§ Debate on the Address resumed.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, for a few minutes in today's debate on the gracious Speech I should like to dwell on regional development agencies and to make specific observations for the south west and in particular for Devon and Cornwall; Devon being the county in which I live. In so doing I declare an interest in that I am a director of South West Enterprise, which is a company established as a private sector joint venture promoting business and economic development in Devon and Cornwall.
Let me first say that I welcome the Government's initiative to combine environment, transport and regions into a super ministry, also encompassing local government, regeneration and planning. I also welcome the proposals to centralise these key functions while at the same time devolving decisions on economic developmentto the level that matters most",as stated by the Deputy Prime Minister.
The environment, transport and the regions are components which fit together well in laying the foundations for wealth creation and competitiveness. We need development agencies which can combine the 318 wide range of activities currently undertaken by many central and local bodies. It is to be hoped that that will lead to a much improved cohesion between functions and a much needed focus on the solutions which will really make the difference. But crucially, it will enable local communities to identify far more closely with what is being done to enhance their businesses and their own communities. Local identification is essential. Economic development occurs locally—in the factory, in the office, on the farm—where value is added and jobs are created.
The Government may wish to consider further how a regionally run agency can improve upon centrally run agencies in the development of local communities. For example, consider the south west region where I live. The distance between Gloucester in the north and Penzance in the south is 220 miles. Compare that with London to York at 212 miles, London to Manchester at 203 miles and London to Carmarthen in west Wales at 217 miles. The administrative city of the south west is Bristol, which is 194 miles from Penzance and 125 miles from Plymouth. At 120 miles, London is closer to Bristol than Bristol is to Plymouth.
How should a regional development agency in Bristol address local issues and build local identity and, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said, evolve decisionsto the level that matters most"?How should that happen in Devon and Cornwall?
The last Government recognised the economic and geographic differences which exist between the northern part of the south west region and Devon and Cornwall. And thus the government office for the south west was initially established in Bristol, but in recognition of the demand for a presence in Devon and Cornwall, the previous government established a second site in Plymouth. That met the need for local access, information and decisions. That achieved a local identification with government services and meant that people in Devon and Cornwall did not have to travel to Bristol. I ask that the present Government not only maintain that position, but go further and create an executive development agency for Devon and Cornwall.
Earlier this year South West Enterprise published a prospectus entitled Turning Around the Westcountry Economy containing proposals for a development agency for Devon and Cornwall. In a recent survey of the business community in Devon and Cornwall undertaken by Ernst & Young, 83 per cent. of respondents favoured a single development agency for Devon and Cornwall. There are sound business and economic reasons for Devon and Cornwall having its own development agency.
If one compares the regions of the United Kingdom, the south west ranks highly in terms of both income and earnings and ranks third overall of all United Kingdom regions on the basis of 24 key economic indicators. But these south west economic indicators in reality completely mask the local economic difficulties faced by Devon and Cornwall. Of the seven counties in the south west, Cornwall ranks seventh in terms of earnings and income—that is to say, last—and Devon sixth and fifth respectively.
319 A recent review of the prospects for the south west economy published by the Plymouth Business School stated,There is an extreme economically depressed area extending roughly west of a line from the cast of Exmoor on the north coast to the west of Exeter on the south.There is a further deterioration once the Devon border is crossed into Cornwall.Just how far Cornwall is behind is explained by the fact that there is a 15.6% differential in GDP per head with Devon, while the figure for the most prosperous South West county, Wiltshire, is nearly 60% above the figure for Cornwall".Nobody pretends that economic development is easy, but the Government's proposals potentially make it much easier. We would expect, quite understandably, a regional development agency based in Bristol to give an emphasis on exploiting the existing and increasing opportunities in the north of the region. Indeed, Bristol is now providing the bulk of services for the new manufacturing investments in South Wales and the second Severn crossing has opened up a huge swathe of land for business and industrial development with immediate proximity to the M.4 and M.5 for manufacturing and distribution.
Given their economic circumstances, Devon and Cornwall need an executive agency of their own. Indeed, there is one—young, experienced, but lacking government financial support—the Westcountry Development Corporation. This is a partnership between the local private sector, the local authorities and the local TEC. It is a self-help partnership. It has a regional economic development strategy. We have been developing our own opportunities and building on our own strengths.
As an example, I take just six of the major capital business projects currently in progress in Devon and Cornwall. Together these six projects require £299 million. Most of that funding is already in place, but some is not. Of the funding that is in place, the ability to create jobs has been limited by the current constraints placed on funding. These six projects should between them create 2,650 short-term construction jobs and 6,750 long-term manufacturing and service jobs.
The Prime Minister has made a pledge in another place to reduce unemployment. Indeed, in the Western Morning News he was also quoted as saying,Our New Deal for the young unemployed will help to get 250,000 under-25s across the UK off benefit and into work. That represents direct help to nearly 6,500 young people in Devon and Cornwall".We already have plans in Devon and Cornwall which will deliver more than 9,400 jobs. It will not be easy. However much government assistance is given for training and the re-motivation of the long-term unemployed, these jobs will not appear without the support of the private sector. In an era of continuing restraint on local government expenditure, these jobs will have to be created by and within the private sector.
As I have already said, South West Enterprise is a private sector joint venture promoting business and economic development and represents almost 14,000 businesses in Devon and Cornwall including the major utilities, banks, manufacturers, services and representatives of the CBI, the NFU, the Federation of 320 Small Businesses and the South West Chamber of Commerce. We ask that we work together through the Westcountry Development Corporation to create jobs in Devon that are genuine and lasting and will lead to a sustainable and competitive local economy that can make a full contribution to the United Kingdom in global markets. There is nothing incompatible between a Devon and Cornwall agency and the Government's present proposals. What matters most is the focus on local economic need.
We would welcome a partnership with the Government whereby we work together to reduce long-term unemployment in Devon and Cornwall, thereby helping the Government to deliver their pledge to reduce the overall level of unemployment in the United Kingdom.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Borrie
My Lords, it was commonly said of reports of Royal Commissions and other government-appointed committees that they mouldered on the shelves of Ministers and over time gathered a great deal of dust. I was especially pleased by a number of items in the gracious Speech and the speech of my noble friend this afternoon that related to lifelong learning, individual learning accounts and a more sensitive and efficient system of loans for university students. I also welcomed her comment on regional development. All those themes featured in Opposition-appointed commissions on which I had the honour to serve, namely the Commission on Social Justice and the Regional Policy Commission. I am also delighted that four brand new elected Members of the other place served on those commissions, three Labour and one Liberal Democrat. I know that they will be as pleased as I am that, instead of gathering dust, our work has already borne fruit and provides a source of analysis and proposals which is useful to the Government which has just been formed.
The creation of the combined Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is, in my view, a policy that results from a proposal by the Regional Policy Commission. I am delighted by that instant creation. I am also delighted to hear that the last speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, approves of the creation of that department. In my congratulations to my noble friend on her appointment I am also able to add my thanks. When in opposition in her previous incarnation as chairman of the trustees of the Institute of Public Policy Research a certain amount of funding for our commission was helpfully provided.
The proposal to create regional development agencies for England on the model of the Scottish and Welsh development agencies is part of the Government's intention to devolve power outwards from Whitehall and promote economic and social regeneration particularly of the weaker and poorer parts of the country. I was fascinated to hear the close analysis of my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside in his delightful and excellent maiden speech. He pointed out that social regeneration of some of the poorer parts of the country required architects, social workers and those who planned for economic development. Today, sometimes in close geographical proximity to one another, one sees prosperity and comfort on the one hand and poverty and 321 despair on the other. I believe that the economic success of the United Kingdom as a whole must ensure that all regions of the United Kingdom join in that progress, because, if any region under-performs, the UK as a whole is not maximising its economic potential.
Three years ago the previous Government set up 10 regional government offices. They were intended to remove to the regions decisions upon policies such as business development, training and regeneration. One of their key functions is to administer the single regeneration budget, which integrates government funding for the regeneration programme. They are staffed by officials from the DTI, the Department for Education and Employment and the now combined Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Two of the regional directors have been officials of an office with which in the past I have been concerned: the Office of Fair Trading. I have reason to believe therefore that those directors are of high quality. Surely, that is something on which we can build.
The creation of those offices was a definite move in the right direction. I congratulate the former Government upon their creation. It may be that one of the motivations for their creation was to head off pressure for more genuine regional government, but today, with another government, we stand in a different position. We can use those government offices in the regions as a starting block on which to build. It can give them a closer focus and enable them to remedy what I believe is their democratic deficit. I believe that they need staff from a wider range of government departments than at present so that they include, for example, people from the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture—which has cropped up a few times in the debate this afternoon—and the Home Office. Those departments have relevance to the economic and social policies that the regions require. The closer focus will come from those officials if they now owe primary loyalty to the new department. Their accountability to one of the principal Ministers in the present Government—namely, the Deputy Prime Minister as head of that department—will give them a closer focus. They will work closely with the new regional development agencies that will be appointed from a wide range of appropriate regional interests.
As to the democratic deficit, a start can be made by building on elected bodies, through elected councillors in all local authorities in the region, coming together as consultative chambers to link the agencies and regional government offices with local communities. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, regards that as a system to ensure that the individual communities in the 10 regions of England are brought closer together.
What will the regional development agencies be doing? I believe that they will promote economic and social regeneration, develop regional priorities, help small businesses and be a very strong focus to attract inward investment. My noble friend the Minister referred to attracting inward investment. I hope that they will also boost indigenous investment in those regions. I am sure that there is no conflict on that point. They 322 will bring together a number of disparate relevant bodies at regional and local level and be a one-stop executive arm of the regional chambers.
The noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, referring particularly to the North West, spoke of the undue profusion of bodies at the present time. If one is to reduce profusion in the City of London and the financial sector, as one heard in the government Statement this afternoon, one should also think of the profusion of bodies elsewhere, for example in the regions. I suspect that the White Paper on the agencies will concentrate on the merits of decentralisation and devolution from Whitehall. Clearly, it is vital that the regional development agencies are seen as strong co-ordinating bodies adding value to the regions' economic development, not just adding another layer of bureaucracy between local authorities and other local agencies on the one hand and London and Whitehall on the other.
Following recent local government reorganisation under the previous government and the creation of a larger number of unitary local authorities, many of them quite small, in my view some functions are now too widely dispersed and the public are perhaps less well served than they should be. I think particularly of the control of trading standards and the enforcement of high standards of consumer protection. I declare my interest as an honorary vice-president of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration.
To be fully effective, local authority trading standards departments need to have a certain amount of political clout, particularly when dealing with larger businesses which have a national basis. They need a minimum of different, specialised skills, especially as regards the ramifications of some of our more modern laws such as the Consumer Credit Act. Unfortunately, a side effect of recent local government reorganisation has been the break-up, the dispersal and the dissipation of many trading standards departments among a number of smaller authorities.
It occurs to me—this may not be the perfect analogy—that trading standards bodies should be looked at more like police forces. Surely no one today in the modern world would think of increasing the number of separate police forces and splitting up their specialist detective and forensic staffs among a number of bodies. It would reduce their effectiveness to do so. It may be that, as regional government, regional development agencies and regional chambers develop, some functions now in the hands of local authorities, as well as those in the hands of central government, should be regionalised. The public would benefit from a viable regional trading standards service, and in the case of Wales and Scotland, perhaps, from a national service in each of those nations.
I see that as complementing decentralisation from Whitehall. Devolving to the regions may make more sense than devolving to local government. It is, for example, commonly thought by consumer bodies that the Office of Fair Trading should devolve some of its powers to combat rogue traders who blatantly and regularly cheat the public. In principle, that is right, 323 but it may not be sensible to devolve trading standards departments that, as a result of recent local government reorganisation, and as at present constituted, may be unduly small and poorly resourced. Their responsibilities would be better placed on the regions.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, it gives me particular pleasure to know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is replying to the debate because I remember her in my latter days in another place when she came in as a young, and, if I may say so, attractive Member. It is reassuring to know that this evening she will reply. She is still young and attractive, but she is also an expert on many matters, although not, I regret to say—as far as I am aware—on the particular matter that I intend to raise.The language of politics is the language of priorities",as de Juvenel said. My fellow countryman, the late Nye Bevan, purloined that statement, without attribution of course, saying:The language of Socialism is the language of priorities".Whichever it is, the gracious Speech spells out this Government's priorities. When I read and heard it, I became aware of one glaring omission which is one of the greatest challenges facing the Government; that is, to deal with the matter which has exercised this House, the other place and the media more than almost any other subject over the past two years: the consequence of the BSE crisis.
It is a real test of the Government's resolve. It is a real test of their approach to Europe. It is a real test of their ability to deal with a highly bureaucratic and extremely wasteful system. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, is not in his place. I wish that he were, because when I read of his appointment, I am sorry to say that although I believed that he would be a first-class Whip for the Government, I thought that he was needed on the Labour Benches in the Ministry of Agriculture, because of all people on the Labour Benches, either here or in the other place, he seemed to have a greater grasp of the realities of agriculture than anyone else.
We have rightly criticised what has been the gross mishandling of a crisis. If people want to inform themselves more about the crisis they can do so partly in summarised form in the April edition of the Parliamentary Review, which contains a good article by Professor Sir Richard Southwood who chaired the Department of Health and MAFF working party on BSE from 1988 to 1989. He said:Simple sound bites have fanned the anxieties of the European public which has signalled through its shopping habits its lack of trust in all those involved. Farmers who have never had a BSE case, having kept their animals on grass, or have lived in a country effectively free of the disease, have cried out at the injustice of it all. In Brussels and Westminster the issue has become a handy weapon for political in-fighting".That is true. The review contains other articles.
In February this year the report of the temporary committee of inquiry of the European Parliament into the handling of BSE was published. This evening I do 324 not want to go into the dreadful mistakes made in the past. Mistakes were made everywhere. Mistakes were made in this country and in Europe. It is a fair summary to say that we must take the major portion of the blame for what happened, but let us look at its consequences, and how one deals with it in the future.
The cost last year to the Exchequer of unbudgeted finance resulting from the crisis was over £1 billion. It may be possible for the Government to tell us this evening what has been the total cost to this country's budget. Let us also take the cost to the EU budget to which we are subscribers. That has been immense.
The outcry on the continent was enormous and was reflected in shopping habits, as it was in this country when the possible link with the human disease was discovered. People do not realise that beef consumption declined all over Europe and in the USA, but the decline was much greater in Germany, for example, than it was here. It decreased by over 50 per cent. in Germany. Oddly enough, farmers are complaining today about the importation of beef from Germany. If you buy in a supermarket in this country you are likely to be buying imported German meat. It is meat that they cannot sell in Germany. It is cheaper to buy German beef than British beef in this country. Farmers are naturally complaining about that.
I wish to come to the present problem. The cost to our relationships within Europe was enormous. The recriminations were great. What are we going to do about it? We need to restore public confidence throughout the entire continent of Europe. I am convinced that it will need to be a European effort and not just a British effort.
The first thing the Government should do is to take the initiative in co-ordinating all the research that has been done and to finance further research. It is no use trying to hide this problem under the carpet. I am a farmer; I have disclosed my interest on many occasions. I have a pedigree Welsh black herd, which is my pride and joy. I have reared it for nearly 35 years now. I have never had a case of BSE. Nevertheless, there are problems even in a herd such as mine. If a calf dies, I have to buy one from outside. It is difficult to obtain a calf from a single suckling herd, unless you can find twin calves and obtain one of those. You must be assured, for example, that the calf you are buying is from a BSE-free herd, and so forth.
I used to check with the Ministry of Agriculture on any calf or heifer I bought in order to discover whether they were BSE-free. A fortnight ago my farm bailiff was going to buy a calf and I telephoned the ministry to check. I said, "Look, this has been warranted free of BSE from a BSE-free herd and so on. Can I check up because I have the reference number of the herd?". I was told by someone at the ministry, "We are not allowed to give that information now. It is an invasion of privacy". It had been giving it to me throughout the previous year. Which side is it on? That appears to be extraordinary advice at the present juncture but it illustrates one of the problems in tracing animals that may have BSE.
