the nation. If that is true, or even half true, it could pose a further threat to our countryside. But it need not. It may be an opportunity to consolidate and revitalise our cities. Rather than sprawl we should be making better use of the space within cities. Even in heavily developed cities such as London, 5 per cent. of the land is derelict or unused. If we take into account also the unoccupied buildings, the national average could be nearer 15 per cent.

We should be regenerating those spaces and premises into clusters of compact, live/work communities based on walking, cycling and public transport networks. That consolidation and regeneration of our cities should be our priority. And only when we have done that, when we have taken up the slack that already exists in our cities, should we look to expand beyond them. Then, if more housing is still needed, we might also create new, compact, sustainable cities along strategic public transport routes such as the Thames corridor.

Effective public transport makes or breaks a city. Inspiring public places encourage the meeting of people—the very reason for cities. The public realm of our cities—the grand spaces, the public museums, the parks, the local squares, the walk from home to school—give quality to our everyday lives and create our sense of citizenship. But in Britain's cities today the public realm has suffered severe erosion by the car and by a lack of public ambition. There have been no major public squares, tree-lined avenues or parks built in London in our lifetimes.

We have a choice—roundabouts or civic spaces; highways or riverside parks; elitist clubs or open public institutions. Why not use the Millennium Lottery Fund to plant 1 million urban trees? Why not create the most beautiful riverside park along the Embankment from here to Blackfriars? Why not approach this, the "Mother of Parliaments", through a noble square rather than across a congested roundabout?

The public realm includes our public buildings. They are the tangible legacy of each succeeding generation. Citizens have a right to expect public buildings that reflect Britain's immense resources of design and engineering skills. Parliament should ensure that the Government's resources are deployed in an exemplary fashion. We must ensure that our schools, hospitals, universities, public housing projects, parks and squares are designed by the best talent—and sometimes by the most adventurous.

Unemployment, part-time working, robotisation and longer retirement mean that today more people have more time on their hands—for better or for ill. The public realm will have an increasingly crucial social role to play in fostering an active citizenry and a cohesive society. We need to ensure that our education system promotes an understanding of the urban environment and to encourage citizens to participate more in the development of cities and of their own immediate communities. We need to ensure that our urban systems—transport, utilities, communications and the planning system itself—operate in unison with coherent social and environmental objectives.

In short, our cities require the same duties of citizenship as ancient Athens. If we are to leave them more beautiful, healthier, more just and more sustainable than they were left to us, we must place them firmly on the political agenda.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, it is a tremendous honour for me to congratulate on behalf of the whole House the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, on his magnificent maiden speech. To most of us, and certainly to me, the greatest monument we can look back on is to have the privilege of being a Member of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Rogers, has created monuments around the world which have brought great benefit and pleasure not only to him but, more importantly, to those who can look upon them, use them, admire them and be inspired by them. We have been inspired by the noble Lord's speech today to give attention to issues which are generally treated by looking backwards rather than forwards. We congratulate the noble Lord on his speech and look forward very much to hearing many more contributions from him in the future.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for opening the debate but I must tell her that the issues which interest me most are those with which she dealt in the last five minutes of her speech rather than the education issues with which. I am sure, she dealt most expertly. I am more interested in the environment, the agricultural and rural economy and local government.

I wish to refer to what I hope will be a very definite change in the Government's approach to local government, a change which will understand the importance of local government, its power and its influence and the opportunity it has to reflect what local communities really want. I note with interest the proposal to establish a regional development agency. I wish to refer to that proposal, particularly within the context of the north-west area.

Many noble Lords will know that I live in the north west and that I am anxious to see the growth and development of the economy of the north west. I declare an interest in that I am chairman of NIMTECH, which is responsible for developing the technology of the north west of England. I am also president of the Federation of Economic Development Authorities, which is anxious to see local economies grow and prosper.

In developing these agencies I hope the Government will bear in mind, particularly in the north west, that we now have a large number of different bodies charged with this responsibility. They do not necessarily all work together, they do not all have the same aim and they certainly do not talk to each other as much as they should. I hope the Government will bear in mind that there is a great need for a coherent approach to economic growth in these areas, particularly in the north west of England. I hope they will understand that in bringing this about we shall need to make some dramatic changes and recognise that the north west is a major economy and one that will have to grow considerably in order to maintain opportunities and employment levels. If we think merely in terms of our likely growth rate of between 2 and 2.5 per cent. over any period of time, that means that the economy has to grow by 30 per cent. in the next 15 years. Thirty per cent. growth has many implications—for jobs, for business opportunities and in bringing forward new businesses to make those opportunities possible. I hope that those will be the main objectives of the new agencies. We must bring people together and not bring about unnecessary political division in the creation of the agencies.

I had the pleasure of being a member of the Select Committee which was set up to consider the relationship between central and local government and I supported the report Rebuilding Trust which came about as a result of the committee's discussions. I believe that local authorities should be given more authority to experiment with new ideas. The evidence we received showed that we have continuing pressure between, on the one hand, local authorities wanting to do their own thing and, on the other hand, being brought together to standardise through general pressure by society, by the media and by government, who set regulations with which local authorities have to comply. The key to our society, even in a small country such as Great Britain, is to be able to have diversity of opportunity and choice within local communities. The report made it clear that we should offer more opportunity for choice and diversity within local authorities in the innovative methods they may have to develop their economies to plan and deal with all the issues with which they are faced.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogers, referred to creating cities with a purpose and with an understanding of how they are going to grow and of their role in solving problems. To me that means that the planning mechanism has to be based on what is to the benefit of the majority and not be influenced by the emotions and prejudices of the few, which has been the basis of many of our planning decisions in the past. We have to open our minds, and have a system that allows us to open our minds, to the very points the noble Lord raised.

