§ 4.17 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ The Lord Bishop of Blackburn
My Lords, first, I rise to welcome the Government's determination to identify and meet the needs of post-school learners, sometimes described as the Cinderella sector of our educational provision. The Churches, whose Joint Education Policy Committee I have the privilege to chair, have made a significant contribution to lifelong learning partnerships in many parts of the country, building on their long experience and networks in FE and industrial chaplaincies, in adult education and in youth and community work. They have hosted a variety of events in the past year with the FE sector and the TECs to support the development of effective partnerships. They are now looking for a strong steer from Her Majesty's Government to ensure that all the 47 learning and skill councils will engage seriously with the Churches in those lifelong learning partnerships.
It is important that in the proper concern for the improvement of skills in the training programme, we do not forget that basic understanding of the need for learning which the Secretary of State, the right honourable David Blunkett, described in terms of developing,a civilised society and the spiritual side of life".We must never forget, as Dean Inge put it, that "education is about values". I believe that the Government do see the clear links between two of their key priorities: economic competitiveness on the one 203 hand and social inclusion on the other. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, will remember her important contribution to the Church's conference on the purpose of post-16 education which was held just a year ago.
Given the very strong economic and planning emphasis in the White Paper Learning to Succeed, we need some reassurance that the wider personal and social dimensions will be given due weight in the current decision-making process. Sound education must be concerned with the whole of a person's life and not just with their ability to find work, important though that is, not only for those individuals concerned but, indeed, for the well-being of our society.
As part of their response to the Christian Gospel imperative "to make whole", the Churches will seek to continue to make a significant contribution to widening participation and social inclusion through their community outreach work. In recognition of the value that they place on such grassroots work, this year, for the first time, they have been pleased ecumenically to sponsor one of the Association of Colleges Beacon Awards for sustainable community development. We now welcome the possibility of the Church being able to access funding directly for the lifelong learning opportunities that it offers. Reports from parishes in my diocese tell me that much of that community-based learning makes a dramatic difference to people's lives and opportunities. It is about more than paper qualifications, important though such qualifications are for motivating some people to learn.
The White Paper makes little reference to the funding of non-accredited learning. Today I would welcome an indication of the Government's thinking on that matter. Funding regimes for such learning will need to recognise the lengthier time-scale required if traditional non-learners are to succeed. Achievement must not be narrowly defined; achievement must be available in bite-sized chunks about which the University of Industry has spoken.
The experience of the Churches in youth work with marginalised groups in many of our socially deprived areas suggests that the best of intended programmes will fail and be a waste of precious funds unless they begin to deal with what is required on the young people's terms, rather than by forcing an externally imposed and target-driven agenda on them. We look forward to making a major contribution to the proposed youth support service and to the lifelong learning partnerships.
It is good to note that that will not be done at the expense of the Government's commitment to their programme for schools. The other day I was particularly pleased to learn that £80 million is to be made available for administrative support in small schools. That will relieve hard-pressed teaching head teachers in our rural schools. Head teachers of such schools in my own diocese have been pressing the Department for Education and Employment for that for some time. I thank the department on their behalf.
204 We must appreciate the pressures on the staff in rural schools arising from the effect on families of the crisis in agriculture. It is a great sadness to me that there is no mention of agriculture or of any proposed measures in the gracious Speech to help that part of our national life. Almost daily I receive reports of farming families in serious difficulties. We all realise that the rate of suicide among farmers—not just among the hill farmers of the northern Pennines, but across the whole sector—is quite alarming.
I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Countryside Agency and in relation to the National Access Forum in welcoming the introduction of legislation to give greater access to the countryside and to give greater protection to wildlife. However, like the issue of hunting with dogs, I believe that those matters are of far less significance than the need to reflect much more fully in public policies and practical programmes help to meet the needs of rural communities and in particular those engaged in agriculture and related industries. I hope that the rural White Paper will do that and that it will seek to overcome the seeming divide that sometimes exists between urban and rural people as if we are not all part of one nation.
The Countryside Agency has done much in preparation for the introduction of the legislation on greater access. In the difficult situation of bringing the Countryside Commission and part of the Rural Development Commission together, I have been impressed to watch the staff of that new body get down to the detailed work required, at times in the face of some pretty aggressive opposition from some landowners and others.
I hope that in due time access will be extended to woodland, the coast and watersides, but with the necessary safeguards for fragile environments. For me, access and the freedom to roam begin with a theological question: whose countryside is it? Who should have the right to be reinvigorated and refreshed by the thrill of open spaces, lonely places and wide skies? Although I believe that relatively few people will stray from paths, wider access and a concern for rights of way must be managed. In order to achieve that, funding will be required to provide signing, ranger services, measures to enable access for the disabled, and to meet the management concerns of those who farm or care for the landscape. As with the present rights-of-way legislation, if the objective is to be achieved, finance will be required. We must not underestimate that.
My experience of the National Access Forum is that a good start has been made with a positive approach to matters which I have found divide people at a deep and even an emotional level where head and heart come together.
I hope that that measure will be coupled with a better rural proofing of the Government's wider policies with the help of the Countryside Agency so that access and right to roam are not seen—as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, hinted—by farmers and others as yet one more oppressive measure in a time of crisis, but as an opportunity which may 205 help to provide more rural services and to give townspeople a greater awareness of our landscape and of the needs of those who live there and manage it. Resources may then be more readily shared which will meet the great needs of the countryside today and yet preserve it for tomorrow. I hope that the White Paper will give us such a long-term strategy, but I believe that there are no quick or easy fixes by which to achieve that.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall
My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships are aware that there are a number of cupboards dotted around this building with large and imposing doors. I have blundered into one or two of them in the past few weeks while attempting to learn the geography of your Lordships' House. It is a measure of the warmth and welcome that I have received since I arrived here that I am not cowering in one of those cupboards now as I am faced with the challenge of speaking in your Lordships' House for the first time. I also pay tribute to the enormous tact and forbearance of the staff and Officers of the House as this particular "new bug" has been finding her feet.
I recall that my noble friend Lord Lipsey described a nightmare that visited him as he prepared to give his maiden speech. In the dream he rose to speak and was immediately removed by two Officers of the House. I may have the detail slightly wrong, but I believe that was the gist of it My personal nightmare is a little different. In my worst imaginings I rise and find that I have nothing to say, that my power of self-expression has left me and I am silent.
As I stand before your Lordships, albeit unsteadily and clutching this unfamiliar prop, it is evident that such fears are not being realised at this moment. For that blessing I am grateful for two things: parents who encouraged debate and an education—entirely at the state's expense—that introduced me early to the idea that language, especially when it is spoken or performed, is an essential tool for unlocking the imagination.
I was fortunate to attend a small village school in the 1950s which was run by a head teacher of quite remarkable gifts. His name was Vicars Bell, and in his day he was recognised as a significant contributor to educational thinking. I suspect that his methods, which were a bit chaotic, and perhaps did not always include sufficient attention to the "Rithmetic bit of the three Rs", would find little favour in today's bracing environment. But his greatness lay in his conviction that children could learn through exposure to the arts.
Our young lives were filled every day with music—we learned dozens of English folk songs, for instance, many of which I can still sing, although I shall not attempt to prove that now—with dance and, above all, with books and poems that he read aloud to us and plays which we performed. He introduced us to Dickens, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Shelley and the Bible—it was a Church of England school. If he were alive now, he would doubtless be sharing Ted Hughes or Carol Ann Duffey or Harry Potter with an 206 audience of rapt seven year-olds. He did not make much concession to "suitability", believing as I do that children are capable of understanding far more than we usually give them credit for. The group which left that school at the same time as I did was very mixed. Several were from what we would now call "disadvantaged" backgrounds. Some did well academically and some did not. But none of us was illiterate and all of us had been given a gift—the confidence to speak for ourselves.
Your Lordships may be wondering what this evocation of a prelapsarian age (with perhaps an uncomfortable hint of warm beer and bicycles) has to do with today's business. But I hope that that will become clear.
It is no surprise, but very gratifying, to note that the gracious Speech reaffirms a strong commitment on the part of the Government to education. I should like to refer to an earlier government initiative which I hope will be followed up in the year ahead. An admirable report was published recently, commissioned jointly by the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Your Lordships may remember that it was called All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. In his introduction to the report, the chairman of the committee which produced it, Professor Kenneth Robinson, said,By creative education we mean forms of education that develop young people's capacities for original ideas and action: by cultural education we mean forms of education that enable them to engage positively with the growing complexity and diversity of social values and ways of life".I imagine there are few in this House, or outside it. who would think such an approach to education an actively bad thing, but in practice, as the report points out, the importance which the Government understandably attached to the technical skills of numeracy and literacy may have resulted in effort being concentrated in those areas somewhat to the exclusion of other, broader objectives. Again the report said:We accept the need for a sustained strategy for literacy and numeracy, but it is vital that this emphasis… should not marginalise other areas of intellectual and personal development which are equally important in the early years and during primary school".As the right reverend Prelate said, education is about values.
The point of my raising these matters is that it gives me the opportunity to draw attention to the contribution which arts organisations can, and do, make in helping to develop these educational ideas. Many of them have within them skills which go far beyond the mere (if I may use that word without offence) presentation of finished works of art, performed or otherwise. I should like to mention some examples which demonstrate the value of combining the skills of arts practitioners with the needs of the education system. In doing so I should declare an interest in that I work for the National Theatre, to which my examples are in different ways connected, although a huge amount of work is of course also being done elsewhere.
207 Those noble Lords who pay close attention to the newspapers may have noticed an article a few days ago in the education section of the Daily Mail. It described a weekend event, which I attended, in which more than 60 students and teachers from a number of secondary schools around the country came together at St Thomas's Hospital to explore issues of medical ethics. They were joined by a dazzlingly high-powered group of clinical experts, by representatives from two different theatre companies—the National Theatre and Y Touring, which has special expertise in using theatre to tackle complex scientific and medical questions—and by 15 playwrights.
Over two days, the young people got to grips with problems that tax the minds not just of medical professionals but also of government—and they did it by making drama. The results were diverse, thoughtful, occasionally hilarious and consistently illuminating. Everyone involved learnt from the experience, but it was particularly noticeable how articulate the students became as they were able to express and "own" their opinions through performance. It was an inspiring event, and the great thing is that it was only the beginning. This collaboration among Guy's, King's and St Thomas's Medical School, the theatre companies, the playwrights and the schools will go on, reaching many more people, all through next year and beyond—provided the money can be found.
Primary Shakespeare is a programme developed through a pilot partnership between National Theatre Education and eight inner London primary schools. It focuses on Shakespearean text, using it as a catalyst for literacy and creative writing, and for curriculum enrichment extending into music, design and technology. It is designed for teachers and children in years five and six.
Teachers who participated in the pilot scheme made the following points: two-thirds of the class are bilingual learners and often talk in half sentences with an immature grasp of language. The fact that Shakespeare's language is unusual and poetic made the students think about the structure and impact of words and language.
Special needs children were involved and supported through drama and writing workshops; it was excellent for their writing skills. The development of self-esteem and confidence was remarkable. It was stimulating working with professionals, enabling the children to develop such a love of Shakespeare and the theatre. This present year six feel so confident with Shakespeare that they are busy rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream as their end-of-year play. They will never forget this, and it is about time we had something unforgettable! They just loved the iambic pentameters—they spoke in iambic pentameters all week.
National Connections, a large-scale project supported until recently by one generous sponsor, has for the past six years used the resources of the National Theatre, first, to commission from established 208 playwrights (including, for instance, Alan Ayckbourn) plays for young people to perform and then to co-ordinate a nationwide collaboration among schools, youth groups and professional theatres in order to produce them. Over the six years, in three two-year cycles, dozens of schools and youth groups all over the UK were involved. Children and young people of all ages and abilities took part, and a representative sample of the work they produced was presented at the National Theatre over 10 gruelling but exhilarating days at the end of each cycle.
This July the latest, and possibly the last, of these festivals took place (sadly, the sponsor's support has come to an end). For everyone who participated, but most of all for the young people, the experience was genuinely life-changing. Their view of themselves, of what they could achieve, was immeasurably enhanced. They acquired new skills, learnt new language. They spoke for themselves, and were heard.
In a Chamber devoted to advocacy and debate I need not stress the potency of language. Metaphor, imagery, rhetoric are the common currency of this House—tempered always, of course, by the sobering effect of facts. Not to have command of language is, to use the jargon, disempowering. The arts, and in particular the performing arts, in giving young people a voice, can help them to develop the confidence they need to become good citizens. We are not short of the human resource to make this happen. Unfortunately we do not always have the financial resource to make the best use of it.
I appreciate that the Government have done a great deal since they came into office to encourage and support the relationship between the arts and education. But I would hope that, in driving their excellent policies forward, my noble friend Lady Blackstone and her colleagues will consider how much more could be achieved and what beneficial effects could be felt across many of their principal areas of concern if still more were invested in this fruitful cross-fertilisation.
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ Lord Crickhowell
My Lords, as someone passionately interested in the arts, a regular visitor to the National Theatre, to which the noble Baroness has made such an immensely distinguished contribution, and someone equally enthusiastic about opera, it gives me enormous pleasure to congratulate, on behalf of the whole House, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, on her outstanding speech. As I listened to her I wished that she could emerge perhaps from time to time from the executive director's office and appear on the stage of the National Theatre. But its loss is our gain. It is perhaps appropriate that she should appear on this stage on the day on which the Royal Opera House re-opens.
Perhaps it is appropriate also that I should be followed on this occasion by someone else who is to make a maiden speech and who has made an equally distinguished contribution to the arts, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, and we look forward to what he has to say.
209 Those of us who have sat in both Houses of Parliament perhaps appreciate more than others the conventions and courtesies that have been traditionally practised both in side and outside the Chamber. I hope that the Government's determination to,modernise the country and its institutions"—in the words of the gracious Speech—will not lead to their abandonment.
Some of our practices will need to change. A number will fall away because the circumstances that caused them to be accepted no longer exist. A government who call for the modernisation of institutions surely will not demand that we stand by a doctrine first developed by the third Marquess of Salisbury in the last decades of the 19th century or the understanding worked out by the fifth Marquess, as he was to become, and by Viscount Addison during the late 1940s.
The Salisbury doctrine was promulgated for a House of Peers quite different from that in which we now sit. In today's circumstance new conventions are required and will have to be developed.
In a parliamentary democracy the electorate is not adequately served if the executive is allowed to railroad through a great avalanche of ill thought-out, badly drafted and hardly debated legislation. From time to time this House as the right—indeed a duty—to say, "Enough is enough. Up with this we will not put".
Among the measures that I suspect may come in that category are parts of the hotchpotch transport Bill for which no mandate can be claimed on the basis of manifesto commitments. On top of the huge burdens already placed on the motorist will be a poll tax on wheels. We will need to probe very carefully its likely economic consequences, how it creates injustices of treatment between different motorists, and the environmental impact that will arise from the destruction of town-centre businesses and the inevitable growth that the Bill will encourage of out-of-town supermarkets and greater development in the countryside. The Government would he wise not to rely on an outdated interpretation of an obsolete parliamentary convention for a smooth passage for this Bill.
Another old-fashioned, and probably outdated practice—it is not even a convention—is that we do not vote against subordinate legislation. The Companion makes it clear that we have unfettered freedom to vote if we wish to. It refers to a debate on 20th October 1994, initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I am sorry to see that he is no longer in his place. While I agree with the opinion expressed on that occasion by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, that the use of the unfettered right should be a last resort and that we should seek to control the amount and type of delegation in legislation, I also agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that when, as is the case increasingly, regulation is used for matters of major controversy, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a convention that we consent to them without voting on them.
210 Turning now to environmental issues, I first look outside the country and refer to the environmental catastrophe already taking place as a consequence of events in Kosovo. In an earlier debate on 6th May I expressed my doubts about the Government's handling of the Kosovo crisis and, provoked by the extraordinarily complacent and misleading account of those events and their consequences given to the House last Thursday by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, I would have been tempted to say far more today had it not been for the firm response of my noble friend Lord Moynihan.
The outcome of our intervention has not been the happy progress to relative normality so misleadingly outlined by the noble Baroness, but ethnic cleansing—this time by Kosovar Albanians—administrative chaos, economic devastation along the whole of the lower Danube caused by the obstruction of that great international waterway, and the continuing environmental threat posed by flooding due to winter ice packing against the fallen bridges and serious pollution of the river and the land by oil and chemicals from plants destroyed by bombing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, responding to a question posed by her noble friend Lord Grenfell on 11th November, put all the blame for lack of action on Milosevic, and said that the western powers were not prepared to assist a programme of reconstruction while he remained in power.
The Government appear to be blind to the lessons of history. Sanctions and bombing are usually ineffective instruments for removing dictators and governments of whom we disapprove, as we should have learned from events in Iraq. Putting all the blame on one side in an unfolding, historic tragedy of mutual brutality is also likely to be counterproductive. Eventually one has to bring people together and sit down with those whose records one abominates. If we go on as we are, we will be confronted with a social and environmental tragedy and a political nightmare even greater than the one which we intervened to prevent.
I turn from the Balkans to our own land and. first, to policies that threaten to wreck the wonderful countryside of the south of England. The number of additional houses that the Government's planners believe should be built over the next two decades varies almost from day to day, but they run into millions. This is not a distant but an immediate threat. Professor Christine Whitehead, an adviser to the Government on housing, is quoted in The Times, as saying—just after she casually added the equivalent 10 extra Basingstokes to the statistics last week—I don't mind covering a bit of the South East in concrete, to be honest".Well, I do mind.
Labour promised to put concern for the environment at the heart of policy making. Mr Prescott said that,above all, we must not allow our countryside, our precious green space to become easy prey to developers and speculators".It is now perfectly clear that, despite those promises, the policy of predict and provide is not dead. 211 Professor Whitehead was at least half way to being sensible when she said,The way you can ease the pressure is by working the system to make it attractive to work in the Midlands. You can't do it by controlling housing".Half way because, yes, we must work the system to make it attractive to work outside London and the south east, but surely we shall also need to continue to protect "our precious green space".
There is something very wrong with a situation when huge numbers of perfectly good houses in the north cannot be sold while demand in the south mounts and mounts. The over-concentration of government, business and population around our capital city, to a degree hardly matched in any other country, is gravely damaging not only to the environment but also to the social and economic health of the nation.
For eight years as Secretary of State, I worked to re-establish industry and business in Wales. I launched the Cardiff Bay project to bring people back to work, live and play in the vast brownland desert of South Cardiff in order to protect the Vale of Glamorgan. Similar efforts have been made in cities like Newcastle and Glasgow. It is possible. We need a far greater effort by government to encourage people to go back to the great provincial cities that created our economic prosperity in the past.
In the age of modern technology and communication, the Net, e-mail and video conferencing, it is nonsense to suggest that everything has to be at the end of a traffic jam in central London.
If the Government really care about modernising Britain they have to stand up to both the professors of "predict and provide" and the developers; and address themselves seriously to the challenge presented by a Britain of two nations—a grossly over-resourced south-east and an impoverished elsewhere.
Finally, I turn to a problem with which I was confronted first as chairman of the National Rivers Authority and about which I have already expressed strong views in my valedictory report and in a recent book. It is a problem presented this month in a powerful paper for the RSPB and Forum for the Future by Caspar Henderson entitled False Economics Won't Hold Water. It points out that Ofwat's—that is to say, Mr Byatt's—approach to the financial regulation of the water industry severely threatens the national environmental programme asked for by the Environment Agency and approved by Ministers. From the outset, first the NRA and then the Environment Agency have been confronted by the uncomfortable reality that they have less control over key environmental programmes than a financial regulator who is not much interested in and lamentably ignorant about them.
212 Mr Henderson's paper comments:Ofwat does not have the expertise, nor the legitimacy, to enable it to ignore the advice of the Environment Agency. English Nature and Ministers in removing schemes from the environment programme".Yet Ofwat has consistently ignored that advice. I agree with Mr Henderson that the regulatory system is flawed and that, as a result, ministerial decisions are being undermined, opinion polls are being ignored and the environment degraded. In my book I said:It seems obvious that there is an urgent need to devise a better way to conduct the debate in future".The gracious Speech promises to modernise the utility regulation system. The opportunity to reform the flawed arrangements that threaten the environment should not be missed.
I welcome what the Minister said earlier this afternoon about protecting SSSIs and about more effective water use. But it remains odd that New Labour, which in its manifesto said,We will put concern for the environment at the heart of policy making",has included only one line about the protection of wildlife linked to the right to roam and about global warming in a gracious Speech said to be addressing priorities for the new millennium. It represents just one aspect of the total lack of vision of the measures proposed to which the amendment moved by my noble friend last Thursday refers.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Lord Stevenson of Coddenham
My Lords, it is, I suppose, natural for someone making their maiden speech to feel nervous; and so I do. However, like my old friend the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in her wonderful and—from my point of view as I stand here—wholly enviable maiden speech, my nervousness has been substantially moderated by the warmth of the welcome that I have been shown by this House: by staff in all departments and by many Members sitting in the Chamber today, not least by the very kind remarks from the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. But perhaps the most telling on me, and the most remarkable, has been the welcome that I have been shown by Members who 10 days ago knew that they would not be here today or tomorrow. Before I came here, my understanding of the welcome and warmth of this House was, if you like, a cliché. It has to be experienced to be believed.
In speaking on education, I should explain to the House that I chair a British company, which is the largest provider of educational materials in the world and might, therefore, be judged to have an interest in most matters educational; as, indeed, this company does. However, I hope and believe that I am not alone in this House in welcoming in the gracious Speech, amid the 28 new Bills, the reaffirmation by the Government that education continues to be their number one priority.
In that context, and as someone who has in recent times been asked to give advice to the Prime Minister on the role of computers and information technology 213 in education, I very much also welcome the commitment that has been made—and, I believe, is being made—by this Government to improving the use of information technology in our schools and universities. This is not a new policy. The noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, deserves the credit for being its very robust progenitor dating from the mid-1980s, but it is in recent years that it has started to bear fruit and come of age. Today, some 93 per cent of our secondary schools and over 60 per cent of our primary schools are connected to the Internet. That is an astonishing increase from a near zero position a very few years ago. About half of these have ISDN2 or even faster connections. We have over a million computers that work and deliver in our schools, and there are now about a quarter of a million pages of content on the National Grid for Learning. This is an astonishing change, which has come almost by stealth.
It is not perhaps surprising that such dramatic changes create new policy choices. I propose to trespass on the indulgence of the House to suggest what two of these may be. Reference was made in the gracious Speech to the continuing commitment of the Government to reducing class sizes in the early years of education. I have no doubt that this policy is correct, but, as information technology continues to change the entire pedagogy in the classroom, I hope that we will not as a society worship the altar of class size. In some of our schools you can already see classes where the teaching process has been radically transformed to the point where the size of a class is, frankly, less relevant than it used to be. I refer to classes with children who are older than those whom the Government's policy is affecting. Teachers will remain a critical lynchpin, but simple class size will not.
A second and rather different consequence of the extension of information technology into the classroom is what is now widely described as the "digital divide". What does a teacher do when he or she finds a class with, shall we say, 25 out of 30 children who have state of the art equipment at home and connections to the Internet and, therefore, to the school? The teacher will take advantage of it and change the pedagogy for classroom work and for homework by integrating with the home and the parental support there. Indeed, only last week a survey from the British Educational Suppliers Association pointed out that 37 per cent of our schools have now put their curriculum materials on to the website. I do not have the comparative figures with me, but that is a huge increase. This is progress. It is wonderful exploitation of technology in the right direction.
However, what about the five children in this notional class of 30 who do not have such connections and are likely never to have them? I read most carefully and very much welcomed the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer some months ago in which he committed the Government to investing in learning centres to improve access for the worst off in our population. This is not a moment too soon. It is a 214 problem analogous to and, possibly, greater than the problem faced in the last century as regards giving poorer households access to books.
Finally, as I have mentioned the subject of information technology in education, perhaps I may put in a plea against ageism in such debates. I am not for a moment accusing the Government or, indeed, the Opposition of this, but it is too often presumed that information technology is the prerogative of the young and that only they can master it. However, although that may be intuitively correct, it goes against the evidence of what is happening in our country, in North America and, as far as I am aware, in the rest of Europe. The evidence shows that the over 55s, or the "silver surfers"—I am sure that that title has no relevance to your Lordships—are one of the most active and fastest growing groups on the Internet. The reason our children have learnt it fast is that they have the time to do so. Equally, the reason older people can do it is that they have the time.
I applaud every word that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said about the relationship of arts to education and observe in passing that the linkage of information technology and the access to it for people throughout their lives can help massively in that respect. In this context, perhaps I may say that one of the very pleasant surprises on entering this House was to find the emphasis put on information technology here: the fact that we have automatic right of access to computers and that we have computing facilities. Huge strides have clearly been made in applying it to the business of the House; indeed, far greater than one would find in many private or public sector organisations of another kind.
I am sure that no one in this House needs to be urged to become a silver surfer. I look forward in the years to come to participating in vigorous exchanges, not only in this Chamber but also, I hope, by e-mail with all Members present.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, the delightful duty of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, on his maiden speech falls to me. He has had a most remarkable career. His business career has an emphasis on the media and finance but also covers technology and other aspects. He has also had a wide-ranging and distinguished career in the public service, including having been the chairman of the national association of youth councils and the chairman of the Tate Gallery Trustees. Currently he is a member of the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers and of the board of the British Council.
Someone with a natural tendency to lack of reverence described the noble Lord to me as, "the sort of person who works late, gets up at crack of dawn and has chaired five committee meetings before breakfast". I suspect that he is rather that kind of person. I know that we all hope to hear a great deal more of his vigorous style of debate and of his particular ability to contribute to our discussions.
215 I was also charmed by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall. I have been tempted by both the maiden speeches to jettison my speech and to go once more down those lovely paths of education which I used to enjoy so much. However, I must get back to my "real job" and leave education to my noble friend who is more than competent to deal with it.
As noble Lords may expect, I shall confine myself to discussion of the transport Bill to which we on these Benches give a cautious welcome. That must not be seen as an unwillingness to criticise in detail when the legislation reaches Parliament. We also have severe reservations on some aspects of it. But we do not share the attitude of the Official Opposition to the problems of travel by road. I find it extraordinary that they continue to recommend huge increases in road building while still calling for a reduction in taxation. Somehow those two attitudes do not seem to match up.
I return to the Bill. The Government may have been tempted to entitle it "the integrated transport Bill". The Bill might almost deserve this title if it did not contain the proposals for part privatisation of NATS. This has nothing to do with joined-up transport and everything to do with government unwillingness to finance the capital requirement of an essential public service. There are alternative ways of enabling a publicly owned body to borrow in the open market, for example, we suggest, as a non-profit public interest company. We will argue the detail of that case at the right moment.