The problem extends throughout Europe. A friend of mine was recently in Portugal and he brought back documents which the French Government were 325 promoting. The French beef industry has also been hit, but it was trying to sell its beef in Portugal. It was putting out propaganda documents illustrating how the French system of recording—ear tagging and so forth—was co-ordinated with passports and was foolproof. It is not foolproof at all and is probably akin to our system.
Our system is not foolproof because we have not had practical people dealing with it. We put ear tags into the ears of calves. My poor calves have two or three ear tags by the time they have every one that is required. But ear tags can come out. Unscrupulous people can and do remove the ear tags and replace them with others in order to mislead the public. The amount of graft and waste of public money that has occurred during the BSE crisis needs investigation. I am not suggesting that it should be done immediately, but I believe that the Government should, first, co-ordinate the research to ensure that the public know where they stand. Secondly, they should have a European effort to clear up the BSE crisis, which has affected the whole of Europe. We must all co-operate and there must be an acknowledgement that we as a country have been at fault. Perhaps the Government could indicate whether they broadly accept the findings of the temporary committee of the European Parliament, which was very impressive on the subject. By and large, it blamed not only this country, where it put the majority of the blame, but the Commission and the Council, too.
Furthermore, it is important for us to appreciate that we will not satisfy the public until we can ensure that every animal which has any possibility of contracting BSE is traceable. I am told that the only way to do that is by electronically implanted ear tags. They go under the skin and there must be transponders at abattoirs and markets to interpret them. Such a system could be applied throughout Europe. It would be costly but it would be effective. At present, every country within Europe is trying to compete with the others, saying, "Our beef is better. We have a better traceable system". If ever there were a case for Government initiative it is now and on this subject.
That is one of the real trials for the Government. They inherit the situation. When the Conservatives were in power the Labour Party was very vocal about their handling of it. It is now up to the Government to take up the challenge and to be really effective. Ministers have said, "This is a time for action. The rhetoric is over". Of all the challenges facing the Government, the test will be on European co-operation and on their ability to get our partners in Europe to work together. The Government must realise that if they want money for education it is no use having this crisis continuing for another two years taking funding from the Treasury. It will be a real test of leadership and resolve. I wish that the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, were available to the ministry.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Elis-Thomas
My Lords, I am pleased as always to follow my noble friend Lord Hooson and in particular to thank him for emphasising the BSE crisis. If anything caused those in the agricultural community 326 to defect from the Conservative Party, as they did in large numbers in Wales and other agricultural regions, it was this issue. I see my noble friend Lord Geraint nodding, which means that it must be true.
It is crucially important that the whole issue is taken out of the area of concern and misrepresentation into the area of objective evidence about the quality and standard of beef production throughout the European Union. We have been encouraged by the press reports of a positive attitude towards our new agriculture department and I hope that that can be pursued.
I wish to follow in particular the issue of sustainability and the related issue of subsidiarity that have been touched on throughout today's debate. They are closely linked. It concerned me very much, as I know it did the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and my noble friend on these Cross- Benches, Lord Moran. By the way, these Cross-Benches seem to be a larger part of the furniture than they were in the previous Parliament. I am nearly on the Labour Benches. As both noble Lords mentioned, on the first day's debate on the gracious Speech there was concern about the lack of a clear environmental agenda from the Government. That mirrors the anxieties of some of us during the election campaign. Although some of us in the minority parties were given good marks by various members of the environmental movement as regards our treatment of green issues, that was not reflected in the major general election debate. I believe that the issue of a dirty planet is much more important than the issue of clean living on the part of individual politicians. It seemed to me that the issue of sleaze applied individually appeared to be much more important than the issue of planetary sleaze throughout creation.
Therefore, we need to refocus on the issue of broader morality and concerns. We need to look to the incoming Government for a clear agenda on energy policy. As has been mentioned, their early decisions on VAT appear to be going against the whole drift of green taxes and taxes on energy consumption. I can understand why they made those decisions, but it is important for them to respond in other ways as regards eco and green taxation. They need clearly to address the issue of alternative energy and to look at the particular damage that is inflicted on the environment, not so much by wind energy, although clearly that is a sensitive issue in landscape terms, but on the exploitation recently announced in Wales of large tracts of countryside for open-cast mining. We always need to take an environmental approach which is deep rather than superficial and to ensure that we have an energy strategy which deals not only with landscape aspects but with the real cost benefits for the environment in the broadest sense of the activity that we pursue.
No clearer example could emerge now of the need for sustainability than in the whole debate about water. Water has been a political issue in the area that I come from for many years because of the flooding of the reservoirs in the 1960s. It was clearly understood that there was a water resources issue at that time. Now we realise that the extent of wastage of existing supplies is a very clear example of a lack of a sustainable distribution network. It is no use talking about 327 transferring water across river basins, with all the ecological damage that that can do to habitat and so on, while we are still seeing a massive loss of water through leakage. I was very pleased that Mr. John Prescott is taking a lead on that issue and I wish the Government well in ensuring that there is a sustainable water strategy.
But they must have also a sustainable strategy in that other area of much-needed integration; that is, public transport. Again, we need to look at the whole cost-benefit of our activity in that area. I know that criticising the private car is regarded as dangerous politically, but it is high time that we took on board the kind of vision that we heard in that most wonderful and stimulating maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rogers. His vision of the ecological city reminded me of some visions of the heavenly city. But at least that vision presents us with an alternative to the kind of cities that most of us have to live in in any part of this Kingdom or Europe these days. Therefore, we need to look at bus and rail co-ordination and the integration of public transport. Again, that is an issue which relates to subsidiarity because those integrated transport networks can be delivered only at the city level, at the village or county level.
Another aspect which the noble Lord emphasised strongly is that the obverse of the over-developed and degraded city is the damaged countryside. If we do not take on board the issue of revitalising cities and redeveloping within cities, that poses a tremendous threat of overspill and suburbanisation to the countryside. The conservation of the countryside is but the other side of the coin to the conservation and regeneration of cities. If the Government can take on board that strategy, clearly they are becoming a little greener.
In some other areas of policy which are for debate today we have seen progress already. I congratulate the new Minister responsible for education at the Welsh Office, Mr. Peter Hain, on his announcement last week about nursery vouchers. By deciding on an early abolition of nursery vouchers in Wales, the Welsh Office is only doing what some of us in this House told the previous Government to do in that Division that we had on nursery vouchers; namely, to take it out of the Bill because it was not relevant. I am pleased that the incoming Labour Government have taken that point on board and have acted upon it.
I hope that they go beyond that to ensure that there is a positive partnership between local government, the local education authorities and the Welsh Office in other aspects of education policy. We heard very clearly from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon the importance of the funding of further education as being the part of educational life which touches most people, whether in the form of initial training or for returners in the continuing model of education. Clearly we need to plan and resource much more effectively the continuing education structure in Wales among local authorities, the Welsh Office and the existing funding council.
But neither do we wish to see a further centralisation of local government functions away into non-departmental public bodies—and I declare an interest as chairman of 328 one of them—nor do we wish to see a transfer of powers up from or across from Welsh local government to the proposed Welsh assembly.
That brings me to the other issue of local or national government in the gracious Speech; that of the referendum. I do not wish to use my ammunition—that is rather a military metaphor for someone linked with the peace movement—too quickly on this issue because it seems to me rather weird, when I read the schedule to the Bill before the other place, that whereas the Scots seem able to answer two questions, the Welsh are only able to answer one, albeit in two languages. That is a conundrum to which we shall return.
It seems to me that the Government have had some clear warnings on this issue already in this debate. We had that most excellent speech in yesterday's debate from the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids. I am in danger of inviting him to join a newly formed Plaid Cymru group in this House. But he is clearly telling the Government that he sees that even within the Conservative Party in Wales now there are those who see the logic of a quasi-federal, legislative and fiscal solution to the Wales issue rather than the status quo or the option offered at present in the assembly.
Not only that, we had the endorsement by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, yesterday. There have also been other endorsements outside this House. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, has announced his conversion on this matter. That was in the Western Mail, so it may not be entirely accurate. If so, he is doubly welcome because he was a leading adviser to the Conservative Government in the very dark days, although he did some sterling work on education policy in those dark days. If he now sees clearly that there is an argument for not only a Welsh assembly but one with clear fiscal and legislative powers, then he is welcome.
Also welcome is our friend and colleague in another place, Sir Wyn Roberts, the recently retired Conservative Minister of State. He is probably the longest serving Minister in the history of any department in this Kingdom, and certainly in the history of the Welsh Office. He is adopting a very interesting position. If I understand it correctly, he would say yes to a Welsh assembly with fiscal powers but he would vote no to present government policy. If he were voting in Scotland, I presume that he would vote "Yes" once and "No" a second time. I am sure that we shall have an opportunity to hear further from him about his position.
I mention all that because it is important that the Government should realise that they have an opportunity here to operate by a greater consensus in Wales than they have sought already. If they were to put two questions on the referendum paper, it would ensure that 80 per cent. of the Welsh electorate—that is, the Liberal Democrats, the Plaid Cymru vote and the Labour vote—would have an opportunity to vote for options which reflect the policies which were canvassed at the election. That would be a very simple issue to tackle and it would be an indication of co-operation and integration.
We have had these public invitations, again in the columns of the Western Mail, from Mr. Ron Davies, Secretary of State, and again from Mr. Peter Hain this 329 morning, calling for an inclusive style of politics in Wales, an end to confrontation and an end to the over-domination by old Labour and so on. if they are serious about that, there is one simple way to achieve it; that is, to give us two questions, obviously in two languages. In that event, in Wales we could all feel confident in voting for options which should not pose any difficulty for the Government because clearly they would have a more obvious test of Welsh opinion and they could legislate in response to that referendum.
Having said all that, I am a horn-again realist on this issue. We have been here before. It is clearly an issue on which all of us involved in the politics of Welsh devolution must be prepared to compromise. I am prepared to make my historic compromise in supporting the Government's assembly, but with the one obvious condition that the Government's party also supports that assembly. It did not happen last time, comrades and friends. It must happen this time.
Having said all that, I also wish well the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, because we are of the class of '74, although I was in slightly earlier. I look forward to hearing her response to all these questions when she stands up.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Lord Butterworth
My Lords, I bring the debate back to education and to higher education and universities in particular. The gracious Speech promised a positive response to the recommendations of the Dearing Committee. We should recognise that the recommendations of that committee are likely to be very different from the recommendations of the Robbins Committee. Dearing has been given only a year in which to report and the committee did not enjoy the kind of support staff which the Robbins Committee had. That was a very formidable support staff under Sir Claus Moser, on whose research the Robbins Committee was able to rest its conclusions. Dearing must be a different kind of report.
The core of the problem for Dearing is that student numbers have gone up by over 50 per cent. since 1989 and ought to continue to expand if higher education is to deliver the highly skilled and flexible workforce needed to compete in the global economy.
The CBI has called for the age participation rate to rise from the present 31 per cent. to 40 per cent.—a rise which is by no means unrealistic when one realises that it is already at 40 per cent. in Scotland. However, universities are grossly underfunded and with unit costs falling by over one third since the 1980s, further expansion is impossible without a reform of the financial mechanism. Whatever Dearing reports will require legislation and cannot therefore be effective before the year 2002. In that case, some safety net must be provided from this year's PESC round onwards until the new scheme can be introduced, if the university system is not to be irreparably damaged.
Perhaps I may now turn to another area of concern to universities; namely, research. Research is the powerhouse which creates excellence in universities and 330 enables departments to achieve an international reputation. A crucial factor is what is known in the trade as, the QR or research element in the recurrent grant. The recurrent grant which universities receive from the funding councils, and this research element, is based upon the ratings which departments achieve in the research assessment exercise.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Committee of University Chairmen are both greatly concerned that the Dearing Committee might recommend that the QR funding line should be transferred from the funding councils to the research councils. That would complete the destruction of what is known as "the dual support system". Research councils are inevitably project-oriented and rightly so, but the research funds which universities receive from the funding councils, and which they can apply as they think fit, enable them to do so much more than could be done through the bureaucracy of the research councils. For example, the training of young scientists. Those who are not sufficiently senior to apply to research councils for their own grants are often provided by their universities out of the dual support system with the research infrastructure that they need in terms of library resources, computer facilities, equipment and, occasionally, very modest funds.
The dual support system gives the university a flexibility, enabling a comparatively small amount of research money to be deployed with maximum efficiency. The dual support system has given United Kingdom universities a head start over their colleagues in other European universities. The dual support system ensures that teaching and research are considered and planned together with all the benefits that that implies for the quality of the university system.
After Dearing, the Government will need to consider the relationship between higher and further education where the overlap of function is increasing. If entry to higher education is to be expanded, new areas for recruitment must be tapped and one obvious area is further education. The expansion of higher education in my time has done little to improve access to universities by social classes IV and V. Universities have continued to draw their students from the middle classes. The prospect of courses starting in further education and being completed in higher education is attractive to those of radical inclination.
Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me if I recount the experience of my old university, the University of Warwick. A few years ago the university entered into an arrangement with nine local colleges for a 2+2 degree in which the colleges taught the first two years like a US community college, after which the students sat an appropriate examination which provided a diploma. At that stage, students could exit if they so wished or they could transfer to the university. It has proved to be a great success. Over 80 per cent. of the students are women, mostly in their late 20s or early 30s, many of them are one-parent families with the majority being severely economically disadvantaged. Very few of them have ever held regular employment and hardly any have any qualifications post-GCSE or CSE, some not even that. Yet these students have had an extraordinary 331 record, gaining degree qualifications of similar quality to those obtained by the normal A-level entry. Many have obtained employment in the community—career possibilities which would not have been remotely possible without the 2+2 degree programme. Some of them have stayed on for research, while others have studied for further professional qualifications.
The programme works well, partly because of the close relationship between the university and the colleges through our Community University Board. The only real problem has been student financial support. I clearly cannot go into the detail this evening, but the difficulty has not arisen through students being unable to cope academically; difficulties have arisen when students have had to give up social security support for the exiguous student maintenance grant plus the student loan. That was especially the case with one-person families. In my view, the only solution is to allow mature students over the age of 25 to continue to receive social security benefits after they become students. That would be a wise investment, enabling so many of them eventually to obtain productive and useful jobs. Because these students have taken the opportunity which the 2+2 programme offers, their families—and especially their children—should not be more disadvantaged than they would have been had their parents not opted to become students.
My final point relates to a neighbouring field. Continuing education is suffering today disproportionately because of the impact of the funding cuts. Continuing education happens to receive its funds from a series of different authorities and the convergence of their separate and uncoordinated financial cuts can be disastrous for continuing education. Of course, not only does continuing education receive funds from higher education units, it also receives them from local education authorities. Moreover, the outcome, so far as concerns continuing education, of the changes to the demand-led element of further education has yet to be clarified, but it threatens to have a negative impact. Again, when the jobseekers allowance scheme is too rigorously applied, it sometimes forces the students into low paid and inappropriate jobs without the possibility of completing their courses. This random damage now being done to continuing education by different agencies is in practice a far cry from the hopes for life-long learning expressed in the gracious Speech.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I wish to repeat the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, that important objectives in education have been achieved during the period of the Conservative Government. I do not wish to argue the case. However, I support the noble Baroness in suggesting that we should build on what has been achieved. I am happy that that appears to be new Labour's plan.
The main purpose of my short intervention is to talk about the under-fives, and in particular to praise the document produced by Mr. David Blunkett before the election. If I had made a wish list of all the things that I wanted new Labour to say regarding the under-fives, I could not have done better myself. If the noble 332 Baroness will assure me that all these issues will he pushed through in the first 12 months, she will have my 100 per cent. support. If not, she may find me yapping—or even snapping—at her heels.
I wish to raise one important issue on which I have a query. On page 10 of a document involving the legal framework, a unified early years service, it states in the third paragraph that at national level they will bring responsibilities for childcare and education under the DfEE establishing an early years unit to plan and develop services. I have no problem with the childcare element, although I regret to say that it is in the equal opportunities department of the DfEE. While I have had some assurances from the department that that is not so, it gives the wrong image as though childcare were concerned only with equal opportunities for women rather than indicating that the outcomes are important for children. The plan for an early childhood unit may overcome the problem.