I have some other interests which under our present system I must declare. I am president of the Combined Heat and Power Association and of the Energy from Waste Association. I mention those because one of the important aspects of our development is the encouragement of environmental technology. I believe that economic growth and development is of prime importance. Without economic growth and development and without the creation of wealth nothing else is possible. However, we all have a duty to bring those about in the most beneficial and effective environmental way possible and to follow the high standards that can be achieved. Major worldwide companies are wonderful examples of how to give returns to shareholders and develop their businesses and at the same time have high standards of environmental activities when they build, grow and control air pollution.

In dealing with environmental issues in the future I hope the Government will be aware of the tremendous changes taking place in the availability of environmental technology and will look for every possible way of supporting technology that will reduce the impact of factories on their environment and use the best methods to ensure that architectural opportunities are dealt with in the best possible way. There has been a tendency not to build because people are frightened of the ugliness of a building. What we ought to do is build but do it in a high quality way. The knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, indicates that one can create buildings which can be functional and effective but which can also add enormous grandeur, style and benefit to the environment of which they are a part.

I said that I would refer both to buildings and to the rural economy. I wish to bring those two subjects together and say that in this regard the planning issue needs to be looked at. Agriculture and the rural economy are now under enormous competitive pressures. In the gracious Speech the Government refer to the importance of enlargement. That of itself is going to bring a great deal more competition to the agricultural and food production industry of this country. Probably one of the most efficient of our industries is food manufacture and the added value to basic food products. The competition for the industry to buy its products from around the world will become greater and greater. The impact that that can have on the rural economy could be enormous. We have depended on the wealth creation, the jobs and the opportunities from the growing of food. Therefore, planning regulations have to be much more free and understanding of the need to create other job opportunities as the agricultural and traditional opportunities die away.

The Government should also appreciate the importance of leisure activities within rural communities—not just new leisure but traditional rural pursuits which are a key element in maintaining the economy of rural areas. I hope that the Government will address the planning issues in a positive way. We need a reappraisal of the green belt policy, which has tended to push new housing developments into rural areas, whereas they should be attached to existing towns which already have the necessary services, amenities and cultural activities. We need to look more positively at developing the right job opportunities as an alternative.

As noble Lords know, the Government recently turned down a planning application by Nyrex to have a deep depository for nuclear waste in Cumbria. I put it to the Government that in the north west we have the greatest expertise in the world in handling nuclear waste. The methods of dealing with it are now very sophisticated and effective. I understand from the industry that over the next 10 to 50 years the present system for the disposal of nuclear waste is quite sufficient. What is important is to make sure that the resources which would have been made available for the Nyrex depository are made available continually to monitor the system, to learn and develop new technologies and to take a long-term view of nuclear waste in order that decisions can be taken should the political attitude change or new technologies suddenly come into the field.

I have been in the business of agriculture all my life. It is one that has seen dramatic changes. I recently had the opportunity of listening to an agriculturalist-geneticist describe how he was able to use the genes from a crocodile to decide on the sexing of poultry. I shall not go into the technology of it. But it is an enormous step in my lifetime (and I can remember my father milking by hand) that someone can take the genes from a crocodile and by importing them into a hen can decide on the sex of poultry. I have had a short life—I emphasise that— because most of it is still to come. This shows the dramatic changes that have taken place in such a short time.

I hope that the Government will recognise these tremendous changes and will encourage change. The worst thing that they can do is to bring in regulations that hamper change. Change is the driving force which provides the technology for making new and exciting things possible. In dealing with food standards and other issues, I hope that the Government will be dominated by the scientific evidence and needs and not be too influenced by emotional prejudice, which is generally from only a few people, and let the public decide by proper labelling systems what is the right kind of food they want to eat.

No doubt during the debates on the government proposals there will be many issues on which I shall disagree. We shall have some interesting debates. But I welcome the Government's announcement that they have a positive approach to these matters and I look forward to that progress being of benefit to the nation.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the first four speeches in this afternoon's debate were heavyweight speeches on education. Then, with the delightful and very helpful maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, we moved into an area where I suspect that for a time we shall be concentrating on the environment. Certainly I intend to concentrate on my subject of conservation and the countryside. Perhaps I may say how much we on these Benches welcome some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about the way in which wasteland can be used for infill for buildings and the importance of doing that rather than making enormous blocks of new towns over the countryside.

As regards the revival of cities, I spent most of the general election campaigning in Liverpool. Despite the work of a great many people who have tried very hard, including Mr. Heseltine, it is a very sad sight to see that very great city, which still has wonderful buildings and wonderful people, reduced to the state of poverty that it is in now. It is very difficult to go down almost any street outside the main city centre and not find half of the shops boarded up. We have to do something about reviving our cities.

Coming from a party which has made claims to care for the environment, the gracious Speech is remarkably deficient in any measures to deal with the subject. As a representative of a party which was given very high marks for its environmental stance by Friends of the Earth during the election—although I am far from complacent about that because I believe that they were overkind to us—I give notice that this is a field in which my party intends to try to keep the Government up to the mark.