My noble friends Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank and Lady Hamwee have already spoken on our opposition to the NATS scheme and I have done so in the past. I simply add that the Bill would be a great deal easier to take through Parliament if the NATS provisions were in a separate Bill. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw will deal with bus regulation. I shall concentrate the rest of my remarks on the legislation for the strategic rail authority and the new powers for local authorities. I shall also speak on the rail safety issues raised by the Minister in his speech.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we on these Benches are broadly in support of his proposals for the establishment of a strategic rail authority. After all, a similar proposal was in our own published policies before it reached the Labour Party manifesto. On the other hand we on these Benches will be concerned to see that many of the recommendations of the Select Committee in another place are taken on board before a new version of the former railways Bill reappears. If that happens, I think that the rather unusual process which the Government used in introducing a draft Bill in another place will have been thoroughly justified.
Examples from some of the 52 recommendations that we would wish to see adopted include a series requiring total clarity in respect of the functions of the SRA and the rail regulator; total clarity on the conditions under which the SRA can take over and run 216 passenger and rail freight services; and clarity on the financial relationship, if any, between the SRA and the passenger transport authorities in large towns. We have a natural sympathy with recommendation (kk) which seeks to give additional protection against the sale of land which has a potential for railway related development—a most useful redefinition of operational land.
We are particularly concerned about the commitment of the Government to rail freight. It is already becoming clear that there is insufficient capacity on the West Coast Main Line to meet freight aspirations. Those passenger companies which aspire to renew their franchises will aim to fill up capacity on their lines leaving little scope to expand freight carriage. To accommodate freight will require significant investment in extra capacity and if the freight business is left to bear these costs without government help there is little prospect of these facilities being provided. I hope that the Government can acknowledge the problem and can tell us a little more about what plans they have to deal with it.
We share the wish expressed by the Select Committee—and by its distinguished chairman, Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, in last Thursday's debate in another place—that the SRA should gather and publish information about the performance and investment of Railtrack, the TOCs and ROSCOs and customer satisfaction with those services. I have selected only a few of the Select Committee's recommendations for comment during today's debate, but we shall study the texts carefully prior to the Bill reaching Parliament.
I turn now to local powers for congestion charging and workplace parking levies. Again we are broadly in sympathy with the ideas behind the Government's intention to give powers to local authorities other than the GLA to establish schemes for congestion charging and workplace parking levies. But I very much support the remarks on additionality made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee. It would appear that this Government are spending, if anything, slightly less on transport than their predecessors were planning to do. There may be a benefit to expenditure on public transport resulting from a reduced budget for road building, but hypothecation at a local level must not be substituted for low expenditure machismo at a national level.
In face of widely expressed alarm on how these measures will affect motorists, and the deliberately alarmist attitude adopted by some Conservative spokesmen and the tabloid press, it will be important to stress that such schemes will be part of a local transport plan which requires wide consultation. No one that I know in local government regards them as a single quick fix for the problems of town centre traffic reduction. While I am on this subject, I wish to express some concerns on the part of local authorities that the final guidance for the confirmed five-year round of local transport plans, which have to be submitted in July, has not yet appeared. The requirements for consultation on these local plans are such that some local authorities are already embarked on the consultation process in advance of the guidance in 217 order that they can complete the due decision-making process in time. I am afraid that I did not give the Minister notice of this question but I wonder whether she can tell us when publication of this guidance is to take place.
I now come to what seemed to me before the start of today's debate to be a major gap in the provisions of this Bill; namely, the absence of any visible legislation in the field of rail safety. I am grateful to the Minister for the remarks that he made on introducing today's debate. He may have received a letter from me which I sent to him this morning in which I express some of my concerns. I shall not go over the details of recent rail accidents. It is enough to say that a suspicion has been voiced that the accident at Ladbroke Grove might not have occurred had lessons learnt from Southall been put in place. Of course we do not yet know what these lessons may be—that is one difficulty with the present system—but both accidents involved fast and slow trains operating in opposite directions on the same stretch of track.
The difficulty under which the safety system suffers is that accident investigation and the report which follows have sometimes to wait upon the completion of criminal investigation to establish blame. That seems to be the consequence of siting the process within the Health and Safety Executive. A further effect is said to be an unwillingness of witnesses to volunteer information at the accident inquiry because of fear that they may be involved in a later criminal investigation.
The Deputy Prime Minister's decision to establish an immediate accident investigation procedure in respect of Ladbroke Grove, in effect recognised the importance of getting at the facts and rectifying mistakes before attention turns to any criminal procedures. I welcome that intervention on his part, but it will not be enough.
Changes to the present allocation of responsibilities are required. We need to separate the functions of regulation and inspection from the rail accident investigation function. A number of models for achieving this have been suggested, including that put forward by the Select Committee, which is interesting but may not be feasible given the special international responsibilities of the air and marine accident investigation organisations.
Given the time constraints this evening, I do not think that this is the right time to discuss these in detail. Suffice it to say that at present there is a benefit to be had from the reinvention of the independent railways inspectorate under a different title. This would deal with safety regulations and with inspecting and approving safety cases, which are currently functions of the Health and Safety Executive and of Railtrack. The inspectorate would also be charged with making clear the financial consequences of its recommendations so that the Government can determine whether there is a public interest case for supporting additional safety measures. Together with the establishment of an independent accident 218 investigation unit, this would go a long way towards satisfying some of the concerns that have been expressed to me.
I very much hope that in the months to come—obviously not this evening—we shall hear a welcoming response from the Government to some of the ideas that I have put forward. Meanwhile, I look forward to a long, interesting and taxing discussion of the forthcoming transport Bill.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, the gracious Speech, with its 28 Bills, will indeed bring important issues before us during the coming Session. My main comments today will focus on agriculture and the environment. While some see them as separate issues, they are inextricably linked; the success or failure of the former has implications for the latter.
The style of the countryside as we know it today is man made. For hundreds of years it has been cared for by the farmer, who has been the custodian of the countryside. Farmers have cared for moorlands, heaths, downs, parks, woodlands and SSSIs, and in more recent years have had occasional financial aid from the Government.
Without being rude to the opening speaker on the Government Benches, I was very concerned that in his opening address the words "agriculture" or "farming" were not once mentioned. Even more worryingly, in a recent article on the countryside written by his right honourable friend Michael Meacher, again those two words were not once mentioned.
I am sure that I need not remind your Lordships of the dire circumstances in which farmers find themselves today. Their incomes have halved and halved again during the past two years; average incomes are running at £8,000 a year and many farmers are running at a loss; and many —I see that the right reverend prelate is no longer in his place—have gone out of business.
Increasing numbers of regulations and directives have added to their burden and many farmers are leaving the industry. We—and they—will welcome the Government's drive to address inappropriate and over-complex regulation. Legislation to increase the effectiveness of the power to remove regulatory burdens will be welcomed if properly applied. But if, like the CAP reform, it is fudged, that will not be welcomed.
Earlier this year we saw the passing of the IPPC Bill, which was debated and is now an Act of Parliament. This Act has implications for both poultry and pig farmers. Under the regulations, an application charge of some £6,098 multiplied by the number of components—the areas of pollution—and the annual subsistence charge of £2,768, again multiplied by the number of components, will be levied on all pig producers over a certain size. With those and other charges, the annual cost of a typical sow unit of 2,000 pigs could exceed £18,000. To some, that may not seem a great deal of money, but to those in the pig industry and in other farming activities it is a very large sum.
219 Our national pig herd has decreased by some 12 per cent so far this year, and it is expected to fall by another 7 per cent. Does this matter? I believe it does. It is not as though we are eating less pig products—imports are up. The highest standards of animal welfare in the world are set for our farmers. John Godfrey, who is Chairman of the National Pig Association, in a letter to me of the 16th of this month, stated:imports of … pigmeat from the EU are some 40 per cent higher than last year's levels. The UK customer now eats LESS welfare-friendly pig meat than was the case BEFORE the stall and tether ban came into force in January 1999".All the Government have succeeded in doing is to export one important part of our farming industry. How many other sectors will follow?
The most obvious candidate is beef. The ban was technically lifted a year ago this month—we heard that in this House—but our beef is still unable to reach markets in France and Germany. We have been given the all clear by the scientific evidence that the Government state we must go by; our systems are cleared and agreed by the 16-strong scientific committee, on which France has two representatives—and still those countries are not allowing us to export. When will the Government move from talking to action?
It is crucial that the Government should be aware of the impact of both legislation and regulations on the farming industry. If we are not careful we shall put all our producers out of business and become reliant on imports from countries whose standards of production are well below what we in this country find acceptable. We honour the EU directives—in many cases we even gold plate them—and then wonder why our farmers are unable to compete against cheap foreign imports.
In a global market, virtually any goods can find their way into our country within 24–48 hours. The Government must tackle import regulatory systems. I welcome the three task forces which have recently been set up to look into these matters. May I ask the Minister: what is their timetable and how soon will they report to the House? Each week that goes by sees more farmers going to the wall. Morale in the industry is low and, even more worryingly, the younger generation are viewing the long-term prospects with alarm and are hesitating to take over from their parents.
I have spoken at length on regulatory burdens. Without a profitable farming community, two things will happen: the countryside which we all so love and admire will deteriorate and rural communities will disintegrate.
The Government are to bring in a broad countryside Bill, one which will give everyone greater access to the countryside while, at the same time, improving the protection of wild life; and there is a commitment to continuing their role in protecting the global climate. In principle, I welcome the measures to protect our wildlife, but we need to see the details. We would be concerned about yet more burdens being placed upon 220 those who care for our SSSIs and for our wildlife without there being some form of associated financial support.
I should like to split the question of greater access to the countryside into two parts. I know that other Lords who follow me will speak at greater length. One part concerns the right to roam over moorland, heath and down; and the other concerns the provision of more open spaces near the cities, which we debated in the House some months ago.
Much research has been carried out into the desire of people to make visits to the countryside. Bradgate Park, the former home of Lady Jane Grey, was given to the people of Leicestershire, where I live. It is some five miles away from Leicester city centre and covers some 1,200 acres. Some 95 per cent of people who visit there travel by car, and they bring their dogs and their bikes. It has a very good car parking area to lessen the intrusion of so many vehicles into the village. There is a charge of £1 for a three-hour visit. The park is well organised, with well-signed paths and one main roadway. Interestingly enough, the majority of people stick to the road. Some walk along the paths that are not far from the main entrances, but many do not explore the furthest parts of the park. The park is ideal: near to the town and available to young people and to disabled people and to those who want to bike and to be more active, running up and down the hillside.
The majority of people to whom I talk want to walk regularly and to have regular access to areas near their homes. I wish to highlight the point that supervised car parking will be necessary, otherwise the local community will find themselves invaded, their grass verges spoilt and their lives upset by visitors. Those who live and work close to urban areas but whose lanes and reservoirs provide hours of pleasure for all, as indeed they do near where I live, know very well the downside. That can be seen in the rubbish which is dumped, the gates deliberately left open, the dogs not on the lead and the sheep worried. There are many questions here which the Government must tackle in looking to this new Bill.
Many of us who live in villages are also only too aware that local police units have been closed, the system centralised and that the task of keeping an eye on country areas has become costly. Rural crime is increasing; villagers and farmers know that to their cost. The Government must be aware of those issues if they are to lessen the apprehension of rural dwellers concerning their counterparts in the urban areas. It is not a question of "we" and "they"; we all wish to enjoy the countryside. But that countryside will remain beautiful only if it is run commercially and loved and cared for by dwellers, visitors and people who earn their living there.
On the other hand, ramblers and serious walkers have a different desire. They wish to ramble over moorland, heath and down; they do not wish to be restricted to pathways. Over recent years greater access has been made available through voluntary agreement. It is the Government's intention to make additional land available through legislation, and we 221 wait to see the detail of this Bill. However, the issues which I put to the Minister include the question of liability, the question of closure of land during the wildlife breeding season, the implications of allowing dogs on the land and the question of closure of land for shooting days. Those are just a few of the very real issues which I expect we shall debate at great length.
I move swiftly to two other matters. I go back to the time of regulations. The rural community spends much of its time coping with the consuming burden of European regulation. Perhaps the most obvious example is the IACS forms. Even after initial claims, which are horrendous to complete, farmers must devote or pay someone else to devote hours every week to maintaining records. Woe betide them if anything is wrong. The penalties for inaccurate claims make the sentences handed out to persistent young offenders seem like a slap on the wrist.
I turn to the question of parish councils, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke earlier. I shall not cover the points which she made. However, I take as an example East Dean parish near Chichester, which covers a large area but has a population of only 200. Their annual precept is £600 and the books have less than 20 entries. However, their bill from the Audit Commission was £309.40 plus VAT for 13 hours' work for 60 entries over three years. That is indeed ridiculous.
Lastly, I turn to the question of post offices. We on these Benches are most concerned about the increasing numbers of post offices which have closed. Just like those in towns and cities, rural dwellers need to eat, pay their bills for water, electricity, clothes and so on. In order to do that, it is necessary that they have access to money and to shops. Throughout the past 20 years, and particularly the past two years, village shops of all types have been closing as the competition of the large, out-of-town supermarkets has reduced the volume of their sales.
Banks, too, have been closing their rural branches. We are now faced with the question—and it is one which I put to the noble Baroness—of what will be the outcome for the Benefits Agency in the future. The big issue is where payments are to be made to people who receive benefits. If that is to be done centrally—it has been suggested that payments will be made into people's bank accounts—there will be even greater pressure on the few remaining post offices. It will indeed be ridiculous if we end up with a situation in which villagers have nowhere to go. If they are lucky enough to own a car and are able to afford the transport to get them to wherever they have to go, perhaps the local supermarket will be the nearest place where they can obtain the money to be able to pay for their daily needs. That really would be a ridiculous situation.
In these few minutes I have tried to cover one or two aspects of this subject. The most important issues concerning rural dwellers—I know that other noble Lords will speak about them—are those of transport, shops, services, schools, jobs and housing. But the most important issue is that, if we all wish to enjoy our 222 countryside, which we do, we must recognise that farming and the countryside are linked together. The only way that we can enjoy the latter is if the former succeeds.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the gracious Speech. It also gives me enormous pleasure to take part in a debate in which there have been two such thoughtful and stimulating maiden speeches—those of my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Stevenson. As a newcomer myself, I stand in admiration.
I want to address my few remarks to the issue of education. I confess that in my capacity as Chief Executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals I was wondering precisely in which debate I should speak: in this one or in tomorrow's debate on industry, social and economic affairs. Noble Lords will understand my dilemma when I say that universities, which I represent and in which I must declare an interest, find themselves very much at the heart of the two themes referred to in the gracious Speech, which describes a legislative programme based on promoting enterprise and fairness, and creating a modern Britain. It is those principles that I should like to address, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn.
It has not always been the case that our higher education institutions have been acknowledged as central both to fairness—through attempts to widen opportunity through learning—and to the enterprise agenda. I believe that it is true to say that in the past universities have been more likely to be characterized—usually, I must say, by excitable Ministers in the Treasury—as consumers of public money rather than as wealth creators. Perhaps too often, and possibly even in universities themselves, higher education has not been thought to have a role to play in opening its doors to those who traditionally saw university as "not for them". However, there is no doubt that the attitude of universities and of government has changed hugely in recent years.
I turn to enterprise. The pre-Budget report acknowledged that partnerships between universities and business, and the transfer of research know-how, are crucial if the UK is to be at the forefront of global developments and at the cutting edge of new research. My noble friend Lord Sainsbury has done much to promote that policy. He has built on a competitiveness policy that was based on the premise that the most dynamic economies have strong universities which have creative partnerships with business. The DTI's Enterprise Challenge Fund is a testament to universities' response: 55 bids for the first round, resulting in 20 projects, often collaborative ventures. One that I know well is the White Rose cluster in Yorkshire. Indeed, such was the quality of the bids that the DTI has announced a repeat round next year.
I very much welcomed the remarks of my noble friend Lord Stevenson. He reminded me that only last week I discussed with Adair Turner of the CBI the way 223 in which the development of new technologies presents exciting possibilities for new forms of education provision. We agreed that there is tremendous potential for increased collaboration between corporations and higher education partners in providing high quality course materials which can be accessed by students anywhere in the world.
However, the pre-Budget report also stressed that a successful enterprise culture demands balanced economic growth across all the regions and nations of Britain. Therefore, it was good news that the successful bidders to the University Challenge Fund are spread throughout the United Kingdom.
The DTI initiative, announced just before the pre-Budget speech, which sees MIT join forces with Cambridge University, is to be greatly welcomed. It places the UK at the forefront of MIT's European development and heralds international co-operation by one of our own world-class institutions. But it will also disperse management and research expertise to each of the enterprise centres in the regions and ensure that international-class work will benefit the whole of the UK.
Perhaps I may now turn to fairness. I want to make it clear that all universities are aware of their role in widening opportunity for all our people. We must open up access to all those who could benefit from higher education but who have not in the past. They may have been put off by their experience at school, they may have been let down by the low expectations of their families or they may just have thought that universities were not for them. The CVCP is doing a good deal of work in encouraging good practice in this area but there is clearly a real challenge. That is shown in our recent report, From Elitism to Inclusion. The numbers entering universities from manual groups, while increasing over the past 10 years, still remain too low, at around 6 per cent. But across all types of institution there are initiatives targeting such students, whether it is Bristol University, or Oxford, or Staffordshire or Westminster.
In my regular visits to universities I have an opportunity to see some of these initiatives at first hand. Perhaps I may give two examples. At Wolverhampton a foundation course has been set up in collaboration with the local FE college which particularly targets mature women. Just this summer I was delighted to learn of two women, well into their forties, who gained first class honours in applied sciences and engineering. They had started with no formal qualifications. Bradford, my home town, is the largest metropolitan authority in the country and has the fastest growing youth population in Britain. By the first decade of the 21st century more than 50 per cent of school children will be from ethnic minority communities. The university is attacking what is an inter-generational pattern of educational disadvantage among Bradford's ethnic minority communities by opening up the university's facilities to school pupils and preparing them for higher education through what it has rather sweetly called "the junior university". I am very happy to mention 224 two universities whose chancellors, the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, and the noble Lord, Lord Paul, grace your Lordships' House.
Having said all that, there are voices— and many stubborn ones—that cry "dumbing down" whenever this agenda is discussed. Yet my visits convince me that it is vital that we do not lose our nerve on this agenda. Those who claim that we are lowering standards to accommodate these students need to be reminded of the Department for Education and Employment indicators on progression rates. Those measure the numbers of students who complete their courses. At around 80 per cent, they stand comparison with any European or US competitor. That is all the more remarkable because our figures have held up during the transition that universities have undergone in a short space of time, from being a relatively narrow sector to being a truly mass system. In 1985, 14 per cent of our young people were participating in higher education. Today the figure is 32 per cent.
I am stressing this point because universities will shortly receive the first ever set of figures from their funding councils, looking at progression rates, access and aspects of university funding. Those figures demonstrate how efficient the sector is by examining how long it takes our students to achieve their rewards. whether degrees or any other form of qualification. The Government have asked for these indicators, and the sector has provided them in a transparent and accountable way. I am confident that UK higher education will consolidate its position at the top of the international league in terms of the numbers of students who achieve degrees and the time it takes them to gain their spurs. Of course there will be tough messages on access rates. No one said that it would be easy to encourage disadvantaged children to make it to university. But let us not knock those pioneering institutions that have driven forward this agenda in recent years. Instead, we ought to reiterate that a mass higher education system is worth the hard work.
One aspect of improving access is the work that universities do with further education locally. Last year, the CVCP and the Association of Colleges gathered examples of compacts between universities and colleges that support students without formal qualifications to progress their studies. Since then many have joined lifelong learning partnerships set up by the Government, which aim to co-ordinate provision in the regions. The gracious Speech included the post-16 education and training Bill, which aims to streamline further education and training for 16 to 19 year-olds, principally through a national learning and skills council. Forty to 50 local learning and skills councils are to be established, with employers having the largest single input. We have welcomed the intentions behind the Bill and particularly the integration of education and training initiatives. I know though—I address this point to the Minister—that many are disappointed at the exclusion of higher education from the Bill, with no reference to its potential contribution to the learning and skills council. I hope that in scrutinising the Bill my noble friends will consider that aspect.
225 Nevertheless, I warmly applaud the vision of the gracious Speech in combining the two themes of enterprise and fairness. It balances the promotion of enterprise, taking advantage of high-tech, high value university research, with an inclusive vision, a desire to ensure fairness by means of, as the gracious Speech described,real opportunities [for people] to liberate their potential".
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
My Lords, perhaps I may add my congratulations to the two maiden speakers on their remarkable speeches. I was most impressed and look forward to hearing from them both again.
I am holding the gracious Speech in my hand. It consists of six pages. However, as my noble friend Lady Byford said, agriculture, farming and fishing are not mentioned in those six pages. When agriculture and the countryside are such a major part of the nation, it is extraordinary that they should be ignored by the Government. Incidentally, for a Government who keep using "education, education, education" as their slogan, it is disappointing to see a split infinitive on page four of the gracious Speech.
The Government do not seem to understand farming, the countryside or the rural economy. Farming is in deep crisis. If there is not urgent change, there will be a rapid deterioration in its attractiveness and a further decline in rural employment, where the position is already very serious indeed. Scotland must come within this debate. In the debate on agriculture in another place three weeks ago, I rioted that Scottish MPs discussed farming. Farming is also discussed in the Scottish Parliament. But in neither Parliament is very much being done to help farmers at the present time. It is notable that the Executive of the Scottish Parliament indicated in a report that the average net income of farmers last year was £416 and was likely to be less this year. That shows what a serious position we are in at the present time.
Perhaps I may highlight some of the major issues. On beef, there seem to have been promises, promises, promises all the way. After they won the general election, the Government said that they would sort out the beef problem with their colleagues in Europe and that there would be no problem at all. Here we are, 18 months later, in a worse position than ever. I cannot understand how the Government can negotiate in Europe when they retain beef-on-the-bone restrictions here. That destroys consumer confidence and is illogical. Senior medical officers are there to advise Ministers. They have done so in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Yet two of them have come down against removing the restrictions on beef-on-the-bone. When there is such an infinitesimal risk, I believe that Ministers should overrule them, take the lead and say that we shall allow beef-on-the-bone in this country. That would be of immense help with regard to our position in Europe. When one bears in mind that in Scotland this year we have had only 27 cases of BSE out of a herd of 226 2.1 million, it shows that the disease is just about beaten and that we should begin to think of the future more than of the past.
The Government's Autumn Statement was a great disappointment. It seemed to focus more on costs and expenditure forgone—on slaughterhouses and cattle passports—with little to improve the cash flow of the average farmer. I am sure that word will reach the Minister before she winds up this evening that we want to know what is to happen about the II LCA each year. It is a very important grant to the uplands and yet it has been given only a limited time for discussion and consultation between the NFU and the Government on the change from the present headage basis to an area basis. Does that mean that there will be less money available for farmers in the upland areas? Most people think that that is what it means—and that is a very serious thought indeed. We need to bear in mind that the HLCA is a Treasury-supported grant and not one that needs to be agreed in Europe. There has been very little consultation and it is likely that the grant will be phased out. The NFU urgently needs more information. It needs to know where we are as regards this important grant.
There is outrage in farming circles at the present time. Milk has dropped from 34p a litre to around 17p and the price is still falling. As my noble friend pointed out, pig farmers are in total disarray. Lamb is at a historically low price and cast ewes and calves are almost unsaleable. That is compounded because the Government have insisted on SR M removal from the cast ewes. That has made the cost of slaughtering those beasts more expensive than their value. Why have the Government scrapped the slaughter scheme at such a crucial moment?
Another example of how the Government are out of touch with farming is the failure of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme which was launched amid great fanfare with £2.2 million of available funds, but then £20 million worth of applications were received. That shows how the Government did not think the matter through and what could have been a valuable scheme has been totally underestimated.
We should look again at changing the Over Thirty Months Scheme. Why cannot cattle born after August 1996 when the feed regulations changed be exempted? Again, as my noble friend said, can the Government not seriously look at the problem of regulation in this area. The difficulties of tagging and cattle handling are severe. I do not know whether any Ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have actually tried to put 200 head of cattle through a cattlerace and deal with eartags umpteen times a year to satisfy the grant system. That is one of the most difficult operations relative to the small staff on most farms today.
I shall turn to the countryside. I am, of course, glad that the Chancellor has at last seen sense over fuel tax. However, he has only halted its rise rather than taken action to reduce it. It is important that the Chancellor should look seriously at reducing fuel tax levels on petrol and diesel in the countryside to help the people 227 who live there. It is no use saying that money will be put into increasing bus services. That is all very well for those who live on a bus route, but the majority of people in the countryside do not live near a bus stop and they are not prepared to walk two or three miles to reach one. They will get into their cars and drive to the nearest town. That is why the cost of fuel is so important. I am glad that at last the Chancellor has recognised that he was wrong.
I wish that the Government would look seriously at the regulations on planning and renewable energy. I am most disappointed at the number of wind farms being erected in valuable areas of scenic beauty. In the years ahead, those farms will be very detrimental to the countryside. Furthermore, there is the blight of innumerable mobile telephone masts now dotted on the tops of so many hills in Scotland.
There is to be an important Bill on countryside access both for England and in Scotland. That should be accompanied by an understanding of responsibility towards the countryside. What compensation will be made available? What insurance will be necessary? What will be the cost to local authorities for footpath upkeep and to provide rangers? Have all these issues been thought through? In Scotland, there is the additional matter that land may be compulsorily acquired by communities if they so wish. That will be an impossible and intolerable burden on the countryside and I sure that that will be resisted in the Scottish Parliament. We need more consultation on access in both forums in England and Scotland, and I am sure in Wales as well.
I know that there will be endless debates on footpaths and general countryside matters. I see the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, sitting on the opposite Benches. The noble Lord and I and six other Peers served on the Standing Committee of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and he knows, as I do, what lengthy arguments are to be had on the problem of footpaths. At the weekend I looked up those speeches and saw that I spoke for 62 minutes on bulls on footpaths on one memorable morning. I hope that I shall not have to do that again.
We shall also follow closely developments on sites of special scientific interest. They form an important part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, bearing in mind that wildlife needs sustainable farming if it is to be successful in our countryside. It is complementary to profitable farming to see wildlife expanding and developing in the country. I see that the chairman of English Nature is in her place, and of SNH, with both of which I have been closely involved. We must try to find more compromises rather than conflict between the governing bodies and agencies. I have been saddened by the level of conflict between the different countryside bodies when basically we are all trying to achieve the same objectives.
Finally, I turn to the new national parks to be set up in Scotland and in England. Having once been in charge of the national parks as a Minister, I feel that any more parks will add enormously to the bureaucracy and planning complications surrounding 228 them. I caution the Government to proceed carefully with regard to Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms where an excellent partnership scheme has been set up. I note also that national park status appears to be singularly unwanted by those who live in the New Forest and on the Downs in England.
All in all, I finish by saying that there is presently a real crisis in farming. That is not an overstatement. It is a real crisis and it needs leadership to overcome the problems. We need successful negotiation in Europe rather than capitulation. I believe that the Government are failing the farming industry, failing the countryside, and failing the nation.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, I propose to direct my remarks to the commitment in the gracious Speech that the,Government will continue their leading role in protecting the global climate".That statement was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, in his opening remarks. A number of noble Lords have already dealt with various aspects of the environment. I intend to deal with energy and the environment, with particular reference to the objectives the Government have set for dealing with the problem of climate change.