I am more concerned about the education of the under-fives. What does the word "education" mean? Does it simply mean nursery schools and pre-nursery education; or does it include the enormously important element of a child's learning in the family? The document states:Fifty per cent. of all learning takes place in the first five years of a child's life, much of it within the very early years".That is fairly commonly accepted wisdom although I find it hard to understand how anyone can know whether a child's education is comparable, for example, with education at university.
The commonly held wisdom is that half the child's education takes place before the age of five. Much of that learning takes place in the home because even a child in a nursery school is in the school for only between 8 per cent. and 12 per cent. of the total day. For the first three or four years he or she is not in nursery school. The parents, or surrogate parents such as the grandparents, are a child's first educator. Sometimes, often through no fault of their own, parents do not manage to make a good job of that education.
If it is true that 50 per cent. of the child's learning takes place mainly in the home in the first five years, is it not strange that the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Education start only half way through the child's learning programme when the child goes to school? I very much hope that the phraseology in the document means that education in the home, and therefore support for parents, with preparation of parents for the education process, and education for parents at other stages of their lives, will be part of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
I wish to see a seamless robe of educational provision and support from the first day of a child's life through to the day when the child leaves school and on into further and higher education and life-long learning. I believe that that seamless robe should be the responsibility of one Secretary of State. If not, the process will fall into a black hole as at present. At the moment about six weeks after a child is born the health visitor makes her last visit. As the front door shuts on 333 that last visit, the parent is terribly alone. There are voluntary organisations which seek to fill that gap. Three years ago I was instrumental in forming the Parenting Support Forum. We now have some 450 members or organisations working in the field of parental support. But that is a drop in the ocean when considering all the under-five year-olds in the country.
The cost of children who fail is enormous. Yesterday I visited a school for emotionally and behavourially disturbed children in Ramsgate. The Kent County Council pays £720 a week for education and residential care. That is £37,500 a year. If we could reduce—as I am perfectly sure we could—the number of children who suffer from emotional and behavioural disturbance by giving them a better chance in that first 50 per cent. of their learning time, it would be an enormously worthwhile investment by any standard and would probably save the taxpayer money.
I repeat this. If we really want to ensure that as many children as possible are able to complete successfully the first 50 per cent. of their learning at home so that they can be successful in the second 50 per cent. of their learning at school, one Secretary of State must be charged with the responsibility of fighting for the system in the Cabinet and the Treasury to ensure that occurs. I hope that the noble Baroness will tell me that that is what the form of words means. If not, I should be grateful if she would draw the comments that I have brought before the House to the attention of her right honourable friend.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Lord Berkeley
My Lords, we have had a wide ranging debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Blackstone not only on her appointment to ministerial office but also on how well she covered such a wide range of different subjects. It will not surprise noble Lords to learn that I intend to talk about the quality of life in urban areas and about traffic congestion, and perhaps to suggest a few solutions to an intractable problem about which a few noble Lords have spoken.
First, I congratulate the Government on the creation of the joint Department of the Environment and Transport. It indicates the seriousness with which they regard the issue that they have appointed the Deputy Prime Minister to lead it. They give the department strong devolutionary presumptions and intentions, as the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, said.
In the Labour Party manifesto there was a commitment to improve public transport and to promote walking and cycling in a nationally integrated transport policy. The noble Baroness has outlined three environmental Bills, which are most welcome. No transport legislation is referred to in the gracious Speech. I do not regret that because by encouragement and a little budget reallocation, to which I shall come later, the Government can do a great deal significantly to improve the quality of life in our towns and cities, and to persuade us that we can live with the benefits of the motor car without having our lives totally controlled by it. Lord Rogers of Riverside, in an excellent maiden 334 speech, gave us an inspiring vision of what city life might be like. However, a radical change in how we approach transport policy is required if that is to be achieved.
We must begin with the concept of an integrated transport policy. I recall that when we sat on the opposite side of this Chamber we were often sneered at by the party then in government, who said that the phrase "integrated transport policy" means nothing. I believe it means a great deal. We debated an element of it a few months ago in relation to the report of the UK Round Table, Making Connections. It is quite clear to me what an integrated transport policy means. It means having clean, safe, affordable public transport services; good connections between modes—bus, train, walking, cycling and car parking; trustworthy travel information, regularly updated, and the ability of the information systems to cope when something goes wrong, so that the public have confidence in that ability. It does not mean a war on the private car—far from it. An attractive public transport system is the carrot to encourage people to leave their cars at home sometimes, not to stop owning them.
It also means addressing the land use planning problems. Over the years the previous government encouraged many out-of-town shopping and office developments, often near motorways, most of which could not be reached other than by car. Too late, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. John Gummer, reversed the trend and discouraged such developments. But many planning permissions are still outstanding. Developers can take them up, I believe for a period of 10 years. If they are prevented from doing so, the local authority, and possibly the Government, could be liable for millions of pounds in claims. It is a terrible legacy.
The car must retreat from the absolute domination of our towns and cities that it often enjoys today, preventing as it does buses and taxis, which carry many more people within a unit of road space, from operating effectively.
We need the integration of underground, trains, buses, coaches and taxis to work so that they operate in a co-ordinated manner. That cannot be done with the severe traffic congestion that we see in London and many other large cities and even small towns.
But most of all a real change of culture is required, change that is discernible to the average voter and change which the Government can, and I hope will, set about implementing with the enthusiasm, energy and commitment that we have already seen in other elements of policy. This involves a programme of educating the public; information about the benefits; and action to start quickly.
Such a policy must begin at a local, devolved level. There must be an element of local control within a broad policy framework. I welcome the commitment to an elected authority for London with strategic responsibility for transport. I welcome all the other devolutionary measures. I hope that we can then arrive at a situation whereby local authorities, whatever their size, ranging from—one must not call Scotland or Wales 335 a local authority, but an authority devolved from Westminster—have real responsibility for spending some of their budget rather than the 10 per cent. that most authorities control at the moment.
Traffic congestion is here and is getting worse. There is only so much road space available—certainly in urban areas. It is inconceivable that many new road schemes will go ahead, since we have already seen the serious environmental disbenefit that they bring. As the House will recall, some years ago the Department of Transport published some maps (admittedly illegible) showing solid congestion in 15 years' time for most of the day on the motorways between Preston, Bristol and Maidstone. It does not take much to imagine that situation.
Professor Tony Ridley spoke to Members of both Houses at a meeting I attended in the Palace of Westminster a few months ago. He explained that there were three possible means of avoiding gridlock—build more roads to satisfy the unrestrained demand; introduce telemetry to allow vehicles to travel more closely together; or introduce traffic restraint. One or two members of the Conservative Party in another place disagreed with him. They said, "I require to drive my car everywhere". But most people understood that the problem was there and had to be solved. We have only to remember the occasion a few months ago when a lorry which was too high for the Dartford Tunnel hit a protecting bridge ahead of it and closed most of east London for six or seven hours. There was complete gridlock.
I suggest that the only course for the Government, and one which is in line with their transport and environmental policy, is restraint on the motor vehicle to allow the roads to be used by those who cannot use an alternative. That means that there must be a carrot. Where is that carrot? The most important question is: do we need to do the journey at all? Are the shops, work or school just round the corner, close enough to cycle or walk? Again it is a matter of planning, a matter of environment and transport working together.
Why not walk or cycle? Great strides have been made by Sustrans, with its millennium bid, on cycle paths and other means. But at present pedestrians and cyclists are squeezed off the road to an unacceptable degree. We have only to look at Whitehall. There are two times four lanes of traffic, usually solid, and a small pavement. There is not even a bus lane in each direction. Why can the queue not go somewhere else? It is rather a novel solution, but why should not buses be allowed in the Mall and the Royal Parks and cars be restrained? Buses carry many more people for the same amount of road space. We have to get away from the very wrong, socially divisive idea that buses are only for people who do not matter and cars are for those who do matter.
I have spoken before on the subject of bus lanes. We now have intermittent purple stretches of road punctuated by side turnings, usually blocked with a car in them, stopping the progress of the buses. The legislation already exists for continuous bus lanes and yellow boxes and could be enforced. I hope that the Government will take this matter up and show a great 336 deal more enthusiasm for the idea than did the previous Government. It could be extended to other cities. At present some bus companies are talking about two-hour delays on some routes. How can a service be run for passengers in a situation like that?
There are other schemes. A very interesting one has just started in Edinburgh. I believe it is the brainchild of Councillor David Begg, a transport convenor on the city council. It introduces a range of measures to reduce the demand for the car and neighbourhood car-share schemes. Should we not have shop deliveries at night on main roads? Lorry drivers like to drive at night on the motorway, so why should they not deliver at night, thus reducing congestion on the main roads in the daytime? That seems a pretty obvious solution.
I have given merely a few examples. But would such a series of policy initiatives have public support? In the past year or two I have seen the motoring organisations, the AA, the RAC, the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, all saying that they support restraint of the motor vehicle. Perhaps I may quote the recent study commissioned by Transport 2000 examining the barriers to transport use and identifying the areas where change is needed. There are two interesting statistics. The report states that,nine out of ten people think that public transport is an important or extremely important part of community life, but more than six out of ten do not really like using it as it now is … a third of those surveyed arc likely to respond positively to real improvements … more than half will change if they face restrictions on car use".That is a blueprint for quality public transport.
Public transport is presently at a low point. There are delays, poor quality and little information. People use the car because they prefer it. That is fine if they have one. If they do not have one, however, they suffer seriously. The distances between home and school, shops or places of work mean that one has to travel more and more. Because most people use their car, there is little demand for public transport, and therefore little supply, since the market does not demand it. We see more and more arrogance and selfish behaviour on the roads.
The Government are committed to an integrated transport system and to encouraging public transport. There are many good examples on the Continent and in the UK. There is much to do, but the thinking electorate is already persuaded—in spite of the best efforts, frankly, of 18 years of Tory rule. The costs are small compared with building motorways. Let us not forget that a couple of months ago we had a Question in the House when the previous government cancelled the entire £44 million allocated to non-package small works budgets for the current year—cycle lanes, bus lanes, safer routes to schools and so on. It was only £44 million for the whole of England and Wales and it was cancelled because road schemes had overrun their budgets. Even up to the end of the last administration, roads came before London Transport—which desperately needed the money—and other public transport such as walking and cycling. In my view, Labour has a clear mandate and I know that it can and will face the challenge and introduce the packages of measures to encourage public transport.
337 I conclude by congratulating my noble friend Lady Hayman on her new appointment and look forward to hearing what she has to say at the end of the debate.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, I start where the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, left off by congratulating both the noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Hayman, on their appointments. Perhaps I may say how delighted I and many others have been to see the large number of Labour women MPs who have been elected. I also take this opportunity, although this is not quite the right place, to record my thanks to Lady Seear, who encouraged me and many other women to play a part in public life.
I turn to the subject of today's debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I welcome the weight which the Deputy Prime Minister gives to the environment and the appointment of a Minister for Transport in the Cabinet. But in contrast to other Ministers, they have said little or nothing about their topics. Perhaps the airwaves have been crowded by others. I saw a suggestion in the press that Mr. Prescott was considering the introduction of motorway tolls. Such a scheme might help to finance the Government's other policies, but it would be a disaster for the environment because of the diversion of heavy traffic on to unsuitable roads. I very much hope that that suggestion was not true.
Similarly, there was nothing in the Queen's Speech about transport, yet the Labour manifesto, in a ringing endorsement of the party's duty to act now to protect the environment, stated that:a sustainable environment requires above all an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level".Amen to that! But some of the building blocks of such a policy surely require legislation. For example, how can the rail regulator be given extra powers without parliamentary sanction? Without such additional powers, how can targets for switching freight and passengers from road to rail be achieved?
Our belief is that existing franchises should be lengthened in order to encourage investment in improved rolling stock. If the Government share that ambition, will it be one of the responsibilities of the new rail authority foreshadowed in the manifesto? Again, how can such a rail authority be created without legislation? I fear that legislation is required for certain purposes and that it will be delayed.
In preparing this speech, I considered asking 26 different questions. However, the Minister will be glad to know that those are the only two questions I shall ask. The rest of my speech will be given to a random selection of contemporary examples of the kind of decisions which will tell us how the Government's mind is working.
For example, a current issue is the launch by Railtrack of the consultation process on Thameslink 2000. I am very much in favour of enabling additional north/south linkages to be made across London without changing trains or stations. In particular, I support improved rail access to London's airports. Nevertheless, at peak hours 338 the main purpose of the lines will still be to bring commuters into London. It is rather disconcerting, therefore, to find that as a result of £600 million of investment, there will be no new trains serving central London. Indeed, there may be fewer trains accessing Charing Cross and Cannon Street. Furthermore, trains from northern commuter towns such as Stevenage, Luton and Bedford will terminate at Farringdon, requiring commuters into the City to change onto the tube at Moorgate. One is bound to ask whose needs, the commuters' or the companies', have determined the detailed configuration of the investment.
The Government may share those doubts. If so, or if they have ambitions to assert the public interest in relation to this or other rail construction projects, it will be interesting to see what means they use to achieve those ends.
While on the subject of London, unfortunately the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, is not in his place but I wish to congratulate him on his brilliant presentation of the ideal city. Like others, I heard his Reith lecture, which crystallised for me something that I have been saying in a simplified form ever since: if London does not work, then the whole of the south-east of England does not work. It is amazing that the first time I said it, people looked at me in astonishment and thought: "What on earth is she talking about?" But gradually over the years the idea of London working properly as a place where people want to live and work and the importance that that has for the counties surrounding London has come to be supported by more and more people.
As regards transport across and within London, I congratulate the Government on their opposition to the privatisation of the London Underground. However, I note with interest that the 1996 Digest of Transport Statistics shows that in the 10 years or so up to 1995 motoring costs have remained stable or perhaps even fallen, relatively speaking, while the costs of travelling on London Transport have gone up by 38 per cent. In the fight to encourage people to transfer from private to public transport in urban centres—an objective which we support—a key determinant will be the methods which the Government use to counteract the price disadvantage of public transport over the use of the private car.
In addition to what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said on the subject of transfers, there is the problem of trying to persuade adults who have never used public transport to do so. Most people in this Chamber have grey or greying hair and we probably used public transport in our youth. We may still use it today. I exclude my noble friend Lord Tope, and one or two noble Lords on the Benches opposite who do not have grey hair.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, I was talking about the colour of his hair! The point is that large numbers of people have never used public transport or they certainly do not use it every day. It is 339 difficult to think of a system which will attract them back to any kind of public transport so long as, among other problems, the price differential is so discouraging.
I turn to the detail of the need to provide a balanced surface transport system. There are a number of issues which are, so to speak, waiting on Ministers' desks. I understand that the Government are to review the further widening of the M.25 within its existing boundaries between junctions 12 and 15. If that project is scrapped—as I hope it will be—I hope that we can be reassured that the £100 million which will be saved is spent on improved public transport and not just returned to the Treasury.
Then there is the Road Traffic (Reduction) Act, which was passed in the last days of the previous Parliament. At present local authorities have no guidance on how to apply the Act. We hope that it is the Government's intention shortly to publish supporting regulations or guidance notes. They are eagerly awaited by local authorities which are keen to have national back-up for existing or future plans to reduce traffic.
It would also be interesting to know whether the Government propose to issue national targets for traffic reduction. That requirement was part of the original Bill, but was removed in order to get the requirement for local authorities to do so established in legislation.
The promoters of the Bill have already drafted a Road Traffic (National Targets) Bill 1997. The willingness of the Government to provide time for a Private Member's Bill to that effect will be another test of their willingness to put integrated transport policies into action.
In two months' time, local authorities must make their TPP—transport policies and programmes—submissions to the Department of Transport. The departmental letter which advises them of the criteria for grants must be in the course of preparation as we speak. Will the letter reflect determination on the part of the Government to transfer funds away from major road schemes towards the smaller schemes for traffic management, park-and-ride, pedestrian safety and cycleways which they foreshadowed in their manifesto?
