HL Deb 11 December 2000 vol 620 cc103-19

3.5 p.m.

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

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

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

My Lords, I would like to begin by saying how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Morgan. Perhaps I may comment also that I believe that this may be a parliamentary first. In my experience, it is certainly the first occasion on which all six Front Bench speakers in a debate of this kind are women. So we are certainly making progress.

In opening this debate, I want to reflect on what this Government have achieved in their drive to raise standards, promote diversity and widen access in education. I shall also outline my department's legislative proposals; the content of the Bills coming forward from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; and the priorities for agricultural policy—which my noble friend will discuss at greater length when she winds up.

Our education system should enable all young people to reach their full potential regardless of where they happen to live. Since coming to power we have introduced a range of radical reforms to transform our education system into one that is fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In our primary schools we have concentrated on "getting the basics right": every child should be taught to read, write and add up well. We set ourselves challenging targets for literacy and numeracy. This year's results show that we are well on the way to meeting them. The percentage of children reaching level 4 or above in English has risen since 1998 by 10 percentage points from 65 to 75 per cent; and in maths, the percentage of children achieving level 4 is up 13 percentage points from 59 to 72 per cent.

We have made it our priority to reduce class sizes in the crucial early years when children must master the basics. Almost half a million infants were in large classes when we came to power. This has been reduced to as few as 30,000—exceeding the target of 50,000 by September 2000. We have backed up our policies in primary schools with an unprecedented increase in funding. Funding has risen in real terms by £410 a pupil since the election.

In our secondary schools we are setting new targets for 14 year-olds, supporting a real improvement drive in urban schools through Excellence in Cities and backing diversity with more specialist schools. Evidence from the recent performance tables shows that investment backed by targets is beginning to pay off. We are seeing higher than average improvement in specialist schools and Excellence in Cities as part of further GCSE improvements overall. Funding for our secondary schools has risen sharply under this Government by £360 per pupil in real terms since 1997. But the secondary sector has had to recover from cuts of £230 per pupil in the last three Budgets of the previous administration.

This Government recognise the importance of rural schools to rural communities. We have reduced the rate of closure of rural schools from some 30 a year in the previous

Rural schools are benefiting, as all schools are, from our drive to raise standards. But we are aware that small schools face special problems. An extra £60 million is being made available this year under the administrative support fund for small schools to reduce the burden of basic administration for teachers and heads in small schools, and an additional £20 million is available under the small schools' support fund to encourage small schools to pilot innovative ways of working collaboratively with others to overcome difficulties due to small size. These grants will be combined from next year, sustaining support for our smaller schools.

Higher standards in our schools can be delivered only if we invest in our teachers. Training salaries are delivering the first increase in recruitment for eight years and a threefold increase in senior teachers applying to be heads. There were over 400,000 teachers in post in January 2000, more than at any other time over the past 10 years.

Ensuring that all our young people receive a high quality education means that we have been firm on failure. As a result of our decision to introduce a two-year deadline for failing schools and the continued pressure of Ofsted inspections, we have seen the time that it takes to turn around failing schools fall from 25 months on average to 18 months. Over 600 failing schools have been successfully turned around since 1997. A further 122 failing schools have been closed and councils have put a further 25 through a fresh start.

We are also taking action to raise standards in the further education sector. The FE Standards Fund, introduced in April 1999, now totals £301 million over three years—£35 million in 1999–00, £98 million in 2000–01 and £168 million in 2001–02.

In our higher education institutions we have seen an overall increase of 6,000 full-time students being accepted for entry. The total number of students in HE has risen in each of the two years since we introduced tuition fees and our other student support reforms in 1998. There will be at least £425 million extra for higher education in 2001–02 compared with the previous year—a 5.3 per cent increase in real terms. The spending review settlement will allow progress towards our aim that by the end of the decade, 50 per cent of young people will have the opportunity to benefit from higher education by the time that they are 30.

Past low standards are reflected in the fact that as many as 7 million adults cannot read or write as well as an average 11-year old. We have set a target of reducing the number of adults who have literacy and numeracy problems by 750,000 by 2004. The number of adults participating in adult basic skills provision this year has gone up from around 250,000 to a little under 400,000.

Promoting diversity is central to our education agenda. We are gradually overcoming the historical low expectations of children with special educational needs and disabilities and confirming their right to attend mainstream schools where their parents want that and where it is appropriate.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, announced in the gracious Speech, will improve standards of education for children with special educational needs and introduce new rights for disabled people right across education.

Part I of the Bill takes forward the undertaking to legislate in the documents, Meeting Special Educational Needs: A Programme of Action in England and Shaping the Future for Special Educational Needs for Wales. Part II of the Bill addresses the education recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force that were made in its report in December 1999.