The principal ways of achieving these objectives are by increasing energy efficiency, developing renewable resources—having regard to their environmental impact, as has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm—and improving the use of fossil fuels by means of processes such as clean coal technology.
I have been involved in the energy sector for over 50 years and am still actively engaged therein in the promotion of combined heat and power. During that half century, there have only been two periods when energy saving was taken seriously. The first period was immediately after the war when coal, then the main source of energy, was in desperately short supply. When in 1947 I joined the marketing department of the newly formed National Coal Board, my task was not to sell coal but to ration it; not to persuade people to make more use of it but to make less use. That situation lasted for a few years until plentiful supplies of oil began to arrive, followed by gas from the North Sea and the development of nuclear energy.
The second time a real interest was taken in energy saving was during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Then, it was occasioned by the spiralling price of the product. Oil had taken over from coal in dominating the energy market. There seemed to be no end to the increases that would be introduced as a result of political action in the Middle East. However, that phase passed.
We then move to another phase when energy saving has become important; namely, the present. On this occasion the situation is entirely different. The motivation is the environmental issue, which does not have the immediacy of energy shortage or high prices. On the contrary, there is plenty of energy available 229 and, on the whole. prices have been kept at a low level. There has been a recent increase in the price of oil, but oil is now much less dominant in the market-place.
So in order to achieve the Government's objectives against the background of a relaxed market situation, a great deal more intervention will be required than was previously the case. Whereas people were previously motivated by their own direct interests—namely, not being able to obtain energy or having to pay too much for It—those motives no longer exist. Therefore, I should like to examine the energy scene today in relation to the Government's climate change objectives.
First, let us take the domestic market, where the overriding issue is that of fuel poverty. My noble friend Lady Hamwee referred to the problem of poor housing. Fuel poverty and poor housing are inextricably linked. The latest English House Condition Survey indicated that there is fuel poverty in no fewer than 5 million homes in this country; in other words. insulation is inadequate, as are the heating installations. Not only does that have major social problems attached to it; it also leads to much waste of energy, with very little benefit for those who are unfortunate enough to live in such houses.
A tragic aspect of the problem is the mortality rate in the winter months compared with the rest of the year. The mortality rate in Britain rises in winter by between 15 and 30 per cent. That is double the rate in any other western European country. Indeed, in countries such as Denmark, where homes are insulated to a much higher standard than has ever been achieved here, there is no difference in the mortality rate between the seasons. So clearly, poor housing, poor heating and high winter mortality rates go together. That is an even more serious problem than only having to deal with climate change, important as that may be.
I have been associated with the work of the NEA for many years. It is an organisation committed to improving the insulation of the homes of people on low incomes, mainly the elderly. I therefore welcome the Government's recent publication of their new home energy efficiency scheme (HEES) which is intended to put much more money into improving heating conditions in the homes to which I have referred.
The trouble is, however, the magnitude of the problem. In spite of the big increase in resources that the Government will put into the scheme when it gets under way, it is proposed to tackle only some 300,000 homes per annum. That may sound a large number; but compared with the 5 million, it will take some 15 years to deal with the problem. The objective ought to be to end fuel poverty in this country and to deal with inadequate housing in a much shorter time. We should set ourselves a limit of five years. So although it is a step in the right direction, the scheme requires re-examination.
Another step in the right direction is the extension into the gas market of what is known as the energy efficiency standards of performance scheme, which has been applied very successfully in electricity. It involves 230 a contribution of only £1 per annum per consumer of electricity. Aggregated, that provides a sum of £25 million, which has been used to introduce schemes for higher efficiency in the use of electricity. A National Audit Office inquiry into the scheme has indicated that the cost of saving electricity is half the price of producing electricity. Therefore, it is obvious that a scheme of that kind should be encouraged. I am delighted that it is being extended to the gas industry by the present Regulator. I have advocated that for many years. But the scale is far too small: £1 per annum per consumer. A good deal more needs to be set aside so that a larger sum could he used for these very desirable purposes. That is a further way in which the disadvantaged could be helped. So again, a step has been taken in the right direction that needs further development.
There is one other matter in regard to the domestic market that the Government should pursue; namely, the application of energy surveys to homes. If we do not know the relevant energy efficiency of a home, it is difficult to deal with the problem. The previous government developed a scheme for doing that; namely, the standard assessment procedure (SAP). It has already been laid down that all new house construction shall have an SAP of at least 60 out of 100. But the last energy survey of housing in this country indicated that the average SAP in Britain was not 60, 50 or even 40, but 35. Therefore, we need to know what the standards are in every home in the country.
There is a way of progressively introducing such an approach. When new mortgages are granted, the survey that has to be undertaken into the structure of the house could include the condition of the energy installation. Furthermore, the Government propose to introduce provision for a package of information to be provided by the seller of a property. That could also include information on energy efficiency.
I should like to deal briefly with the industrial market. The most important development has been the Government's plan to introduce the climate change levy. I am in favour of a levy on the usage of energy at a time when we are attempting to save it in order to improve the climate, both now and in the future. However, there were a number of serious shortcomings in the scheme. In his Pre-Budget Statement on 9th November, the Chancellor dealt with some of them, so the scheme now has fewer disadvantages than previously. But there is one weakness in the scheme. As now envisaged, it would raise £1 billion; however, only £150 million would be recycled into energy saving. The rest would go into the reduction of national insurance contributions by employers. That may be a worthy objective—no employer would not wish that to happen. However, I cannot see the relationship to energy saving. If the Government are to ring-fence the proceeds of the transport fuel escalator, they should do the same in the case of energy used for heating. If we could get that full £1 billion used in energy saving, we could move a long way towards achieving the Government's objectives on climate change, which are wholly 231 desirable. The Government will shortly have, through the proposed utilities Bill, increased powers to take action in this area, which will be necessary in view of the market situation.
The major remaining difficulty is that the resources so far made available are not adequate. There are ways, largely through self-financing, of increasing resources. That extra expenditure should not be regarded as a cost. It will be of substantial benefit to both the present and future generations.
§ 6.10 p.m.
My Lords, the gracious Speech promises a Bill to enable different forms of local government to be put in place. As a consequence, the Government hope that there will be a resurgence of interest in local government among the electorate and that new systems will improve the efficiency, transparency and accountability of local government—helping it to assume its role as a leader of its communities.
The proposals were first advanced in the White Paper Modern Local Government, and then appeared in the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill published during the last Session. That draft required local authorities in England and Wales to make proposals for a political management structure with a separate executive. The White Paper and draft Bill put forward three principal models: a directly elected mayor appointing an executive drawn from the council; a council leader appointed by the full council, also appointing an executive drawn from the council; and a directly elected mayor with a council manager to be appointed by the council.
Under the draft Bill, every local authority has to draw up proposals for moving to new executive arrangements, including the model that is to be followed. Where the proposals include an elected mayor, there has to be a representative. Furthermore, should a local authority receive a petition signed by at least 5 per cent of the electors in support of an elected mayor, the authority must hold a referendum. The Secretary of State, who features largely in the draft Bill, is empowered to make regulations enabling a local authority to hold a referendum on whether it should adopt executive arrangements based on any one of the three models.
A Joint Committee of your Lordships' House and another place reported on the draft Bill before the recess. It was my privilege to chair that Committee. As the report will not be debated separately, I take the opportunity to thank Members of both Houses and of all parties and none for all the work that they did to produce an agreed report in a very short time. I include in those thanks the clerks to the Committee—Mr Walters from your Lordships' House and Miss Barry from another place.
As the noble Lady, Baroness Hamwee, suggested, the Joint Committee had concerns about the time available to it to consider the draft Bill, which was only the second to be considered under the new procedure. 232 The timetable was short. While there may be certain benefits in considering a matter in a concentrated manner, only a very short time was available. The draft Bill was published in March but it was not until the end of May that the Joint Committee was constituted—which gave the Committee only six weeks to invite witnesses to appear and to take and examine evidence in detail. If such a Joint Committee is to do a worthwhile job and hear all the appropriate witnesses, more time is required. Some witnesses were not able to respond to the Joint Committee's invitation. It would have been unsuitable to consider compelling witnesses to attend because the timetable was unreasonable and one had to take account of witnesses' other commitments.
The Joint Committee's second difficulty was that the draft Bill was in many ways a skeleton and large elements of the legislation depend on regulations to be produced by the Secretary of State. One of the committee's recommendations was that rapid progress should be made with preparing those regulations, so that they go before both Houses at such time as the Bill itself is considered. Otherwise, consideration of the real Bill, if I may put it that way, will be hypothetical.
When the Minister replies, I would like her to say whether the Government have found it possible or whether she believes it will be possible to respond positively to a number of the Joint Committee's key recommendations.
I will not take up your Lordships' time discussing the report in detail, but the committee saw a need for recognition that in rural, apolitical or normally hung authorities the council leader or council manager model might have greater appeal than an elected mayor—which has metropolitan connotations. That model is not foreshadowed in the Government's White Paper or the draft Bill. Although we heard evidence that it would be permitted, the inclusion of such recognition in the Bill for the avoidance of doubt would give great comfort and reassurance to many authorities and people throughout the country.
We saw a particular need, in the case of the elected mayor model, for guidelines to clarify the distinction between policy framework considerations and executive action—and for that to be thought through before the Bill is presented to Parliament. As to the separation of powers, insofar as that can be achieved, there is a need for the scrutiny function to be adequately served by local authority officers—to ensure that advice is given to council members who are not members of the executive that is independent of advice given to the mayor and executive. The House may remember that on consideration of some provisions of the Greater London Authority Bill at a late stage, there was concern about provisions that allowed the mayor to keep advice private, without there appearing to be any differentiation between advice given on policy formulation and advice given to back up executive decisions.
If the Bill subsequently presented to Parliament follows the form of the draft considered by the Committee, that will mean a very different form of 233 local government. Although cabinet government has to some extent been practised informally in many authorities, its formal creation means that safeguards need to be built in, so that the old system will be replaced by robust measures that ensure that the mayor, cabinet leader and/or cabinet manager can be properly held to account. I am sure that your Lordships and Members of another place will appreciate any information the Minister can give as to the Government's response to those points and many others. I particularly re-emphasise the need for the draft regulations, on which so much of the Bill is based, to be available when the real Bill is debated.
As other Members of your Lordships' House have indicated, the gracious Speech this year is quite silent on environmental matters. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell quoted the extract from the Labour Party manifesto which I cited in this debate last year. Therefore, I shall not take up your Lordships' time by quoting it again. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of it. I hope that when she comes to reply the noble Baroness can help the House as to the present thinking in the Secretary of State's department.
I remind the House that the Deputy Prime Minister returned from Kyoto with a promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 per cent. The last time that I heard him interviewed on the radio I understood him to say, not what progress had been made in implementing that agreement, but that the Government were still discussing what they would do to meet the target. I believe that a legitimate question to ask is: what progress has been made and where are we? Certainly, the European Commissioner Margot WallstrÖm was reported as saying only two weeks ago that progress in tackling the problem was very slow.
We also heard last year the Deputy Prime Minister play down concerns about development on greenfield sites by committing himself to 60 per cent development on Brownfield sites. The noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, has produced an excellent report on such policies and developments. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell again referred to the report produced by a Mr Stephen Crow, a former chief planning inspector, and Rosamund Whittaker, a senior planning inspector, for the Secretary of State. A report in the Independent described the Secretary of State's decision as to whether to accept Mr Crow's report as,the most fateful decision ever taken about the English landscape".The report calls for the number of houses to be built in the south east to rise from 666,000 to 1.1 million. It destroys absolutely the agreed strategy of the South East Regional Planning body (SERPLAN) which, as I understand it, has already agreed unanimously to reject the Crow Report. SERPLAN's original recommendations were based on preserving the environment and quality of life within the south east. The new report which the Secretary of State must now consider suggests development which I understand is equivalent to 430 square kilometres—an area greater than the Isle of Wight. It is perhaps described more 234 graphically in the Independent. If the houses were placed either side of a single road it would stretch from London to Hawaii; namely, a distance of 7,200 miles.
If the Secretary of State accepts this report he will be flying in the face of the elected representatives of all parties in the region. He will destroy the effective use of one of the most important local government functions; namely, the ability to control development in its area. What price then local authorities as the leaders of their communities? Elected mayors and cabinets will not contribute very much to effectiveness or the public's regard for local government. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to tell the House that we shall not have to wait very much longer before the Secretary of State decides that the Crow Report by two officials will not be used to overthrow the express wishes of 18 million people through their elected representatives in the south east. If he does so, that rejection of the Crow Report will be a statement in support of reinvigorated local government and greater public interest and participation in it. If he does not throw out the Crow Report we can assume only that his trust in officials is greater than in local government members and that instead of it being the dawn of a new day all that the draft Bill will be is a false dawn.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Lord Sawyer
My Lords, I begin by wishing the Government well in this Session. Twenty-eight Bills represent a tough task for any administration and, along with other matters that no doubt will emanate from the Government during the Parliament. that can be a heavy workload. It is important that the Government try to achieve some focus during this Parliament. It could be the last full Session before the General Election. It would be useful to give thought to the main items that the Government want voters to take from this Session of Parliament.
Tonight I should like to make some remarks about the proposed reforms of post-16 education and training, in particular to say something about the importance of education and training for those at work. These are exciting times for those of us who have delivered this service in the workplace and spent a lifetime trying to improve the education and skills of the workforce. Starting from the problem of the 7 million adults with severe difficulty with basic literacy and numeracy right through to the millions of graduates who are in adult employment but whose skills must be updated and developed almost on a daily basis, we have an enormously difficult and challenging job ahead.
Much of what needs to be done must be initiated by employers. In my experience, good employers recognise that business efficiency can be achieved only by developing the skills of the workforce and, knowing that, they carry out that task. The best trade unions do the same. Look at the work done by UNISON on the development of basic skills under the Return to Learn programme. That was an outstanding contribution to the basic numeracy and literacy skills of its members. That is the basis on which Investors in People has been so successful. Companies and unions have taken 235 ownership of Investors in People and turned it into a kind of mass movement to develop people at work and achieve business success.
Much of what needs to be done in future can and will be done by the motivation and efforts of individuals themselves. In my experience, there is a hunger out there among people who want to grow, learn, develop and change which is nowhere near being satisfied. That must be recognised, encouraged and rewarded by government, employers and trade union. Sadly, the record is not all good. One in three employees is never offered any training at all by his or her current employer, and the overall numbers who received some form of training and the number of hours of training received by individuals fell last year. Those with the least skills and most insecure jobs receive the least training, whereas 21 per cent of professional employees receive training funded by their employer. That is not enough; it needs to improve.
The state and government have a key role to play in helping the best to improve and to drive up the standards of under-achievers. This is primarily a leadership role for government in partnership with business, trade unions and individuals. The Government must focus their leadership on the big picture. David Blunkett got it absolutely right when he published his consultation paper The Learning Age in which a strong vision and clear mission for education and training in the new century was spelt out. But vision and mission are ongoing tasks for leadership. The White Paper lost a little of the sense of "What are we here for?" as it inevitably moved on to explain delivery mechanisms and structures.
At the time of the publication of the White Paper, all the newspaper reports were not about vision and mission but the new Learning and Skills Council, and that is important. I know that my noble friend will agree with me that a council without a mission will not make a change. Following the gracious Speech last week the newspapers did the same: they focused on structures and procedures. Those are important improvements, but they are not enough without a new vision. We need to address these shortcomings. To make a real change to people's working lives we need a big change in attitude on the part of government, employers and individuals.
I welcome the new role given to the National Learning and Skills Council, but I want the emphasis to be on vision and values, not on rules and procedures. So when it comes to the functions of the Learning and Skills Council, I do not want the first point of its function to be that referred to in the White Paper: to ensure that a high quality of post-16 provision is available to meet the needs of employers, individuals and communities. I want that to be the second point. I want the first point to be that set out in David Blunkett's consultation paper. I want the vision and provision to be carried through from the top to the people who use the service.
In the list of functions, I should like the first to be a new learning culture; a culture of lifelong learning for all which will encourage creativity and learning for the 236 individual, help build a better society and advance competitiveness and prosperity. It may not be phrased in those words, but there should be something upfront about the mission. That is its job: a champion of change.
We need a fundamental shift in thinking in terms of engaging employers, unions, individuals and communities in meeting future learning and skills needs. This is a revolution. It is not the same group of committee people and quango holders exchanging one set of institutions, committees or group of seats for another. The new council must be more than a manager of public funds. It must be a change agent influencing and affecting attitudes among employers and employees, giving a new vision of working life to lifelong learning.
We need to make sure that employer involvement in education and training is not token involvement or just seats on boards; and that there are stronger links with employer organisations which do real business in real life—for example, the national training organisations which have been so successful recently.
We also need to find ways of keeping that vision and strategy close to the point of delivery. We need a flat structure, as would be said in organisational terms. The national council, presumably sitting in London, with perhaps 40 or 50 local councils, could be a kind of bureaucratic pyramid of the great and good if not handled carefully. It is important to involve the real consumers, the people whose lives are changing day by day through the development of technology, the economy and other innovations. We need to find ways of working with their experience at every level of education and training management.
Finally, there is the difficult question of networking, or joined-up government as it is currently called. With a national council, and with 40 or 50 local councils feeding out to regional development agencies, national training organisations, the Employment Service, the small business services, the university of industry, local partnerships—the list is endless—there is still potential for confusion and duplication. One of the key tests will be whether a business man or woman in a small enterprise working hard to make a go of that business will ask, "How does this help me?" I hope that the Minister will put her mind to that question.
I hope that these criticisms are not seen by my noble friend as being negative. I completely support the new reforms. My remarks are intended to be constructive. The Green Paper was on fire with vision. Understandably, the White Paper brought in structures and methods of working and the vision could not be given the same prominence. But I do not want a future Bill without vision. I want a proper balance between vision and structures. I want the vision to be upfront and shared by all. If the members of those 40 or 50 local skills councils in Scotland, Wales and the English regions can understand and believe in that vision, and can go out and sell it to the people in their communities, we shall have gone a long way to meet the cultural change that is necessary to achieve what has never been done previously.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, I, too, like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was deeply saddened that there was no mention of agriculture in the gracious Speech, nor indeed in the opening remarks of the Minister. I must declare an interest as someone who tries to farm, and I emphasise "try" as British agriculture is in the most terrible state—the worst in living memory.
British farmers are totally demoralised by physical events: ridiculously low prices; the effects of BSE; the beef-on-the-bone ban; beef export embargoes, especially by France and Germany; the unfairness of imports which d a not have to meet the strict criteria necessary for home producers; and the massive power of supermarkets.
They are even more demoralised by the apparent lack of interest in their plight by the Government. Sadly, Ministers appear not only unsympathetic but positively ignorant of the serious position of the majority of farmers. I fear that this was made only too apparent by the lack of mention of agriculture by the noble Lord on the Government Front Bench. The present crisis is not only affecting producers in the marginal areas, but even those in the most fertile regions too.
I give some examples. Pig farmers are losing £14 on each and every pig they sell. The stories about sheep farmers shooting their sheep are, sadly, far from exaggerated. The aftermath of BSE still dogs the complete livestock sector. The dairy industry is completely in the doldrums. It is absurd that more than 50 per cent of leased milk quota is owned by non-producers. This defeats completely the whole raison d'être of milk quotas. As many noble Lords know, milk quotas are an anathema to efficient milk producers.
Turning to cereals, if, for example, the price of malting barley over the past 20 years had increased with the same percentage increase in the minimum agricultural wage, growers this year should be receiving £170 per tonne. In reality they are lucky to get £70 per tonne. I wonder how Ministers would feel today if they were earning 41 per cent of what they were earning 20 years ago. The mind boggles—but that is what is happening in reality to farmers, but fortunately not to Ministers!
It must not be forgotten that farmers have to operate under a very strange set of rules. First, and perhaps foremost, is the weather; and there I accept that the Government have no control. The right rain at the right time can often boost income per acre by as much as £100. The right sun and heat at the right time might boost income a further £25 per acre. I give a small example. Good weather this year saved us at home £20,000 in drying costs; and a similar amount was saved on weight loss due to moisture content.
At home we have just finished sowing next year's wheat crop a full two months earlier than last year. We shall probably have to wait until early September 238 before we can harvest it. In the meantime, I have no idea how much it will cost to grow, what it will yield and, most importantly, what it will be worth.
Agriculture is more affected than any other industry by the pound sterling/euro exchange rate and it must not be forgotten that the strength of the pound has appreciated by over 30 per cent over the past three years.
Turning to organic food, the Government hardly pay lip service to encouraging home production. The funds made available are derisory. This is especially so when compared with most other EU countries which subsidise their organic producers to massive extents. For example, Austria pays its organic producers an annual subsidy in excess of £250 an acre. It is no wonder that about 80 per cent of organic food sold in our supermarkets is imported. One has to doubt, too, whether all our overseas suppliers of organic food meet the stringent requirements necessary for our home producers.
Another serious worry to those of us living in the countryside is rural employment. The lack of any light at the end of the tunnel means that farmers are now making staff redundant as the only way to save outgoings. This, sadly, is nationwide. Between June 1998 and June 1999 the number of working farmers and their wives fell by 5 per cent to 201,000. Those figures alone show the importance of agriculture to the nation's employment figures. Only half, 104,000, are full-time and 20,000 of those are women. Last year nearly 18,000 farmers and farm workers left the land. Regular full-time workers fell by 6 per cent to 102,000.
Farmers ought to be in a position to ask themselves, "If I do this, can I take on another employee?", rather than as at present, doing the complete reverse. Something must be done urgently to halt this decline in rural employment.
I turn now to bureaucracy. Can nothing be done to inhibit the appalling growth of form-filling and similar for farmers? The average farmer today spends not less than two days per week in his office, purely filling in forms, or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned employs someone else to do so. Let us hope that that is what is meant in the gracious Speech:As part of my Government's drive to address inappropriate and over-complex regulation, legislation will be introduced to increase the effectiveness of the power to remove regulatory burdens".I quote again from the gracious Speech:Legislation will be introduced to assist the rescue of viable businesses in short-term difficulties, and improve the procedure for disqualifying unfit company directors".There will be a minute percentage of farmers who will have traded profitably last year and I hope that when Her Majesty's Government come to draft this Bill they will have farmers to the very forefront of their mind.
I turn now to the issue of greater access to the countryside. I hope and pray that before any Bill is drafted, her Majesty's Government will consult fully—here I really mean fully—with all the relevant bodies, most especially the CLA and the NFU, both of whose membership are the guardians of our rural 239 environment. It must not be forgotten that in order to have a healthy countryside it is vital to have a profitable agricultural industry.
On the contentious issue of hunting with hounds, I should like to place on record for the future that if a ban on hunting with hounds became law, three things would happen: first, the life of not one single fox would be preserved; secondly, many thousands of rural jobs would be lost; thirdly, the rural environment, the countryside that so many people love, would not be conserved in the way that it is today. The Government must have more important things to legislate on or indeed to give parliamentary time to.
I have three questions to ask Her Majesty's Government, all, I believe, of equal importance. The first refers to renewable energy from agricultural crops. I make no excuse for raising this yet again in your Lordships' House. North Sea oil is not going to last for ever. Will Her Majesty's Government give a firm commitment to spending more on research and development in this area? The amount spent at the moment really is pathetic.
Secondly, will Her Majesty's Government give a commitment that trials of GM crops can continue in safety for those growing them? Thirdly, will Her Majesty's Government agree to pay in full the agricultural compensation allowances and to register with the Commission well before the 31st March deadline?
We really do need to develop a long-term strategy, not one that will simply paper over the cracks. This strategy must involve farmers, growers, the entire food industry and the Government, so that British agriculture and the British countryside can flourish once again. The nation deserves nothing less.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, in a debate such as this, various speakers address the various aspects of a number of subjects gathered together. We have heard two maiden speeches from noble Lords who will obviously greatly reinforce the expertise on which we can draw in terms of education and communication. I should merely like to return to the subject which was very well covered by my noble friends Lady Byford and Lord Monro of Langham, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. In Her Majesty's most gracious Speech laying out the Government's plans and priorities, the only mention of subjects concerning the countryside and rural affairs was couched in terms which I can describe only as those of the urban agenda which so characterises all the Government's policies in this area.
The nature both of democracy and of the Government's reform of this House means that any perspective in this area other than the counting of human heads is inevitably relegated to second best. Everyone is aware that the countryside is undergoing an immense transformation. People are turning into inquisitive spectators rather than active participants in nature. For most, the opportunity to grow up with a bond to and an understanding of the passage of the 240 seasons is limited to whether the television channels are full of football or of cricket. The phrases used by the Minister this afternoon served only to emphasise that approach. The sense that humanity is only one of many species vying for space and air becomes merely, "I know what I want—make some room for me".
I should declare my own interests as one brought up in the countryside and who has spent nearly 40 years in livestock rearing. Agricultural production gave the rationale and economic backbone to all rural life. With the application of science and technology, agriculture is becoming increasingly concentrated on intensive-farmed areas and in fewer and fewer hands. The balance which existed between extensively-farmed uplands and hills and intensive low ground no longer exists. Efficient arable production no longer requires the wintering of fattening cattle and the grazing of sheep bought from the western areas. Even the dairy farms, finding themselves capable of increased production but constrained by their quotas, and, with modern medicines, no longer needing specialist shepherds, have gone in for keeping their own sheep and fattening the lambs rather than buying them from stock rearing areas.
In addition, your Lordships heard in the debate of 9th November on the Government's policy for milk how milk production, that great bulwark of the small farm and the new farm entrant, has been turned into a recipe for financial loss, due largely to weak marketing and the strength of the pound. From the receiving end, the impression is that the Government, as directed by the CAP, continue to throw money at the problem without any clear theme or understanding of what the countryside and those in it have to offer and how that can be sustained.
The themes most often heard from the Government are about competitiveness and marketing. That seems difficult to reconcile with the ruling by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report that Milk Marque, because it accounts for 36 per cent of the liquid milk market, must be broken up. In its present form it would not be allowed to contemplate the sort of vertical integration that is carried out throughout the European Union by farmer co-operatives that account for 60 per cent and more of their own respective markets.
There was a further anomaly in Scotland at the time of deregulation of milk. The major milk co-operative, the Scottish Milk Marketing Board, which presently accounts for about 6 per cent of UK production, included a sizeable element of vertical integration into manufacturing. This was forced to split up and the manufacturing element, Scottish Pride, was hived off. Only this summer it had to go into liquidation due to not being viable on its own in the current economic circumstances. Are there no lessons here for governments about being more careful in their consideration of regulations?
My noble friend Lord Monro of Langham was telling your Lordships about Scottish agriculture. Your Lordships will be only too well aware that agriculture in Scotland has been devolved. But the overall position is still of vital concern to this House.
241 In Scotland the livestock are mainly concentrated in what are known as the Less Favoured Areas—the hills of the West, which constitute 83 per cent of the land area. The figures. that I have are not exactly the same as those of my noble friend Lord Monro. However the figures published by the Scottish Executive demonstrate that the net farm income forecast for 1998 was £468 per farm. We are not talking about income per week but about income per year. We have already heard of the dire nature of the forecasts for the following year.