My impression is that regional government offices and local government in general do not expect any change in the current situation with regard to major schemes, where there have been no new local authority starts within the past 18 months. If that is the case, and if there is to be increased emphasis on package schemes, that would be welcomed by us. On the other hand, the total resources available for minor schemes, including cycle facilities, bus priorities and traffic management, whether or not as part of a package scheme, are a matter of concern.
I appreciate that Ministers cannot give us advance notice of the June Budget but I believe it is important that the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, should recognise that the ability of local government to deliver its share of an integrated transport policy and to pursue the goal of transfer of journeys from the private car to more environmentally sustainable methods depends in considerable part upon the availability of funds to carry out those policies.
340 Finally, with regard to aircraft noise, there appears to be a stand-off between the Department of Transport and the industry following the department's decision not to defend in court proposed stricter noise controls at London's three main airports. I hope that the new Minister for Transport will give added urgency to the need for constant pressure to reduce aircraft noise around airports and will look again at the formula which links landing charges with improved performance by operators in that respect.
I have given just some examples of the decisions which will have to be taken in the next few months. In a way, I give notice to the Government that the way in which they approach some of those decisions will be taken by many of us as a signal that their intentions toward creating and maintaining an integrated transport policy are real, not merely imaginary.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Harding of Petherton
My Lords, I should like to speak for a few minutes on housing and the environment.
The private rented sector in this country is very small. That is a great pity. People, especially young people, are unable to move to where the jobs are. Young people often cannot afford to buy a house; and anyway, in today's mobile world they do not want to be tied down to a particular place.
That has not happened by chance. Rent controls were originally introduced for most unfurnished lettings in 1915, as a temporary wartime measure. Tenants were also given full security of tenure. The regulation of private rented property became established on a permanent basis after the First World War. To those with a social conscience, that seemed to be fair and right. Why should a tenant be dispossessed of his house arbitrarily by a grasping and greedy landlord? Unfortunately, that policy has had the most disastrous results.
In the 73 years from 1915 to 1988, the number of houses let in the private sector fell from 90 per cent. to 8 per cent. Because owners of house property were not able to charge market rents and found it very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain vacant possession of their properties, the great majority of landlords ceased to rent out their properties. In too many cases those houses were left empty. Even today, nine years after the 1988 Housing Act, which deregulated the rented housing market to quite a large extent, there are over 500,000 privately owned empty houses. That scandalous situation was made worse every time that there was a Labour Government. Tighter rent controls and more entrenched rights of tenure were enacted by the Labour Governments of 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1979.
We now have another Labour Government, to whom I extend the best of goodwill. I welcome the two sentences in the Labour Party manifesto which say:Most families want to own their own homes. We will also support efficiently run social and private rented sectors offering quality and choice".Also in the manifesto is the remark:We value a revived private rented sector".341 Despite those remarks, I have fears that Labour's old instincts against landlords and a desire to protect tenants too much will rule the day. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, can reassure me—I do not expect an answer today but perhaps she will write to me.
The Conservative Government in 1988 took a very important and welcome step in getting Parliament to pass the Housing Act of that year. That Act set up two sets of tenancies: assured and shorthold. Those measures have halted the decline in private rented accommodation and it has expanded. However, the private rented sector has a long way to go. Despite the measures that the Conservative Government introduced to encourage individuals and investing institutions to invest in private letting, many are still reluctant to do so. I talked to a Peer in this House who is rich enough to do so and he said that he would never consider investing in the private letting market. I hope that this Government will implement the Conservative Government's plans to encourage corporate investment in the private rented sector as stated in the Conservative manifesto.
Because I have said quite a lot in favour of the private rented sector does not mean that I am against private ownership of houses. The contrary is true. The fact that more people than ever before own their own homes is excellent. I approve wholeheartedly of the right to buy policy. That still enables about 30,000 houses a year to be sold to tenants. The Labour manifesto does not mention that and I assume that the Government have no intention of repealing the right to buy policy.
I freely admit that repossession, negative equity and other ills in the housing market have caused much pain in the past few years. Perhaps some part of the large majority of the party opposite in another place is the result of that. Who knows? However, the mistakes were in the inflation of house prices in the late 1980s, not in the action to get inflation under control which began in 1989–1990.
Of course, not everyone can or will be able to pay market rents. Social housing will have to be available and more houses built at subsidised rents. Perhaps Conservative Governments in the past 18 years have not put enough resources into social housing, especially in rural areas. Maybe a little less ideology would have been better. However, contrary to the general belief, a great many homes at affordable rents have been provided in recent years: 178,000 between April 1992 and April 1995.
In its manifesto, the Labour Party says:We support a three-way partnership between the public, private and housing association sectors".My fear is that the ability of councils to use capital receipts from the sale of council houses to reinvest in building new houses, as outlined in the Queen's Speech, will perpetuate and reinforce the council house tenants' dependency culture, which Conservative Governments have quite rightly tried to change. I know that the noble Baronesses opposite taking part in this debate and representing the Government do not come from that strand of the Labour Movement, but Labour councils' power hunger and hegemony is still strong.
342 Finally, I should like to mention housing and the environment. I hope that the new Government will look at housing needs and the countryside in a broad way. There are still masses of open countryside where new towns and new villages could be built without ruining it. I disagreed profoundly with my right honourable friend John Gummer in his stated policy of forcing people by draconian planning restrictions to live in inner cities. I told him so personally not so very long ago. People should be free to live where they want, so long as the countryside is not ruined. The not-in-my-area syndrome, let alone the not-in-my-backyard mentality, is very strongly entrenched, most notably among those newly arrived in the countryside. Perhaps the Labour Government will be able to look more broadly at the problem. I hope so.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on their election success and offer the Prime Minister and all his Ministers my best wishes for the future. Perhaps I may take the opportunity also to thank all those noble Lords from all parts of your Lordships' House who have supported the disability cause so wholeheartedly over the past five years. I trust that that support will continue and burgeon in the years ahead. Certainly the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, gave me some hope with her positive references to special needs education, integration, education for children and young adults with disabilities and employment. Because of her helpful statements I shall move laterally to other problems which beset children and adults with a learning disability.
Glancing at the past for a moment, just over five years ago my maiden speech was made on the day when the issues of home and social affairs were the subject of the debate on the Address. I have chosen to speak today as the Minister of State with the responsibility for disability rights, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. are now in the Education and Employment Department. When he made those appointments, perhaps the Prime Minister had G.K. Chesterton in mind:Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another".I should like to think that the present generation is more considerate in its dealings with disabled people and their families than those of yore, but there are still many unhappy exceptions. Some noble Lords may remember that I quoted from a letter I received from the Ministry of Health way back in 1952 after the birth of our Down's syndrome daughter. The letter began:
You telephoned me on the 8th February about the services available for mentally defective children. I am assuming that the mongol child you referred to will not be capable of education within the education system and will therefore have to be dealt with under the Mental Deficiency Acts".Your Lordships will note the reference to education—of which there was none available—the cruel and offensive terminology and the general air of discouragement and discourtesy. That is why Mencap—of which I have the honour to be chairman—came into being some 50 years ago; it was parents banding together in an organisation 343 battling for the rights and recognition of people with learning disabilities and their families. The battles are not over, though the front line has moved. Even now parents still do not receive the all-encompassing advice, understanding and ongoing support which they so desperately need. Therefore our 50th anniversary appeal is aiming to raise enough money to place—in close co-operation with local authorities—a family adviser service effectively around the whole of the United Kingdom.
Each week approximately 200 parents are told that their son or daughter has a learning disability and some 1,200,000 people with learning disabilities come within the Mencap umbrella. All evidence shows that in the fields of education, employment, training, healthcare, social services, social security, housing and civil rights standards vary to an alarming degree. We no longer use the language of the past, but the problems still remain. Families are forced to approach local authorities, health authorities, education authorities, housing authorities, funding councils, and central government in the hope that their longings for open-handed and genuine community care might be fulfilled. Often they are not. Often the responses are inadequate, grudgingly given or withheld altogether. I can only pray that our new Government, through all their relevant departments, will right so many things still wrong within our society.
In the field of community care—which I define as people living where the rest of us live, doing what the rest of us do and being well supported—developments over the past five years have been patchy. There have been some moves forward for people with learning disabilities. Approximately 10,000 people have been resettled from long-stay institutions and are now living in their—and our—community. There is now a small, but growing, group of people with learning disabilities who own their own homes and who have, with appropriate support, taken on all the commitments that that entails. Some 5,000 people with learning disabilities are now in some kind of open employment, gaining greater confidence and self-esteem and contributing by their work. The new housing, training, and employment programmes announced in the gracious Speech, as well as in the statements made today by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, offer promise of further advance—subject to careful gearing.
Unhappily, people in jobs and their own homes are the lucky ones—the ones for whom community care has been a success and has enabled them to lead enhanced lives. I wish more people with learning disabilities had that opportunity. But, alas, one major change has not come about in the past five years: community care is a lottery and the service one receives depends on where one lives and the funding that one's local authority has and makes available.
Assessment and choice remain key problems. The reality for far too many people with learning disabilities is that they are not assessed according to their individual needs; they are told what they will receive from the services available. There is no choice and sometimes there is no offer. Essential services such as respite care are still denied to many people. The Disabled Persons And Carers (Short-term Breaks) Bill, which I introduced 344 in this Chamber last year, would have secured the right to be assessed and receive respite services. I hope that the new Government will look more favourably on that issue.
People with learning disabilities are also disadvantaged in many areas of health provision. Once the NHS unhelpfully monopolised all responsibility; now it too often disclaims all responsibility. Access to mainstream as well as to specialist health services is required and is too often problematic. People with learning disabilities are still being denied treatment. The recent case of a woman with Down's syndrome who was denied a heart/lung transplant is a very real illustration of that. But even basic services are still giving great cause for concern. Speech and language therapy, which is so often the key enabling children and adults with learning disabilities to communicate, falls short of requirements. I am glad that the Department of Health is looking at that and hope that the new Minister will act on the evidence his officials are acquiring.
Mencap estimates that 5,000 homes for people with learning disabilities need to be built or acquired each year for the next five years just to accommodate those leaving long-stay institutions or moving away from the care of elderly parents—often single parents. At the moment the number of places being provided is probably well under 2,000. We expect better things from the new Government's more ambitious housing plans and can offer practical advice on how housing, social services and social security can be marshalled to that end.
The Prime Minister over recent weeks has spoken about rebuilding community and ensuring that every member of society is valued. I agree with that whole-heartedly. However, for many people with disabilities "NIMBY-ism" and prejudice rule. The Disability Discrimination Act sought—though perhaps not hard enough—to modify the behaviour of employers and of those providing goods or services. But much more needs to be done to change the attitudes of society as a whole. Mencap is very ready to be involved in a further public education programme and will continue to campaign for full enforceable civil rights for all disabled people.
We had hoped for a more visible presence of that area of concern in the gracious Speech and regret that yesterday's Answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, merely confirmed that there is little prospect of any legislation in this parliamentary Session. I wish also to draw attention to the concerns about disability expressed by my noble friend in his contribution to yesterday's debate on the Address—concerns shared, I am sure, by many in your Lordships' House and of course by Mencap. Nevertheless, I am pleased that one of the relevant Ministers has already opened negotiations with disability organisations and that the Minister again today gave us further assurances in that respect.
We heard in the gracious Speech the Government's legislative plans for the coming parliamentary Session, an ambitious programme for education, jobs and constitutional change. I strongly favour education, jobs 345 and votes for people with learning disabilities. May I also make the plea that the other problems I have highlighted are not forgotten?
A healthy society is an inclusive society. An inclusive society is one in which all citizens have a valued place, with the opportunity to give what they can, uniquely, offer; and to receive what they, uniquely, need. This is the sort of society in which I, and I am sure all your Lordships, wish to live.
I shall end this speech as I started, by paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton, which is my message to the new Government: "Smile at us, pay us; pass us; but do not quite forget; for we are the people with a learning disability who have never spoken yet".
§ 8.30 p.m.
My Lords, some have suggested that I have recently jumped to a sinking ship. However, I appreciated that being an Opposition Back-Bench Peer would be quite an interesting duty. I was also sure that even new Labour was not "the answer", but it is clearly a vast improvement on old Labour. It would have been totally dishonest to jump to new Labour just because it was likely to win the General Election. However, with my family connections, and with my name, I wish new Labour well. Nay, I really hope that it succeeds in its objectives, because if it does it will be great for the country. In any case, at the moment I think that the election result was good for our democracy.
Unlike my new noble friends, I spent only a few weeks on the Government Benches, so I feel no sense of loss. What I had not calculated on was that the road transport Minister would be in this House and the interesting opportunities with which that would present me. It has recently been suggested that the hereditary Peers are out of touch. I should like to claim that I am fairly well in touch with road transport issues. Indeed, I have to declare an interest as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association, and I am not just a figurehead name. I am also closely involved with the recovery industry.
I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as Minister with responsibility for roads. I am sorry that she has temporarily left the Chamber because I think she would have found my comments quite interesting. She will obviously be bringing a fresh and clear mind to the issues, but I believe that she will be well advised by her officials, whom I know to be excellent and who will serve her well. However, with the recent changes, I shall also have extremely good advice, particularly from the Road Haulage Association. The Minister will need a little time to master her brief, but I am sure she will soon be debating the virtues of 44-tonne as opposed to 40-tonne articulated vehicles. I do not propose to weary your Lordships at this late hour with the differences.
So that the Minister knows where I shall be coming from, I should like to explore one topic in particular. I refer to what are known as cowboy operators. The worst preventable disaster this country has suffered in recent times was the Dunblane disaster. We all know 346 Parliament's response to it. Incidentally, there is no problem with the proposed legislation for a total ban on handguns. The Government have a manifesto commitment to do so and it is thus protected by the Salisbury convention. All the Government need to do is to introduce a simple Bill along the lines of the amendment we debated in the previous Session to implement a total ban. Such a Bill needs a very tightly worded Long Title. That will avoid unnecessary amendments and debate. If any noble Lord is interested in my views on this matter, he or she can study the index from the last Session.
What I am sad about is that, despite finding him so good to work with and despite all his efforts when in opposition, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will not be handling this legislation. Nor will he be answering the interesting Starred Questions concerning public expenditure on firearms legislation that will be tabled just at the time the Government find out that the public purse is not bottomless. At least we are fortunate enough to see the noble Lord on the Front Bench.
In 1993 there was a disaster at a place called Sowerby Bridge when a laden tipper truck suffered total brake failure and killed six people, including the driver, in one go. The Dunblane disaster was at least three times worse, but that kind of disaster is, mercifully, extremely rare. The Sowerby Bridge incident was totally preventable. Similar preventable fatal accidents occur frequently but, thankfully, with fewer casualties at one time.
I should like to explore and explain the problem of cowboy operators. The trouble with the transport industry is that it is highly regulated. However, those who flout the law have a significant advantage precisely because of the regulations. On top of this there is the problem of new entrants to the industry having a touching belief that their costs consist of only fuel, wages and sometimes road fund tax and insurance. Depreciation and tyre wear are novel concepts. Major repairs are regarded as disasters. The net result is that many operators are offering completely uneconomic rates, thus depressing the market rate for the job, and so they become cowboys. Sooner or later the authorities catch up with them. However, in these cases there seems to be great reluctance on the part of the licensing authorities to remove their operators' licences. In addition, the previous Government did not seem keen to impound vehicles operated without a licence. I hope that the ethos of this Government will enable them firmly to grasp this nettle of impounding, but I accept that we may have a problem with lack of parliamentary time.
Why are governments, in general, not firmer? One reason may be the mistaken belief on the part of government and licensing authorities that the removal of operator licences may deprive people of their employment. That is obviously true in the short term, but what about the industry generally and in the long term? There is a finite amount of goods to be moved. But the cowboys will have their drivers driving for too long, their vehicles carrying too much and their mechanics, if they have any at all, doing too little. In effect they are taking employment opportunities away from those who would do the job properly. But the 347 industry does not need draconian penalties for isolated problems. It must he realised that even the best operators will have technical problems from time to time. However, when the vehicle inspectorate finds serious defects due to neglect and even safety critical parts missing, it is clearly dealing with an operator who is technically challenged.