The provisions in the Bill will improve the existing framework for special educational needs in order to raise the achievement of all children with SEN. The Bill will strengthen the right of children with statements of SEN to be educated in mainstream schools where that is what parents want and where the interests of other children can be protected. It will support parents by requiring local education authorities to make arrangements for providing parents with advice and information and for setting up a means of resolving parents' disputes with schools or with LEAs. And it will make other changes to arrangements for identifying children with special educational needs and the SEN appeals process in order to help and support parents of such children.

The Bill will also give new rights for disabled people in education. It will lift the education exemption from Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act and place new duties on schools, further and higher education institutions and LEAs in relation to adult education and the youth service. In Scotland, it will also cover community education secured by local authorities. Providers of education will be required not to treat disabled pupils and students less favourably, without justification, than those who are not disabled. They will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments where disabled pupils and students are placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled.

There will be an additional duty on LEAs and schools in England and Wales to plan strategically to increase physical access to school premises and the curriculum. The DRC will produce codes of practice to illustrate the new duties and rights.

On Friday my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment also announced in another place a rise in the SEN standards fund from £55 million this year to £82 million next year to provide information and advice services for parents, improved training for staff and support for children unable to attend school due to illness or injury and those in public care.

The new arrangements, taken together with our other initiatives for improving the SEN framework and creating comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people, are a significant step forward for pupils, students and adult learners alike.

I turn now from the business of my own department to the measures that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions proposes in the housing Bill. It will be the first housing Bill in this Parliament. It fulfils commitments that we made in our manifesto to tackle gazumping and to strengthen the protection available to people who are unintentionally homeless.

The Bill's proposals form part of a wider package of complementary reforms to help the 1.5 million individuals and families who buy and sell their homes each year. Those reforms will introduce a modern and more streamlined system for buying and selling homes. It will be easier, faster, fairer, more transparent and consumer friendly, with earlier certainty.

The proposals have been developed following detailed research and widespread consultation, as well as studies of experience in other countries. The Bill will provide for a pack of standard information to be put together by the seller or their agent. This pack will give prospective buyers vital information about the state and condition of the property that they want to buy. Alongside that, we shall introduce measures that do not require legislation.

Mortgage lenders and local authorities are being called upon to adopt service targets that will ensure that buyers and sellers receive a fast and efficient service. All the professions involved in the home buying and selling process are being encouraged to take full advantage of advances in information technology to speed up the process.

The proposals on homelessness in the Bill are central to our aim to offer everyone the opportunity of a decent home and so to promote social cohesion, well being and self dependence. Homelessness has fallen since 1996, but we are far from complacent. The Government are determined to strengthen the protection available to people who are homeless through no fault of their own and who are in priority need.

The previous government removed the duty on local authorities to find permanent housing for homeless families. The Bill will ensure that everyone accepted as being unintentionally homeless and in priority need will be provided with suitable accommodation until they achieve a settled housing solution.

Our proposals will require authorities to take a more strategic, multi-agency approach to tackling the causes of homelessness and the rehousing of homeless families. They will give homeless people and others in housing need more choice.

We remain committed to providing for the introduction of commonhold and for the substantial reform of residential leasehold. As the gracious Speech made clear, we expect to make further progress on that during the current session.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and ministerial colleagues from the DETR published a Bill in draft, together with an accompanying consultation paper, in August. A great many responses were received; more than 1,000 on the leasehold proposals alone. A number of these made valuable technical suggestions or pointed to issues which might need further consideration. We are considering carefully what changes to the Bill might be appropriate so that, as soon as the opportunity arises, improved proposals can be put before Parliament.

We are more than doubling the level of capital investment in housing which we inherited in 1997. By 2002–04, annual investment will have risen to £4 billion. That will help us to bring all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010 and improve the supply of new affordable homes. We have allocated £250 million over the next three years to help key workers buy homes in our major towns and cities.

The Government have significantly increased regeneration spending in deprived areas, boosted the role of the regional development agencies and announced a £1 billion tax incentive package to make our towns and cities better places in which to live and work.

We have also announced a package of measures to tackle the real issues which matter to people in the countryside, backed up by a £1 billion programme to improve rural services. We have announced that by 2003–04 there will be an extra £33 billion a year—£139 billion a year in total—for key services; education, health, transport, housing and criminal justice. More money is going to programmes which will help vulnerable households to be more energy efficient, save money and live in warmer homes. We have introduced a new home energy efficiency scheme in England which will benefit 460,000 vulnerable pensioner and family households in the first two years. There are similar schemes in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. That will broaden the kind of help which can be given, including providing brand new central heating systems. We have developed an affordable warmth programme, in conjunction with Transco, to make possible the installation of efficient gas central heating systems and insulation in a million homes.