Farming in those areas is already extremely extensive. Those who live in those areas would like to know what is the Government's policy in broad terms as well as in the minor detail. Are they thinking of taking great chunks of that land permanently out of production? Does the future for those living in those areas lie in becoming part of a national ranger service; or is there some special structure for small and part-time farmers? At present, those who want to leave are in a Catch-22 situation because they will mainly have been relying on the sale of their stock to provide themselves with a pension. At this stage, they will be lucky if the stock has half the value it had a couple of years ago.
The Scottish Executive's view of what is needed in the country seems to be a radical transformation of the laws of land ownership and increased planning and other controls, so much so that the proposals in question account for about 40 per cent of the legislative programme. They will nearly all make more difficult the operations of those making a livelihood in the country.
The Scottish Executive is very busy at the moment handing out the lifebelts which the Government have provided for the present crisis. We must all be most grateful for that. But what is lacking is the design of a boat which will carry a viable countryside through to the next ten or 20 years.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Lord Murray of Epping Forest
My Lords, we have already been reminded that in the gracious Speech the Government declared their intention to make local government "more innovative and accountable". To those ends, as we have heard, they are proposing the direct election of mayors, new statutory codes of conduct and enhanced powers to improve the environment.
Many of those proposals are concerned with the mechanisms of local government; indeed, with increasing the pr professionalism of local government. There are gains to be secured from that but, as my noble friend Lord Sawyer emphasised in a different context, a preoccupation with improved structures may oust what he well described as the sense of mission and vision.
Therefore, changes to local government mechanisms must be accompanied by measures, statutory as well as administrative, to involve local people and organisations more effectively in the work 242 of councils. So I welcome the recognition by my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston that local people must decide how they are governed.
In that context, I want to concentrate on the very grass roots of local government—on the role and contribution of what I shall refer to generically as local councils; that is, town councils, parish councils and, particularly in Wales, community councils. They are too often overlooked in the debate on local government.
My interest is that of one who, like Her Majesty's Government, would like to encourage more local innovation and accountability. I have observed how my own local town council has progressively promoted those objectives since it was re-established in 1996 after a demise of 63 years.
Local councils are a most significant part of local democracy. There are some 7,500 of them in England and Wales and some 100,000 people serve as councillors. Many such councils are small, representing 200 or 300 people in a rural area. But there are some large town councils, such as Bracknell, which has a population of 50,000, and Loughton, in Essex, where I live, which has a population of 30,000 and 22 councillors.
Local councils can and do engage in a surprisingly wide range of activities. It does not always depend on their size. Some councils with small populations are remarkably enterprising. We should not underestimate the value of such things as providing allotments, making grants for bus services and traffic calming, introducing and equipping crime prevention services, supporting the local arts and providing recreation facilities; nor should we underestimate the unique contribution which those councils make to the planning process in relation to which detailed local knowledge is of the essence.
Those functions derive from a whole myriad of statutory sources which impose serious obligations on local councillors. They must inform themselves properly of their powers, particularly if they are minded to take new initiatives. Some innovate in quite surprising ways within the limits of their very modest resources. For example, my local town council has set up an active community forum; it has installed a series of very well-received local heritage plaques; and has established a skate board facility. Perhaps of more direct interest to your Lordships is that it is one of the few councils to have a website so those noble Lords who are technophiles can read all about it on the Net.
Local councils have been described as the Cinderellas of local government. As noble Lords will recall, Cinderella had two ugly sisters. I should not wish to draw any invidious comparisons with district or county councils, but if the Government want to make local government as a whole more innovative and more accountable, they should not overlook the important part which local councils can play in that. That is one area in which small really is beautiful and provides quite remarkable value for money. Ministers could help by, from time to time, giving more explicit recognition of what local councils do and by 243 encouraging the spread of best practice. That need not involve a lot of extra funding. Local councils have a reputation for very careful spending. They are wholly dependent for funding on a precept levied on their district councils, which amounts to only a few per cent of the revenue. However, the Government might consider providing some special innovatory funds—perhaps ring-fenced—to stimulate local councils to take new initiatives and to copy the examples set by the more enterprising of their number.
Finally, there is one glaring injustice which could and should and, I hope, will be corrected in the local government Bill. For some reason which I cannot fathom, local councils are prohibited by the Local Government Act 1972 not only from paying councillors any allowances but even from reimbursing councillors for expenses which they incur, including the cost of attending meetings of, or on behalf of, their council held within the borders of their town.
Perhaps I may give an illustration from my own town council. Loughton Town Council has 22 councillors, two-thirds of whom are past retirement age while at least half a dozen have no access to a car. Loughton is about three miles from north to south. To save money, the council and its committees meet in a council hall at the northernmost extremity of the town, far from where many of the councillors live. The cost of a single bus fare is about £1. So a councillor may easily spend £50 or more per year on travel alone, to say nothing of the cost of using the telephone. That is quite a sum when one is drawing an old age pension. Loughton is relatively compact. There must be areas where the cost of being a councillor is very much greater. I know for a fact that potentially valuable councillors may be put off accepting nomination because of the prospective cost to their own purses.
The different treatment of district and local councils under the 1972 Act is indefensible in principle and is, in practice, likely to exclude a significant proportion of our citizens from standing for election. So far as I can ascertain, the reasons for treating local councillors differently from district councillors were never discussed in either House during the passage of the 1972 Act. However, the then Conservative Minister Lord Sandford said:We are all agreed that the allowances should be such that good potential members arc not dissuaded from serving on local councils by financial restraints or worries".—[Official Report, 18/9/72; col. 846.]I would feel happy if the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who is to speak after me, felt able to support the views of his predecessor, as I can assure my noble friend that if the local government Bill removes that obvious anomaly, it will win support from all sides of the Chamber.
§ 7 P.M.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, as we debate the gracious Speech, I must admit to some doubt about where the Government's policy is taking us. At least I have the comfort that I am in good company. Like my 244 noble friend Lord Strathclyde when he moved his amendment to the humble Address, I find the gracious Speech has little coherence.
I begin with one aspect of it. No doubt many others will have been picked out before the debate ends. I quote:A Bill will be introduced to give people greater access to the countryside and to improve protection for wildlife".All my life I have lived with the countryside as my home. It does not take deep study to realise that those two ambitions are in conflict with each other. The biggest threat to wildlife is the pressures that we, the people, place on the countryside.
There are many aspects to this subject. Both agriculture and housing are obvious points. My noble friend Lord Bowness has already explained the problems that all communities in the South East now face as a result of having to face the possibility of a greatly increased rate of development, resulting from new calculations by the Government's own inspectors which have recently been published.
I recall in that report that such a sentiment was expressed and the inspectors concluded that the South East should suffer or be sacrificed for the sake of the rest of the country. If the Government accept that report, as my noble friend has already said, it will mean overturning the basis on which planning has operated in the South East until now and indeed the policies on which the Government were elected.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell made some interesting comments on this problem. Like him, I find it distasteful that there are houses that cannot be sold in many parts of the country when there is huge pressure for development in the South East. In talking to young people in places like Newcastle one understands that many of them see no future unless they move to the South East. Although a great deal has been done to tackle the problems in their area, there is still an acute problem which must be dealt with.
As for agriculture—what a dismissive way to put it—only recently it has become possible for the country to live with some certainty that food can be purchased from anywhere in the world and so our home farming industry can be disregarded. I use that word advisedly. That is how I interpret an interview given a short time ago by the Prime Minister on our local television channel. The message seemed to be: accept our regulation, change and compete or go out of business. The second part of that message would be easier to swallow if the first part applied to all the competitors of the United Kingdom's farming industry.
In reality, an industry with high standards that is highly regulated is being squeezed in the name of the consumer by competitors with weaker currencies who largely escape the same regulations but who are able to sell here at much lower prices. So many noble Lords have spelled out the detail of the effect of that on the agricultural industry.
As a nation we sacrificed farming in the latter years of the last century and we did it again after the First World War. Farmers have long memories and they are 245 not particularly surprised by what is happening. However, they are disappointed and they will not forget. In the meantime the public are to be granted uncontrolled access to much more of the countryside which will put quiet places under even more intense pressure. Wildlife will suffer.
It is all very well to give greater protection to sites of special scientific interest and it is all very well to talk about positive management and penalties for damage, but if those sites are simply oases in a sea of intensive farming the survival of farmers will be in danger. I know one farmer who will survive. He has 3,600 acres of arable land for which he has only two full-time employees. If the countryside is to survive as we know it at present something has to be done to improve the profitability of the agricultural sector at large. I shall be interested to see what the Bill contains—when we finally receive it—as it sets out to resolve those particular conflicts.
I quote again from the gracious Speech:A Bill will be brought forward to reform local government to make it more innovative and accountable".In this case we have some idea of the changes that the Bill may contain because it was well signalled in our preceding Session of Parliament and a joint committee of both Houses, as explained by my noble friend Lord Bowness, has already reported on the putative legislation.
That said, I am fascinated that the Government should wish to spread innovative management structures—at least innovative as concerns this country—across the whole country before they have seen whether the experimental introduction that we have only just dealt with will work successfully. After all, it is only a few days since we were considering what is now the Greater London Authority Act in which such ideas were introduced to this country's legislation for the first time.
In British democracy the tradition used to be that members controlled the executive. Now the Government look as though they are about to set aside that principle for a fourth time. First, there is the almost iron control that they exert over their own Members in Parliament so that they can treat Parliament as no more than a slight inconvenience. Secondly, they established the principle as a matter of law in the Greater London Authority Act where the Greater London Assembly is allowed no more than to supervise the actions of the mayor. Thirdly, they reiterated the principle on their absolute insistence that any Labour candidate for mayor shall be allowed to have no ideas except those already in the Labour Party's manifesto. Fourthly, a draft local government Bill seeks to reduce the management power of ordinary members of local authorities, which they are accustomed to exercising, by concentrating those powers either with an elected mayor or within a Cabinet-style arrangement.
Of course, we do not yet know how the Government responded to the report of the joint committee of both Houses. Only when the Bill is published will we know for sure whether the Government are determined on 246 this path. If, in winding up the debate, the Minister can give some assurance that the Government have listened to the report, that will be most welcome.
Local government is about providing services to the public. The public themselves are little concerned about the management structure that brings those services to them; all they are interested in are the results. They worry about the schools that their children attend; about the roads that they drive on; about the state of care for the elderly; about security in their homes and whether or not their dustbins are emptied. The Bill does nothing about those things; rather, it is a distraction. So I ask myself why the Government are doing this and I do not like the answer.
It has long been my belief that when Labour was last in opposition it used local government as a tool to attack national government. As a result it knows all too well the damage and problems that local government can cause. Thus it is that it now wishes to adjust the system to bring local government more under control and so avoid possible future problems. Certainly nothing in either the Local Government Act which we passed in the last Session, nor anything in the Greater London Authority Act suggests that Labour has faith in anybody or any institution other than itself. We shall have to look at this projected Bill with great care as it may continue to follow what I regard as an unfortunate precedent.
The Government promised us a busy Session. It is in their character that they wish to give the appearance of great activity and they will certainly achieve that. However, I doubt whether the country will receive commensurate benefit from all this activity, and that is something that we may all come to regret.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, a number of noble Lords have remarked on the lack of a mention of agriculture in the Minister's opening remarks this afternoon. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that when the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was concluding the debate on the fourth day last Session, he commented on the serious state of the agricultural industry; on how farm incomes had suffered a serious deterioration over the past two or three years and on how that situation was continuing. He said that he expected it to have serious effects not only on the viability of agriculture, but also on the environment, animal welfare and the rural economy as a whole.
A whole year has passed since then and the situation has worsened to a degree that not even the most pessimistic of us anticipated. Many examples of that have already been given. Over that year, action by the Government has been reactive by way of crisis aid packages with nothing in the way of strategic thinking. Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that the Government have had little to say today and could only repeat the statement made so ably last year by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.
247 However, I want to look forward. During the coming year the Government have promised a rural White Paper, and it is long overdue. When thinking about that, it struck me what a poor relation rural areas continue to be. Urban areas had the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, to set the scene in his excellent report. He produced some original and sound thinking, including plans for an urban renaissance. Meanwhile, rural areas still get a bureaucratic mess. This Government cannot even make up their mind as to who should be responsible for rural issues, although I believe that they are making some moves in that direction. Unfortunately, they are not organised in a way that makes it simple for other rural partners to deal with them. In my area of the south-west, the rural development working group—on which we are pinning quite high hopes—is co-chaired by MAFF and the Government Office for the region because no one quite knows where the buck stops.
On these Benches, we have long promoted the idea of a rural ministry. At the end of the debate I introduced in the last Session, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that there had been a demand from the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere to create a rural ministry of some kind, but that when examined in detail that had no great logic. However, I am pleased to say that the Government now appear to have accepted that there is some merit in that approach and are making a start with a Cabinet committee. If rural areas are ever to get a reasonable deal, they need a coherent approach. I shall outline the three ways in which they are getting a raw deal at the moment. Do the Bills in the gracious Speech mean that things will improve for our country areas or will current inequalities be exacerbated?
Inequalities fall into three categories: funding, infrastructure and democracy. In relation to funding, people who live in rural areas are "worth" less per head than those in urban areas, according to the funding formulas of this Government—and in fact the previous government—in terms of local government services. Does it cost less to deliver personal social services to an elderly person in a village than in a city? Of course not. Does it cost less to educate a child in Dorset than in London? Of course not. Although a small amount is given for sparcity consideration—around £16 per head—total government funding per capita is £656 for somebody in Somerset, £750 for people in most shire counties, and a wonderful £1,350 for people in Inner London. The Government need to explain that inequality and work towards getting rid of it.
Last year, CAP reform seemed to offer rural areas a ray of bright hope. But the Government opted to keep the Thatcher rebate intact, which benefits areas chosen by government. I am sure that some rural areas benefit, but minimal CAP reform happened and, as before, most lost out.
The rural development regulation money would offer some hope, but this Government must put in serious matching funding. Despite the critical state of the rural economy, the Government are still planning 248 to invest substantially less in our rural areas than does virtually every other European Union country. The Government need to look seriously at the question of modulation and whether some money can be redirected not back into the Treasury funds—that is what so many fear will happen if modulation is taken away—but into rural development schemes.
The Government must produce proper matched funding for those schemes. Many of them are currently substantially underfunded but are actually "win-win" schemes; that is, the farmer receives money to produce the goods the public want and the countryside that supports its wildlife. Organic farming has got it right. The Government have given a little more conversion funding in that regard, but it is still enormously underfunded, as is the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. People in this country clearly want to buy local produce produced to high standards and to have animal welfare taken into account.
Some pro-active local authorities have started farmers' markets. In the south-west, for instance, they are expanding to more than just a niche. But what specific help are the Government planning to give to enable this sort of self-help for agriculture to develop? They have not planned a farmers' market Bill. There is still in existence an archaic law that prevents new markets being set up within a radius of six and two-thirds miles of existing markets—a day's horse-ride. That does not make much sense these days.
The draft rural strategies of the regional development agencies are proving a disappointment so far. They have failed to make the links between economic strategies and rural policies and have left the environment trailing a poor third. I hope that they improve before they are put in their final form. I hope that the Government will put pressure on them to do SO.
I turn for a moment to the infrastructure. One of the most exciting Bills in the gracious Speech might well be that which introduces more innovation in terms in e-commerce and e-government. The new Bill should promote the use of new technologies, yet I wonder whether the Government realise how many areas of rural Britain are still not served by ISDN lines. In fact, I gather that the fibre optic cabling programme contains no medium or long-term plans to provide broad band access to all areas. If even in this new area of technology, rural areas will lose out before that technology has even begun, there is very little hope for them.
The Post Office Bill should be an opportunity for rural post offices, but many fear that it will be a threat. What sort of criteria do the Government intend to use when they specify the sort of services that communities can expect?
I shall not consider the housing issue in depth but rural areas are still badly in need of affordable housing. Again, there is funding inequality. Ten per cent of Britain's population live in smaller settlements of fewer than 3,000 people and yet 4 per cent of Housing Corporation money is allocated to provide affordable housing for people in villages. What inequality!
249 A number of noble Lords have touched on the subject of transport. It is time that funding for rural transport schemes is provided long term. It is no use the local authorities—although they are grateful for the money—being given it in dollops of very short-term funding which, if they do not use it, is taken away. Transport requires long-term development and planning so that the community can work out how it wants to develop it and not how to spend money in a short time.
I shall touch briefly on energy. Wind farms have been mentioned in a rather negative way. One of the more exciting things I saw in the summer was at Swaffham where the community now has a huge wind generator towering over the town. It provides energy. I believe that it is a splendid backdrop. The town must gain some satisfaction from providing its own renewable energy.
In democratic terms, rural areas will lose out under the local government Bill. I do not believe that it is a Bill about innovation, but about replacing one set of rigid structures with another. The proposed new structures are completely unsuited to three-tier areas where "county and district" is already a confusing concept to most members of the public. How many mayors will a rural market town have? A town mayor indirectly elected by the town council; a county mayor directly elected, a district mayor and so on? I hope that the Government are not thinking that that will make matters more accountable to local residents. I very much hope that the Bill will seek to encourage good partnership working between the different tiers. Real community planning might then take place.
Finally, the access to the countryside Bill will mean that more of the population will have an opportunity to appreciate the beautiful areas of this country. That is quite right. But the way in which that is implemented is very important. I hope that the Bill will be drafted to answer the crucial questions of proper mapping, proper signing and how to close areas so that wildlife is not badly affected. What about the liability of people on the land? So far the Government have dodged the question, but it is crucial both to the landowner and the people using the land.
The existing rights-of-way network is equally important. The open countryside will serve for the long day out, but, for many, access to a properly signed and mapped network of footpaths and bridleways is as important. Surely we do not want everyone to have to drive to the coast or the moors just for a walk.
The national parks are leaders in integrating regional recreational demands with economic development for residents. I believe that there are many lessons to be learnt from them. I am glad that the Government are thinking of creating two more national parks. They have many lessons for the rest of countryside on how to manage such issues.
For a government with a majority and resources to achieve some visionary themes, I believe that the lack of vision for the future of our countryside, except as a recreation area, is disappointing. Perhaps the most positive measure mentioned this evening is protection 250 for wildlife, which is long overdue. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, mentioned, it must not be "oasis" protection. There must be broad protection for vulnerable species, and sites, and for the common wildlife, which, if we do not protect it, will become rare.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, I am not sure whether I am the only person who feels that the advent of computers for all has resulted in an order of magnitude increase in typographical errors. Moreover, there was a time when those who did their typing knew and understood the rules of grammar. Nowadays, when all manner of managers, civil servants and even politicians do their own typing, it is much less likely.
However, I have decided, on mature reflection, that it was no error which coupled "greater access to the countryside" and "improved protection for wildlife" without even a precautionary comma between them. Perhaps by this device the Government intend that, like love and marriage, man and wife, death and taxes, it shall be clear that access and wildlife protection are to be two sides of the same coin; that, as an old song says, "You can't have one without the other", that without improved protection greater access will not be allowed. Like my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, I have difficulty in believing it.
Two decades of farming and land management have convinced me that protecting wildlife—in which category I include flora as well as fauna—requires special and specific measures. While wishing to ensure better access to the countryside, generally speaking opening up access makes things worse for wildlife. At all times, there is need for balance.
The market gardener has to protect his crop from rabbits, deer and birds or he will have no produce; the forester has to protect his young trees from deer, cattle and sheep, but at the same time the land manager will wish to help the deer survive and may wish to encourage and reintroduce indigenous species such as the red squirrel.
Most people know by now that the red squirrel has been driven out by the grey, but few are aware that unless we intervene positively it will become extinct in these isles. Positive intervention will probably not be enhanced by non-permissive access unless great care is given to that access. Will the Bill recognise that? Will it allow proper time, research and funding into what is required to encourage and protect wildlife before it gives carte blanche to free access? The population must have adequate access to the countryside; most of us agree on that. I believe that the argument relates to the question: what is the correct access to the countryside?
Many landowners, including myself, already allow ramblers and other associations access to their land. In return they expect, and largely get, responsible behaviour. That is particularly true of permissive access. Will that pattern continue when there is non-permissive access on moorland, heath and downland? We understand that the Government intend to allow for the closure of land during the breeding season and 251 for other environmental or safety reasons. But what will the closures involve and will they be different in different places? Will farmers and land managers find themselves faced with additional costs for signposts, advertisements in local papers, web pages on the Internet, and for additional wardens and keepers?
Who will pay to put right the things that go wrong—the casual damage to walls, stiles and paths; and the collection and disposal of sandwich boxes and soft drink cans, to say nothing of old cars, fridges and cookers? It is no use the Government putting their head in the sand and pretending that this does not occur; it does. Who will be liable for the rambler, wearing the wrong sort of footwear, who twists his ankle in a rabbit hole? The Government have indicated that the landowner will be responsible. Who will foot the bill when a small child wanders away from its elders and gets lost, necessitating wholesale searches by police and the Army?
The whole area of finance is of critical importance. Hitherto, the countryside was looked after and developed by people who mainly knew its worth and had a vested interest in maintaining it in good shape. The vast majority of our much-prized countryside has been developed for agriculture and blood sports. The danger of this Bill is that it will usher in an era when the countryside will be seen as belonging to people who have no vested interest and who know little about it, far less its worth. Will the Government pay for its upkeep? Will the Government even listen to those who have protected it, nurtured it and valued it for the last millennium? Caring for an asset usually occurs where there is ownership of the asset. Ownership goes hand in hand with the privileges and responsibility of owning an asset.
Those who live and work in rural areas are finding it hard to survive. We have heard from many noble Lords about farm incomes, but I should like to add that in 1995 one could buy a three-bedroomed house in Fulham for the equivalent of 4,000 tonnes of grain. Today the same house would cost 11,000 tonnes of grain.
Villagers are finding themselves driven out by the costs of living in an environment where local jobs are more scarce, where local shops are closing down, and where local public transport is becoming rarer. What is more, local community hospitals have come under increasing threat of closure from this Government. What we need is compassion, care and contributions to help their way of life. Most damaging is the psychological effect on farmers who perceive their industry as no longer valued by their customers and by their Government. What they are being offered is an extended takeover by their Government who put constraints in their way of life yet demand free access to their way of life.
It is true that the Government have said that they wish to strengthen support for SSSIs and have indicated that they are prepared to consider ways of making rights of way more user-friendly, both for ramblers and for all those whose land they cross. All good stuff. I hope that the countryside is allowed a say 252 in this process. We are quite prepared to endorse measures which will achieve those ends, but we are not satisfied that the Government understand why SSSIs need support and why footpaths are so often neglected and impassable. It comes down to finance and regulation.
The work of organisations like the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers is vital to the maintenance of such access as is already available. Its members raise their own funds and work with local authorities to earn grants and subsidies to pay for materials and expert help where it is needed. But it is hamstrung by regulation just as everyone else is. Unless the Government are prepared to listen to the experts, these bodies and others will eventually be lost.
The British landscape has evolved over centuries. It has cost taxpayers little or nothing. Indeed, agriculture of the landscape is a £2 billion industry. The landscape is the part which attracts millions of tourist every year to these isles. It contributes both to the nation's wealth and to its spiritual well-being. Land managers have created and cared for much of our landscape as we know it today. It needs to be nurtured and developed sympathetically and carefully. It does not deserve to be used and abused in the name of populist desires where rights are not matched by responsibilities and man's whims ride roughshod over nature's priorities.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Lord Faulkner of Worcester
My Lords, as someone who very recently went through the ordeal of making a maiden speech, it gives me enormous pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, on their contributions to the debate this afternoon. Like all noble Lords, I was struck by the fluency and the content of both their speeches. I look forward to hearing many more contributions from them in the future.
This is an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate. I do not envy my noble friend the Minister having to reply to it at the end of the evening; nor, indeed, those on the Front Benches of the parties opposite. I intend to speak on what I think will be one of the most controversial and hard-fought ingredients in the legislative programme; namely, the Government's proposals for substantial transport reform and particularly their plans for the railways.
In the short time that I have been here, I have been struck by how many of your Lordships have had extensive and serious interests in transport policy. That is true of Members on every Bench. In earlier times the old railway companies would have appointed many Members of your Lordships' House to sit on their boards and, indeed, would have named their locomotives after them. Today we have in the House at least one former chairman of the railways board, a retired railway trade union general secretary, a former regional general manager, a number of right reverend Prelates who seem to love railways almost as much as they love their Church and so many former Ministers of transport in all parties that they are much to numerous to count.
253 By comparison, my contribution to railway politics has been modest, but I did serve four successive chairmen of the British Railways Board over the 20 years up to 1998. Like Mr Brian Hanrahan, reporting for the BBC on the aircraft in the Falklands War, I counted them all in and I counted them all out. I should have liked to say that over those 20 years the railways steadily improved and that each change—whether of government, Minister or chairman—was for the better. I cannot claim that. But I believe that the policies of the present Government offer more hope of getting it right than has been the case for many years. In my time with the board there were a number of false dawns over and over again. But each time the determination of the Treasury to reduce the railway subsidy and to curtail investment won against the well-meaning desires of most transport Ministers to expand and invest.
There was a variety of schemes intended to achieve those objectives. One attempt to save money was to increase fares in real terms by far more than the rate of inflation. But that was abandoned because of the backlash from voters in marginal commuter constituencies in the south-east. Another solution, which was attempted several times, was massively to reduce the size of the network—the Serpell Report of the early 1980s, which some of your Lordships may remember, would have cut it by two-thirds. But that would have wiped out railways in most of Scotland and Wales and in rural England. So that disappeared from the agenda.
The combination of Treasury interference and, I fear, departmental indifference to the railways often reminded me of the words in the poem by Arthur Hugh Clough:Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive Officiously to keep alive".These are reasons why the principle of railway privatisation no longer tills me with as much revulsion as once it did. There are, of course, numerous political points that can be scored against the party opposite: for its indecent haste in getting all the industry sold off or, in many cases, given away before the 1997 election; for the incompetent mistakes in the legislation, such as forgetting about the role of the British Transport Police, who temporarily lost their powers of arrest until they were restored by a new separate Act of Parliament; and for inventing a new breed of animal—the railway fat cat—who was able to spot where assets were being sold so cheaply that he was able to turn tiny investments with no risk into vast fortunes because the taxpayer was guaranteeing future income streams.
The list is almost endless. The Public Accounts Committee in another place has so far only scratched at the surface. But—and there is a "but"—some good things have happened since privatisation. A heartening development has been the increase in the number of people using the railways. Some of this has been due to the state of the economy, because more people always travel when the economy is doing well. Some of this growth can be accounted for by the introduction of new services, the re-opening of lines, the creation of new journey opportunities and so on. 254 One of the most important new routes is scarcely three miles from your Lordships' House—the West London line—which 10 or so years ago was the prime candidate for complete closure and conversion to a road. It is easy to forget that tearing up tracks and covering them with concrete was being seriously put forward as a transport policy very recently.
There are train operating companies which are doing their best to demonstrate that rail travel has a future. They are investing in new rolling stock, implementing imaginative timetable improvements, making their stations more attractive and genuinely looking for new markets. They should be praised and encouraged. I certainly would have no objection to their being given the opportunity to go on developing their services through franchise extensions.