Multi-agency checks often detect offences that would cause any reasonable person to call into question the operator's good repute. Examples are the peculiar switch that just happens to switch off the electronic tachograph or the engine which by some amazing coincidence has the same serial number as one from a stolen vehicle. Another one is accidentally taxing a two-plus-three 38-tonner at the three-plus-three 32-tonne rate and happening not to notice the slight difference in vehicle excise rates. I realise that it is confusing for the Minister to have an out-of-touch hereditary Peer banging on about two-plus-three and three-plus-three articulated vehicles, but I am sure that she will soon get to know the jargon better than I do.
However, one of the worst examples of cowboy operation is the employment of a driver who is still claiming benefits. This is a despicable practice, not only because it is defrauding the social security budget, but also because the driver is often forced to accept a very low wage and is persuaded to carry on claiming benefits in order to be better off than not working at all. I am hoping that the Government's social security legislation may provide a useful opportunity to do something here in terms of the automatic loss of good repute.
Surely we need more effective and comprehensive enforcement, coupled with a legal duty on the part of the licensing authorities, so that they have to revoke the licence of the cowboy operator who flouts the law. If a cowboy is found to be continuing to operate his vehicle, it must be impounded. If that is done, the industry might he able to enjoy decent rates for the job and buy more environmentally friendly equipment and the public would be much safer.
I do not see many fundamental differences on road transport policy issues: one only needed to listen to the interesting and well thought out speech of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. It is just as well because we are both due to speak at the Franco-British transport conference next month. I agree entirely with his comments regarding priority for buses and the night-time operation of goods vehicles.
I am not so sure about the interesting contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. She mentioned the cost of public transport, but I have a horrible feeling that over the years, by subsidising commuter trains and the Underground, we have only succeeded in increasing the value of housing in the south east and its commuter belt. If over, say, the past 25 years we had increased the cost of commuter transport in real terms, the rail operators would then have been more profitable. There would then have been money in those businesses to pay for improvements and even new lines. The noble Baroness will soon jump to her feet—we have crossed swords before—and point out that this policy would increase road traffic. She is quite right, but only to the 348 extent that there is capacity in the road system to do so. It is well known that the average speed of road traffic in London has not changed much since the horse and carriage. In addition, taxation of non-residential parking may also help.
In the coming years I am sure that we shall have many interesting debates on this and other issues. However, the Minister will have to forgive me if I tease her from time to time on issues which are not her ministerial responsibility, such as London Underground. I am very pleased that she has her portfolio and look forward to providing constructive and helpful opposition for her.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ The Earl of Kintore
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, on becoming the Minister for Higher Education. In the Government's education plans I hope that there is continued support for distance learning. Distance learning has a long history: the Corinthians—who first heard St. Paul's Epistle—being an early example of this method of teaching.
I declare an interest as president of a new examining body which has close association with a distance learning provider currently introducing 20,000 students to the joys of manual bookkeeping each year. Although that is a significant number of students, I realise that it is not making much impact on the one-third of adults who say that they have done no learning since leaving full-time education, or the 80 per cent. of adults who see no likelihood of taking up learning in the next three years. These are sad statistics and distance learning could be one way of bringing people back into learning.
Employers have a responsibility for training staff and it must be in their interest to do so. Whereas large firms can provide training in-house, small firms will probably have to contract out and really small businesses have to fund their own courses and work on them out of business hours. We find that many of our students are already in work and doing their bookkeeping course as part of their own life long learning. It will be interesting to see more details of the Government's proposals for individuals learning accounts.
Students decide to study by distance learning for a variety of reasons, mainly because of existing work or family commitments, which deprive them of access to normal college-based tuition. The majority are unable to demonstrate working experience and are therefore unable to prove competence in the workplace in order to achieve an NVQ. I hope that the new government will continue to provide funding for relevant vocational qualifications which still rely on traditional assessment of competence by examination—or as I believe they are now to be known, "time constrained assignments"—to ensure that vast numbers of students are not deprived of the qualification that will give them competence to return to the workplace. This is particularly important for those people who are long-term unemployed; for those who wish to make a complete career change; or for women who wish to return to the workplace after many years raising a family, during which time the working environment may well have changed beyond all recognition.
349 As well as private providers, colleges of further education, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, have an important role to play. Distance learning students study at their own pace and at times which best suit their employment and family commitments. When they have completed their course of study students wish to take an examination quickly and are often unwilling or unable to wait for the traditional June and December examination sittings. It is here that colleges are encouraged to provide external distance learning students with the facility to sit properly invigilated examinations on their premises at times which are suitable to students, be it weekends, evenings, or during the summer holidays. It is unfortunate that many colleges still turn their backs on external students, failing to recognise the huge market that they represent. Having got the learning bug, the student is more likely to wish to continue his study, it is to be hoped for life.
I hope that the Government will reinstate the £69 million demand-led element in college funding, which was cut from the 1996–97 Budget, as much of this money was earmarked for provision by colleges to distance learning. The BBC's campaign to encourage people to become IT literate with the programme "Computers Don't Bite", the Open University and other educational programmes, are all part of learning encouragement. But there is still room in this multi-media age for cost effective training for a mass market by traditional paper-based learning. Cost can also be a problem.
Finally, I hope that the Government can find a way to support adults studying part-time and also review the threat to unemployed people losing benefit if they study for more than 16 hours a week.
§ 8.50 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to bring the House back briefly to transport policy. Clearly, there are some matters that are common ground to all parts of the House. We do not like congestion on the roads; we do not want to pollute the atmosphere unnecessarily; we wonder why so much freight must travel by road and why it cannot be moved faster and cheaper by rail; we wonder why so many cars have single commuting occupants and why buses are not better patronised. We even grumble at the enormous coaches that inch their way into London streets which were never designed for anything so large, but we never ask ourselves how they can do this, cut rail fares "stupid" and yet make a profit.
Two months ago this House debated the Second Reading of the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, which I was disappointed to miss. I got no further chance to comment since it was part of the closing down package of the last Parliament. The Act asks local authorities to set targets to reduce local traffic volumes but does not explain how they are to do so. That seems to me a pity since there are some good ideas around that ought to be advanced.
Any policy of change requires both sticks and carrots in order to persuade those involved to alter their behaviour in the new direction sought by the policy 350 makers. If we want a policy which shifts traffic from the roads to rail and water then we must change the way in which we cost and tax each mode. Most people that I talk to believe that road use is subsidised in comparison with rail. If we want a policy which reduces emissions into the air—and I presume that we do—we need to find ways to reduce the amount of exhaust gases emitted. This is not necessarily the same as reducing the number of vehicles on the road. If we could prevent congestion—where cars were prevented from moving yet their engines continued to make emissions—then we would substantially reduce such emissions.
I now declare an interest. I am president of ITS Focus. ITS stands for intelligent transport systems. Such systems are about getting messages to and from moving vehicles. We can reduce congestion. We can use the stick of road pricing and charge cars electronically to enter areas where congestion is expected. We can use the carrot of messages to drivers: "Accident: road blocked: take next left for motorway", or "Warning! You are approaching high road pricing zone", or "Spaces in car park at city centre". Such messages can reach drivers via their car speakers or as electronic road signs. We can and are beginning to make use of the bus, the underground and light rail much more acceptable to the public. I have described some of these carrots in other debates. Equally, we can use the stick to make it harder or more expensive to park the car at its destination. I would have reminded the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, had he been here that bus travellers now had some very interesting signs—Countdown in London and Stopwatch in Southampton—which told them when the next bus was coming. One can already see that in some areas of London. There are now cameras at the front of buses which will photograph the number plates of cars that transgress by using bus lanes. Those car drivers can be automatically had up for breaking the law. Bus travel is now far more satisfactory for the travelling public than it used to be.
Another way to reduce emissions without requiring compulsory reductions in car numbers is to reduce pollution levels from fuel. The electric car will be close to Utopia when it develops sufficiently. In the meantime, I note that 25 per cent. of London buses now use low sulphur fuel and that plans exist to extend this percentage significantly. I also read in the Financial Times that large parts of the world are changing to reformulated petrol, which is also known as RFG. This replaces aromatics such as benzine with oxygenates. According to one major oil company, despite being slightly more expensive, RFG already accounts for 30 per cent. of US gasoline sales. In Continental Europe it now accounts for 95 per cent. of sales in Finland. Sweden has introduced tax incentives to support it. Greece has invited the California Air Resources Board to advise it on pollution in Athens. RFG is said to become mandatory in Italy by the end of this year and in France by the year 2000. Germany is said to be interested. The Financial Times adds that in the UK national air quality strategy reviewers are assembling evidence—whatever that means. In general, the benefits that are claimed for RFG are as follows. On average, carbon monoxide is reduced by up to 25 per cent. 351 Benzine is reduced by between 20 and 30 per cent., and hydrocarbons and unburned fuel are reduced by up to 15 per cent.
In summary, emissions from vehicles can be reduced through avoidance of congestion, by improved fuels and/or by the compulsory reduction of a number of vehicles that are licensed to travel on the roads. The Road Traffic Reduction Act offers local authorities no advice on how these required reductions are to be achieved, but I have been told recently that the Government are encouraging city councils to consider congestion charging. I ask the Minister when she replies to confirm that she is offering such guidance to local authorities. I also ask the Minister whether she supports the development of products that use intelligent transport systems to help reduce congestion and achieve cleaner air for all of us to breathe.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I join the long queue of Peers who have congratulated my noble friends on their appointment to the Front Bench.
Before I embark on the main subject of my speech, I should like to say a few words on the proposed abolition of the voting rights of hereditary Peers. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees referred to the dog that did not bark in the night. The party opposite has taken to referring to the sword of Damocles that is hanging over their heads. My fear is a very different one. I fear that hereditary Peers will behave impeccably in the coming 18 months. There may be token resistance on the odd Bill or amendment here or there, but they will be positively helpful to the Government in defining their programme. The nightmare is that my colleagues in another place will then weaken in their resolve to reform this House.
The argument will be: why spend time reforming the House of Lords when there are so many other more important things to be done? If that were the argument, it would be a mistake and a lost opportunity. I am pleased to hear from the Leader of the House the Lord Privy Seal that there is still a firm intention to introduce such legislation. I am sorry to hear that he is unable to commit himself to including it in next year's gracious Speech.
I turn to the main matter that I wish to touch on this evening which I believe is of central importance to the way that we lead our lives. It is also a matter that I do not believe has been touched upon in the debate this evening. I refer specifically to the working practices of parents with children of school age and younger. I declare an interest in that I have two young children and my wife runs a charity called Parents at Work. That charity is aimed at improving the working practices of parents with children of school age and younger. I am aware that the Government are sympathetic to the aims of family-friendly working practices, but it is worth rehearsing the reasons why the balance between working life and family life needs to be redressed. In 1997 British men worked longer hours than any of their European counterparts. In some two-thirds of couples with children both partners work. That is a higher 352 proportion than ever before. At the same time, there has been a growth in the number of families without work. I am told that about 11 per cent. of families have no work at all and that adults in that position remain unemployed longer than their childless counterparts.
One aspect of our long hours culture is that men are very reluctant to identify their requirements as fathers to their employers as that may call into question their commitment to the job. While there is a good deal of media attention to the changing nature of fatherhood, for most men the reality is that this is a private matter to be worked out with their families rather than their employers. The bottom line is that parents spend less time with their children than ever before and that is undesirable from any perspective.
The Government are to introduce a number of measures that will help. I have in mind the national childcare strategy, the welfare to work scheme, the minimum wage, the 48-hour week and the enhancement of flexible working practices. There is now a range of flexible working practices which allow mothers and fathers to spend more time with their children. I am thinking in particular of flexible working days, maternity leave, paternity leave, enhanced leave arrangements and the many other options which some firms are beginning to introduce.
I should explain that I am talking not just as a new man who is a member of the new Labour Party but as one who also has his darker side. I am a manager in an international oil company. I spend much of my working week exhorting people to meet deadlines which could be described as challenging. I understand that in the commercial world there are only the fast and the dead, and that few lament those who fail, but while that may be a good maxim for people at work, it is not a way of life and it needs to be balanced against people's wider responsibilities.
It is easy to be pious about family friendly working practices. It is equally easy to dismiss them as bad for business. I hope that the Opposition will judge the Government's measures by what is good for the family as well as what is good for business. I wish the Government well in their legislative programme.
§ 9.1 p.m.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Hayman on their positions. Secondly, I endorse thoroughly what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said about family friendly work places. That is an important point. My wife was talking about that subject at a conference last Saturday. It is something which as a family we feel is important and to which I shall return later.
I shall talk primarily about housing and homelessness, a subject mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. The gracious Speech states:Measures will be introduced to enable capital receipts from the sale of council houses to be invested in housebuilding and renovation as part of my Government's determination to deal with homelessness and unemployment".I endorse that view.
353 I shall refer first to youth homelessness. There was recently a Shelter and Midland Bank poll. The pollsters talked to 1,000 young people aged between 16 and 25. They found that over 80 per cent. of them are more afraid of not having a home than of being unemployed. That strikes me as challenging and surprising. I should have thought that unemployment would have been the greater fear, but in fact having no home is the younger generation's greater fear. That is why I believe that tackling youth homelessness is an important issue.
An inquiry into youth homelessness was discussed by the all-party parliamentary group on homelessness and housing need. It is a group that I attend when I can. That inquiry came to the conclusion that 246,000 people aged between 16 and 25 were homeless at some point during 1995. That is a great proportion of people in that age group who have had a period of homelessness. It may not necessarily be for the whole year, but at some point they were homeless.
One of the problems that the inquiry highlighted was that caused by the journey from dependence to independence. It is one that young people must naturally take. At the age of 16 they will still be dependent upon their family, but by the time they are 25 they should be independent. The report found that since the 1960s the journey from dependence to independence had begun to break down. In the inquiry's view, the overwhelming cause of youth homelessness is family breakdown, which tends to result in a sudden leaving of home.
I ask the Minister whether the Government will build on the previous Government's positive support for families, whether two parent or one parent, and try to strengthen the family structure which has been deteriorating in recent years. Will the Minister say what are the Government's views on benefit levels for youth unemployed and the homeless, and how they will fit in with their new proposals for dealing with youth unemployment?
That inquiry also found that special attention needs to be paid to care leavers. There was another report commissioned by the YMCA which was carried out by Staffordshire University. It found that one in five of the young homeless had a background of local authority care. From time to time I asked the previous government about the facilities available to prepare those leaving care for life in the wider world. That often includes moving directly to independence without any family back-up.
Those reports emphasised the need for prevention—an aspect of homelessness which is given less consideration. I wonder what plans there may be for schools and other educational establishments to help educate and prepare young people—care leavers or not—on how to cope with life away from where they were living while at school, because I believe that prevention is important.
Secondly, I turn to the issue of homelessness in general. An excellent debate on the subject was initiated in January by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. I participated in that debate, but some of my questions 354 were not answered by the previous government. I believe that some points on homelessness and housing remain outstanding. I asked about the provision of 500 more direct access places which, according to an estimate of the single homeless in London, were required. One of the important points in the homelessness debate is the need to move people from the streets to direct access, into semi-independence and into independent living. That is the chain. Speaking in my capacity as chairman of the board of The Church Army, I mentioned the initiation of a new hostel in Marylebone with 100 beds. The team there aims to move women off the streets and through that chain to equip them for independent living. I hope that that will continue to be an emphasis of the new Government. The previous Government, through their rough sleepers initiative, succeeded in providing 3,500 new homes for homeless people. That was an answer that I did receive during the debate. That move was most satisfactory and I hope that the new Government will continue the work.
Perhaps in conclusion I may fire a number of questions which the Minister may be unable to answer tonight. However, I shall be happy to receive a letter in answer. First, what do the Government expect the Housing Corporation and local authorities to spend on repairs and renovations over the next couple of years? I believe that there is a great need for new housing. Secondly, will such renovations bring properties up to the current energy standards? It is important that in renovating buildings are brought up to the required standards. Thirdly, will the Government include in their plans the demolition and clearance of old houses when the standards that are now required cannot otherwise be reached? We have some ancient living accommodation in this country and there is a great need for more demolition and more building.