Along with an absence of mention of the environment (and we note that in another place the topic has not even been allocated a place in the debates on the gracious Speech) there are a number of points in the speech where some qualifications will not come amiss. I look forward very much to the reply to this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. For instance, no industrial country which has signed up to the Rio declaration of sustainability should be talking about economic growth without making it clear that it is qualitative and not quantitative growth which is desired because only that is compatible with sustainability. Neither should we be talking about employment entirely in terms of traditional jobs. We should be talking about the necessity for all people to have worthwhile work for a fair reward. That goes much wider than the traditional employment schemes.

I am interested also to see that the Government will, seek further reform of the Common Agriculture Policy to secure lower food prices for consumers and save money, support the rural economy and enhance the environment". It will be most interesting to know how they propose to achieve all those things, which appear to many of us who have studied the matter to be incompatible with each other to a certain extent. The Government will have to tread their way very carefully.

I believe that the sentence in the gracious Speech about fishing could have been phrased rather better. Of course the reforms that we want should be, in the long-term interest of the UK fishing industry". but rather more important is the need to be able to feed the world. The one is a useful step towards the other, but it would be cheering to know that the Government have a wider picture in their sights. After all, this is not just a question of feeding the world; it is also a question of international peace, with serious disputes over tuna in the north-east Atlantic, salmon and crab in the north Pacific; squid in the south-west Atlantic and pollock in the Sea of Okotsk. These are not to be regarded as unimportant. Wars have started over far less vital matters than access to diminishing fisheries. I hope that this is a matter on which the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, will have something to say later in the debate.

When one gets to the Department for International Development in the gracious Speech at last one sees a proper mention of sustainable development. The fact that it comes here indicates that it is regarded as a task for global bodies, when it is of the greatest importance that this country gives a lead and that reform starts at home. I hope that the next paragraph's reference to the global environment means that we shall fight particularly hard against any tendency for the World Trade Organisation to put classical economics above ecological economics. The area of policy that we are dealing with at the present stage of the debate is one in respect of which the last government—for which, on the whole, I had very little time—had two outstanding Ministers: Mr. John Gummer and the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker. The present Government will be hard put to match them. I hope that they do. I also hope that the House will not be deprived of the noble Baroness's wisdom on these matters.

It is disappointing that there is not a major environmental Bill to put teeth where the previous Government relied upon goodwill, that was not always forthcoming, but it is understandable that the Government cannot correct the faults of 18 years in one Session. I hope that the Minister can promise us a major environmental Bill next year.

I was delighted to read yesterday about Mr. Prescott's initiative on water. I had the privilege of sharing a parliamentary expedition to Hong Kong and New Zealand a couple of years ago and was most impressed by him. He is not a person with the most obvious green characteristics but he has started off well. In particular, I am delighted that he intends to grasp the nettle of water extraction licences. Many of these were issued in an age when the thought that England might be short of water was absurd. Many of them are unlimited in quantity and without time limit. No one likes to tackle the problem because of the compensation that is likely to be required, but the problem must be tackled. The licences must be bought out at a fair and reasonable figure, not a figure that compensates for infinite and eternal loss. Likewise, there is a real need for targeted metering of large users such as swimming pools and sprinklers. I hope that the remarks made yesterday about metering do not mean that these matters will be neglected. Mr. Prescott has also acted as a tribal rainmaker. It is not given to everyone to announce a water summit which is immediately followed by a weather forecast of one month's continuous rain. I hope that that ability will continue in future when it is needed.

Another harder question must be asked of the Government. They come to power with a manifesto commitment to reduce CO, by 20 per cent. by 2010. That represents approximately a 25 per cent. fall in greenhouse gas emissions. However, the manifesto contained no detail on how that was to be achieved. At least one other of their policies—the reduction in VAT on domestic fuel to 5 per cent.—appears to run directly counter to that commitment. How will the Government achieve their aim without substantial new tax and public expenditure proposals? For instance, will the Government simultaneously reduce the level of VAT on energy-saving goods and services? That may go some way to meet the point. This measure was supported by the Labour Party earlier last year but subsequently it went back on it.

In general, we on these Benches are prepared to hope for the best, but there are not yet sufficient signs that the Government are fully aware of what needs to be done or have the will to do it. A test case may arise on the subject of wind farms. These must be placed with sensitivity towards aesthetics. But in the last resort, the most important thing is that as a nation we should have the highest possible percentage of renewable energy. If the Government have any problems in facing the enormous challenges of living up to the commitments of Rio we shall be delighted to help them.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I too should like to say a few words about the environment in a debate that has been marked by the notable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, whose Reith lectures many of us remember. I was surprised that the environment, which matters so much to all of us, was seldom mentioned during the election. It is true that here and there brief references were made to it in the Labour Party's manifesto. I understand that the Conservative Party published a separate green manifesto. However, I was unable to find it on the bookstall at Paddington. When I asked the Conservative election office in Builth Wells where I could find it that office had never heard of it.