Others are letting the public and the nation down and seem to believe that glitzy PR is a substitute for a reliable and effective service. Why can they not tell their passengers the truth when things go wrong? Why can they not ensure that the advertised on-train services match up to what they promise? The companies which are failing would frankly do us and themselves a favour if they concluded that their skills should be directed to activities other than running railways.
There is no point in dwelling on the past. We must make the best of what we have. That means using those provisions in the previous government's Railways Act which can play a part in delivering a better railway and more sane transport policy and making certain that its weaknesses and omissions are addressed in the new transport Bill. The two essential elements are more effective regulation and the establishment of the strategic railway authority. I warmly welcome the Government's commitment to tougher regulation and I believe that the new regulator, Tom Winsor, has made an excellent start. He recognises that the public are running out of patience and that the pace of improvement in the industry is currently much too slow.
There is no part of the railway industry which needs to change more than Railtrack and Mr Winsor is right to have it in his sights. In August this year he started enforcement action against the company because it failed to meet its annual performance targets. In October he published a consultation document on its incentive framework to make certain that Railtrack improves the capability, quality and performance of its network. Earlier this month he demanded that the company produce proper plans for meeting its commitments to extra capacity as part of the upgrade of the West Coast main line, having failed to complete adequate strategic reviews despite promising in March that it would. This is putting Railtrack in breach of its network licence and I understand that Mr Winsor is considering adding to and rewriting that licence.
Railtrack has to appreciate that the world has changed. By the time John Swift, Mr Winsor's predecessor, left office, he had all the same powers as Mr Winsor has today, but he scarcely ever used them. 255 The licence that Railtrack operates under is quite clear. It states,The purpose is to secure:Underlying all this—we should remember that the licence was signed by the previous government, not this one—is a recognition that Railtrack has responsibilities first to the public interest and to those of us who use the railway before the interests of shareholders.
in each case in accordance with best practice and in a timely, economic and efficient manner".
- (a) the maintenance of the network
- (b) the renewal and the replacement of the network
- (c) the improvement, enhancement and development of the network
The relationship between Railtrack and the train operating companies has to change. It is not healthy for the TOCs to be intimidated by Railtrack and to be fearful of speaking out when it is necessary to do so. They must learn to insist that their contractual rights are honoured by their suppliers. The 1993 Act makes it clear that there are special public interest obligations on Railtrack which go far beyond simply ensuring that the dividends keep flowing and the shareholders are kept happy. There is, for example, a special duty on Railtrack—which can be enforced by the regulator under the powers given to him by Section 17 of the Railways Act—to use its property in a way that promotes and furthers the interests of the operational railway. That is something to which the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, referred earlier.
Railway land must be made available for facilities and developments which attract freight and extra passengers and create high quality interchange between rail and other modes of transport such as bus, cycling and walking. The temptation to make a quick profit from selling railway land for non-railway related developments must be resisted if the land has transport potential.
Railway regulation is not that different from that which was applied to all the utility monopolies which were privatised by the previous government. The one big difference is that unlike regulation in gas, electricity, water and telecoms, regulation of Railtrack was almost non-existent until Mr Winsor took office this summer. I welcome that and I also welcome the emphasis that the gracious Speech laid on railway safety and the flexibility that—
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves his fairly damning indictment of Railtrack, will he indicate whether he supports this Government's policy of giving Railtrack a special position as regards London Underground?
§ Lord Faulkner of Worcester
My Lords, the situation as regards London Underground is obviously difficult. My feeling is that if Railtrack is able to change and adapt to the new circumstances which the regulator is imposing on it, it can certainly be considered for the sub-surface lines.
256 In the last years of public ownership a new management culture was developed on the railway. It was instigated by the last chairman but two, the late Sir Robert Reid, and was based on the principle that someone was always responsible if things went wrong. The alibi that "It is nothing to do with me" largely disappeared as individuals took charge of sectors of the railway and were held to account.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the privatised structure is that this acceptance of responsibility has largely disappeared as the railway have been broken up. This danger was repeatedly spelt out in your Lordships' House and in another place during the passage of the Railways Bill but was largely ignored. Fears about future safety arising from the fragmentation were dismissed as alarmist. Safety featured little in those public versus private debates because until recently people thought little about that. We are used to complaining about overcrowded trains, late trains, dirty trains, unreliable trains and expensive trains but you never heard anyone say that they would not travel by train because they thought that was unsafe.
That is the reason the railways' and the Government's responses to the Ladbroke Grove accident matter so much. It is not a question of whether privatisation was to blame. I do not believe that the same railway managers and staff who took such pride as public servants in operating a safe railway when it was publicly owned have decided to take chances with safety now that they are in the private sector; of course they have not. It is a question of whether the culture has changed in a way which pushes the concept of absolute safety down the agenda. The statistics speak for themselves. Rail is by far the safest form of land transport. It is 15 times safer than travelling by car. However, there cannot be any complacency as regards safety on the railways.
As other noble Lords have said, there is much good advice for the Government in the recent report of the Transport Committee in another place, including the repeated demand that the safety and standards directorate should find a new home. The majority on the sub-committee warmly welcomed the establishment of a strategic rail authority. I believe that it offers the best chance of putting right many of the problems that have been caused by privatisation and should provide the long-term planning for the railways that the old British Rail was never allowed to undertake.
Therefore we should expect the strategic rail authority to look 20 to 25 years ahead and come up with a vision for the future of the railways. It and the regulator must use their powers to ensure that all parts of the industry substantially increase investment and produce plans for main line electrification. At the heart of the Government's policy, it seems to me, is a determination to persuade people to leave their cars at home and to use public transport. This will need levels of services, particularly on the railways, of much higher quality if this approach is to succeed and enjoy popular support. The transport Bill offers a way forward and I shall be happy to offer it my full support.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, approximately one year ago my noble friend Lord Kimball called attention to the future of the agriculture industry. That debate identified the serious difficulties facing agriculture in the United Kingdom. A short while ago, on 9th November of this year, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, brought forward a debate on the milk industry.
Since those two debates, the plight of agriculture in this country has worsened very considerably. Many farmers arc hanging on perilously in the hope that things will get better; and, in the dairy industry, many dairy farmers who relied on the milk cheque to pay the rent or the mortgage are finding that that no longer happens and are going out of business. As has been mentioned by more than one speaker, that brings on to the rural scene serious difficulties for the people who service agriculture.
Other issues, such as the health and welfare of livestock, are also affected, as illustrated in an article in The Times this morning. Livestock farmers are finding it difficult to afford vaccines and medicines for their livestock.
However, those are not the matters I wish to address. My noble friend Lady Byford has done that more effectively than I could. I want to address the issues which will place British agriculture in an increasingly uncompetitive situation; namely, genetic modification in farming, livestock production and food production, and the restraints placed upon agriculture in this country. While our overseas competitors suffer less from the public disquiet which surrounds the production of GM crops and livestock in this country, other competing countries benefit from the export of their GM farming products to many countries of the world.
I am of the firm opinion that many people in this country—those in agriculture, those in the food industry, the rural dweller and, indeed, the man on the top of the Clapham omnibus—believe that the issue of GM crops and GM foods has got out of hand. Genetic modification has been used to present emotive headlines such as "Frankenstein Foods", which we have all seen in the tabloids. This has preyed upon the general lack of understanding of GM technology, to the advantage of our competitors elsewhere.
I believe that there is an urgent and important need to bring to the attention of the public the outstanding advantages that GM technology can bring to agriculture and other industries such as medicine, brewing and so on. 'The matter needs to be dealt with in an objective way, with the fears and perceived hazards brought out, and the risks attendant on these hazards explained. A clear, calm and calming debate is necessary.
What are some of the concerns? The most common one, of course, is that food containing GM products—such as soya, maize, etc—may affect human health, and demands are made that extensive research be undertaken to determine this. One of the answers is that GM soya and maize has been consumed in the 258 United States and elsewhere by hundreds of millions of people over many years and there has been no evidence of ill health resulting from such products.
It has recently been noted that, while much concern has addressed the consumption of GM products by humans, GM products are consumed in large amounts as fodder for livestock which produce meat, milk and eggs. For example, last year Britain imported approximately 2 million tonnes of soya meal for pig and poultry, 1 million tonnes of maize gluten to be used in cattle and sheep feed, and half a million tonnes of brewer's grain. Again, there has been no instance of ill health in livestock as a result of feeding such products.
The perceived danger of genes being transferred from "genetic fodder" through the animal to the final product of meat, milk or eggs, is not really valid. Any gene protein is broken down in the digestive system of the animal—or, indeed, of the human—and it can be claimed that the animal acts as a natural screen for DNA transfer. This phenomenon has been going on throughout human history as we have eaten material containing DNA of various kinds.
While the GM debate appears to centre on the safety of GM products and the dangers to the environment, the wider, positive aspects of GMOs in agriculture are often ignored in the general argument. For example, the prime targets for transgenesis in major crop plants for both human and livestock consumption are genes for adaptation, conferring on plants disease resistance, resistance to insect pests, tolerance of environmental stresses such as cold, drought, acidity, alkalinity, and so on. These attributes reduce the need to use chemical pesticides; there is less spoilage and greater and more reliable production. In the third world, GM products give a broader geographical spread; for example, the wheat or maize may be grown in climates which are currently suitable only for the growing of millet and sorghum. Fodder crops such as modified legumes—clovers, lucerne or ryegrass—may have inserted genes which not only increase feed utilisation but also prevent serious metabolic disorders in the animals that eat them.
The GM debate also fails to take into consideration the need for our agriculture to be economically competitive with that of other countries. That means keeping up to date with recent scientific developments of all kinds, including genetic modification and the growing of high production strains of arable crops and animals. The agriculture of the United Kingdom must not be shackled by unnecessary regulations or by a public that places unrealistic demands on it.
There has been much debate about the question of labelling of GM foods. Fortunately, the recent developments in the detection of GM material in foods are moving well ahead. New technology will detect GM material in food to a level of 0.1 per cent in the case of protein, and to a level of 0.01 per cent in the case of DNA. That means that there will be choice based on adequate labelling.
As your Lordships will realise, it would be difficult for me to end without saying something about agriculture in the third world and the role of GMOs 259 there. Various estimates exist of the population growth and the food needs in the third world in the early part of the coming millennium. Whatever the estimates, there is every belief that a major increase in food production will be needed to combat the shortfall.
Without expanding on the issue, it is critical that the scientific competence and competitiveness of agriculture and biotechnology in the United Kingdom should play an important role in third world development. Again, this should not be compromised by over regulation, delays in field trials, safety assessments and so on.
It is clear that the Government failed to anticipate the controversy over GM foods and crops, as, too, did previous governments. Public debate has become polarised. Proponents and opponents dismiss each other as unreasonable or irresponsible. We must restore discussion in which all parties have confidence, while recognising that definitive answers do not and cannot exist in the face of uncertainty and ignorance. I believe that we should take note of the ways in which other countries have dealt with the debate on GM products. For example, in North America there are focus groups, citizens' juries and consensus conferences. Since our GM debate does not seem to be progressing as far and as actively as it should, it may well be that we should look at those techniques with greater attention to see whether we can gain more ground by using them.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggests that we send back the gracious Speech with a rejection slip, to use the words of my noble friend the Leader of the House. Conversely, I rather commend the gracious Speech, not simply as a government lackey; I commend it from the perspective of several of my other hats, in terms of its significant and highly coherent achievements for the environment, countryside, rural affairs and for education.
I start with the environment. I declare an interest, which has already been revealed, as Chairman of English Nature. I very much welcome the legislation to improve the conservation of key wildlife sites—the SSSIs, the jewels in the crown of our nature conservation. We have heard criticisms from speakers on the Benches opposite that there has been a lack of mention of agriculture and farming. Perhaps I may say that I plan to keep noble Lords on the Benches opposite very happy by mentioning copiously over the next few minutes both farmers and agriculture.
Many of our SSSIs are managed extremely well by farmers. We have 32,000 owners and occupiers of SSSIs and, for the large part, they do an excellent job. However, 30 per cent of those SSSIs are still in an unfavourable condition and are not improving. Therefore, the legislation provides a valuable opportunity to reorientate the focus of SSSIs towards positive management. Certainly, it will enable English Nature to act more effectively and, indeed, with more 260 efficient use of public resources in those rare instances where SSSIs face deliberate damage, either by third parties or by those few owners and occupiers who refuse to engage in positive dialogue.
I hope that the Bill will introduce also a duty of care for all public bodies who own or manage SSSIs to ensure that in their management they remain or move into favourable conservation status. We really should not continue to see public bodies preside over the damage or decline of those jewels in the crown.
Therefore, the legislation for SSSIs is necessary and welcome. However, legislation and the accompanying non-legislative measures will not be enough to stem the damage and decline of SSSIs. Much of that continues to be paid for by you and me through agricultural subsidies. As taxpayers, we pay for subsidies that damage sites which, as a nation, we have committed to defend. Therefore, we need to see agricultural reform and we need to see it very quickly.
The Government now have the opportunity at UK level—no longer hidden behind a European Union barrier—to make changes in the immediate future in the way in which subsidies are paid that could have a long-lasting benefit. A modest top slice—say, 5 per cent—from mainstream payments, which currently damage not only the environment but also farmers, would double the funds available for the agri-environment budget and for the rural development budget. That money would still be paid to farmers but it would be for the public good, not for environmental damage.
That type of change in agricultural reform is now within the grasp of agriculture Ministers in the UK. It would enable double benefit to be obtained from the proposed wildlife legislation. It would be good for farmers and for rural communities, as well as for wildlife. However, that kind of agricultural reform needs leadership, as the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, indicated. I call in particular for positive leads from those bodies which represent farmers. At the moment, some of them are behaving like the worst kind of trade unions, showing a protectionism that, I believe, is not in the long-term interests of the agricultural industry.
The very damaging type of restructuring of the agriculture sector, outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is exactly what will happen if we continue down the path of seeing global competitiveness as the only solution for our agriculture. The best defence in the face of the imminent world trade round is to produce a range of agricultural practices that are sustainable and that take account of environmental and social as well as economic objectives. We also need a positive lead to achieve that from the Ministry of Agriculture.
I am at odds with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, in her promotion of a department for rural affairs. I do not believe that it is possible for a single department to solve all the ills of the countryside, many of which are based on issues like access to services, health, transport, the planning system and the development of regional funding. Not 261 all of those can be brought together in a single department. To try to create one is a little like rearranging the deck-chairs on the "Titanic". We need an urgent retasking of MAFF with some fresh and clear objectives that address economic, social and environmental issues. We need co-ordinated government across departments—joined-up government. I very much welcome the appointment of the countryside committee chaired by my right honourable friend Dr Mowlam.
Before I leave the issue of agricultural reform, I must pick up the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, on GM crops. I hope that we can move away from the promotion of the potential benefits of GM crops to a proper examination of the actual benefits; away from an analysis of the potential risks of GM crops towards a proper analysis of the actual risks. It is only if we can see the continuation of the field-scale trials through to their conclusion and a proper analysis thereafter that we will know what we are talking about. If I had a pound for the number of potential benefits in GM crops that have been outlined, I should be an extremely rich woman.
I turn to the provisions in the Bill which relate to access. I welcome the extension of access to the countryside. It is important to enable more people to enjoy and understand the countryside and its wildlife. I was slightly taken aback by several speakers on the Benches opposite who complained about lack of understanding of the countryside, but who were then rather loath to let anyone anywhere near it in order to find some understanding. Obviously, the access provisions need to take careful account in their detail of the needs of wildlife. However, speaking on behalf of the Government's statutory nature conservation body, I should say that we would not worry about the impact on wildlife in moorland, heath and other open habitats. There simply is no research evidence that there is a huge risk to wildlife. There may need to be some modest spatial and temporal restrictions, but no more than that. We are rather more worried about other habitats to which access might be considered for extension, particularly the impact on river corridors, on coasts and on woodland, where I believe that the research evidence of potential impact on wildlife is greater. Therefore, there needs to be careful examination—
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? I am slightly intrigued by the fact that on the one hand, she said that there is not the same need to look after and have wildlife protection in the mountain and moorland areas; yet, on the other hand, she begins to argue that woodland and riverbanks are in fact a special issue. In both areas there are sites of special scientific interest. I wonder whether the noble Baroness would like to take us further along that path before she leaves it.
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her request for further illumination. I am saying that the research evidence is quite clear: on the open habitats on 262 mountain and moorland there is little evidence that access has an impact on wildlife, whereas on those restricted, tight habitats—river corridors, coastal strips and woodland— where access can become very concentrated, the research evidence is clear that there is likely to be an impact. I am merely, as usual in the case of English Nature, making a statement from a scientific point of view.
One of the points in the access debate that we should all recognise is that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said, we do not want to encourage people into their cars so that they can drive to open grounds to have a walk. There is a real need to promote linear access close to where people live. To be frank, I hope that the failure in the past of initiatives to try to promote permissive access on linear routes will be corrected by the legislation that is to come before us.
On the question of transport, as mentioned in the gracious Speech, I was a little worried when corning back to the reformed House that we might miss the presence of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, who has been a doughty campaigner for green transport over many years. I was delighted to be relieved of my anxiety that I might have to help to fill his shoes rather inadequately by the impressive grasp of the subject of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rather sneered at the size of the transport Bill and hoped that its pursuit was not as part of an integrated transport strategy. Thank goodness it is a substantial Bill in pursuit of an integrated transport strategy. It is long overdue because of the total lack of vision or investment in transport policies over the lifetime of the previous government.
Meeting mobility needs without wrecking the environment and dealing with the nation's rather destructive love affair with the motor car is not an easy issue and needs the whole range of regulation and incentives which an integrated transport strategy involves. We need to see investment in public transport, incentives to travel wisely and disincentives to polluting and congesting travel. We must not run away from the issue because it is too difficult. There is no alternative. We know what will happen to transport if we shy away because it is too difficult.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves transport, does she recall a few weeks ago vigorously defending the policy of the escalator for duty on fuel for motor cars? In the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's about-turn on that issue, is she still happy with government policy; and on this subject, is she speaking on behalf of English Nature?
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, I stand very much by my words on the transport escalator. I am delighted to see in the pre-Budget Statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to continue regarding the fuel escalator on an annual basis to see what its contribution to this whole package in an integrated transport strategy would represent. We 263 cannot run away from these difficult issues and a whole range of mechanisms needs to be considered in a balanced fashion.
Perhaps I may conclude by referring to the education proposals in the gracious Speech. I welcome the proposal for the Learning and Skills Council to improve standards for the post-16 education and training provisions. It is a fundamental principle that lack of access to education equals lack of access to opportunity. My noble friend Lord Sawyer spoke with passion on the vision that we need to have for education and opportunity. We do not even begin to approach the basic numeracy or literacy standards of many of our European neighbours. However, some opportunities are coming as a result of the new digital communications media to enable access to education and lifelong learning for all. I should declare an interest as a Vice-Chairman of the BBC. The new integrated digital media of television, radio and the Internet can offer an entertaining and easy way into a virtual curriculum based on the digital archive for which, as licence payers, we have already paid, making it available to everyone in the UK on the Internet through schools, homes, workplaces and community centres. We have to grasp this opportunity firmly. It provides the route from entertainment to attainment for many who would otherwise not engage with education and learning. The BBC would very much like to be able to develop its unique role in this area.
I am fairly frisky about this gracious Speech. It may look a trifle bitty but it makes strides forward and brings the environment to the heart of policy, a manifesto commitment of the Government. I look forward to vigorous debate.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I rise to address your Lordships with what I might describe as an element of surprise. I have to be honest and say that I did not expect to be here. Having said that, it is with great honour that I take part in the debate, though I have great sadness about the many contributions that we shall not be hearing from friends no longer with us. I think particularly of my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, who made such a wonderful contribution to debates on agriculture. His presence is very sadly missed.
I should declare an interest as a landowner in north Yorkshire. Before going any further, perhaps I may say to the Government that I think it is a great pity that we have rolled agriculture, the environment and education into one debate as that dilutes the importance of all three subjects. Agriculture and the environment, yes, but education should be treated separately. In future I hope that the Government will take note of my request.
The problems of the countryside are well documented and are certainly too numerous for me to mention today. But for sure, the countryside is about many things—food production, different businesses, recreation, wildlife and so on—and they do not always 264 mix readily. The Government play a vital role in attempting to achieve a balance and harmony. It is not an easy task—I realise that—but in order to do it effectively an essential prerequisite is to gain the confidence of those who have to deliver these objectives. I am bound to say that, to date, the Government have manifestly failed to do so. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they have successfully managed to antagonise virtually all sectors of the rural community, which is quite an achievement. That is exacerbated by the total lack of mention of agriculture in the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. I know that that has been mentioned by other noble Lords but I think that it is worth mentioning again. We are talking about one of the major industries in this country, but it was never mentioned in the opening speech in a debate on agriculture and the environment. That is quite astonishing.
There are many examples of where the Government are not looking after the interests of the countryside. There is no better one than the very contentious issue of the right to roam, as mentioned in the gracious Speech. In fact, I cannot think of a better example of legislation designed to drive a wedge between the town and country at a time when we should be working towards better understanding and reconciliation. Apart from there being no research base for the legislation, we are seeing the abandonment of the precautionary principle, which has served the countryside extremely well in the past. I was astonished to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young, say that she did not think there was evidence to show that the right to roam would have any effect on upland wildlife habitats. I ask the noble Baroness: where is the evidence and research to show that this will not happen? I do not expect her to answer now—perhaps we can discuss it at some stage. I should have thought it incumbent on government to prove that it will not have an effect before they start bringing forward the legislation.
On the face of it, this is one of the most potentially impractical, litigious and confrontational pieces of legislation possible. From the evidence I have seen it is not popular with the majority of those who wish to walk in the countryside, not to mention those people who will have to pick up the pieces afterwards. I believe that the Bill will undermine management, disrupt important habitats and their associated species and adversely affect people's livelihoods. At the same time it will criminalise those who have the responsibilities of management if they do not fully comply with the legislation, whereas those given the new freedom to wander at will simply have to abide by some code of practice. That simply is not good enough.
My noble friend Lady Byford asked the Government certain questions. I certainly do not wish to repeat those questions because I think that she covered most of the ones that I would have asked. However, perhaps I may draw the attention of noble Lords to a report in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday headed, "Farmer's foibles set ramblers out to grass". 265 It reports on a particular individual who overheard a conversation in the Dent car park in the Yorkshire Dales, not far from where I live. The article states:Through his car window he overheard a group from the Ramblers' Association being briefed by their leader before setting out on a walk. They were reminded it was part of 'the agreement with central Government' that members of the association should act as 'eyes and ears' in terms of picking up 'legislative transgressions' in the countryside".The article goes on to say,He explained these should all he reported so local authorities could check whether they had planning permission or not, adding that authorities in some cases pay informers who report such offences … The leader was aware that most of his followers were 'workers in the public sector' and would therefore be knowledgeable about legislation in their own fields".One rambler who asked about the possibility of any later comeback from these reports was assured there was no fear of this, thanks to the Government's new 'whistleblower's charter".I accept that this is a report in a newspaper, but like most newspaper stories, I suspect that there is an element of truth in it. I ask the Government to give an assurance that they totally disassociate themselves from these kinds of allegations of conspiracy. Those are exactly the kind of concerns felt by country people about this legislation.
Many resented the emasculation of the Rural Development Agency. I am bound to say that there was cause for some enthusiasm at the creation of the new Countryside Agency. The countryside desperately needs a champion to fight its corner and this new quango seemed the appropriate one to take up the mantle. Whether it does remains to be seen, but I wish it God speed and hope that it succeeds.
However, it is interesting to note, and worrying to say the least, that given the agency's role in trying to implement the Government's muddled policies on access, in its recently published policy document it failed to mention two important aspects of rural life that will be adversely affected by increased access. The first is rural crime and the second is field sports. Rural crime is a very real problem. While I appreciate that crime is reducing nationally, rural crime is not falling at the same rate as that of urban crime. Quite simply, the criminal realises that the lack of policing in remote areas makes them a soft touch and increased access can only give those inclined towards crime every excuse to be in places where they should not be.
Field sports contribute an annual £3.8 billion to the rural economy. They support jobs and ancillary activities, often in remote rural areas that are in crying need of all the support that they can get. Furthermore, vast areas of countryside have been protected and preserved, thus ensuring that important habitats and species still exist that otherwise would, I fear, have long since disappeared. This has come at no cost to the taxpayer. Indeed, as regards many of the SSSIs referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, many of these designations would never have come about but for the field sports interest.
Perhaps I may refer noble Lords to a report by the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports entitled Countryside Sports and the U. K. Biodiversity Action 266 Plan, which has been placed in the Library of this House. I declare an interest as I chaired the conference. Nevertheless, the report is worth reading.
For the Countryside Agency to fail to address either of these two vital points which in their different ways play such an important part in country life is astonishing. Is it purely coincidence or is it a degree of cynical pragmatism? Either way, it has been a serious omission.
That takes me on to highlight the need for additional resources in order further to conserve and enhance the habitats of wildlife within the United Kingdom countryside. There is much discussion on the reform of the CAP and Agenda 2000, but despite all the talk about redistribution of funds from the agricultural support systems to the agri-environment budget, unfortunately the sums remain derisory. However, there do appear to be some opportunities within the reform package. I hope that the Government will seize on those wherever possible, in particular within the discretionary elements under the horizontal measures.
But whatever the outcome, it is essential that any money saved on reductions to agricultural support must be retained within the rural economy and reinvested through a combination of agri-environment schemes along with support and help for new businesses. I do hope that the Government can give a firm assurance that that will happen.
Other noble Lords have already pointed out that agriculture will always play a major part in our countryside. Farmers must be there not simply to produce food but to shape the landscape that we all enjoy. However, they cannot do that if there is no money. For that reason, the necessary support mechanisms must be put in place. As Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, said recently:There is a dilemma for the public. They want extensive farming but with the prices that can only come from intensive agriculture".That is the big challenge facing all of us in the countryside, not least the Government, in particular as we move towards World Trade Organisation objectives, free markets and less support for agricultural output.
I see also that the Government plan to introduce measures to strengthen SSSIs through the possible imposition of management orders. That is a rather ironic situation because on the one hand the Government wish to protect SSSIs and on the other they want everyone to walk all over them. Be that as it may, I can see the need for some protection and I have sympathy for this proposal. However, I believe that it is absolutely essential that such orders should be a means of last resort. By and large the Wildlife and Countryside Act has been a success, not least because of the confidence and understanding that have developed between land managers and wildlife officers on the ground, along with the positive incentive schemes that have developed. This must not he put at risk by new draconian powers.
267 Furthermore it is important to recognise that most of the damage done to SSSIs is not deliberate but is caused by neglect and lack of resources. The truth of the matter is—the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to this and she is absolutely right—that modern farming encouraged by the subsidy system has taken its toll on such sites and it will take public money to rectify the damage. That is particularly the case in the uplands where overgrazing has been a problem.