Fourthly, as it is estimated that 1.6 million UK homes are unfit for habitation, and the highest number are in the owner-occupied sector, are the Government considering making available grants for privately owned houses—obviously, subject to restrictions—to enable them to be brought up to standard? What is their policy on dealing with privately owned homes which are below the required standard?
Fifthly, will the Government continue to bring empty accommodation into use? Several times I said to the previous government that one of the scandals of our country was for one reason or another having so much empty accommodation when there are homeless people around. I hope that the new Government will continue the efforts of the previous government to try to reduce that scandal. They continue to say that the time for rhetoric is past and that now is the time for action. I hope that they will be able to implement that proposal.
Finally, will the use of capital receipts, which I am happy to see being used for new building, affect the Government PSBR? I believe that that was always the reason given by the previous Government for not using the capital receipts for rebuilding. How will they avoid that problem?
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Lord Quirk
My Lords, I always listen with great interest to the Minister of State in her various manifestations, but today I listened with particular interest as she enlarged upon two of the Government's education proposals: the one to raise standards in schools; the other to reform the teaching profession. The two are of course complementary in that the former depends critically upon the latter.
The Bill which brings them together will be eagerly awaited in this House and keenly scrutinised. But meantime, I hope that when she winds up this evening the Minister can assure the House that the new reforms of teaching will build upon the current work of existing agencies, offices and authorities. There should, for example, be no loss of momentum in pursuing the present consultation process towards establishing and then speedily introducing the national curriculum for initial teacher training. I would hope in fact that the TTA could be encouraged to proceed with curricula not only in English, maths, and science, but also in information technology. The agency's officers might usefully be urged also to proceed with planning a head teacher qualification and—while they are about it—to advance the process of teacher appraisal on the basis of the new standards for Qualified Teacher Status that have already been developed.
All of these initiatives will doubtless be further addressed in the forthcoming Bill: but none of them, surely, should have to wait upon its arrival in Parliament. In any event, "reforms to the teaching profession" will need to go far beyond matters of subject-specific curricula and certificates of qualification. This, I fear, is hardly the occasion and still less the hour to embark on such matters, but I wonder whether Ministers fully realise the uphill task they face in addressing—as they must—the intellectual turmoil in the educational and philosophical theories in which teachers in training are inescapably embroiled by their teachers and their teachers' teachers. Are they aware of the extent to which all teacher education, irrespective of curricular subject, is affected by the widespread orthodoxy of unorthodoxy in higher education when it comes to values, culture, taste, and the very goals of education itself: the corrosive seeping of relativism far beyond that cultivation of civilised tolerance which was once its moral justification; the widespread scepticism about—nay, contempt for—any notion of common values and shared purpose?
Let me quote from a keynote speech recently delivered to the assembled thousands of the American Modern Language Association, and now published in its journal Profession. The speech was by J. Hillis Miller, a truly eminent scholar who bears the title of Distinguished Professor of English in the University of California. This may seem a long way from an East London primary school but it is not, and the 356 lines of communication are impressively and speedily efficient. Professor Hillis Miller spoke of welcoming,the self-destruction of the traditional literature departments as they shift to cultural studies",since this shift is—as he sees it—essential in order for education to acknowledge the multiplicity of origins, backgrounds, mores, and predilections of the young: a multiplicity which is not just a feature of the group but of every individual within it.
I quote Miller again:Each self is inhabited by its 'other' or by an indeterminate number of 'others' in plural swarming. No Habermasian dialogue, conversation, or communicative discourse could or should bring all this diversity back to consensus.Mark that "should", my Lords: there should be no attempt to seek, let alone preach, consensus in values, culture, goals, judgment. And Miller follows these respectably opaque, quasi-scientific sentences with one that could not be clearer. I continue the quotation:The traditional single set of values transmitted by education is now seen as what it always was: an ideological fabrication made to serve the power of white middle- or upper-class heterosexual males".These are not the ill-considered words of some flip youngster trying to attract attention at a trendy cocktail party. They come from a scholar who has earned international respect with many distinguished books (which my students read, at my insistence) on Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thomas Hardy (though I must add that his oeuvre includes a book of 1986 entitled The Disappearance of God).
As befits a man of his eminence, Professor Miller's ideas are not parochially confined to California. Indeed, those I have quoted are not especially his ideas. They are commonplace in educated circles, everywhere. Our universities would be failing, our university teachers and our teacher trainers would be failing if they were not familiar with such currents of thought. And the by-products inevitably filter through, even to our primary schools. It is only a year or so ago since a London teacher attracted media attention by preventing her pupils from going to see "Romeo and Juliet" because it was such a flagrantly heterosexual love story. She did not invent that idea: she brought it with her from her university training, and she was unique only in the instant fame she acquired.
The balkanisation of what Miller contemptuously calls a "single set of values" naturally affects literary study with special acuteness because it directly undermines a consensual literary canon. But it has an equally devastating effect on language teaching. If literary theorists can see no principled reason for privileging (as they would say) the poetry of T. S. Eliot over the text on a sauce bottle, why should we expect language theorists to feel comfortable with a standard common language or to find it easy to say that anybody's English is better or worse than anybody else's? Indeed, the same detached irresponsibility has an analogous impact right across the humanities spectrum. History is an obvious target.
And there are other fashionable passions which affect other subjects such as maths and science: hostility to mental arithmetic since it may entail rote learning of 357 tables; the physical organisation of the classroom has an ideological dimension; as of course does the very role itself of the teacher. Ministers will have noted the sharp warning to Mr. Blunkett last week from a teachers' association on the issue of testing classroom progress.
It would be astonishing if the existence of hot controversy in all these matters did not deflect trainee teachers from acquiring the basic knowledge their job will require and from equipping themselves with the skills to impart that knowledge. But there I go again, forgetting that the very notion of imparting knowledge is itself highly controversial—yet another area in which higher education raises doubts and leaves students with them.
Ministers will have to exert vigorous and courageous leadership if, after 30 or 40 years of relativist individualism run riot, we are to recover in higher education teacher training circles some consensual common sense. Ministers would not find themselves alone in thus seeking to reconstruct the deconstructed. The current issue of Daedalus, journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, contains several articles making the intellectual case for the common citizen's common sense middle ground that harmonises tradition with innovation.
On 8th May, the King of Spain made a presentation at Aachen to Roman Herzog of the Charlemagne Prize, an earlier recipient of which was Winston Churchill. In his acceptance speech, the German President spoke of the urgent need to build a moral and intellectual superstructure on the foundations of classical antiquity, along with our common traditions in religion, humanism, and post-Renaissance enlightenment. If President Herzog can speak of "our common culture", with the whole continent of Europe in mind, with all its variety, it is surely not beyond the wit of the Anglo-Saxon communities to advance arguments which reassert a sufficiently common culture to imbue education and the teaching profession with a sense of enthusiastic common purpose—arguments that can above all reconcile the neighbouring injunctions of St. Paul to the Thessalonians:Omnia probate: quod bonum est tenete".
§ 9.23 p.m.
The Earl of Clanwilliam
My Lords, this is not the first time that I have used the environment debate on the gracious Speech to hold forth upon the subject of organic farming. I am sorry to have to inform your Lordships that tonight is no exception. I should say that I have received a very charming letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, who unfortunately cannot be here. She has kindly encouraged me in my efforts.
I should like first to join in the many congratulations that have been expressed to the Government on their success in the polls. Perhaps I may remind them of the manifesto promise that they made to support organic farming, albeit with the caveat that such reform would follow reform of the Common Market. I am not too sanguine about the possibilities of the outcome of discussions of that 358 nature with the Germans and French. If we are not to wait until doomsday for the achievement of that promise, perhaps I may suggest that the Government could make it good by promoting extensive farming—if not the demanding processes and rules required by the Soil Association.
I speak as a patron of the Soil Association. The fact that I am unpaid may lend some credibility to my remarks. It may be that the rules of the Soil Association are too strict for some farmers, but those who adhere to those rules will have the benefit of the most profitable improvement of their basic resource—the soil itself. That is a claim of tall order; I shall substantiate it in a moment.
As regards organic farming, there has been a mind block in the thinking of the Treasury on the theory that organic subsidies are different from other agricultural subsidies and that organic farmers would be unfairly supported—as if the common agriculture policy was not the most artificial method of supporting farmers to set aside their land and to adjust the market by acreage payments! The CAP is not only unfair; it is monstrously immoral. I assure the Government Front Bench that any efforts they make towards reforming that policy will have my strongest support.
Nevertheless, organic farmers throughout Europe are being supported by the Organic Aid scheme at twice the rate of our own farmers on the basis of Commission-designated rates of support on a one-for-one basis. There at least is an excellent opportunity for the Government to redeem their pledge in the manifesto which they are rightly keen to promote and which reflects New Labour's promise of honesty. In welcoming both noble Baronesses to the Front Bench, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether she can shed any light on the disparity in the prices obtained by European organic farmers and by our own farmers.
It is often proposed that the exponential increase in world population means that intensive farming alone can compete with the problem. But that is demonstrably untrue. I shall not retread all the arguments today. They are clearly and accurately demonstrated in the Green Study on Sustainable Agriculture commissioned by the ODA from the International Institute for Environment and Development and published in June last year by the ODA.
Among the many important points the report makes, it confirms, as if we did not know it already, that during the past 50 years the growth in the use of pesticides, machinery and animal feedstuffs has substituted for natural control and resources, rendering crops more vulnerable and requiring ever more pesticides to control pests, weeds and diseases. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, indicated a multitude of dangerous chemicals in the environment all of which are specifically denied for use by any member of the Soil Association, or any organic farmer farming under Soil Association rules.
The farmer has been replaced by the input supplier. That is a nice new politically correct name for the 359 agro-chemical salesman. A section of the report is entitled Myths about Sustainable Agriculture. It states:The most common characterisation is that sustainable agriculture represents a return to some form of low technology. 'backward' or 'traditional' practices".The report continues:This is manifestly untrue. Sustainable agriculture implies an incorporation of recent innovations that may originate with scientists or farmers or both".Developing countries are naturally the greater users of sustainable agriculture in its traditional sense. It is all that they can afford. In a small survey of 23 countries, nearly 2 million households were estimated to be farming 3.4 million hectares. That is not a huge number. All were developed in the past 10 years. It is a remarkable fact that only 10 years ago there were 5,000, not 2 million, such households. That is how the problem of feeding the world will be overcome, and we should be in the forefront of that battle. The knowledge is there in the rules of the organic farming and horticultural organisations. It follows that we should promote those organisations.
It is true that there is an initial drop in productivity for those converting to extensive farming over the first five years. However, the paper demonstrates that in the United States—hardly an emerging country—the top 25 per cent. of sustainable farmers have better gross margins and better yields than the top 25 per cent. of conventional farmers. That position is reflected in the well-established UK organic farms, which are seeing improved cereal yields of over three tonnes an acre and 6,000 litres per dairy cow per annum. So organic farming is not only possible; it is profitable. All the contemptuous condescension conveyed over the years by the agro-chemical industry has been blown away by this report.
Much has already been done. There is movement, started by the last Conservative government. It was during their administration that the demand for organic products built up when MAFF started the ADAS campaign which provided farmers with a helping hand to convert to organic systems. There has been some success. However, the limiting factor of cost has been a brake on progress. Meanwhile, the retail demand that has built up has been satisfied as to 60 per cent., or £120 million of adverse balance of trade per annum, as the supermarkets (which are willing to stock the produce) are forced to fill the gap with imports. I pray that this little titbit of savings may induce the noble Baroness to set about the Treasury's moral scruples and grant to converting farmers the same incentives as are accorded to them by our rivals in Germany and Denmark.
In a previous speech on the rural economy, I looked forward to the reform of the CAP and quoted the old couplet about there being,a tide in the affairs of men",which ought to be taken at the flood. Surely today New Labour's tide is in flood. I hope that they will take up the challenge that I have identified. They will certainly receive my support.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, perhaps I may echo other noble Lords in congratulating the Ministers. Women are well represented in every sense of the word, not only by the new Government but particularly in this House. We are all accustomed here to the expertise of the two Ministers addressing the House today. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and I go back rather further. I admired her at Cambridge when she so well represented our sex, especially in the Cambridge Union at a time when we were two out of seven women on a course of 200. All the rest were the 1960s equivalents of "grey suits"—blue jeans, I suppose.
I realise that I have been sitting today in the place that was occupied until so recently with such distinction in every sense by Lady Seear. No one was more supportive of women. She was a great role model and indeed a great mentor to me. No one was more dismissive of the advancement of women other than on merit. She, too, would have welcomed the Ministers' presence.
Lady Seear would also have welcomed giving schools the tools for the job, to echo a comment made by my noble friend Lord Tope and the right reverend Prelate. She would have asked very perceptive questions. Indeed I am sure that before her death she was asking "How?" of much that was in the Labour Party manifesto, and would have asked much the same of the announcements made through the medium of the Queen's Speech.
The Labour Party has tied its hands as regards the use of income tax. one of the more efficient and fairer taxes. Although the reference was made late in the election campaign to the use of lottery money, it presents something of a dilemma. The public told all politicians how well they saw the crises in the health and education services and the funding that was required. Like others, I put down a marker that I would not wish to see the use of lottery money as the thin end of the wedge towards core funding of any of those services.
I have to say that although there was little that I agreed with in the speech of the noble Lord. Lord Henley, I felt that his questions about assisted places, particularly the availability of funds arising from their abolition, were apposite. We on these Benches believe that the funds are likely to be inadequate for what is intended to be achieved by them. My noble friend Lord Tope seems to have had much the same experience as I did during the election campaign, finding voters who rather hoped that there were some promises that the Labour Party would break; for example, promises regarding taxation and the funding of education.
My noble friend referred to concern about class sizes throughout the primary sector, though he accepted that the earliest years should be those to have the first priority. I have a problem in understanding how one can deal only with part of the primary school population, a population of four or five to 11 year-olds. Primary school organisations tend to require a whole-school approach. It would be quite difficult to avoid restructuring within schools if it is the early years within a school that are to benefit from lower class sizes.
361 Parents in my own area of south-west London would be happy to get their children into classes of rather more than 30 if they could get them into the school of their choice. There are issues of standard numbers and the adequacy of buildings to be addressed, but most particularly the Greenwich judgment to which my noble friend alluded. It deals with parental choice—if it really is choice—without regard to LEA boundaries. It causes bad feeling. Last night at a public meeting in my own authority I was tackled about bussing children to Richmond from Brixton. I do not believe that that happens. If it did, it would amount to a substantial vote of confidence, quite rightly, in the education offered in Richmond. But the mythology illustrates the dangers in public perceptions, if it is thought that children can be bussed across a couple of LEA boundaries.
We need to look at class sizes and nursery vouchers as closely related because it has become obvious over the past few months, after the introduction of nursery vouchers, that they affect parents' choice of school. I was interested to hear the Minister say that vouchers would not be issued beyond the first term of next year. I understand that to mean that they will not have effect beyond December. I should be grateful if that could be confirmed. The Minister also said that the Government want to avoid unproductive wrangles about structure, and we all agree with that. But I wonder whether the introduction of foundation schools will mean that there are no wrangles.
The gracious Speech referred to the development of a new role for local education authorities and parents and the establishment of a new framework for the decentralised and equitable organisation of schools. Decentralised or devolved, I wonder. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, referred to the partnerships which are so important to the good working of schools. I wonder about the role of school governors. How are class sizes to be reduced while governors' autonomy and independence are retained? How are they to relate not just to the local education authority but to the Department for Education and Employment?
We were accustomed to hearing the previous Government talk about their "light touch" approach. I have to say that it often seemed to me to be the abandonment of responsibility to any given quango. I hope that this Government's hand will not be too heavy. Reference has been made to that with regard to homework and also how each subject is to be taught. We shall expect to preserve the independence of governors, who have such an important role in ensuring the success of their schools.