But people in this country do mind about conservation and the environment. Some time ago a Gallup poll showed that a majority of people believed that their environment was in long-term decline, and eight out of 10 favoured tougher governmental action to reverse the trend even if it hit their pockets. One in 10 people—about 4 million—belongs to one or other of the voluntary environmental bodies, whereas only one in 25 belongs to a political party. The previous Government frequently spoke up for the environment but too often what they did or proposed to do—like building a barrage across Cardiff Bay, thus destroying an entire site of special scientific interest, turning another shorebird sanctuary, Lappel Bank in the Thames Estuary, into a car park, saying that they were minded to build a road through the water meadows past Salisbury cathedral, or running the M.3 through Twyford Down—was hard to square with any genuine concern for conservation. I hope that the new Government will take the environment seriously and not merely say the right things but take firm and effective action to promote conservation. I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister has been put in charge of the environment. I welcome the swift and determined way in which Mr. Prescott has tackled the water companies, requiring them to take much more rigorous action to reduce the disgracefully high level of leakage, an average of 30 per cent.—in the case of Thames Water, 40 per cent.—and to reduce abstraction from rivers and wetlands that has caused a great deal of damage.

There are a great many problems in the field of conservation. I have time to mention only three of them. Mr. Blair and other party leaders wrote a letter to The Times in February 1996 advocating the protection of our countryside in its rich personality and character. One of the greatest threats to what remains of that uniquely beautiful countryside is the inexorable spread of housing development in country areas. Our population density is one of the highest in the world. Of course, people need somewhere to live and in general must be allowed to live where they wish, but more and more of our country is being urbanised each year. Last year the Government published projections that indicated that there could be 4.4 million new households in England between 1991 and 2016—an increase of no less than 23 per cent. To put all of those new houses in the country would require 35 new towns the size of Bracknell. The previous Government said that they hoped that 60 per cent. of new homes might be accommodated on previously used land, the so-called "brownfield" field sites. But this still leaves 40 per cent. of new homes (1.76 million) to be built on greenfield sites in open country—the equivalent of 10 cities the size of Bristol. That is a daunting prospect.

Of course, builders generally prefer to build on greenfield sites because it is cheaper and avoids the cost problems connected with contaminated land, but there is good evidence that there is plenty of capacity for building in existing towns without town cramming or building over remaining green urban spaces like playing fields. I was greatly encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, said about that this afternoon. There are some 800,000 empty properties in England. Surely, greater use should be made of them. The Round Table on Sustainable Development called for 75 per cent. of new housing to be built on previously developed land, although others believe that even the 60 per cent. target may be unrealistic. I am convinced that what is needed without delay is a powerful incentive to persuade builders to build in existing cities and towns rather than in the country. A substantial tax on housing built on greenfield sites would surely help to steer development in the right direction. I know that Mr. Gummer dismissed that idea, but I very much hope that the new Government will consider it carefully or, if they reject it, will come up with an alternative incentive.

Another major threat to the country is the spread of roads. We simply cannot go on building more and more roads, as we were doing until very recently, and putting vast areas of the country under concrete. I hope that the new Government will tackle the need for a national transport strategy to improve and cheapen public transport and control the growth in the number of cars.

The second problem that I want to mention is the damaging effect of intensive or industrial farming, of the disappearance of mixed farming, winter stubbles and hedges, and the application of vast quantities of pesticides and fertilizers. The noble Baroness mentioned the Government's hopes to help bring about a reform of the CAP. That is greatly to be desired, but we all know that there are huge difficulties in the way. Too many of our partners in the EU either do very well out of the CAP or have militant farmers of whom they are somewhat afraid. We must do all that we can to bring about those reforms, but we cannot just wait.

We know that birds in particular—skylarks, song thrushes, partridges, lapwings and many others—have suffered catastrophic declines in recent years, and that that is due largely to changing farming methods. Species can be wiped out. One has only to think of the passenger pigeon. It is to my mind unthinkable that we should just sit on our hands and do nothing while the skylark and the song thrush disappear. We must take action now.

There are remedies which can help—the conservation headlands pioneered by the Game Conservancy, well-managed set aside, and an increase in organic farming—but it seems to me essential that we should take immediate steps to reduce the level of pesticide applications. A tax on pesticides would be a useful first step.

Of the innumerable other problems, I should like to mention just one quite different one—the new, exotic, but very serious problem of endocrine disruptors. As noble Lords may know, there has recently been increasing evidence that some chemicals may be upsetting the reproductive systems of animals, birds and fish, and conceivably of human beings as well. It has been found that a large number of man-made chemicals, and a few natural ones, can disrupt endocrine systems. The chemicals known to do that include DDT, lindane, PCBs, dioxins, cadmium, lead, mercury, tributyltin and alkyl phenols present in polystyrene and PVCs.

We and many other animals have a wonderfully elaborate and delicate system (the endocrine system) which governs what we do and how our offspring are produced. Various glands produce hormones which are released into the bloodstream and act as chemical messengers, triggering all sorts of different functions and processes. The best known are the female hormone, oestrogen, and the male hormone, testosterone.

The body contains in many of its cells proteins called receptors which pick up particular hormone messages and "bind" with them, producing the appropriate reaction. Unfortunately the receptors are not always as discriminating as they should be, but are deceived by chemicals which mimic hormones and damage the complex natural processes. Those chemicals are called endocrine disruptors. They appear to have a particularly marked effect on developing foetuses.