I should like to raise a final issue. If rural people are not to be discriminated against they deserve to have the opportunity of accessing as many services as possible. However, by and large, services come from people and people come from jobs. As agriculture changes and buildings become redundant, those same buildings offer opportunities for other development. I am not advocating a free-for-all. Far from it. However, great opportunities are being missed that would allow appropriate development and therefore jobs. Some local planning authorities are still suffering from the notion that they are there simply to hinder rather than to help and create. That needs attention and we need to see change.
We need to see a genuine partnership and trust between Government, their agencies, local authorities and rural communities. We need well thought through incentive schemes that benefit those who succeed and deliver. Above all, the Government must begin to understand and recognise the difficulties faced by those who live and work in rural areas today. There is no point in producing endless consultation papers and then completely ignoring the responses, in particular when they come from those groups and individuals that have practical experience. The Government have a duty to consider the needs of all their constituents. At present one large minority feels thoroughly let down. I hope the Minister can reassure us that things will change.
§ 8.29 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, I was heartened when the Labour Party chose to fight the 1997 general election on the theme, "Education, education, education". I note that in the gracious Speech that commitment is re-affirmed:Education remains my Governments number one priority",though I have to say that that only appears on the second page. It was not just poor syntax and split infinitives that marred the Speech from the Throne, but also poor sub-editing: "number one priority" ought surely to have appeared in the first paragraph in order to copper-bottom the degree of commitment made to education by the Government.
While the Government have made some improvements on their predecessors' record, their performance to date remains disappointing in some respects, especially with regard to the universities, of which, very worryingly, there was no mention in the Speech. As a recently retired vice-chancellor, I should perhaps declare an interest.
268 I genuinely want to give credit where credit is due. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, I welcomed the two significant initiatives that have emanated from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. First, last year's announcement of the Universities' Challenge Fund to stimulate venture capital funds for wealth generating technology transfer and spin-off companies was exactly the sort of inducement needed. Secondly, and more recently, was the announcement of collateral Exchequer funds to facilitate a strategic partnership between Cambridge, Britain's premier university, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More such projects need to be promoted if UK universities are to maintain their position as being among the best in the world. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, I, too, want to applaud the Science Enterprise Challenge Fund, introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as the restructuring and streamlining of the system of further education that are foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech.
All of those proposals are to be welcomed, but much more remains to be done, and it is a pity that no new initiatives for the university sector were outlined in the gracious Speech. After all, it is now two-and-a-half years since the committee under the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, reported. To date, it is fair to say, it has not received a comprehensive response from government.
The distinctiveness of Scotland's education system, encouraged and enhanced as it has been by devolution, has meant that good progress is being made to develop an overall and coherent policy for tertiary education north of the Border. The fees problem apart, which is symptomatic of the wider funding issues that affect the whole of UK third level education, the principals of Scottish higher education institutions, working in close and profitable partnership with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, are fashioning a modern system appropriate to the needs of the Scots and Scotland. In contrast, England and Northern Ireland are lagging far behind; as is Wales, although it shows signs of getting its act together.
Last March, Professor Howard Newby, Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University, now president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, produced a stimulating paper on the problems facing UK universities in the medium term. In addressing the issues raised by globalisation, the changing mission of higher education, changes in the types and nature of students, the academic profession, finance and the need to reform governance, he highlighted some of the problems that must now be addressed, some of which the Dearing Report had not had time to consider.
Professor Newby pointed to the need for the formation of strategic alliances, both within the UK (such as that being formed by the White Rose consortium of the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick) and internationally (of the type that I have already cited between Cambridge and MIT). But currently, it seems, the Government are prepared to rely too heavily on the regional development agencies to promote such strategic alliances sub-nationally. I 269 hope I may be proved wrong, but I doubt whether they will be the appropriate vehicles to do that, also whether they will have the vision and drive that will be required.
Professor Newby also looked critically at problems of funding, which Dearing sought to address but which the Government have not had the courage to tackle comprehensively and head-on. And yet it is central to the situation. Professor Newby starkly compares the UK university system to,the British car industry in the 1960's … a sector which is under-invested and structured to meet a local/national need rather than to compete within a global market place".I agree with that comparison, but I would go much further than he does by pointing to the problems of the three R's—recruitment, retention and remuneration—with which the Bett Report only tinkered.
As in primary and secondary education, where there are very acute teacher shortages in key subject areas, insufficient candidates applying for headships and a downturn in student applications, so there are similar shortages in higher education. Even the most prestigious universities are finding difficulty in attracting good applicants in sufficient numbers to apply for undergraduate courses in mathematics, some of the key sciences and engineering. At postgraduate level the same is true, although one should add economics to the list at the doctoral level. Because of that, the quality of future academic staff is now at serious risk.
The UK has moved from an elite o a mass system of higher education. Increased demand has been met by increased supply; and quality has been maintained. The productivity increases achieved by the universities were phenomenal. By contrast, the rewards for the staff who achieved that productivity were abysmal. And, as with schoolteachers, insult was added to injury by ministerial statements, particularly under the previous government—as Mr Michael Portillo's brief moment of mea culpa recognised—denigrating them rather than applauding what they had achieved. Earlier, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, rightly paid tribute to the dedication of members of the armed services. By the same token, academic staff and other university staff deserve plaudits for the strenuous efforts they have made in the past decade during a period of remorseless reductions in unit costs.
The fact is that the UK does not possess a fully worked out policy for higher education that addresses the issues raised in the Dearing Report and by Professor Newby. The patchwork of ad hoc initiatives, however welcome in themselves, does not add up to a coherent and comprehensive strategy. The failure to grasp fully the issues of funding, and particularly staff remuneration, will relegate the UK to the second division. The competition to attract the brightest intellects is increasing all the time, as are the salaries being offered. The universities will not be able to compete for their fair share of that talent. We are beginning to eat the seed-corn.
270 The Government have formed, among their chosen agents for change, no fewer than 318 task forces in the past two-and-a-half years—an amazing growth industry—but, incredibly, not one deals with the problems facing the universities. It is high time that one of them did, for time is running out. I hope that the Minister, in replying, will be able to give reassurance that, although omitted from the gracious Speech, the universities are fully included in the Government's "number one priority".
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Lord Hanningfield
My Lords, I apologise for not being present for the early part of this debate but I particularly want to address that section of the gracious Speech dealing with proposals for local government. I declare an interest as Conservative leader of Essex County Council and a councillor for longer than I care to think. I am also vice-chairman of the Local Government Association. I speak to the proposed reforms as a long-standing advocate of local government.
Local government has undergone enormous reform over past years and I welcome much of what has happened. Local government reform is an evolutionary process, in which councils change to be better able to meet the needs of those they serve. Change for the sake of change is not a good thing. An obsession with modernisation, with little thought for the substance or impact that it may bring, is not a good thing. The proposals for local government reform concern me deeply.
After the publication of the Government's White Paper, which strongly suggested that they would prefer elected mayors, I thought that it would be a good idea to study other countries that have such a system. For the past two years, I have been looking at local government as far afield as New Zealand and the United States. There are some striking lessons for Britain to learn. Many of the Government proposals are akin to the arrangements in New Zealand.
The important lesson learned from my journeys is that local government relates to a specific locality and, as a consequence, is very diverse. I am not arguing against changes to local government. Far from it. Local government should continue to evolve and adapt, but we must look closely at the nature of the changes.
I believe in local diversity. If a council feels that it needs a mayor and has public support for such a proposal, let it have a mayor. If a council wants a cabinet, that is fine—but just three models is far too limiting. How can the same three models suit a large rural county, small county town, huge city, tiny rural district and London borough? Each of those communities has widely differing interests.
Each council should be free to determine its own decision-making structures. I am sure that the public are not overly concerned whether a council has a cabinet, a mayor, two committees or three. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, the public are more concerned about whether a lorry will arrive to collect their refuse on a Tuesday morning.
271 In the United States, it is not unusual for a state to have more than one form of local government. It is not uncommon for there to be more than five forms of local government in one state. When I visited Virginia earlier this year, I found that it has a dozen forms of local government. Different structures exist to serve the people of Essex County in Virginia, with a population of just a few thousand, from those that service Fairfax County, with a population of more than 1 million people. Flexibility is needed so that local councils can develop structures that are relevant to their specific localities.
Another striking lesson is that the UK has a huge number of councillors. If new local government structures are to be introduced, we need to look seriously at reducing the total number of councillors. Fairfax County has only 12 councillors, whereas Essex County Council has 79. If we are to have new ways of working we must adopt the whole package, not just pick parts of it. In Essex, an executive of 10 members would mean 69 other councillors not having a fulfilling role, which would not be acceptable. They feel insulted when told that they should do more work in their constituencies. What have they been doing in past years? If there are to be changes, a full and meaningful role will have to he found for many councillors.
As long as a council has transparency in its decision making, clear lines of accountability and proper scrutiny, I see no reason why the Government should not permit far greater flexibility, ensuring that local government is unlimited in the manifestation of its internal structure. If a council wishes to create a cabinet, mayor or committee, let it do so.
My noble friend Lord Bowness spoke about the Joint Committee he chaired on the draft Bill. The Local Government Association made several proposals to that committee, some of which were accepted. We eagerly await the Government's response to the committee's report, which we hope will be published before the Bill so that we know the Government's thinking.
On standards of conduct, I have long experience of working in local government and am certain that the majority of council officers and elected members uphold the highest standards of conduct. However, I fully support the proposals set out in Lord Nolan's report. The Government's proposals go far further and would create a great bureaucracy, which we are not keen to see. Essex has a local standards committee chaired by an independent person and that seems effective. We hope that the Government will think again about establishing a national bureaucracy when the Bill is published.
As to the effect on local government of post-16 education and learning and skills councils, I was a long-standing chairman of a local education committee and was for five years chairman of the Eastern Area Further Education Funding Council, so I have seen post-16 education operate and develop over the past few years. I do not think that people realise what has happened over the past 10 years, how 272 far we have gone and how far colleges have developed to meet demand. I am the first to admit that there needs to be more co-ordination of post- 16 training but to create a quangoland of 50 learning and skills councils is to return to the 1980s Manpower Services Commission and area manpower boards. I served on one of those boards. The previous Government decided to change that system for the better. We are now creating a quangoland of committees, not necessarily occupied by local councillors, which could take us back rather than forward. We need to build on what has been achieved, rather than create entirely new systems.
What particularly concerns me about the Government's proposals is the proposed legislation for youth and adult education. If anybody is qualified to decide where youth clubs or youth provision should be located, it is local government. I represent an area of 10 parishes, each of which is very involved in community youth clubs. Local government works in partnership with the district council and county council. To establish a whole new tier of quangos above youth clubs seems ridiculous. I hope that the Government will think again. Local government should be involved more in post-16 systems, not less. Let us build on what has been achieved over the past few years, rather than start all over again and return to the 1980s.
Post-16 education, particularly in rural areas, and the new local government Bill are designed for urban areas. About half the population of this country live in two-tier areas having counties and districts, and about 80 per cent of the country is covered by two-tier local government. The Government's proposals seem to be designed for urban areas, as though they do not understand what happens in two-tier systems. I hope that the Government will think again before bringing all those proposals forward. We want support and more involvement for local government. I hope that the Government will take those points on board.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I want to speak briefly about the post-16 learning and skills Bill that was foreshadowed in the gracious Speech. The Government have set out their policies in two documents. Bridging the Gap, published by the Social Exclusion Unit, is printed with a green cover but I am not sure that it is a Green Paper. The other is Learning to Succeed, which is incontestably a White Paper published by the Department of Education and Employment.
I begin by congratulating the Government sincerely on the way that they have approached the problem of social exclusion in our society. They have not rushed in but have taken a great deal of care to ascertain the nature of the problem and the best way to deal with it before they proceed. I have one or two suggestions to make in the context of their proposals. First, Bridging the Gap is about 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in education, training or work; that is to say, those who probably did not succeed in school. It proposes four solutions. The first is a graduation ceremony for all 273 young people at 19. There are different paths to graduation, some academic and some less academic, which are not as yet fully defined. It is also proposed that there should be financial support for young people in education on a modest scale.
However, the fourth element that I want to talk about this evening is a new support service to help steer 13 to 19 year-olds "through the system". The new support service is mainly, but not exclusively, for severely disadvantaged, disaffected and socially excluded young people. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the youth department of Toynbee Hall. The fact that I have participated for the past 11 years in summer holiday camps for young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties may perhaps give me some modest authority when I speak on these issues. The Government appear to assume in Bridging the Gap that it will be easy to access these disaffected and socially excluded 16 to 18 year-olds. It will not be. At 16 a young person in that category has probably been truanting for several years. At best they see school as irrelevant; at worst, they see it as the enemy that has failed them.
By 16 many of the young people I know have become part of an alternative street culture. Having been rejected, as they see it, by school and mainstream society, they live in an alternative culture with its own values and taboos. Most of them survive in the black market. A boy who has been betrayed by the system, as he sees it, and has learnt to survive on the streets will normally be very reluctant to return to the system which rejected hire. Remember Kimball O'Hara, the hero of Rudyard Kipling's Kim—and he was a good guy.
Such young people will have to be tempted away from their own sub-culture and persuaded to try again in the mainstream. That can be done only by someone whom they learn to trust. First, one must gain the confidence of these young people and then build it up to the point where they will give it a try. Finally, one must be prepared to keep on supporting them until they can fly. Sometimes that takes several years.
Youth work of this kind is being done as we sit here: it is being done across the country by committed youth workers in both the statutory and the voluntary sectors. There are youth clubs in the inner cities and on the estates; there are clubs that focus on sport; and there are detached youth workers. I mention one project in Kent of which my wife is chairman. There detached youth workers in several North Kent cities wander about and pick up young people off the streets, in clubs and coffee bars. Gradually they win their confidence and encourage them by offering them the opportunity to get accommodation on condition that they enter into training, and then they support them in doing so. That scheme has been highly successful.
I refer to the work that is done at Toynbee Hall, where gaining the confidence of young people and building it up is tackled in a different way. We offer them a free camping holiday. There they meet slightly older young people, many of whom are undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge, who 274 come along on a voluntary basis to work and make friends with these young people. Together they undertake the Duke of Edinburgh's Bronze Award Scheme in the form of a 16-mile hike with an overnight bivouac. Most of those young people have probably never walked further than to the nearest bus stop and do not have the slightest hope of getting a GCSE as matters stand now, but when they have done that hike they stand 10 feet tall. I believe that youth services of this kind are absolutely crucial gatekeepers. These services are crucial if the Government's new support service is to work for those who need it most.
I should like to draw attention to two problems: first, in some cases the provision of statutory youth services and grants to youth services by local authorities have been cut to the bone. There is an unacceptable difference between the worst and the best. The Government's audit of youth work in September 1998 showed a range in expenditure on services for 13 to 19 year-olds. The best authority spent £292 per young person and the worst £18. That represents a difference of between 4.5 per cent and 0.4 per cent of budget.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, suggested that responsibility for the Youth Service should be handed back to local authorities. If so, the local authorities must do their job and there must be a system to ensure that the bad ones do as well as the good ones. In some local authorities there is a terrible funding problem and voluntary youth services must rely entirely on voluntary contributions without any support from local authorities.
The second problem is that by a perverse quirk it seems that the Government's own plans may be the worst enemy of the Youth Service. In Tower Hamlets, which is one of those areas in which the Government are trying out their excellent idea of learning mentors, local schools are advertising for learning mentors at a salary that is £3,000 to £4,000 above that paid to youth workers. Exactly the same qualifications are required. If a youth worker becomes a learning mentor, he or she works only nine to five, has full school holidays and gets £3,000 or £4,000 more. One can imagine what happens. I declare an interest. We have lost our senior youth worker in that context, as have many other organisations. The Government must face the fact that there is about to be a crisis in the Youth Service as a result of the best staff being siphoned off as learning mentors.
I apologise for not giving the noble Baroness notice of the two questions that I should like to ask. I shall fully understand if she prefers to write to me. Do the Government have any plans to ensure that in every local authority where it is needed there is a properly funded youth service that is adequate to cope with all disaffected and socially excluded young people in the area? Secondly, will the Government put in place funding, recruitment and training to start to rebuild a national cadre of youth workers properly trained to work with disaffected children and recruit them into the Government's new support service?
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Lord Hardy of Wath
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for both the commitment that he has explained and the searching contribution that he has made. A number of noble Lords would like to have answers to the questions that he posed. This debate has surprised me. One would imagine that everything began in May 1977. We have heard formidable speeches from noble Lords and Baronesses opposite who have described the scale of difficulty which the Government now face. Very little reference has been made to the problems that the Government inherited, some of which will be more difficult to resolve than others.
One is astonished by the nature of the amendment that the Opposition has tabled which uses the word "vision". That is not a word that one commends Conservative politicians to use. I think back to 1979 when the then new Prime Minister quoted St Francis and offered a Franciscan vision as the approach which the new government would follow, and then swiftly propounded that there was no such thing as a community: that everything depended on self. That change in government approach went to the heart of many of the problems that our society faces today, of ensuring that people devote themselves to voluntary service in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, explained. There is the difficulty of persuading good people to stand for election in local authorities since they are likely to be subjected to demeaning comment and cynical assessment.
I shall watch with interest the way in which the Government approach the problem, but I do not think that they should take advice from noble Lords opposite. I cannot recall any structural change or any fiscal arrangement introduced by their government between 1979 and 1997 which was helpful, reassuring or gave confidence to those concerned about the welfare of local government in Britain. I have only to compare the way in which Westminster City Council was stuffed with money. I do not wish to spend much time on that issue; I have other matters on which I wish to speak perhaps more fiercely. But my own local authority faced great social problems, and had twice the proportion of its population in school as did the borough of Westminster, and since education covers almost two-thirds of local government spending, it was not reasonable for the Westminster local authority to receive an amount five or six times higher per head. It was able to declare a rate of £35. On the same basis of support, my own local authority would not have had to change the rate but would have been able to give at least £250 a year to every man, woman and child of our population of a quarter of a million. One can understand why people like me became very cynical about the last government's approach to local administration. They brought forward Westminster City Council as their flagship in electoral triumph when the party was wiped out in virtually every other part of the country.
I should like to have made a number of comments on the broad subjects of the debate. I would have been tempted to speak on education, as a 276 former schoolmaster with experience, reasonable qualifications and substantial employment at the sharp end of education. However, we should wait to make a proper assessment of the contribution which the Government are making.
I should like to have followed the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on energy, and to point out that the world will burn more coal in the future than it burns today and that it might be highly desirable for us to keep our footing in the industry to provide the world with a more adequate basis of clean coal technology. But I have been involved in conservation for decades and I think it appropriate to make some comments about that subject.
The noble Lord, Lord Monro, referred to our involvement in debate in these matters. My mind goes back to 1979 when my report as chairman of the appropriate committee of the Council of Europe led to our attending the Environment Ministers' conference in Berne. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, was the Minister representing the United Kingdom. He gave me an assurance that the Government would not merely sign the Berne convention but would implement it. They did so by bringing in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It was a useful measure but matters have moved on. Needs have intensified. We need the Government properly to fulfil the commitments into which they entered in the manifesto of 1997. I am delighted that the Queen's Speech makes reference to the protection of wildlife. It needs protection.
Some species are doing quite well. The otter benefited from the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 which I took through Parliament. But far more species are in decline. The bank vole may well be in danger of disappearance from most if not all our island. Many other examples could be given.
I am anxious about access. I do not object to the principle that responsible access by foot to open country is desirable. While it is right and reasonable for people to have the capacity to enjoy our countryside—after all, it has inspired art and culture, and has given pleasure to millions for generations—the Government should insist that there is a responsibility too. There has to be adequate rural policing. I listened with interest to the important comments made by my noble friend Lady Young as chairman of English Nature. But I also know my own area. I can point to the very real dangers which unfettered access will provide. I stated in the House recently that I was greatly reassured by the fact that close to my home were four pairs of skylarks. Within a fortnight of those comments, two of those pairs have disappeared because people insisted on driving 4x4 vehicles over the area where the skylarks were about to breed.
Close to my home is a small lake; it is not mine. But I have been horrified by the way in which motor cycles and 4x4 vehicles have ripped up the footpaths around the lake. Although it is not my lake, over the summer months I have been collecting two or three sacks of 277 litter; and during the school holidays 250-odd plastic bottles were simply chucked aside. As far as I understand, the legal situation is that the owner of the land is responsible for removing litter and material dumped upon that land. If we give the right to people to enjoy unfettered access, and they use that as an opportunity to dump and discard their litter all over the place, are we going to say that the landowner then has to take responsibility for and bear the cost of that removal?
There is more mobility, and mobility has increased to an astonishing extent the amount of litter in the rural areas of England and virtually everywhere else. When I raised the issue in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister said that things were getting a lot better. They are not. In some parts of our country, the problem is almost obscene and the litter legislation is of no effect whatever. If we are to protect our environment and landscape, and to safeguard wildlife, we have to recognise that the pressure and irresponsibility of quite a lot of people will be—as it is today—counterproductive. I trust that those dangers will be properly considered; and the open country close to the conurbations which is most vulnerable to the devastation of that irresponsibility needs to be especially considered. We need more hobbies on the rural beat, as well as their presence in the towns. But we need the police to have adequate support both within the community and the courts.
A young man living not far from me has been using his air rifle irresponsibly. He was fined in court recently and then his gun was returned to him. I take the view that if we are to protect our environment properly, the courts should be much more willing to order the confiscation of items used in the committing of an offence. For example, the amount of limestone paving in some of our upland areas is diminishing rapidly because it is being stolen and put in people's rockeries. The people who are taking it are grossly irresponsible because they know that it is against the law. If they insist on breaking the law in that way and they are apprehended, the courts should say, "Well, you took the material in your vehicle. Your vehicle will be confiscated".
That would certainly happen in the case of young people who are allowed by foolish parents to drive their off-the-road motorcycles uninsured, unhelmeted and unlicensed on private land. I suppose that that is a matter for the people who own the private land, but in most of the cases which come to mind, they use the public highway to reach the land where they become a nuisance.
It is not merely a problem in South Yorkshire. There are thousands of areas in this country where there is little peace and quiet for people living near open country where such motorcyclists—often, I am told, with stolen bicycles—operate. The chances of wildlife surviving in those areas is not high. Even worse is the number of fatalities and serious injuries among those young people, one of whom was killed not far from my home a few months ago. We must have a sense of responsibility and if parents cannot act responsibly then the community must do so.
278 I recognise that there are many problems in rural Britain. A noble Lord opposite said that people should have long memories. Farmers should recognise that, while the Government have not become terribly popular, and while they do face great problems, it was a Labour Government which gave rural England, and probably rural Britain, not merely the basis of prosperity after the war, but light and power and a standard of living which rural Britain would not otherwise have enjoyed—certainly not if it had been left to the private sector.
At the same time, I should like to commend some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. I live in the Dearne Valley in a brownfield site which is going to be very attractive. It is essential that we safeguard our green land and that the brownfield sites are developed. It is only through that development and through the replacement of blight by hope that jobs will come. If that sort of area is not developed, then the movement to the south-east will never be prevented and the prospects for the proper management of the British countryside will not be adequately fulfilled.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Lord Bradshaw
My Lords, following the White Paper on transport, the department published a daughter paper about the bus industry—and it is about the bus industry that I should like to speak. The paper was entitled From Workhorse to Thoroughbred. I am not a horseman, but I am told that such a transition is impossible to achieve. However, I should like Ministers to consider carefully the measures which many people in the bus industry believe are essential to bring the workhorse up to the status at least of being "best in class".
Two-thirds of public transport journeys are made by bus in Britain, yet nearly the whole focus of the public transport debate is on railways. Significant shifts of passenger journeys would be made from car to bus if the quality of bus travel were significantly improved. That may be achieved quickly and at modest cost to the public purse. On the other hand, improvements to railway services, or the building of light rail systems, or of new roads will take far longer to achieve and will cost much more money.
In Oxford, bus use has increased from a high base by at least 65 per cent over the past 10 years. That is the result of a partnership between two large bus groups and the local authority. Easy-access, low-pollution vehicles operate along priority routes, offering low fares, high frequency and good services at weekends and in the evenings. I should like to discuss briefly how that good practice might be spread.
Before doing so, in the light of some remarks made by a spokesman for noble Lords on the Conservative Benches, I draw attention to the fact that we had the benefit, if that is the right word, of a visit from the Opposition spokesman for the environment and transport, the right honourable Member for Wokingham, John Redwood. Despite the fact that he states regularly—we have heard it again today—that there must be good alternatives to the use of the car, 279 his derogatory remarks about the bus industry have infuriated the large national companies which have invested extremely large sums of money in buses in Oxford.
He has said also that we should reduce car-parking charges and encourage more cars to come into the cities, knowing that that will choke city streets and make quite impossible the operation of efficient bus services. Furthermore, he goes on to talk about creating more capacity. Again, we heard those words today. That is shorthand for, "We should build more roads", and yet the same person says that we must not cover the country in concrete, building more houses. In fact, as regards the covering of the country in concrete, the people who live along the A34 in north Oxfordshire or, indeed, in Somerset or Devon, along the A30, know that the noise from those roads can be heard for miles on either side of the roads, causing people great misery.
I return to the bus industry. First, the Government must make it clear in the legislation that they are about to bring forward that quality partnerships which offer clear advantages to users—for example, through ticketing, joint timetables and good interchanges—will not be struck down by the competition authorities. The Minister will be aware of the quality partnership in Flintshire where two rival companies replaced six disconnected routes to offer a regular service of eight buses per hour from Deeside into Chester. Although that offers significant advantages to passengers, it has been branded by the Office of Fair Trading as anti-competitive. A simple test needs to be introduced in the new legislation whereby if a quality partnership can be demonstrated to offer real benefits to users, it should be exempt from action by the Office of Fair Trading.
I submit that the test should be the benefits enjoyed by users, not a theoretical test of the structure of the producer side of the industry. I reflect the interests of users because I am chairman of the bus appeals body which hears appeals from bus users about the inadequate services with which they are often provided.
Obviously, there are potential abuses in a quality partnership and a requirement to keep fare rises in line with the retail prices index would be welcomed by users and would serve to prevent a de facto monopoly provider abusing a position of dominance in the market. Real rises in fares have been shown to be a major influence in respect of the loss of bus passengers.
When addressing the competition elements of quality partnerships, another feature of competition in the bus industry needs attention when the law is reformed. At present, any operator may decide to enter the market and register a new competitive service to run just ahead of that of a rival. One has the ridiculous situation of a route on which there are two buses per hour—that of the incumbent and that of the new entrant—which run within two or three minutes of each other and then there is a wait of 57 minutes for the next bus. Such registration is usually undertaken 280 not with the intention of developing the market or offering a better service to users but with the object of levering a rival operator off the road.
I trust that the Government intend in new legislation to review the powers of the traffic commissioners. In my submission, the commissioners should be allowed to insist that new services being registered should divide the interval so that if somebody else wants to enter the market, a service is provided at half-hourly intervals. The waiting interval would then be spread evenly.
I have two simple points for the Minister, the answers to which I hope we shall hear in the summing up at the end of the debate this evening. I do not believe that either require legislation but they would give a great fillip to those of us anxious to see the rural bus grant initiative succeed. The needs of rural areas have been referred to by many noble Lords during the debate.