I shall presume to respond to comments made today on the subject of agriculture. I do not apologise for my urban background. There is much that I need to learn about agriculture. But I learnt one thing; during the election I listened to "Farming Today"—elections change one's hours of working and one's listening habits to some extent—and I heard a comment made rather in passing after negotiations over fishing rights. It was to the effect that the UK had lost out because it was unable to negotiate as a full partner. That was a political point which, as it happens, was not made with 362 any particular political energy. However, I agree with my noble friends Lord Beaumont and Lord Perry of Walton about the importance of feeding the world and that competitive squabbling between nations and even between partners is secondary.
Transport is another of the many topics for today's agenda. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred to the support of motoring organisations, unusually perhaps, but very sensibly in my view, for the reduction of car use. I realised the importance of that during the passage of the Road Traffic (Reduction) Act at the end of the last Parliament. The noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, is quite right. That Act is only a start. It requires planning for traffic reduction; it does not tell local authorities how to do it. There is far more work to be done and much to be achieved in that area.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I welcome the amalgamation of the Departments of the Environment and of Transport, although one has yet to see the hard edge which may result from that. I hope that there will be one. Transport and the environment were notable by their absence from the Queen's Speech. I hope that we shall hear more in the forthcoming Budget. We on these Benches believe that an environmental approach should be integral to fiscal policy. Certainly, having listened to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Moran, I feel that they share something of that approach.
We know that it is proposed to reduce VAT on domestic fuel. I should prefer to have seen a home energy insulation programme—perhaps as well but perhaps in place of that reduction—as being a more effective programme financially. It would also reduce CO2 emissions instead of making them more affordable. We look forward to measures which will combine better transport and better use of energy for users as well as for everyone else, including those who breathe the air affected by the transport which runs on our roads.
I speak as speaker number 30 in this debate and perhaps as the one who will concentrate more than others on certain aspects of local government, which, again, were largely missing from the Queen's Speech. In particular, my question—perhaps a rhetorical one—is: how will local democracy be written into this Government's programme? We heard about decentralisation, including regional development agencies: decentralised to whom? How will that lead to regional chambers and assemblies, which were the subject of the joint consultative committee of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats that reported shortly before the election? That committee on constitutional reform agreed on a stage by stage approach and proper accountability.
This week, I read a report in the Local Government Chronicle of comments made by senior Labour councillors, who seemed to draw no distinction between quangos and democratic institutions. It contained comments such as,The most likely first step would be to set up a RDA which we have already created in waiting".363 But again it seemed to argue against moving on to an elected Chamber—indirectly elected perhaps—let alone a directly elected assembly. I presume that after the results of the last election the Labour Party will feel that there is something to be said for elections.
There are questions to be asked concerning the boundaries of the areas which will come within the remit of each development agency. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, mentioned the problems in the West Country and the use of Bristol as a centre (if it could be said to be a centre) for the west of our country. He described the different problems arising around that region; and one perhaps needs only to think of what may be an appropriate minimum wage in Cornwall at one end and Wiltshire at the other to understand the different pressures and the anxieties of people living in Devon or Cornwall who would object to being run from Bristol just as much as they would to being run from London.
Is each regional development agency to have the same powers? How are the boards to be composed and how are they to he accountable? The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, referred to political clout. He was talking of trading standards officers. But political clout is important and I hope that the regional development agencies' clout will be that of local politics and not that of Whitehall or Westminster politics.
I welcome the support for effective land-use planning. I should perhaps declare an interest as president of the Town and Country Planning Association. We certainly need to use our cities better, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, reminded us. We need a debate on what is needed as well as on the numbers. The noble Lord, Lord Rogers, referred to new settlements. There may well be an argument for some new settlements. However, I am aware of how difficult it is to create a new community from scratch. A community by definition is organic; it grows from the bottom up and I am instinctively unhappy at too centralised an approach.
Part of the objective of development agencies must be housing. In the huge department which has been created I wonder whether housing can be taken as seriously as it should be. The Big Issue—a very readable publication; indeed, I believe its readership is considerably more than that of The Economist—last week asked an extremely pointed question. It commented that zero tolerance deals with the symptoms and not the causes. We on these Benches will certainly support the Government in tackling the causes of homelessness. My noble friend and I feel that perhaps the only thing about which one may have zero tolerance is zero tolerance itself—but that is another debate.
We look forward to plans to reverse what I regard as the reverses of the last Housing Act, in particular the right to a permanent home. Tackling homelessness is both an urgent and important matter and "crisis" is not too strong a word to describe the situation. In saying that, I recognise that it must be tackled through far more than one of the Government's departments. The benefits system has done much to make the homelessness position worse. But that is a matter for another department and for the Government as a whole. In 364 relation to the question of responsibilities of other departments, perhaps I may say in parenthesis—though it is important shortly after an election—that ensuring people who are homeless do not lose the right to vote should not go off the agenda.
We support the phased release of capital receipts—that was in our manifesto also—but it raises questions; for example, how will the loss of interest that the receipts ensured came into local authority budgets be replaced? They are an integral part of local authorities' revenue budgets. How will the fact that receipts are in the wrong places be tackled if one is assessing where new homes are particularly needed? Indeed, not every authority has receipts. The question of the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, about what is estimated to be achieved was a practical way of raising these points. If the Minister intends to respond to him by letter, I should be grateful for a copy of the letter.
Whether or not capping will be lifted is a related question. How will the Government approach local authorities' powers generally? Will they be tough on borrowing, or tough perhaps on the causes of borrowing? Are local authorities to be allowed to determine their own borrowing? I do not quite recall how the noble Viscount described capital restrictions, but my approach is rather more cynical than his. I should have thought that capital restrictions on local authorities are something to do with local authorities' power and not to do with what might be achieved in building terms. However, I agree with him that the use of capital receipts and matters of capital are closely related to the PSBR. Until we distinguish investment—that is a very respectable term—from revenue—in other words, running costs for the purposes of PSBR—we will not get over the difficulties.
I was interested to hear that there will be a local government supplementary credit approvals Bill to enable the expenditure of government receipts. Supplementary credit approvals are about borrowing, so I think that we on these Benches will approach the Bill when it is published with a bell ringing in our heads—if not an alarm bell, at least a warning bell—that local authorities' powers must be protected and enhanced.
Finally, in London, we shall be very much exercised by the proposals for a new authority and a mayor. We welcome London government for Londoners but we are determined that it should operate democratically. We shall be concerned to see the relationship between the mayor and the authority. The cynical might say that the creation of an executive mayor will mean that a London authority is no real opposition to central government because it will be an authority without real teeth; that is, if power resides in the mayoralty. Most importantly, we believe that a mayoralty must not be a substitute for democracy. Personality politics may be very well in its place but it is not an alternative to proper democracy. If a mayoralty is such a good idea, why have the Government not thought to allow pilots elsewhere?
Most immediately, we shall be interested to see whether the Boundary Commission is to be instructed to consider boundaries within London as a basis for election to the new authority by proportional 365 representation. That question is being asked in the context of concern about the next European Parliament elections. Unless the Boundary Commission is instructed to change the basis of its work—it is about to start work on boundaries for the European Parliament constituencies—it will not be possible to achieve PR for the next European Parliament elections.
I come back to the question of how. As my noble friend Lord Tope said, we on these Benches will be supportive of many of the Government's aims, but we will ask how they are to be achieved. Our role will perhaps be to encourage the new Government in their ambitions.
§ 9.54 p.m.
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to add my compliments—one in reality and the other in expectation—to the two noble maidens on the Front Bench, both formidable parliamentarians, to whom I shall doubtless not enjoy listening on many occasions in the future because of the power with which they will advance arguments with which I disagree.
I also apologise that, in what I hope will be a relatively brief speech, I shall not be able to cover many of the areas raised by my noble friends let alone by other Members of the House. I shall skate reasonably briefly over the many subjects which we have discussed today.
I look back on our 18 years in government with a great deal of pride at what we have achieved in the areas we are talking about today. I believe that we have an outstanding record on the environment. One of the most crucial changes that we made concerned rail privatisation. I am delighted that that is now supported by the new Government. I am particularly proud of what we achieved in education. As has been recognised by the new Government, in that area there is still a great deal left to do.
So I approach the new Government's programme with much hope which I am sure is shared widely in this House. We shall have the new Government with us for a long while. They have set out in their manifesto a number of programmes with which we can heartily agree. For all our sakes we have to wish them the very best in achieving them and do what we can to support them with our reasonable advice tempered perhaps sometimes by a feeling that they are taking the wrong direction, but recognising the mandate that they have from the electorate.
The noble Baronesses will not be surprised that in my case at least the hope is tempered with some doubt. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, set out in some detail the sort of practical difficulties which the Government will face in translating their aims into reality. Personally, I found myself sometimes looking with what may be described as cynicism at some of the things which have been said; for example, the phrase at the beginning of the gracious Speech that,My Government intend to govern for the benefit of the whole nation".One merely needs to think of those who enjoy the innocent sport of shooting with handguns to realise that there are going to be exceptions to that. To that one 366 might add the inshore fishing community whose livelihood will not be supported at the International Governmental Conference in the way that it would have been had we been the government. There are indications that the Government do not include within the whole nation people who live in the country and who enjoy country sports. One could go on. In rather a curious way, it seems that the poor may be included among the people who will not benefit from this Government. One of their early actions is to abolish the assisted places scheme which benefits the poor, in order to give the money to those who have their children in large classes. As the noble Baroness will know, they are concentrated in the richer parts of this country.
At this stage I do not think that it is right to be overborne by cynicism. We should all raise a large cheer for the great task which the Government have set themselves in education; namely to raise the standards of all 11 year-olds to those which we require. That is a tremendous ambition and target and we wish them very well with it.
There is another education target which caught my eye.We wish to build bridges wherever we can across education divides. The educational apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system".I could not agree more. I hope that the strength of the independent system and that of the state system will be able to find better ways of coexisting than they have at the moment. That is why I find it surprising that the first action taken by the Government should be a step in exactly the opposite direction by separating the two systems again and returning the private system to what it was before we embarked on our reforms—a ghetto for those who could afford it.
We must welcome the overwhelming conversion of the Government to the policy which they are now pursuing which, through long years, they opposed while we were in government. Doubting people remain, as was made clear to those who were here to listen to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. One saw Old Labour with all its old prejudices—that the solution to every problem was to spend a lot more of other people's money on it and that where prejudice and evidence confronted each other prejudice survived. Surely, the noble Lord has seen the original researches on the effect of decreasing class sizes on performance. He will know that between the ages of five and seven there is a significant result. He will also know, particularly from the American studies, that beyond that stage a 50 per cent. increase in expenditure to reduce class sizes will achieve a 1 per cent. increase in performance. That is the result of the big studies. If that is the best that the noble Lord can find to do with our money I am glad that he is not in government.
I understood from the speech of the Lord Privy Seal that the minimum wage was on the menu for today's discussion. I am surprised that it has not been raised by any other noble Lord. I am informed that I have misunderstood the position, and I will pass over it. 367 Certainly, the London referendum is on today's menu. One sees an interesting passage on page 35 of the Labour Party manifesto:Following a referendum to confirm popular demand, there will he a new deal for London".This sounds rather like, "We will try him and then hang him". I hope that it will be a referendum in which the issue is in doubt and the decision is left to the people of London. I hope that if the vote goes against the Government they will accede to the referendum and not push ahead with an authority for London against the wishes of its people. I shall be very disappointed if that is not so.
The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, raised the matter of the Welsh being allowed only one question but the Scots two questions. The English are allowed none. However, they are expected to continue to pay very large additional amounts to both Scotland and Wales despite the devolution of powers to those two principalities, which presumably will continue to have excess representation in the Westminster Parliament. The English may have something to say about that in due course.
Disability was certainly a subject covered in some detail today. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said that no one should doubt the Government's commitment. I shall wait and see. Actions speak louder than words. Although the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, had offered promises, I heard nothing that could be construed as a promise. But the manifesto says that within a decade every child will leave primary school with a reading age of at least 11. Does that apply to those with learning difficulties—in which case I say hurrah but ask how—or are they not considered to be proper children? I should like an answer to that question.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, touched briefly on the question of local authority capital receipts. That is an area that puzzles me as it puzzles the noble Baroness. I understood from what I read in the newspapers that Peter would be robbed to pay Paul and that those authorities that had capital receipts would be donating them generously to authorities which needed the money to build houses. We shall wait and see. I remain as puzzled as the noble Baroness.
Referring to the Government's plans for local authorities and local government, we shall wait to see what happens here too. One notes some interesting phrases in the manifesto:Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government, and also more accountable to local people. We will place on councils a new duty to promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their area. They should work in partnership with local people, local business and local voluntary organisations. They will have the powers necessary to develop these partnerships. To ensure greater accountability, a proportion of councillors in each locality will be elected annually … Although crude and universal council tax capping should go, we will retain reserve powers".There are some interesting areas for exploration. There is nothing in the gracious Speech or in what has been said today about how those proposals will be developed. But in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I may have glimpsed a picture of what may be intended: we 368 may be moving towards regional chambers and unitary government below that, with powers moving away from Westminster to those regional chambers; away from Westminster to Europe; and with Europe having a direct connection with the regional chambers in the way that it may wish. That may be the way in which the Government are looking at its development, but we remain in the dark about that. I shall follow the development of that question with great interest.
We hardly touched the issue of housing, which is clearly a major part of that area of government. There are commitments in the manifesto on commonhold and gazumping. Questions were asked by my noble friend Lord Harding of Petherton and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I shall listen with interest for the answers, without any great expectation of getting any. There is also the whole area of the environment. It is difficult to understand how the reduction in VAT on heating fuel corresponds with an environmental policy on the greening of the planet; but doubtless that will one day be explained to us.
On transport, my noble friend Lord Attlee gave an illustration when talking about cowboy operators of how difficult it is to operate a statutory licensing system, something which the Chancellor will doubtless find in due course as he tries to operate the new statutory system for the regulation of the financial services industry.
Nothing was said about the fate of London Underground. Perhaps I may hope that the Government's conversion to privatisation and its benefits will he reflected in their plans for that great and important facility for this capital. If not, how do they intend to provide for the required finance? I look forward also to hearing the answers to the questions raised in Lord Chelmsford's fascinating speech.
I turn briefly to regional development authorities and to the many questions asked by my noble friend Lord Arran. The questions I add to that are: will those regional development authorities be as well funded as those in Wales and Scotland? If so, how much will it cost? If not, why not?
To turn to agriculture, I enjoyed the speech of my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam, particularly because I do not have to answer it. I have tried that too many times to have any hope of satisfying him. I look forward to seeing how well the Minister can do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, may know, or otherwise she made a rash promise when she said, "We shall make early progress on BSE". We would leap for joy were that to be true. I hope that it is, but I shall be enormously surprised. As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, it is a new opportunity—an opportunity to start again and to re-write our relationships with Europe, although there are those of us who are cynical about such things. But none of us would be anything other than delighted were it to turn out that Europe will now treat us on the matter of BSE in the way that science, equity and proper, good relationships demand.
369 There was some discussion by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and my noble friend Lord Wade of Chorlton about regulation by labelling and choice rather than by forcing immense additional costs on food producers to fit in with theoretical risks. The Government will face considerable difficulties in that area when they come to devise their new food agency. How will the consumers' interests, as typified by some vocal pressure groups and the industry which is also vocal and effective, be balanced so that the general public will believe that it is being looked after? I hope that the Government will understand the need to inform the public, to tell them what the real risks are and to allow them to make their own decisions rather than trying to play nanny. If they go down that route it will be immensely expensive for all of us.
My noble friend Lord Wade raised what was to me the new and alarming prospect of crocodile genes in chickens. That is not good news for henpecked husbands! I cannot resist the chance to conclude with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. He raised matters not touched upon elsewhere. Of course, hereditary Peers will, as always, behave impeccably. One hopes that the Government will take the time which they have allowed themselves to produce, if they will, some better thought out proposals for the future of this House. As regards changing and feminising work patterns, it seems to me that one of the principal characteristics of the female workforce as a whole is the wish to find it easier to return to work aged 45. Any progress made in that direction would be greatly welcomed by me!