There have been numerous reports of strange effects on wildlife. In this country the oestrogenic effects of sewage effluents were discovered when hermaphrodite fish were found to be common in the Hertfordshire River Lee downstream of sewage outfalls. This year it was reported that research from Newcastle University had found that flounders in the Tyne estuary were suffering oestrogenic effects. In the USA last year large numbers of frogs in Minnesota and neighbouring states were found to be grotesquely deformed.

Research by MAFF found levels of phthalates—noble Lords will I hope forgive me for being unable to pronounce a word beginning with a ph followed by a th—used to soften plastics, in baby formula milk, which may be high enough to trigger oestrogenic effects. The suspect chemicals are not only contained in all sorts of products—pesticides, plastics (including toys), detergents and cosmetics—but can, apparently, leach out from plastic wrappings into our food. They can also cause damage in minute quantities. Other research has suggested that a mixture of oestrogenic chemicals—a cocktail of persistent pollutants—can be as much as 1,600 times stronger than any one of the chemicals acting by itself.

There is increasing evidence that human beings are being affected by those chemicals. Edinburgh scientists have found that the average sperm count of British men born in the 1970s is 24 per cent. lower than in men born 20 years earlier. According to Professor Dennis Lincoln of the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh, the number of infertile men is rising by 2 per cent. a year in richer countries. There is concern that products such as toothpaste, mouthwashes, shampoos, shower gels and spermicidal creams frequently contain dioxins and other endocrine disruptors.

A scientific conference in Sicily in November 1995 said in its conclusion: Humans and animals show adverse effects to endocrine disruptors at current environmental concentrations. Endocrine disruptors can disturb normal development, causing physical and behavioural abnormalities—including reduced intellectual capacity and social adaptability. Interference with thyroid hormones during development, for example, can result in mental retardation, cerebral palsy, learning deficiencies and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Early exposure to chemicals can affect co-ordination. learning, memory and spatial perception". Clearly we have to take those dangers very seriously. A number of the endocrine disruptors, such as DDT and the PCBs, have been or are being banned, at any rate in the developed world, but others such as the pesticide toxaphene are still used in developing countries. The World Wide Fund for Nature has called for a phase-out of pesticides which are endocrine disruptors, naming permethrin, linuron, lindane and endosulfane. It argues that pesticide approvals need to be reassessed in view of new evidence that endocrine effects occur at low levels of exposure and may be made worse by a mixture of pollutants. Current toxicity testing does not, I believe, take endocrine effects into account. If that is correct, I believe that it should certainly do so.

Clearly more needs to be done without delay to deal with that problem. It may be necessary to require chemical manufacturers to demonstrate at the outset that their products are entirely safe, failing which they could be prevented from marketing them. That is a tough policy, but it looks as though it may soon be necessary.

I was glad to see that before the election Mr. Michael Meacher said in another place that this was a very important problem and that solutions should be sought internationally. I hope that the new Government will address the problem urgently, increase research, and consider banning the use of chemicals shown to have damaging effects.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, our debate has ranged over education, the environment—distinguished by a most notable maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside—agriculture and transport. I wish to commend to your Lordships and to the Government proposals that meet at least three of the priority objectives set out in the gracious Speech: the education of young people; the encouragement of investment in industry and in human skills; and the creation of successful and profitable business.

The case for investing in Britain's merchant fleet and, in particular, in maritime skills, has often been made from all sides of the Chamber in recent years. A core determinant—indeed in the globalised economy the core determinant—of growth and success is human skills. We talk of competent management making all the difference between a business going under and staying afloat. That is literally true of a ship. No matter what the level of investment in ships and new technology, whatever the improvements in international regulations and in monitoring them through port state control, the bottom line is qualified people, but the world is short of qualified people. The world is short now of 18,000 skilled and experienced officers, and that figure is forecast to rise to at least 42,000 by 2005.

A modest £20 million a year invested in training in maritime skills would be good value for money. It would be investing in an industry with a future, and an industry of the future. It is an expanding industry. Last year the world fleet grew by some 3.5 per cent. to an all-time high. World sea-borne trade has been growing at 4 per cent. per annum, and is expected to double by 2010. But in the past 20 years, the number of ships on the UK mainland register fell from 1,600 to fewer than 240, and the number of British seafarers fell from 70,000 to 13,000. In 1975 we were training 2,000 officer cadets. Now, in spite of a recent welcome increase, the number of officer cadets is 400; that is only one third of the demand. The Chamber of Shipping, the employers' organisation, has emphasised that British shipowners want to employ British seafarers because of their quality. It also wants them for its own future on-shore management.

Doubling UK officer cadet training would create an extra 4,000 officers within a decade. That would cost £20 million a year. Last year, the then government gave more than three times that amount to one company—Jaguar—to support a new factory which will create 1,300 jobs. They gave BMW £22 million to build a new engine plant. And only a few weeks ago the European Union approved £240 million of UK state aid to a Korean electronics factory in south Wales. If this kind of support is made available—and I am not complaining—to foreign firms to create jobs or to keep skills in the UK, why on earth not spend a few thousand pounds to help keep British junior officers on British Steel bulk carriers instead of replacing them by cheaper—though no doubt cheerful—Filipinos?

The Chamber of Shipping has emphasised that we need in particular to increase the number of junior officers in training and to develop the training of junior officers up to their master's or chief engineer's certificate. It also emphasised the need to compensate the employing company during that training period for the cost differential between employing Britons and equivalent Far Eastern or Eastern European officers. We are facing a prospect of a severe shortage of well trained British officers, but youngsters are leaving school to join dole queues in traditional maritime towns. Recently, there were 3,000 applications for just 35 oil cadetships.