My first point relates to a promise in the White Paper to introduce an arrangement whereby pensioners should enjoy a minimum concession of half-fare travel. That proposal was published in the White Paper in July 1998 and most local authorities expected the arrangements, including the necessary finance, to be in place by April 2000. I have heard from other sources that that may be postponed until April 2001. I hope that the noble Baroness may be able to assure the House that April 2000 is still indeed the target date.
Many poor, elderly people in rural areas find the cost of bus fares a major barrier to their inclusion in a wider range of activities. The initiative for providing all buses under the rural bus service grant has not, unfortunately, enabled those people to take full advantage of the opportunities which have arisen.
My second point relates to the rural bus grant which was introduced last year to run for three years. Many services which are supported with that money have to be retendered in the year 2000 and the tender periods usually run for four or five years. Such services are supported by a mixture of local authority revenue grant and rural bus grant. On the same route, some journeys are supported by one form of support and others by another form.
I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government's future intentions for the rural bus grant beyond the third year so that local authorities may plan and let tenders for contracts in April next year with some degree of confidence. If operators are to buy new, easy-access, low-pollution buses, there needs to be some certainty about levels of public support extending beyond 2001. Concessionary fares and an extension of the rural bus service grant would receive a warm welcome in rural areas where, for other reasons, as we have heard, the Government may seek some approbation.
Persuading young people to continue to use buses is vital to stem the lemming-like rush to buy an old car and drive to school or college. That is particularly prevalent in rural counties, many of which do not provide free travel to over 16 year-olds who go to 281 school or college. I ask the Government to consider a further extension of half-fare concessionary travel to include all in full-time education. The cost would actually be very low.
Whatever bus operators themselves undertake in the way of investment, the appeal of the bus will not increase unless buses have sufficient priority on the highway to provide reliable journey times. The productivity of the vehicles and the drivers also depends on that. I hope that the Minister—perhaps not this evening—will reiterate, for the benefit of those who do not seem to have appreciated the fact, that the bus lane on the M4 has brought great benefits to bus, coach and taxi users and at the same time has benefited car users even at peak times. Will she also tell us whether those authorities proposing significant bus priorities will receive favourable consideration in the allocation of credit approvals in the review of the provisional local transport plans now taking place?
Returning to my horse analogy, in considering local transport plans it will not do to award each contestant a rosette. There must be winners—and they must be the authorities which have the plans and the courage to manage traffic growth. The bus industry can do much for itself, but it is dependent on government and local authorities for the management of the highway, investment in bus priority measures, and enforcement of waiting restrictions. I, along with many bus users, look forward to buses receiving an appropriate share of attention in tae forthcoming legislation, the first significantly to affect the industry for 15 years.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Lord Plumb
My Lords, I join with so many of my noble friends in expressing my disappointment that there was not more reference to agriculture and, in particular, rural development in the gracious Speech. I declare an interest in that I am a farmer. I am also the president of the AONB in the Cotswolds, so I have great interest in the diversification of the growth and development of the countryside and in protecting the interests of the countryside.
Much reference has been made to the despondency and the despair that exists in the farming community throughout the length and breadth of the land. I hear it said by farmers who are quite substantial landowners that they believe that there is a hidden agenda to get rid of agriculture altogether and to import food into this country. That would be a very sad state of affairs for our economy.
I share the concern of my noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm who expressed the anxiety of many farmers. He said everything that I wished to say so I shall concentrate my few remarks on access to the countryside, which is very much part of the declaration in the gracious Speech.
In the aftermath of a conference held in Cork in 1996 on rural development, attended by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, the European Commission's Agenda 2000 proposals carried forward the concept of integrated rural development as a second pillar in Europe's common agricultural policy. The rhetoric of 282 that move is currently much stronger than the reality of the proposals, but the concept has attracted much attention from policy makers and commentators throughout Europe. Support for a longer-term shift towards a common rural policy is clearly growing.
Sustainable land use policies are therefore of growing importance and in the light of the present growing crisis in agriculture, farmers and landowners are looking for all forms of diversification. The "Right to Roam Bill" therefore must be seen as of considerable significance to farmers and the whole of the rural population. While I welcome the initiative of government to improve the protection for SSSIs, that must be matched by a real commitment by government to negotiate positive management agreement with owners with adequate funding. As my noble friend Lord Rotherwick said, that too must meet with a full understanding of what it means to those people who are involved.
Access to the countryside does not mean that anyone or everyone has the right to roam. Of course there are people who wish to go to the countryside—the Ramblers Association and others—who act responsibly, but that responsibility must be taken seriously. The Labour Party manifesto in 1997 said that its policies included greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside. Let that be spelt out in more detail so we can better understand what it means by "greater access" and "open countryside".
It is important that the countryside does everything possible to satisfy people's needs, particularly in the area of recreation. But farmers and landowners will feel angry and disappointed if the agenda for change takes us down the legislative route of imposing additional burdens on hard-pressed owners and occupiers of open country who are already facing additional cost burdens arising from environmental and other legislation. The day-to-day management cost of open access on farmland, together with occupiers' liability costs are, as we well know, substantial. By their decision the Government seem to have completely misunderstood the fact that what they define as "open country" is actually made up of individual farm businesses, many of which are already operating—as has been said so often during this debate—at the margins of economic viability.
The Government have also underestimated the significant cost to the public sector of proper wardening and management of their favoured approach. I welcome the commitment to strengthen and develop the system of rights of way. I speak with some knowledge of farming a farm that has many rights of way across it. I believe that that approach offers more satisfying recreational opportunities to more people with less interference with farming and, ironically, closer to their homes with a general right of access to open country. What farmers do not want in their present circumstances is yet more red tape, more legislation and quangos that are going to appear to govern their lives.
So there are many questions that need to be answered. What definitions of "open country" will be employed and what legal status would they have in 283 advance of a new statute? What would be the position of "island sites" to which no right of access currently exists? Will consideration be given to appeals on mapping, for example? That is a very serious issue because it is not easy to map out the particular areas that we are concerned with. It is essential, in the interest of fairness, to give owners and occupiers the chance to appeal.
What we have before us promises to be the worst of all worlds for farmers who would be on the receiving end of a statutory right of access if a compulsory scheme were adopted. There is inevitably a likelihood of friction and confrontation between the public and landowners which would not help to further town and country relations which we are all trying to achieve in one form or another at the moment.
A sense of injustice encourages negativism and minimalism. What farmers need is encouragement and support to assist them in providing good recreational opportunities for the public, not the politics of punishment seeking to claw back agricultural payments where footpaths are obstructed. The Rights of Way Act 1990 is surely sufficient and the correct mechanism for dealing with these problems.
I am sure that this debate will continue. I hope that it will because it is a matter of concern to all of us. I hope that all parties concerned will have a full opportunity for participation.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ Lord Lea of Crondall
My Lords, the new consensus on transport policy is quite remarkable, not least in that the Treasury now allows the heresy of hypothecation its place at the heart of government. The time spent on preparing for this transport Bill has been well spent, not least in the excellent series of consultative documents such as Breaking the Logjampublished a year ago.
It is arguable that the solutions available today were not available until recently either politically or technically. The fact that congestion is growing apace has driven us all to what was unthinkable earlier. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, was correct in one respect about the technology for congestion charging. It will be another two years in fact before that technology is on stream.
The principle of hypothecation has transformed the transport debate out of all recognition. It has demolished once and for all the caricature that only the man in the Rolls Royce with the big cigar in his mouth, scattering £50 notes to passers-by would benefit. Apart from anything else, if his £50 notes are now used to finance public transport, that will help alleviate social exclusion and will be a powerful engine for greater equality of opportunity.
There was no chance of an acceptable approach to congestion charging or workplace parking charging without hypothecation. But the Government have grasped the nettle and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor are to be congratulated on their joint approach to this matter.
284 After years of debate, now is hardly the time for anyone to describe the new policy consensus as anti-car. That phrase is not worthy of the Official Opposition, especially as the agenda for the present policy was emerging well before the change of government. Moreover, I note that the chairman of Vauxhall, Nick Reilly, who is one of the most forward-looking leaders of the automotive industry, has backed the proposals on the two new charges after receiving fresh evidence that congestion levels would otherwise soar over the next decade.
However, all of this will be set at nought if the message does not reach the grass roots. Here I should like to declare a minor interest having been the chair of a committee of the Round Table on Sustainable Development which reported last year. The report was entitled The Multi-stakeholder Approach to Sustainable Business. It advocated that companies—certainly large employers—should discuss their impact on the wider environment with the major stakeholders, including local authorities, trade unions and the environmental NGOs.
The need for companies to have green transport plans fits like a glove with this concept of multi-stakeholding. I hope that the Government will initiate some kite-mark tests for drawing up such plans and perhaps a national award for the best achievement. The idea of multi-stakeholder meetings can be heretical for local government; it is certainly heretical for some environmental NGOs. But it is surely not too much to ask as a millennium initiative that the different stakeholders sit round a table to see what they can achieve together, rather than continuing to lob hand grenades at each other from what they hope is a safe distance.
This is where the workplace parking charge will find its proper place. It is logical—as, indeed, in another context might be the hypermarket parking tax—but the logic requires very careful discussion or we will have a knee-jerk reaction as we saw with the out-of-town retailers. The consultation on the parking levy seems to assume that small firms or small numbers of vehicles could be exempt. I have to say that Ministers should think very carefully about the credibility of this. As we are constantly told that small firms account for over half of the labour force, there will be charges of inequity. It would be perilously close to bringing into mind my favourite true anecdote when the TUC met Mrs Thatcher, then Prime Minister, to discuss the question of small firms. John Monks asked ironically—never use irony is the moral—why she did not exempt small firms from the 30 miles-an-hour speed limit. "Take a note of that", the Prime Minister said to her private secretary.
However, if I may say so, the balance of presentation must also strike some positive notes for the motorists as for the residents of areas with heavy traffic flows. It would be helpful at this stage if the Government could combine messages on congestion and the environment with proclaiming that they are in fact building more new bypasses, underpasses and other such improvements than they were two years ago. I believe that to be the position.
285 What is often not accepted by everyone in the environmental movement is the degree to which environmental protection may require more road expenditure rather than less. I have been involved—and I give this as an illustration—in a local debate in Farnham where it is clear that the £20 million or so needed for an underpass is not only compatible with but also an essential condition for enhancing the environment. There must be many such examples.
The overall message has to be a better quality of life. It is an overwhelmingly popular principle. John Kenneth Galbraith entitled his famous work a generation ago, Private Affluence and Public Squalor. That phrase is instantly recognisable in the field of transport today. There will be pride in the new Jubilee Line. That will be true of public investments in every part of the country; in other words, there is the public expectation of high quality. The days should be long passed when one would have to carry one's suitcase up 39 steps at Tottenham Court Road station or accept that air conditioning—here I follow the noble Lord from the Liberal Democrat Benches—is standard for aeroplanes or cars but not for commuter trains or for local bus services. Superficially this is the concern that people have when they say in a rather defeatist mode that there is no way in which we shall ever stop the increase in congestion. I think that we are on the edge of a break through but that breakthrough needs to be powerfully exploited. I believe that the Government's approach strikes exactly the right balance and that it deserves, and will. receive, wide national support.
§ 9.40 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I rise, funnily enough, to talk about agriculture! The noble and elegant Baroness who is to reply to the debate does not look at all "agricultural". I have been trying to get away from looking agricultural all my life, without success. When I made my maiden speech in the Commons, I thought that I was dressed perfectly in my new suit. I thought that I was a smooth fellow. After my speech an old Tory Member said to Jo Grimond, -Ah, Jo, that fellow of yours made a good speech-. Jo said, "Thank you" and then the Tory spoilt it all by saying, "You can see he comes from Caithness, a great shaggy brute". However, we do not all look like that in Caithness.
I want to bombard the noble Baroness with some more figures. I do not think that we can do this too often because the state of the depression in agriculture is not fully understood. I want the figures to be placed on the record. These are figures provided by the Scottish Agricultural College which has put forward estimates based on the 1998 crop year. The net farm income figures for less favoured area (LFA) specialist sheep show a profit of £6,147; the direct subsidy receipts were £27,385. The LFA cattle made a profit of £3,805; the direct subsidy receipts were £25,707. The LFA cattle and steep made a profit of £2,693; the direct subsidy receipts were £36,228. Lowground cattle and sheep lost £6,572; the direct subsidy receipts were £14,218. Cereals lost £5,854; the direct subsidy receipts were £27,977. General cropping made £8,352; the 286 direct subsidy receipts were £27,021. Dairy made £47; the direct subsidy receipts were £8,444. Mixed farming made £416 profit; the direct subsidy receipts were £26,284.
Those are horrifying figures, but they are absolutely true figures and they show the state of the industry. There is one more set of figures that the noble Baroness must endure. These figures are also provided by the Scottish Agricultural College. I refer to the cost of farm general workers. Their estimated annual average cost is some £15,000 a year; that of tractormen, £16,750; dairy stockmen, £21,740; other stockmen, £16,230; shepherds, £16,490; grieves—that means "foremen", for the Englishmen here—117,840. Therefore, one can see that the rewards for farming are not great, to put it mildly. Farming is in its worst state since the early 30s and the difficulty of coming out of it is much greater than it was then.
Farmers are now taking action. A friend of mine has a nice 300-acre farm; next door his friend has another 300-acre farm. They have put the two together and bought the requisite machinery. They have no men at all; the two farmers are the only people working that land. There used to be five men on each farm. The decline in numbers has been steady since the end of the war, but the past two years and this year have been catastrophic for the numbers engaged on the land, not including those who are in part-time farming.
Farmers will get by if they are decently financed. Others are getting by through niche farming. I have a neighbour with 50 acres. He grows turnips for shopping and he has a flock of pedigree Suffolk sheep, but probably the best-paying things he has are six loose boxes, which he lets to ladies who have horses. But not everyone can grow turnips for shopping, and there are already too many flocks of Suffolk sheep.
The Government say that organic farming is an answer. I have nothing against organic farming. I think that it is a goodish thing and they should encourage it—I do not think that ordinary farming is as bad as it is made out—but, inevitably, as more and more people take up organic farming prices will fall and, with production so low, it will not be profitable. It is certainly not the long-term answer to the problem of agriculture in this country. It is a part answer, but it is not the long-term answer.
Then we have the great hopes of the environmentalists. I am an environmentalist. I planted a lot of trees on my farm when I was farming; I preserved a herd of roe deer on some rough ground that I had, and so on, but farming was the main thing. But environmentalists—many of whom I know—are rather impractical about farming. They now have great hopes about a thing called "cross compliance", which is a form of blackmail to make farmers take measures that they may not want to take. They say that if farmers do not comply under Agenda 2000, they will not get their agricultural subsidies. The figures I have given show quite clearly that farming cannot survive in the present circumstances without those subsidies.
If, in addition, we are to have a lot of people renting land from owners to farm—able young men farming perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 acres with good equipment and 287 combining all crops—they will need a new system to keep up fertility and a different rotation. That is one of the things that people have to do to make a profit. It is not socially desirable but it is coming; it is here now, and there will be more of it.
The Government should also think of encouraging local industry. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, is not in his place. He always says that when the mines were closed down, the miners did not squeal. But all governments were good to the miners; they put extra money into evolving industries in areas where they closed the pits, many of which are now areas of high employment. But that cannot be done in farming areas; on the contrary. The Government should spend money to encourage small industries and to encourage people to develop and to run their own affairs, either part time or with niche objectives.
The Government must also encourage, with help and with money, co-operation—not only in production, but in selling. There is no doubt that Milk Marque has been broken up because it had a monopoly position. The monopoly position held by Milk Marque was nothing compared to the monopoly position that the supermarkets in this country have today, and it will get worse. Therefore, we need to look at all these matters and the Government must have them in hand.
I see that I have spoken for nine minutes and I have been beefing about people who have spoken for over 10. Therefore, I shall say only that the Government, when talking about world trade, should remind the Americans who complain about subsidies in Europe of the 7 billion dollars that they have just given to their farmers. Perhaps that should be stressed. They should also remember that the primary producer has always had the rough end of the stick.
Frankly, I am sorry that the Milk Marketing Board and the Potato Marketing Board have gone. I believed that those were good measures. I believed that they were Labour measures, but apparently they were not. We have returned to the condition of extreme competition in which the primary producer is always in a bad way. I believe that the Government need to ensure that some protection is given to the primary producer—I talk about the small ones; the big ones can cope—to keep away the worst of the wolves.
§ 9.51 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, one of the benefits of being, once again, the tail end Charlie is that the speech that I would have made has been made by my noble neighbour Lord Mackie. I declare my interest as both a beef and a sheep farmer not 100 miles away from the old farm of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and from his new residence. However, he knows me well enough, and knows the area well enough, to agree that the figures he has produced are not a mile out from the results which I have tried to achieve and which we are still trying to achieve.
I believe that both my noble neighbour and myself are extremely lucky to follow the speech of my noble friend Lord Plumb. During the problems that we have 288 had, particularly in trying to sell our beef to Europe, let alone other problems on agriculture, it occurred to me that my noble friend Lord Plumb is but a telephone call away from the Minister of Agriculture. So there may be help and guidance through the thicket of European regulations and, indeed, personalities in Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. I declare a small interest in that about 12 years ago the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, gave me a particularly Lucullan feast on my only visit to Strasbourg. We did have beef, but I learned a great deal from him there and indeed from the European institutions.
My noble friend Lord Plumb made a salient point in his speech. He referred to the increasing burden of what he called red tape and administration that is increasingly demanded of farmers who are, by and large, practical men and in some cases in Angus practical women as well. However, from the wonderful maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, we have found that there may well be information technology and aids to farming that provide helpful information. But among the more efficient farmers of Angus and, I suspect, throughout Scotland there is perceived to be a major burden of what they call "red tape" but what we might call "controls and problems".
My second point is about markets and level playing fields. That was particularly well covered by my noble friend Lady Byford, who referred to all the problems and controls which are particularly prevalent in the pig sector as well as elsewhere in the livestock sector. I ask the noble Baroness who is to reply to convey to her right honourable friend that it is possible that one solution to the agricultural problems which are particularly prevalent in Scotland, but also I suspect throughout the United Kingdom, is what I would describe as good housekeeping. That solution lies with the Minister and with government departments; namely, the prompt payment of hill livestock compensatory allowances. It is the fair payment of those allowances. In other words, the amount that comes from the European Union should be passed on in full at the proper rates of exchange, green pounds and so on.
Although it is a long time ago, I have had some experience of the other side of the fence, where the noble Baroness is sitting. In Northern Ireland I always watched out. They did not call me CB—citizen's band or cynical so and so—for nothing. When I was on the other side of the counter I was quite often advised that the Treasury or the department might find some problems. If the noble Baroness will pass on my queries about what I call good housekeeping that will be a valuable first step in assisting the increasingly difficult situation in agriculture, especially in Scotland.
My third point is about science. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Soulsby is not in his place. Perhaps I may say that if the rest of the remarks in today's debate, particularly my own remarks, were to pass by, I would certainly retain today's copy of Hansard in order to read my noble friend's speech. I would keep it, cherish it and above all digest it. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, might not agree 289 with all of the points that he made, but for those of us who care about the countryside, the environment and, above all, about agriculture, having an expert such as my noble friend Lord Soulsby in your Lordships' House to explain the problem of genetically modified crops and other aspects of science is particularly valuable, since it is only through a knowledge of science that any of us will be able to make progress on environmental or agricultural matters.
The battle for farming is not yet won. My noble neighbour Lord Mackie will know that I am an Angus boy. I tend not to spend 85p. when I can get something free. In your Lordships' House we get a daily copy of the Financial Times. On the last Thursday in October I happened to scan down the front page, which referred to the results of a well-known brewer. The column said that the brewer "hits" at UK beef quality. The article, which is certainly more authoritative than anything I can dig up-went on to quote the brewing company—it was in brewing but it is now in what is called the beverage market—as saying that UK farmers were unable to supply it with sufficient beef of acceptable quality and that it was unable to buy more than half the beef that it required from the United Kingdom in spite of a "Buy British" policy. The company stated that it sells 7½ million steaks a year but it could not find the quality good enough to meet its rigorous standards from British farmers.
That seems to be 150,000 steaks each week. My noble neighbour may be able to tell me how many prime beasts might be required to provide 150,000 steaks a week. But that article went to my heart like another stake—I ask noble Lords to forgive me for the pun. I produce what I hope is quality beef. I am very proud that we put through to the market between 250 and 300 fat Aberdeen Angus beasts a year. Most of them go to the premium market. It hits home to me the fact that there is still a problem.
It is not necessarily my fault and it is not the fault of your Lordships' House that the Government's business managers interposed transport in the debate. I have referred to the county of Angus, I have referred to Scotland and I have referred to Kirriemuir. I can come from that Arcadia to your Lordships' House only because of the increasingly efficient transport. I shall make one final point about education. I have before me a 45 year-old German grammar book, which is part of my on-going education in your Lordships' House once a week when we receive German lessons. I hasten to add to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that computers do not do everything. One still has hard work to do with one's irregular verbs and other nouns, which is what I am doing.
When my book was being used 45 years ago it took 10 hours to go by train from Dundee to King's Cross. Nowadays—and I believe that my noble friend can confirm this—it is possible to make the journey in six hours. There are trains every hour and sometimes from Edinburgh every half hour. My noble friend Lord Monro mentioned the West Coast line and we shall discuss that in detail when we come to debate the transport Bill. My noble friend Lord Peel said that he 290 had had one or two problems with the East Coast line, but I pay enormous tribute to the companies that run that service.
I should like to make one final comment on education because it is the subject of the noble Baroness who is to wind up the debate This Government have pointed out repeatedly that their main priority is "Education, education, education". Twenty years ago there was a programme on Italian television that stated, "It is never too late". One saw marvellous pictures of people at least 50 per cent older than I attempting to become literate. I am now attempting to become information technology literate, but I still try to use such talents as I may have to learn foreign languages. As a good Scottish boy, I am delighted that once a week we have lessons in foreign languages. I am particularly grateful to receive those lessons here in your Lordships' House.
However, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am saddened that there was no specific mention of agriculture in the gracious Speech. Furthermore, many noble Lords have pointed out that this subject will be closely intertwined with other matters such as access to the countryside and the rights of ramblers. We shall come to all those issues, and I look forward to a busy spring and an even busier summer.
§ 10.1 p.m.
§ Lord Tope
My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging debate today and that is perhaps inevitable when the subjects range as broadly as education, transport, the environment and agriculture. We have covered everything from information technology in the 21st century classroom to hunting with dogs. Most recently we have been told of a noble Lord learning German from a 45 year-old grammar. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that there could be a task for him to do here in this House as well.
I do not envy the Minister in her attempt to respond to all the points that have been raised in the debate, although I am not entirely sure what my noble friend Lord Mackie meant when he said that the noble Baroness does not look "agricultural" to him. Perhaps we should not speculate on that tonight.
We have heard two excellent maiden speeches today. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, spoke of the role of information technology. I am sure he is right when he says that the role performed by new technology will change not only the classroom but also our current teaching methods. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord when he suggested that it will make class sizes largely irrelevant. I believe that class sizes will always be relevant. However, I certainly agree with him on the importance of coming to terms with the changes in teaching methods as well as new learning strategies that will emerge from the information revolution.
We heard another excellent maiden speech on education and the arts from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall. As I reflected on the unconventional teaching methods she experienced as a child, I felt saddened by the rather prescriptive nature 291 of education nowadays. I doubt whether our children will have that kind of experience. My only regret about the speech of the noble Baroness was that she resisted the temptation to treat us to some of the folk songs she said that she could still remember singing. I cannot help feeling, with the greatest of respect, that that would have considerably livened up our debate, even at that relatively early stage.
Unlike the Minister, I do not even have to attempt to reply to all the points that have been made today. As a suburban Londoner—I suspect that I look like one as well—it would be best if I leave agriculture and the countryside to those with far greater firsthand experience than I. However, as a suburban Londoner it is also probably better if I try to resist the temptation to speak on transport matters, albeit for exactly the opposite reasons. In common with many noble Lords I experience transport issues every day. Were Ito start on the subject I fear that I would have no time to say anything else. All I shall say on the subject, particularly in the London context, is that I have no doubt that it will be "the" issue in the forthcoming GLA elections. I say to the Government with the best of intentions that they will have a very hard job persuading Londoners not only that their solution for the London Underground is the best solution, but that it is any solution at all. Indeed, they seem to have been having some difficulty in persuading one of their own candidates that it is the best solution and, if reports are to be believed, have failed even to persuade their own most likely candidate.
Mention of the GLA leads me to the few comments that I want to make on local government before I turn to the main part of my speech, which will be on education. First, on the subject of elected mayors, it is tempting for a speaker on the Liberal Front Bench to feel slightly triumphant following the events of the past week and we have allowed ourselves an occasional wry smile. But that would be short-sighted of us; it would be a mistake. The events of the past week have done no long-term good to the future of democracy or the future of London. For those of us who believe in active democracy, what has happened has been a major setback.
In common with 97 per cent of local councillors, I am not a fan of elected mayors and remain to be convinced. If cities, and other places for that matter, wish to experiment with elected mayors, and if that is what local people really want, so be it. I have no problem with that. But I have learnt one lesson from the events of last weekend. When we come to examine the local government legislation, I urge the Government to consider providing for the recall of directly elected mayors. We debated the issue in this House during the passage of the Greater London Authority Bill and your Lordships formed a view which, sadly, the other place overturned. I hope that we do not come to regret that experience. If we are to go ahead with elected mayors in other cities, there must be some means of impeaching—if one wishes to use that word—or of recalling, the powerful elected 292 mayor. It is a major gap in the Greater London Authority Act, and one that should not be repeated in future legislation.
As several speakers have commented, I urge the Government to concentrate on the desirable outcomes for local government. There are outcomes on which most of us would probably agree. The public are concerned with outcomes; they are not concerned with the process—and neither should be the Government. The Government should concentrate on what should be the outcomes for local government, and give local government the freedom to reach those outcomes by whatever means it wishes in accordance with local needs and priorities.
I turn now to education. I was pleased that in opening the debate the Transport Minister confirmed again that education remains the Government's number one priority. It seems that this year the flagship of the Government's legislative programme as far as concerns education will be the Bill to establish a new learning and skills council to plan and fund all post-16 education and training.
Liberal Democrats have long advocated a more streamlined system for the post-16 sector with greater equity of funding. For too long the further education colleges have been the "secondary moderns" of the 16-plus sector. We also look forward to a great deal more detail on how the arrangements will affect school sixth-forms and indeed the local education authorities, whose functions Mr Chris Woodhead is so anxious to slim down. More equitable funding means improving the worst, not reducing the best.
If the Government's press releases are anything to go by, they seem to have offered to a bewildering number of interest groups the prize of being at the very heart of the new post-16 arrangements. Perhaps I may mention just three. First, the employers; secondly, the national training organisations; thirdly, the lifelong learning partnerships. There were others. An embryonic organisation that goes through more than three heart transplants in five months sounds to be in for a difficult birth.