§ 10.11 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for the Environment and Transport (Baroness Hayman)
My Lords, it is both a privilege and a pleasure that my first speech from the Dispatch Box should be in response to such a wide-ranging and well-informed debate. In anticipation of the wide-ranging nature of the debate, I tried to receive an extremely comprehensive briefing and in the time available I shall try to answer as many as possible of the individual points that were raised. Furthermore, as is appropriate, I shall write to noble Lords regarding specific questions, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Harding.
Some of the issues raised in tonight's contributions have been outside the main topic of the debate. For instance, I refer to the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, on Welsh devolution and by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby on the voting rights of hereditary Peers. However, I am sure that my Front Bench colleagues will read those contributions with great interest. The comments of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby about the long hours culture and its dangers will not be badly taken by the House at this point in the evening.
Despite the comprehensive nature of the briefing, and rather like the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I am afraid that the British Civil Service, which in my short 370 experience has served me so well, has failed in respect of crocodile DNA and the sexing of chickens and even about hermaphrodite frogs. I fear that I shall not have a great deal to offer the House tonight on either of those subjects.
Today's debate was also marked by an outstanding maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that it reflected not only his distinguished professional expertise but the personal values that inform his views with which many of us would be proud to be identified. We look forward to hearing more of his eloquence and vision in the future.
I turn to education, which was at the heart of the opening speech of my noble friend Lady Blackstone and which has formed a substantial part of today's debate. Our proposals represent the most comprehensive package of measures we believe ever to be put forward to raise standards. We believe that they will impact on all school age groups. The noble Lord, Lord Quirk, in his fascinating speech, called for some consensual commonsense. I hope that we may be able to provide even a little of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, who until now had responsibility in these areas, asked an inordinate number of questions. I shall not say that he is an old dog, but he did tell us that he is learning new tricks. The noble Lord will understand that if I covered every question that he asked I should not be able to reply to any of the questions raised by his noble friends, let alone other Members of the House. However, there is one point on which I can give him reassurance and a firm commitment. The Bill to withdraw the assisted places scheme will receive proper and correct parliamentary scrutiny by both Houses. In that event, he may feel rather more relaxed and feel that the questions which he asked will be covered in the lengthy debates that we shall no doubt have on that subject.
Many noble Lords have been extremely generous in their welcome to both my noble friend Lady Blackstone and me. However, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, qualified his welcome with sympathy as regards the breadth of my responsibilities in this House. I feel much the same about Opposition speakers offering sympathy as I do about Greeks bearing gifts. I assure the noble Lord that I look forward to being in the House a great deal and covering a great many important subjects. If the House does not tire of me, I shall not tire of being here.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is not tired of me already. He has a long haul ahead of him.
I turn now to some of the specific points that have been raised on education in today's debate. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out, rightly, that much work has been undertaken already to raise and improve standards in education. That point was made by other noble Lords. There is nothing that we wish to do to undermine that progress. Rather, we wish to build upon it.
371 But I have to say that we still lag far behind our European competitors. International comparisons show clearly that our children are performing at a level well below that of many of our economic competitors in both maths and English. As my noble friend Lady Blackstone highlighted in her opening speech, we are determined to raise standards, starting with literacy and numeracy. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced recently very stretching targets in that area.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked also what savings would be released by the withdrawal of funding from the assisted places scheme. We estimate that between £20 million and £50 million will be saved in 1998–99 and 1999–2000 respectively. That will help to fund our priority of reducing class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds, the priority group.
The Audit Commission estimates that nearly 900,000 places remain unfilled in our schools. Not surprisingly perhaps that was not highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in his speech. But it means that there is ample scope to accommodate those transferring back into the state system.
I am happy also to be able to respond to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on the Government's plans for the withdrawal of the nursery vouchers scheme. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also raised that issue. We shall make an announcement shortly which will deal in detail with the points that they raised.
Several noble Lords commented on the importance of early years education. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, stressed, and rightly reminded us of, as he often does, the importance of those very early years. We have asked local education authorities to produce early years development plans. Those will set out their proposals for three and four year-olds.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon referred also to the importance of parents participating in their children's education both at school and, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, before school. It is a subject dear to my heart and as someone who is just about to finish taking my fourth child through primary school, I have no illusions about the importance of getting parents involved in the very basic partnership between school and home in developing those important fundamental, basic skills. At the end of going through the reading scheme of The Village with Three Corners for the fourth time, I have to say that if I ever had to do it again I might go completely mad.
The right reverend Prelate voiced his disappointment at the absence of any reference in the Queen's Speech to the work of the further education sector. Although there is no specific reference in the Speech, perhaps I may make it clear that FE features very much in the Government's plans to raise standards in education. We shall be discussing a number of new and exciting initiatives within the FE sector to ascertain how these can fit in with our plans for lifelong learning.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the Greenwich judgment. There are no plans at present to change the current position under the Greenwich judgment whereby 372 a local authority may not adopt a policy for admission to any of its schools which treats people living outside its administrative area less favourably than those living inside. On the question of homework provision, I can tell the House that we shall certainly have national guidelines to establish periods for homework in primary and secondary schools. Details of this will be part of the White Paper.
Perhaps I may now turn to the department for which I have responsibilities; namely, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I should like, first, to thank several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Borfie, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, and I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for the welcome that they expressed for the creation of the joint department under the leadership—or the "weight" of the leadership, which I believe was the phrase used—of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister.
This new department is a major demonstration of the Government's commitment to pursue the goals of sustainable development across Whitehall and to ensure that the environment becomes an integral part of all our policies, not just an "add on" that is always in danger of being dropped off. I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Moran—and, indeed, many other speakers—who stressed the need for a sustainable development policy, will feel that the creation of this department provides a framework in which we can take that forward.
There is a huge challenge ahead for all of us who care about the environment and about sustainable development to engineer the changes that we need to make if together we are to create a world that actually offers the quality of life that we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy. If we are to succeed in that, we will need to involve a very wide group of people to work in partnership at local, national and international level and aim for higher living standards while at the same time safeguarding and enhancing the environment and developing an integrated transport policy to fight congestion and pollution.
The need to take the lead in the international community is, I believe, well recognized, not just in Europe but also in the wider community. I am sure that the whole House will be pleased to learn that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be leading the UK delegation to the UN General Assembly Special Session next month and that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has also begun to take steps to put environmental policy at the heart of our foreign affairs.
The point was made during the course of today's debate that we must look at how we deal with these issues as a whole Government. We have committed ourselves to extending the powers of the other place to help promote environmental appraisal of policy and sustainable development across government. Subject to the agreement of the other place, we propose to create a new scrutiny committee to promote high standards and to monitor the assessments that departments make as regards the impact on the environment of their policies. We believe that this development could have a very significant role in our initiative to green Government. 373 But it will not be the only weapon in our armoury. We are currently looking at a wide range of mechanisms and improvements to the machinery that we inherited to strengthen the system and ensure that by the end of our first term in office we shall have taken significant strides towards the goal of sustainable development so that the quality of life as measured by local and national indicators is demonstrably better. The CO2 emissions targets are just one example of that.
The noble Lords, Lord Moran and Lord Beaumont, raised the crucial issue of water resources and supply. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday held a summit meeting on the water industry. All the water companies in England and Wales were invited. The Director-General of Water Services—the economic regulator—and the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency spoke at the conference. Environmental and consumer bodies and many other organisations were also represented.
My right honourable friend made it clear that he was seeking a co-operative approach to tackling those problems, but we also seek an approach that will deliver results. He announced that the Director-General would be setting tough mandatory leakage targets for each company with a view of securing substantial reductions in leakage over the next five years. This was part of a 10-point plan. Each water company has been asked to respond within the next three weeks to the challenge represented by that plan.
Perhaps I may turn now to transport issues. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley made contributions in this area. In transport it is difficult to overstate the challenges we face—or the costs of getting the response wrong. As has been pointed out, we are becoming an increasingly car-dependent nation, and we face the prospect over the next 20 years of a doubling in road traffic growth from current levels. In part this is a reflection of the greater freedom of movement and choice that the car can bring and which we all sometimes want to enjoy. But we cannot and must not shut our eyes to the damage, both economic and environmental, that this brings in terms of congestion, poor air quality, climate change and noise and in a range of other areas.
Our response to these challenges was spelt out in our manifesto, where we made it clear that we regard an integrated transport policy as fundamental to the battle against pollution and congestion. As my noble friend pointed out, for too long we have seen an unco-ordinated and inadequate approach to the provision of transport systems and infrastructure. In contrast, this Government will establish and develop an integrated and effective strategy at all levels—and regional and local levels are as important as the national level in these areas—which will provide genuine choice, a choice that too often simply does not exist at present, to meet people's transport needs.
One clear aim of this strategy will be to boost the status and effectiveness of public transport. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about the London Underground. That is one specific part of the public 374 transport system which needs and deserves to be improved. We recognise the importance of ensuring that there are high levels of investment in the system and we shall be developing new public/private partnerships to bring about improvements while safeguarding the public interest and guaranteeing value for money.
We recognise, too, the importance of bus services as part of a balanced transport policy. We shall therefore be giving early consideration to what steps need to be taken to ensure that there is proper regulation of bus services at a local level and to encourage partnerships between local authorities and bus operators to improve the benefits to passengers and reverse some of those trends alluded to by my noble friend Lord Berkeley regarding the number of different modes of transport using our roads at present.
The other side of our transport strategy is of course the road network, and we will be taking forward our manifesto commmitment to conduct an overall strategic review of the roads programme. I believe it is extremely important that we get the scope and context for that review right. The road network clearly has a vital role to play in an effective and integrated transport policy and is hugely important in some of the areas of regional development referred to today and in terms of economic regeneration. But we must also ensure that it discharges that role in a manner which is sustainable. The review will look at the competing issues in depth and will evaluate schemes against the criteria of accessibility, safety, economy and the environment.
In dealing with transport matters it is important, too, that we recognise the role that the aviation and maritime industries play, not just in the UK but also in the international arena. So we will follow aviation policies which support the UK industry and benefit the consumer and which are environmentally sustainable. I hope that that deals at least in part with one of the issues raised by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Benches.
My noble friend Lord Murray raised the issue of the merchant shipping industry. I assure him that we will act in a spirit of co-operation to achieve our manifesto commitment of helping our shipping and port industries to develop their economic potential to the full. And we will continue to promote the uses of inland waterways and coastal shipping to improve our environment and reduce levels of road traffic.
My noble friend Lord Murray also raised the issue of training for merchant seamen. I hope he will have taken heart from the emphasis given by my noble friend Lady Blackstone in opening the debate to the importance of training in all sectors. The Department for the Environment and Transport is very anxious to play its part in the new deal—for example, by ensuring that the proposed environment task force makes a successful contribution to that programme. I am glad to assure my noble friend that we shall certainly be working with our partners in Europe, as well as with the national maritime industry, to encourage and take forward those proposals which are intended further to develop the supply of high-calibre and highly motivated seafarers for the merchant navy.
375 A key objective for all modes of transport will be the maintenance and enhancement of safety, and in particular we will seek to create an environment in which all sectors of society are—and feel—safe when using public transport. It is a great pleasure for me to have been given specific responsibility for promoting and enhancing road safety, and I assure your Lordships that I will work not only to achieve reductions in the numbers of those who are killed and injured on our roads every year, but especially to enhance the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, for example through supporting and promoting the crucial initiatives which aim to provide safe routes to schools.
I hope to integrate thinking on safety throughout a variety of transport issues. In that context, I shall be interested to hear the suggestions of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, in relation to improving the safety of goods vehicles. I must apologise to the noble Earl that I was not in the Chamber to hear his contribution. I have wide responsibilities, as has been pointed out, but I am afraid I am not completely bionic.
The theme of public safety extends beyond the issue of transport. It informs government policies in other crucial areas of public life. We are determined to reform the arrangements for dealing with food safety and to restore the confidence of the consumer. That is why we published Professor James' report for immediate consultation. The Government fully support the general thrust of his recommendations, which provide a clear direction for strengthening the handling of food safety. We are determined to get it right, and there remain many practical issues to consider. We will be seeking the comments of all interested parties before preparing legislation.
In the meantime, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture is making changes in his department in preparation for an agency. These include steps to increase the involvement of consumers in the Ministry's business and to make more information available on the Government's food safety policies.
On agriculture, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, properly raised the issue of BSE. He was also generous in his introduction and welcome to me. As with other former colleagues like the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, looks any older either, but I suspect that all three of us are deceiving ourselves.
On the issue of BSE, which was raised by other speakers, there is no question of our underestimating either the seriousness of the issue or the obstacles that the history of the last months and years has left us with. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, made a number of points and posed detailed questions to which I shall respond, if I may, in writing. I agree entirely with his main point that we have inherited an extremely difficult situation. Agriculture Ministers have opened a constructive dialogue with the European Commission and EU member states with a view to producing a European solution to the problem and ensuring a common approach to the issues of cattle traceability and marketing, which the noble Lord specifically mentioned.
376 The common agricultural policy was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer and others today in their speeches. The Government will seek further reform of the common agricultural policy, to provide more effective support for farming communities and to redirect CAP funds for the benefit of the broader rural economy and consumers. We would like to hasten the phasing out of intervention and export subsidies which build up food mountains, dump cheap produce on to world markets and are intrinsically vulnerable to high levels of fraud.
On the issue of green compensation raised in the debate, the House will be interested to know that my noble friend Lord Donoughue will meet the NFU tomorrow to discuss the issue. As for organic farming, raised by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, I fully admit to not being an expert. I believe that he will ensure that I am one in a short time, but perhaps I may write to him on the specific issue of funding for organic farmers.
The noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, raised the important issue of conservation. It is clear that the common fisheries policy needs to be changed to achieve more effective conservation of fish stocks and to safeguard the future of the fishing industry.
Another central aim of the Government's manifesto is to devolve power outwards. Some of the legislative proposals in the gracious Speech welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, will ensure that local decision making will be less constrained by central government and be more accountable to local people. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, and the noble Lords, Lord Wade and Lord Borrie, all asked detailed questions about regional development agencies which we see very much as not being a standard model designed in Whitehall and imposed on everywhere, but developing organically, responding to the needs of the region. We very much take on board that we shall have to see how they mesh in with the other agencies working within the regions. I shall have responsibility for taking through the House the Regional Development Agencies Bill, together with the Local Government (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill, which we hope will regenerate housing, and the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.
On the London Bill, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that a real choice will be given to the people of London. If he parses the sentence in the manifesto carefully, he will see that it is implicit in it. I believe that the proposals will be widely welcomed and I should be surprised if they were rejected. Certainly within this House there has been widespread support. Who knows, if we are to believe what we read in the papers, perhaps some of the candidates for mayoral election will include Members of your Lordships' House.
The programme outlined in the gracious Speech is a formidable one, but we believe it is also achievable. There are areas where I know that some will be disappointed that we have not been able to include additional legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, mentioned the issue of disability, although I hope that he will have taken some comfort from the opening 377 remarks of my noble friend Lady Blackstone. However, I remind noble Lords who wish to see more, and perhaps noble Lords on the Front Bench who will have to see more, that this is only the first gracious Speech. There will be others to come in this Parliament and, I hope and believe, in other Parliaments. There is much that can be done.
But even without legislation—and it has not been possible to include in this Queen's Speech all the legislation in all the areas that many of us would have wished to see—there is much that can be done by other actions. I counsel the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, against too much cynicism. Oscar Wilde had something to say about cynics who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is perhaps in the area of values that the nation has most welcomed the change that took place on 1st May.
In his speech, my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside referred to the Athenian oath of allegiance. I must tell your Lordships that it struck a particular chord with me. It may amuse my noble friends to know that the oath, with a slightly bizarre musical 378 accompaniment which was composed by the Upper Sixth at my school, was the school song of Wolverhampton Girls' High School. I remember the words extremely well. I shall not burden the House with the full text, nor the musical accompaniment, which is the only way I can remember it. There are many different versions of the translation of that oath, but the text that we used at school was:We will transmit this city, not only, not less, but better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us".That is a noble aspiration and a heavy responsibility. I suggest that it is absolutely appropriate, not only for Ministers in my own department but perhaps for the Government as a whole.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.
Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)
On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.
House adjourned at seventeen minutes before eleven o'clock.