What is more, the shortage of trained officers is threatening the future of London as a major maritime centre. The 1996 University of Cardiff report, which was commissioned by the Department of Transport, established authoritatively that former seafarers are urgently needed by a wide range of shore-based maritime-related industries and services, including port operations, classification societies, government regulatory agencies, insurance and P & I companies, shipyards, marine equipment manufacturers, training establishments and more. The combined net annual earnings of these maritime-related businesses are about £3.5 billion. Are we really resigned to seeing this business shift abroad? Or are we resigned to staffing our classification societies and nautical training colleges with Croatian or Filipino officers, as is already happening on our ships? Are those the choices that we are to accept?

The industry, the charterers and insurers—and, indeed, governments—are beginning to realise that low costs should not be confused with low pay, bad conditions, the acceptance of a high risk of accidents and the losses at sea. For safe and efficient operations, effective monitoring in port and, above all, effective monitoring and control on the high seas is crucial. For that there is no substitute for well trained and responsible officers. And they do not come better than British; they do not come safer than British; and they do not come more cost effective than British.

To pursue a strategy along these lines would bring us into line with our maritime competitors and would be completely consistent with our obligations as a European Union maritime state. The European Commissioner for Transport, Mr. Neil Kinnock, recently pointed out that in the past 10 years the number of EU seafarers on EU flagships has fallen by one third and that there are huge numbers of applications for places in high quality maritime education and training courses throughout Europe.

The European Union Transport Ministers—or at least 14 out of 15—have responded with a programme for stimulating the productivity of seafaring personnel, for targeted incentives to reduce the cost of employment and for encouraging the social partners to favour community employment. The then British Government refused to endorse that strategy because of its references to incentives and to social partners.

The European Union has nailed to its mast the flag of "quality shipping"; shipping that is competitive, efficient, safe for people and the environment, registered with flag states which take their responsibilities seriously and is operated by well trained officers and crews. As part of its approach, the EU is now reviewing its guidelines on state aids for shipping to take realistic account of the developments in international competition—much of it grossly unfair—faced by EU operators. The European Union has made it abundantly clear that its overall objectives are to secure free access and fair competitive conditions throughout the global shipping market. I hope that in reply the Minister will be able to assure your Lordships that the new Government will take a positive and co-operative stance to this co-ordinated initiative by Europe.

I was heartened by the announcement in September 1996 by the then shadow Minister for Shipping, Miss Glenda Jackson, that a "lifeboat" rescue package to arrest the decline in British shipping was to be drawn up in consultation with employers, the unions and other elements of the shipping industry. She emphasised three main points. First, the need to end the short-termism which has dogged British shipping. Secondly, the need for the Government to use their influence on our European and international partners in order to ensure greater harmonisation in the areas of safety and employment regulations. Thirdly—and she laid particular emphasis on this—the commitment of a new Labour Government to invest in their people; to put training at the heart of their rescue package. I know that I shall not be alone in your Lordships' House in looking forward eagerly to the overdue launch of that lifeboat to rescue the Red Ensign from a watery grave.

5.18 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, first, I must apologise to the House that a long-standing evening engagement prevents me from staying to the end of the debate. Secondly, before I deal with the subject of education, I wish to offer my personal congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, on his maiden speech. I remember very well when I was High Mistress of St. Paul's Girls School in Hammersmith his generosity in giving work experience to several of my students.

I wish to concentrate on two points; one might call them two points of view. I wish to reflect on the past and to look forward to the future. As a school head from 1965 to 1989, I remember particularly two dates. The first was 1976 when the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, then Prime Minister, initiated the great education debate. The second was 1988 when Kenneth Baker, soon to enter your Lordships' House, introduced the ERA—the Education Reform Act—and the era of education. Indeed, it was the beginning of an era of change and reform. I remind your Lordships that from that Education Reform Act came the national curriculum that we have today. Nowadays its core subjects are mathematics, English and science with emphasis on modern languages, technology and information technology. It aims at a balanced curriculum rather than—and I quote the words of the present High Mistress of St. Paul's Girls School—the tyranny of adolescent whim which in the past led to some very curious choices of subjects at 14 to 16.

That Act brought us also assessment of children at the ages of seven, 11, 14 and 16, which has given those in control today the information which they need for further reform—setting attainment targets with clear syllabuses for all subjects. Also from that Act, parents, teachers and the pupils themselves have begun to realise the importance of technical skills and vocational encouragement and training. It was only a start. Such basic changes in public perception take time.

The last subject that I wish to discuss, stemming from the 1988 Act, is the provision of city technology colleges. There were 15 original city technology colleges which at the moment are doing splendid work in deprived inner city areas. There is nothing elitist about them. There are now 180 technical colleges which stress mathematics, science and technology. More recently, there have been 41 language colleges which have an international ethos with IT underpinning the curriculum. Most recent are the three arts colleges and six sports specialist colleges. In addition, there are more than 160 schools affiliated to the Technology Colleges Trust which aspire to be specialist schools of one kind or another.

As a founder trustee of the Technology Colleges Trust, together with the noble Lord, Lord Quirk—and I am chairman also of Landau Forte College in Derby—I was delighted to hear the new Secretary of State for Education and Employment speak at the trust's conference in Bradford last November when he spoke so positively and inspiringly, emphasising his support for those specialist schools.