The Liberal Democrats want the Government to give more importance to the role of regional development agencies. The 47 local learning and skills councils ought to have a direct relationship with RDAs. If some parts of England are to move to democratically elected regional government, as we hope, that democratic process should oversee all the target setting, planning and direction. I raised exactly that point in Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill and still believe that is a major gap in the powers and duties of that authority.
I hope that when the Minister replies—this is more her subject than some of the matters mentioned today—she will indicate whether she sees a role for regional government in post-16 education.
We would like some reference to the role of the universities for industry. It is already clear that the UFIs will not operate within the same boundaries as learning and skills councils or local learning partnerships. That seems a sad example of disjoined 293 government. Coterminosity, or the lack of it, is all too familiar a problem to local government. We should not make that problem even worse with the legislation.
The special needs Bill will be another significant piece of legislation. We welcome the move to encourage conciliation between parents and LEAs in dispute over services for children with special needs. We welcome in principle the proposed requirement for LEAs to set up partnership schemes that will offer advice, information and independent support for families of children with special needs. I say "in principle" because of course that is a good idea but I say, as someone who led a local authority until recently, that it is a false prospectus to keep giving councils new duties without giving them new funding.
The same caveat applies to the proposal to establish special needs tribunals. Local education authorities will apparently be forced to implement tribunal decisions against tight deadlines. Duties on councils to make school buildings more accessible to disabled pupils will equally prove a cruel illusion unless councils have the extra money they need to fund improvements. We look forward to reading the report of the Disability Task Force in early December to learn how its recommendations may influence the special needs Bill. I note that the Government are to establish a right for disabled children not to be discriminated against at school.
I join my noble friend Lady Hamwee in welcoming the Government's decision to use the opportunity of a local government Bill to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I have campaigned to protect school pupils who are perceived to be gay or lesbian from discrimination, harassment and physical assault at their schools. The repeal of Section 28, although it is almost entirely symbolic, will be a powerful challenge to homophobes and bullies.
Another group of young people at risk are those who have been—in some cases, throughout their childhood—in the care of local authorities. We are pleased that the Government intend to give more help to such young people.
I was concerned that earlier in the debate we had a proud boast from a member of the Government Front Bench that they were well on course to meet their target of reducing infant class sizes to below 30 by the end of this Parliament. Of course that is welcome. We supported the moves when they were introduced a couple of years ago but warned then—and I point out now—that in many primary schools it has the effect of making classes larger for pupils between the ages of eight and 11.
Even more significant is the deeply worrying fact that secondary school classes are the largest they have been for 20 years. We shall no doubt be assured that those difficulties, like so many others, are being put right by the Government. The most recent figures show that education is still failing to attract good graduates to shortage subjects. While there can be no doubt that rates of pay are a significant factor, the Government should give serious thought to the fact 294 that many talented students regard school teaching as a job where one is not only told what to teach but how to teach—which is not attractive to clever, imaginative and creative young graduates.
It has been said that this is to be the last full legislative programme before the next general election. It certainly provides the platform for that election. With so many Bills it is a large platform but it is also remarkably small and timid in terms of ideas. It is almost as if the Government have already run out of steam, in which case the sooner we have the general election the better.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, this has been a long but very interesting debate. As others have said, we heard an excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, who focused on the role of arts and music in the curriculum and outside it. One of my pet beliefs is that the role of music in particular—I include art and drama—provides a vehicle for children with learning difficulties. Educational therapists up and down the country now use art and music to help young people not only to build up their confidence but to improve and enhance their learning abilities. I agree with absolutely everything that the noble Baroness said. We look forward to hearing more from her.
I refer also to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. In everything that he said his enthusiasm for information technology not only in the education of children but for all—even my noble friend Lord Lyell could benefit from it—was evident. He is very much 21st century man. We also look forward to hearing further from the noble Lord in future debates. There are genuinely exciting opportunities in the use of information technology in order to improve the delivery of education in our schools.
It is not possible to do justice to the enormous breadth of the subjects encompassed by today's debate. I plead with the Government to reconsider the wisdom of combining education, employment and all the subjects which are the concern of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I share the view of all noble Lords who have spoken today that it is unforgivable to make one of the shortest opening speeches—only 13 minutes—on the gracious Speech without any mention of agriculture, which is one of the headings of today's debate. I shall be happy to receive in writing from the noble Baroness after the debate all the answers to the questions and concerns that I shall raise on education in order that she can major on the answers to the questions raised on the countryside and agriculture.
My noble friend Lord Brabazon dealt most effectively with transport issues. My noble friend Lady Byford led an impressive list of speakers in a powerful speech on behalf of agriculture and the countryside. I add only two points. What a pity that the introduction of a Bill on the right to roam now 295 flies in the face of an incredibly effective voluntary relationship between the owners of land and those who want access to it. My noble friend Lord Peel is absolutely right. This legislation will drive a wedge between town and country people. The voluntary principle works and it should be allowed to develop.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell majored on environmental, planning and economic development issues in an effective way. My noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith, Lord Bowness, Lord Hanningfield and others referred to local government matters. I agree with all of them. On one point I am in strong agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Tope. We hope that when the Bill in question comes before the House it will give as much flexibility as possible to local authorities to determine their own structures and to be more concerned with outcomes. Change is a costly business and it must be managed. If there is to be change, will local authorities be paid by government to manage it? When the Bill reaches Parliament in its final draft, as a result of the sterling work of my noble friend Lord Bowness and his joint committee, I expect it to be word, dot and comma perfect.
Much has been made of the so-called £19 billion allocation of funds for education over three years. I say "so-called" because, as has been pointed out by those responsible for parliamentary statistics, there has been triple counting. When challenged on the issue on television, the Secretary of State, Mr Blunkett, claimed yesterday that he had made no secret of cumulative counting. I have trawled in vain through speeches, Hansard and press cuttings from the Department for Education and Employment for references to triple counting. The truth is that hardly a day goes by without a project being announced which is funded from that £19 billion. Each time that occurs, the core funding for schools is eroded.
The Secretary of State announced yesterday more allocation from the service development fund for beacon schools, special units for the behaviourally sub-normal, mentors and learning centres. No one argues that those are not important, but the allocation is coming from core funding for schools. Unprecedented sums which should be going into schools are being top-sliced and controlled from the Department for Education and Employment; and to that must be added the massive increase in costly bureaucracy which is pre-empting much-needed funds destined for our schools, colleges and universities.
I want to read one of many letters I have received; it is typical of what is now coming from schools. It is from the head of a grant maintained school. He says:I have to confess that I too was sadly deceived by the Government. The assurances were fulsomely and repeatedly given but, as you say, the situation is little short of disastrous. We are coping with a reduction of £170,000 per annum which has meant three temporary staff contracts not being renewed, cuts in capitation and building maintenance and so on. The desperately sad thing is that we see no tangible benefits from being back within the 'network' of the LEA with its 'services'. As in common with all good GM schools, we neither missed nor 296 needed the services. We certainly miss the 070.000 … I live in hope, but with no conviction, that the Government will eventually see sense".My own local authority, Cambridgeshire, put out a press release supported by the Labour, Liberal and Conservative leaders. It states:Education chiefs at Cambridgeshire County Council have reacted angrily to a new Government announcement which will mean less money than expected for schools next year.Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong has written to all local authorities with the shock news that the additional cost of government plans to introduce performance related pay for teachers will not be entirely funded with new money as expected.Instead it will come from cash previously thought to be available for improvements in the funding of Cambridgeshire schools … The whole of the education movement will be annoyed at this U-turn by the Government".A secondary head said:Once again we seem to be facing a twist in the way funding is allocated to councils, and hence to schools".A primary head said:This news is extremely disappointing and very demoralising … Primary headteachers and their hard-working, dedicated staff across Cambridgeshire will be bitterly disappointed to hear this news".The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, made references to Westminister City Council. We did some smart footwork after the noble Lord spoke. My authority, Buckinghamshire, Derbyshire and Darlington all receive between £200 and £300 less per pupil funding than North Yorkshire. But the rub is that, after two and a half years of this Government, Westminster receives between £500 and £800 more per pupil than North Yorkshire, Darlington, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire and Derbyshire. So whatever were the noble Lord's criticisms, the position has got worse in two and a half years.
We do not have the details as regards the consultation on the 16-plus issue. It is difficult to do anything other than pose questions. For example, how will the funding of post-16 education and training be provided? Will it recognise genuine variable costs of different post-16 courses? For example, we all know that engineering and engineering-related courses are costly. Given the proliferation of organisation at regional and local level—for example, the Rural Development Agency, small business services, franchises, local learning and skills councils and local learning partnerships, in addition to local authorities and many other commercial and industrial bodies, does the Minister accept that duplication and costly bureaucracy will displace focus and will siphon off again much needed resources from education and training providers? To what extent will the national learning and skills council replicate the work of the FEFC—the Further Education Funding Council? For example, will the staff simply transfer with a wider remit? Will there be sufficient flexibility for large organisations to contract with the national learning and skills council, and for other employers to contract with providers having the choice to contract either nationally or locally directly rather than through third parties?
297 Approved private training providers are concerned that they should he funded on the same basis as the public sector and not through FE colleges, since they are, after all, competitors. There is considerable concern also about the number of local learning partnerships and the demise of the training and enterprise councils. What is the rationale for that? What is the future of our school sixth forms? What will be the criteria for funding them and what account will be taken of the desire of a school, its staff, its pupils and its parents who wish to keep the sixth form? What power does the adjudicator have in relation to those matters?
Only one contributor today has referred to universities in any detail. I am fascinated by something that the Chancellor, Mr Brown, is reported to have said: that almost all young people will be expected to go to university by the year 2010. That is a fairly absurd statistic. What is the latest target for places in universities, and again, how will those extra places be funded? Where is the response to the Dearing report, and what is the Government's response to the Betts report on universities?
I turn now to the important subject of special educational needs. We have no details as yet. I can tell the Government that we will give wholehearted support to any strengthening of early intervention, which is critical. Early intervention will go a long way towards providing a long-term solution to some of the points rained by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. However, there has been a disturbing increase in the numbers of unstatemented children identified as having special educational needs. Do the Government have a view on that issue and do they have any plans to break down the data in that area into the way that boys, as distinct from girls, are affected?
I support the concerns and the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the education and training of disaffected young people. I know that the noble Lord has considerable knowledge in this area. I have seen the holiday schemes run by Toynbee Hall and I must say that they are impressive and most effective.
I turn now to the thorny question of Clause 28. It will come as no surprise to the Government that we shall oppose the repeal of this clause. The promotion and proselytising of homosexuality as an acceptable or desirable lifestyle—which is what Clause 28 was installed to prevent—is different from dealing with those sensitive issues in the curriculum.
What is the Government's view about the news which broke today that children as young as 14 are being encouraged to act out homosexual scenes in the classroom? A game called "Spot the Heterosexual" and role-playing such as pretending to be a married man who has sex with another man in secret are included in the educational pack for teenagers. It has been put together by part of the National Health Service, and, because it purports to be educational, it is not governed by Section 28 of the Local Government Act which prohibits education 298 authorities from openly promoting homosexuality. The people who produced the pack say that it is well within government guidelines on sex education. I should be interested to know from the Minister whether that is the case.
No one can take issue with the constant drive by the Government for higher standards in education. However, the Government's efforts are more than countered by their attack on grammar schools; an attack on selection of children with an aptitude for all subjects except for academic ability; the threat to reduce fees to support the college tutorial systems at Oxford and Cambridge; the abolition of grant maintained schools and consequent loss of autonomy; and the refusal to honour promises to young people who were offered a place on the assisted places scheme all through primary and secondary schools. All the evidence shows that, 'where education meets the needs of all children from those with special educational needs to those with exceptional academic ability, all children benefit. You do not improve the rest by weakening the best.
The amendment to the gracious Speech proposed by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on Thursday last states that the Opposition,regret the failure of Her Majesty's Government to reduce the burden of taxation and regulation and deplore the incoherence and the lack of vision of the measures proposed by Your Majesty's Government for the coming Session of Parliament".—[Official Report, 18/11/99; col. 38.]That applies as much to today's debate as it does to all our other debates on the gracious Speech. The level of taxation has been commented on by the OECD and the House of Commons Library statisticians as having grown faster here than in our neighbouring European countries. There is a lack of coherence in education and employment policy and a serious lack of vision in tackling the problems of agriculture and rural Britain.
The attack on hunting and the right to roam, like House of Lords reform, has little to do with foxes, care of the countryside or strong independent second Chambers but has more to do with class warfare and the politics of envy.
The Greater London Bill was the worst example ever of poor drafting, both in terms of quality and quantity. I know that noble Lords will not wish to see a repeat of such drafting in respect of any Bill in the new programme. There is no doubt that the programme announced in the gracious Speech will keep us burning late-night oil well into the summer and maybe even the autumn of next year. There is a great deal of legislation before us, some of it contentious. I fully expect this House to be robust and vigilant in defending its right to scrutinise and revise each Bill in detail without fear or favour of the other place. I thank most warmly in advance my noble friends and colleagues on these Benches for their support and involvement in that important work.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)
My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall on her excellent maiden speech. She demonstrated that her village primary school has not only given her the exposure to the arts which she enjoyed so much at the time but also a gift to speak which has continued throughout her life, and earlier this afternoon we saw a manifestation of that.
I wish to congratulate also the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, on what was again an excellent maiden speech. He is a great expert on information technology and in particular on its application to education. My department has benefited greatly from the advice which he has been able to provide and I hope that we shall continue to benefit from it.
At the beginning of the debate, my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston outlined the DETR's legislative programme and the thinking which underpins it. The transport Bill will help to bring about the modernisation of public transport, improve the road network and bring greater choice for all.
Our local government Bill will lay the foundations for more responsive, ethical, accountable and innovative local government. Our manifesto commitment to give people greater access to the countryside and improve protection for wildlife will be fulfilled through the countryside Bill. Those measures will help to improve the quality of life for people in this country.
In my response, I wish to concentrate mainly on education and in particular my department's two Bills. However, I shall try to respond to the major points raised in the debate on both DETR and agricultural policies. Some of the issues raised perhaps belong to the debate on the following two days and I am sure that my noble friends on the Front Bench will try to pick up some of those points.
I need about three hours to do justice to the range of issues that have been raised by your Lordships this evening. I do not always agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but on this occasion I agree with her that it is almost impossible to have a meaningful debate on the wide range of issues covered in the debate today.
I shall try to do justice to the points raised on agriculture. I shall not pick up all the questions that the noble Baroness put to me, although I must pick up some points made on education as my noble friend was not able to say a great deal on that subject in his opening speech.
The Learning and Skills Bill will contain proposals to promote learning among people over the age of 16. It will take forward the ideas in our White Paper, Learning to Succeed. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate, to my noble friend Lord Sawyer and to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, all of whom broadly supported the changes that we are making.
300 The Bill will set in place a new body, the Learning and Skills Council, which will plan and fund all post-16 education and training in England. The new council will work with the schools sector to ensure that we have coherent provision across education for all 16 to 19 year-olds. It will assume responsibility for funding colleges, work-based training for young people and workforce development. It will also develop adult and community education by working with local authorities and provide information and guidance to adults.
Perhaps I can assure noble Lords who raised the question of the role of local authorities in the new system. I believe that the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Hanningfield, both raised that matter, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Local authorities will be important partners in the new arrangements. They are uniquely placed to provide vision and leadership in local communities. For the first time they will have influence over all post-16 education and training, not just adult and community funding. They will certainly have a central role in the local learning partnerships.
The national Learning and Skills Council will work through 47 business-led local arms, which will replace more than 70 training and enterprise councils (TECs). It will also work with the RDAs. I believe that that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. The Bill will ensure that there is a direct link between the RDAs and the national Learning and Skills Council and its local arms.
At this point I want to express my gratitude to the TECs and the TEC National Council and also to the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) and its regional committees. They will be abolished, which I thought perhaps was not entirely clear having regard to what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. Their continuing efforts will help us to create a smooth transition towards our new goals.
The Bill will clarify the powers of the Secretary of State and the LSC to intervene in colleges to ensure high standards—that must be part of the vision to which my noble friend Lord Sawyer referred—and it will root out mismanagement.
It will also set in place new independent inspection arrangements. The legislation will integrate inspection processes for young people learning in schools and colleges up to the age of 19. That will be achieved by making the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) responsible for the inspection of all provision. In addition, it will create a new Adult and Learning Inspectorate (ALI) to work with OFSTED within a common inspection framework.
Those measures are vital to the modern provision for learning. Our changes will not produce more duplication but will stop duplication as well as put in place a rigorous inspection regime to drive up standards. I hope that the Learning and Skills Council will help to make lifelong learning a reality and create a more rational system of funding for both colleges and private training providers—and for employers. Our proposals will encourage business to 301 become involved in setting the agenda. Industry will work through national and local LSCs on a range of issues, particularly on-the-job training. They have an unprecedented opportunity to drive the change process.
Too many young people struggle to make career choices amid the turmoil of growing up. Too many fall through the net and miss out on the opportunities that lead to successful and fulfilled lives. We shall put in place a new service offering a comprehensive structure for advice and support for all young people from the age of 13. Drawing on the recommendations of the Social Exclusion Unit's report, Bridging the Gap, the new service will help them to make choices and will promote, social inclusion. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his welcome of the Government "s proposals in this area. I agree with him that a lot of good work is being done by both voluntary and local authority youth services. I shall certainly look into the point he made in relation to the impact of mentors on youth workers. The answer-therefore to his questions is "yes" in both cases.
According to recent statistics, 170,000 young people were not in education, training or employment. This Government are committed to dealing with that terrible waste of potential through the formation of the new support service.
I was a little sorry that no one in the course of this debate, until we reached the Opposition spokesman on education, mentioned the special educational needs Bill. It is an important new piece of legislation to help to support the raising of standards of achievement of all children with special educational needs. It also reinforces our commitment to fairness of educational opportunity for those children.
The Bill will place a duty on LEAs to offer a parent partnership service. The service would include providing parents of children identified as having special educational needs with access to an independent parental supporter for help and advice. I shall leave further discussion of that Bill to its introduction, whenever that takes place.
I shall not say much today about universities in response to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, other than that the Learning and Skills Bill will give the Learning and Skills Council powers to co-operate with the Higher Education Funding Council, similar to the powers of the FEFC. The local learning and skills councils will work closely with HE institutions in their areas and listen to their advice.
I am grateful for the comments made in relation to higher education and enterprise and the changes the Government introduced in that area. But in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, I can say that the Government have already provided a comprehensive response to Dearing. The response was published well over a year ago and I am happy to make it available to both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. However, we will be debating universities in this House again quite soon.
302 The noble Baroness raised a number of questions in relation to educational funding in general. Perhaps I may respond briefly rather than replying in great detail to all her points. There will be an increase of at least 5 per cent per year in cash terms for school budgets in each year of the CSR. The £19 billion is a three-year programme. We are still announcing the third year of that programme which does not begin until next April.
I turn now to some of the other points raised on education. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, suggested that the reductions we are making in class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds are at the expense of other age groups. That is not the case. Between January 1998 and January 1999, the overall pupil: teacher ratio improved. That was the first improvement for 10 years.
I pick up a couple of points made about ICT which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, and my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. The importance of the Internet is enormous. The role of the BBC and other broadcasting bodies is huge. We now have a £1 billion programme linking all our schools to the Internet. In the past year alone, there has been a fourfold increase in connections with primary schools. Ninety per cent of secondary schools and two-thirds of primary schools are now connected. We shall certainly see a further transformation of our classrooms as a result of these very significant changes.
I very much agree with the point made about ageism. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, is getting to grips with the Internet as well as with his 45 year-old book on German grammar. Perhaps I may borrow the book from him and brush up on my German grammar which is extremely rusty.
We are also making important changes as regards literacy and numeracy, which were raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. It is right that the area with which she is concerned—the arts—should not be neglected. I am sure that she will be the first to agree that if we are to have primary Shakespeare that really works, it is extremely important that young people are literate and learn to read early.
I now turn to questions of transport and spending. Under the plans of the previous administration, we would now be spending nearly £1 billion less on transport each year than we are doing at present. In contrast, our plans over the next three years will provide an extra £1.8 billion, excluding rail franchises and London Transport. That is a very significant increase.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and, I believe, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised questions as to whether money raised from road user charging would be additional funding. My noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall also mentioned hypothecation in that respect. The Bill guarantees that local authorities beginning a charging scheme in the next 10 years will keep all that money for spending on transport for at least 10 years from the start of the scheme.
303 As regards road user charging, we inherited high and growing levels of traffic congestion. Statistics show that unless something is done, car traffic will grow by more than one-third over the next 20 years. Congestion costs the United Kingdom billions of pounds every year; frustrates motorists; and harms the environment, health and quality of life. So, doing nothing is really not an option. That is the most anti-motorist policy that we could possibly pursue.
The Bill guarantees, as I said, that any local authorities starting a charging scheme will be able to keep the money available. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, suggested that there was no point in such schemes until we have better public transport. Surely we need to do both at the same time. It is very hard to attract people back on to buses, which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, was particularly concerned about, unless we can create space on the roads.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked two questions. He asked about pensioners travelling on half fare. We shall be introducing that as soon as possible, subject to the progress of the Bill. We shall also be considering the rural bus grant in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, asked a number of other questions. I wonder whether he would mind if I wrote to him in response. I have all the answers before me, but I will not have time to say anything about local government or agriculture if I go through them. However, on the point about bypasses, I can tell the noble Lord that 19 of the 37 schemes in the roads review were bypasses, and that is more than the last government built in the previous five years. The noble Lord raised a number of questions on the National Air Traffic Services and our plans for PPP in this area. Again, I could go through all the points now, but I think it would be better for me to write to the noble Lord.
I should like to say a few brief words about modernising local government. The modernisation of local government is very central to our plans to modernise Britain. Our framework for its reform stretches for 10 years or more and will open the way for councils to meet the challenges and needs of the 21st century. We took the first steps with the Local Government Act 1999 in the last Session, replacing inflexible and outdated schemes on compulsory competitive tendering with a new duty of best value. The Government are committed to local government which is open, accountable and secures the delivery of efficient, high quality local services.
A number of questions were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Bowness and Lord Dixon-Smith, about the joint committee of MPs and Peers providing pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. The Government were very grateful to Members of both Houses who took part in the proceedings of the joint committee. We have reflected on the opinions that were expressed and have refined proposals in the draft Bill in order to bring them forward as part of this Session's 304 legislation. We intend to publish a government response to the joint committee's report, which should be available to read alongside the Bill. On the question of secondary legislation, I can tell noble Lords that we intend to make drafts and guidance available wherever possible during the Bill's passage.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, asked about local government structural reform and innovation. Councils will ask local people how they want to be governed; indeed, I believe that that issue concerned a number of speakers in the debate. Councils will also have to consult with local people in the new structures and all councils will be expected to move to whatever new ways of working meet the needs of their communities today.
Again, I would be grateful if I could respond in writing to a number of the other issues that were raised on local government. Perhaps I may also write to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who made some interesting points about energy efficiency, about the climate change levy and about the implications for CHP and renewables. Similarly, I hope that I may write to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, regarding her points on housing and homelessness. Of course, a number of these issues will be picked up in the Green Paper that will be published later.
I turn now to the countryside and the Bill that we will be bringing forward. Again, I shall have to be very brief. Various views were expressed about what the Government propose to do in this area. However, I was a little surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, felt that there was a serious conflict between what is being proposed on access and on the preservation of wildlife. The Government's view is that making the countryside more accessible should help to foster a greater sense of concern and understanding of its well-being. There is not uncontrolled and unfettered access. The new right of access will be limited in scope. There will be clear restrictions to prevent damaging activities. I of course acknowledge the concerns on this but perhaps that reassurance will be helpful.
I turn to agriculture. I feel rather as if I am in the firing line here. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, said that I do not look "agricultural". He should see me in the country at the weekend sometimes! My parents used to rear pigs and therefore I have a little experience of small-scale pig farming.
A number of speakers questioned the fact that agriculture is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Of course the Queen's Speech deals with the legislative programme. There is no major agriculture Bill in that programme this year. However—
§ Baroness Blackstone
My Lords, if the noble Earl will hang on a minute I shall try to say a little about the Government's commitment to agriculture. The Government recognise that agriculture is going through a difficult time at present. This is due to a number of factors such as the strength of the pound; the collapse of export markets in Asia and Russia; perhaps the expansion of supply, particularly in the case of pigs, in the profitable years of the mid-1990s; and a worldwide cyclical fall in agricultural commodity prices. Successive Ministers of Agriculture, my right honourable friends, have succeeded in injecting new funds, particularly to help the hard pressed ruminant livestock sectors and to improve agricultural marketing.
The Government do not for a moment fail to recognise the problems in agriculture and will continue to work with the industry to try to find a way through what is a difficult situation. I assure noble Lords that we take the current difficulties in agriculture extremely seriously. The new approach to agriculture which we are developing depends on reforming the common agricultural policy. The UK has pressed hard for a more economically rational CAP that brings prices nearer to world levels so that our farmers can competitive in world markets free from World Trade Organisation restraints.
The reforms agreed under Agenda 2000 are an important step in that direction. The way in which we implement the options available in Agenda 2000 will have an important influence on the future direction of agriculture in this country. That is why we have consulted on where this Government see the priorities. As many of your Lordships have indicated, the rural development legislation is an important aspect. It provides a framework to integrate environmental aspects into a competitive agriculture through agri-environment schemes such as organic farming, through diversification and through support in less favoured areas. That forms a significant part of our recent consultation. A significant aid package has been announced. The industry is being relieved of £90 million in charges, and aid to hill farmers is £60 million higher than planned. That is a substantial improvement.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned many figures. I shall certainly write to him on the matter. I am sure that there is much truth in them. They were confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. I shall make sure that my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture sees Hansard tomorrow and that he is made aware of the very many concerns raised in the debate.
A number of other specific questions were asked as regards agriculture. Unfortunately, I do not have time now to deal with them. I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, about some of the 306 issues that he raised on beef; and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Miller, with regard to the questions that they raised.
As to GM crops, the Government are not running scared on the issues raised here. The trials will continue; we shall not be swayed by the rather overheated debate that takes place on both sides of the argument. We shall certainly work closely with GM producers to ensure scientific advance and food safety. We recognise also the long-term issues surrounding biodiversity.
Unfortunately, I have run out of time. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath. He said it all in the comments that he made about the amendment moved by the Opposition. I do not wish to say any more than he did.
We have had a good, if a very broad and rather lengthy, debate. I should like to end by thanking all Members of your Lordships' House who have contributed to it.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, may I, on behalf of these Benches, thank her for attempting to cover agriculture matters at the end of her reply. The only problem we have is that her reply took 30 minutes and she spent only seven minutes dealing with agriculture. As she quite rightly said, she could not spend longer on it. However, that highlights what the farming community feels: that the Government do not understand. The Minister said that she was surprised by the reaction of my two noble colleagues to the question of diversity and access to the countryside and the view that it will cause a problem. That is one of the real issues. The farming community feels that the Government do not understand.
I hope that the Minister will forgive me for raising that matter. I thank her that tomorrow she will refer our comments in the debate to Nick Brown. We are very grateful.
§ Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow. —(Lord Bach.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.