That brings me to my second point of view—the future. I hope that the Secretary of State and his team will build on the good achievements of the past few years. I am cheered by his announcement this morning that he will deal firmly with failing schools. Failing schools exist and they need to be dealt with. The morale of incompetent, slovenly and just plain bad teachers may be lowered; their morale deserves to he. What demoralises good, competent, inspiring teachers who are in the majority in this country? Their morale is being lowered by being lumped together with the bad teachers.

I know that later in this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, will discuss the importance of teacher training, both initial training and in-service training. That is a very important subject and I shall leave him to deal with that.

I now draw the attention of your Lordships to some of the lessons that I have learned recently over the past three years since I became chairman of a city technology college. I commend those findings to the Government.

First, there is the extended day. At this college in Derby, children are allowed to stay in school until 5.45 every evening, provided that they are studying. Of course, they are supervised by teaching staff. Some ordinary classrooms are opened as study rooms, as is the information technology area for those who wish to work on their word processing projects, their data handling, spreadsheets, desk-top publishing or accessing CD-ROMs for research. The library, too, which I should now call the resource centre, is open late.

At the beginning of the day, the college opens at 7.45. School itself starts at 8.30. Therefore, it is a 10-hour day in all. That is plenty for anyone, students and staff alike, says the principal.

The second lesson is that 11 and 12 year-olds have a regular study period on their timetable to train them to use their own time effectively. The third and possibly most important lesson that I have learned in those three years is that all pupils and teachers have the very highest aspirations. But they know and accept also that they have to work for success. There are no excuses.

I know from the Labour Party manifesto, which I read with interest, that the Government are determined to realise the potential of new technology. I hope that they will make full use of the good educational structures and practices which are already in place.

Before I sit down, I cannot let the opportunity pass without a mention of the potential for involving parents and the wider community in the education of our children. This is Museums Week. Museums are a valuable educational resource which are accessible both to families for weekend visits—I understand that two-thirds of the population visit them regularly—and to schools which benefit from their imaginative, hands-on presentations and workshops.

I give your Lordships an example. This morning, I welcomed the Secretary of State for the Department of National Heritage to the Geffrye Museum in Hackney. I am chairman of the trustees there. The Secretary of State assured me that he would continue the valuable liaison between his department and the Department for Education and Employment.

During the Secretary of State's visit, a group of seven and eight year-olds, clearly from a very wide variety of cultures from St. Johns and St. Clements Primary School in East Dulwich, were learning about life in Tudor times. They were also learning to concentrate—I have to say, some more successfully than others.

Summer half-term is nearly upon us. The Geffrye's activities will include Bee Week, with an opportunity to learn about the life of a bee, wax seals and signets, model beehives, bee quilts and how to make honey. I am rather apprehensive about the special workshop for three to five year-olds—Cooking with Honey.

Therefore, my plea to the new Government is that they should please continue with the good practices that are in place. John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's, who founded St. Paul's School in 1509, wanted for his students a curriculum of severity (I believe that the modern English translation is "rigour") liberality and breadth. By the way, he had no time at all for "Blotterature". Our children deserve no less.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Perry of Walton

My Lords, despite the temptation, I shall stick to just one point. My noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley has already drawn attention to the paragraph in the Queen's Speech which reads: [My Government] will seek changes to the Common Fisheries Policy to conserve fish stocks in the long-term interest of the UK fishing industry".—[Official Report, 14/5/97; col. 7.] Like my noble friend, I regret only the fact that it is a slightly parochial statement because conserving fish stocks is obviously in the long-term interest of the fishing industries, not only of the UK but also of the Community and, indeed, of the world. Otherwise, I welcome that statement most heartily.

I was privileged to chair the sub-committee of the Select Committee on Science and Technology which reported in January of last year on fish stock conservation and management. Our remit was simply to conduct an inquiry into the scientific aspects of the topic, but we were presented with a great deal of evidence about the common fisheries policy, almost all of which was condemnatory.

The common fisheries policy was introduced in 1983 as a 20-year programme for fisheries management in European Union waters. It is therefore due for review in 2003. But by then stocks of some of the fish in European Union waters may have collapsed completely as they did off the Newfoundland Grand Banks. Significant modification of the common fisheries policy is therefore needed most urgently.

My committee's report quoted evidence from many quarters that the replacement of the quota system by control of fishing effort was the essential step. Everyone agreed that there was serious overfishing; and, as one of our witnesses said, "We know what the solution to the problem is and that is simply to reduce fishing effort". In fact, the quota system simply does not work. It is nullified by discarding about 40 per cent. of the total catch, by gross misreporting and, indeed, by hopelessly inadequate policing of the policy. I appeal to the Government to promote a detailed study—a sort of think-tank study—starting right now, by people representing fishermen, scientists, civil servants and politicians to find a way of replacing total allowable catches and quotas with a system of limiting fishing effort by licensing limited numbers of boats on the basis of their catching power, which is largely determined by size and speed. That would be a terribly difficult task. I do not underestimate the difficulties involved. But if they were to get anywhere at all, the Government could then make use of their chairmanship of the Commission in 1998 to try to seek agreement to this at least in principle.

To be effective a limitation of fishing effort in this way could, and probably should, be combined with a ban on discards with the mandatory use of new net technology to allow the escape of undersized fish and with the banning of beam trawls which destroy the seabed. But would it also stop quota hopping? That seems to be what most concerns both politicians and fishermen in this country. Well, if we moved to that kind of system of limiting the effort, quotas would cease to exist and, therefore, they could not be sold from one country to another. The abolition of quota-hopping would have to be accompanied by finding a way to ban the flagging out of fishing boats so that they cannot be registered under the British flag and have a share in the British quota. Those two steps would in effect solve this difficult problem. A new policy of this kind obviously cannot be introduced overnight. Pressure during the first six months of 1998 could, however, possibly lead to an agreement on a reasonable timetable for the implementation of such a programme. That would be a very great improvement on letting things drift on until 2003.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I was reassured to hear in the gracious Speech the new Government's determination to reform the CAP, to support the rural economy and to enhance the environment. It is with these issues that I wish to focus my few remarks, while declaring an interest as someone who tries to farm in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, the Scottish borders.

The reform of the CAP has been mentioned many times in your Lordships' House and I am sure that it will dominate any future debates that we have on agriculture. We also heard in the gracious Speech the Government's commitment to, [an] early and successful enlargement of the European Union".—[Official Report, 14/5/97; col. 7.] This I wholly support but it cannot be done until the CAP has been reformed. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has often said that the CAP needs to be reformed by, hauling it out root and branch". That I endorse, but it must not be done to the detriment of British farmers.

It is important to remember that 20 years ago we were told that more food was required. We were told to drain the Wetlands and we were given EC grants to do so. Suddenly today we are told, "Stop! set the whole thing aside—and here is a grant to do so". If United Kingdom farmers had run their businesses in the way that the European Union has been run, I seriously doubt whether there would be a farmer left in the country today. Quite a thought! What on earth would the countryside look like?

There is another terribly important factor to take into consideration; namely, the uncertainty of farming. When a farmer comes to sow his crop he has no idea what it will yield, what it will be worth and how much it will cost to nurture and reap. I urge Her Majesty's Government to bear that in mind when they come to tackle the reform of the CAP. I also urge Her Majesty's Government to ask the Commission to give British producers full compensation for the effects of the recent significant green pound revaluations which have seriously depressed UK farm incomes. It seems unjust that farmers in all other member states with revaluing currencies are already receiving compensation but only because their governments have applied for it.

It goes without saying—and it was nice to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, her heartfelt agreement—that we must get this ban on British beef lifted. Indeed, it must be a top priority and the Florence agreement implemented. It is tragic to think that that was signed very nearly a year ago.

I also urge Her Majesty's Government to oppose proposals for modulation of agricultural support payments. As your Lordships' know, modulation means adjusting the direct support arrangements of the CAP to reduce the benefit to larger farmers. It is suggested by some that a redistribution of support to smaller farmers could then result. But, in practice, given the fact that what we regard in the United Kingdom as small farmers are actually quite big by continental standards, modulation would lead to reduced support for our larger farmers without any commensurate gain for our smaller farmers.

Support payments in the CAP should be used as a transitional device to arrive at a more competitive European farm structure. It makes no economic sense to discriminate either in favour of or against any particular size or type of farm. Modulation would have a devastating effect on UK agriculture and in particular for Scotland. I hope that when the noble Baroness replies to the debate, she will be able to indicate that the Government recognise and agree with the concerns that I have expressed.

Turning to the reference in the gracious Speech to Her Majesty's Government's support for the rural economy and enhancing the environment, I think that these issues come hand in glove. I turn first to forestry, and would urge Her Majesty's Government to commit themselves to a consistent and long-term policy for forestry and to provide incentives to ensure a regular flow of timber for all types of commercial outlets. I also hope that they will recognise the need to have a positive management strategy for all woodlands that would benefit both the wildlife and the environment.

I turn now to a touchy subject which to many living in the countryside is their very existence. I refer to field sports, and, most especially, hunting with hounds. There was a distressing headline in my copy of last weekend's Sunday Telegraph saying, "Government to outlaw fox-hunting". There are so many more pressing problems facing Her Majesty's Government that I cannot believe they would allow time for such a pointless and job loss piece of legislation. If hunting were made a criminal offence, it would surely be only a matter of time before all field sports were banned. And nearly 5 million people participated in field sports last year alone. Field sports account for a direct annual expenditure of £3.8 billion. It would be sheer, utter madness to ban an industry producing such an income to the rural economy and indeed for a government income of £634 million. The rural economy would be devastated by such a measure and I cannot help but feel that animal rights organisations would be appalled at the thought of 15,000 hounds having to be destroyed. The effect on point-to-point racing and racing in general would be catastrophic; and the loss of revenue from the betting tax would seriously damage the Government's economic long-term planning.

I hope that Her Majesty's Government will allow the countryside to continue to flourish as it has done for many centuries without imposing unrealistic restrictions on it. A government Bill on fox hunting which would lead eventually to the abolition of all field sports would sadly lead to the devastation of rural Britain. And bearing in mind the mention in the gracious Speech of the Government's determination to support the rural economy, I beg, hope and pray that field sports, and most especially hunting with hounds, will not be an issue to which Her Majesty's Government will give their support.

Those who live in the countryside wish the new Government well. I just hope that the Government wish the countryside well. They have the opportunity and I hope that they will seize upon it.