In recent weeks, we have seen millions of pounds-worth of damage caused to people's homes by the worst flooding in this country since the 17th century. A number of steps have already been announced to help people and local authorities to cope; for instance, improvements to the Bellwin scheme. We have provided an additional £51 million over four years for flood defence work in England and we are enhancing research into predicting and assessing the effects of climate change.

I want to comment on the safety Bill which will be drafted during this Session. Safety is a high priority for this Government and the Bill will take into account the recommendations of Lord Cullen. It will strengthen safety laws both in transport and in the workplace.

Every year about 400 people lose their lives in work-related accidents; more than 1 million people suffer some form of injury at work; and about 2 million people suffer ill health caused by work. No society can completely eliminate injury and ill health caused by work but we can do better. We are already doing better than, say, 30 years ago but we can and must do better still.

The Bill will also cover the full range of transport safety. It will provide for safer travel on the railways, in the air, at sea and on the roads. We are all too aware of incidents on the railways; for instance, the serious accidents at Ladbroke Grove and, more recently, Hatfield. We cannot forget the "Marchioness" disaster on the Thames and there has been recent publicity about alcohol use by aircrew.

The safety Bill will provide an opportunity to implement recommendations which come from Lord Cullen's wide-ranging review of rail safety and from Lord Justice Clarke's review of safety on the River Thames. It will also tackle alcohol and drug use by staff working on airlines and ships and it will set a framework for delivery of our commitments on road safety and meeting our targets in that area. For the first time in 25 years, we will bring forward a wide-ranging Bill to make Britain a safer place in which to travel and work.

I would now like to turn to agriculture. We all recognise the difficult issues which some sections of the farming community face. Farm incomes remain severely depressed; they are at their lowest level in 30 years. The Government are working hard with the industry and its customers in the food and retailing sectors to deliver a long-term strategy for modernisation. There is wide recognition that simple maintenance of the status quo is not the way forward. We need change at a European and national level and our agricultural strategy sets out how to deliver that change.

The strategy has involved two key initiatives; the rural development programmes and the action plan for farming. The England Rural Development Programme is the first major step towards the radical reshaping of support for rural areas to reflect the public benefits which agriculture provides and to encourage new and sustainable rural businesses and thriving communities. This seven-year programme includes substantial extra expenditure on agri-environment and farm woodlands schemes, refocused support for hill farming and several new schemes designed to encourage enterprise and employment in the countryside.

We opened the new schemes for applications in October and are pleased by the level of interest already being shown. We are making plans to maintain the impetus so that we can ensure the delivery of the environmental and economic benefits which the programme envisages.

The second initiative, the Action Plan for Farming, is also fundamental to our agriculture strategy. The plan was launched by the Prime Minister at the Farming Summit in March. It was backed by £200 million at the time, with a further £300 million secured through the spending review settlement to push the plan forward over the next three years.

The action plan concentrates on several key areas, which are: targeted financial support to help farm businesses restructure and improve profitability; measures to promote farm-based rural development and help with farm diversification; a concerted effort across government to reduce the burden of regulation on farming; and new initiatives to join up the food chain with increased levels of communication and cooperation between farmers and growers, processors, manufacturers and retailers.

We will also continue to take advantage of opportunities to secure reforms leading to a more economically rational common agricultural policy and with it a better deal for consumers, taxpayers and the environment. Change will not be easy to secure. A majority of member states are broadly happy with the CAP in its present form but there is increasing recognition that external pressures may force change. We will continue to build on the Agenda 2000 reform package and exploit opportunities to press for change. We have worked hard to develop strategic alliances with other reform-minded member states. Our wider policy of constructive engagement in Europe is making this process easier and ensuring that our voice is heard and not discounted, as I am sure it was under the previous Government.

BSE-related issues will continue to engage much of the Ministry's energies. Although the epidemic in the UK continues to decline in line with predictions, the measures in place are kept under constant review. In addition, in the face of a sharp increase in reported cases in other member states, the Government are continuing to play a full part in the discussions with the Commission, our European partners and other key stakeholders on Community-wide measures to control the disease throughout the EU. That was illustrated by our constructive engagement in the 4th December Agriculture Council.

I also want to mention the report of the BSE inquiry. The Government are now carefully studying all of the inquiry team's findings. Our response to the report will be published in the coming months and Ministers will update the House on progress before the end of the year. Through a package of targeted policy initiatives, this Government remain committed to responding positively to the many challenges facing the farming industry.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to building a modern, inclusive and competitive society. The programme which I have outlined today supports that aim.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the debate today covers education, the environment and agriculture. It will not be possible for me to address all subjects in the time available. Therefore, I shall leave it to my noble friend Lady Byford, who brings great knowledge to our debates, to deal with the concerns of the countryside and agriculture in particular. The only comment I add at this stage is that there is a conspicuous absence of specific countryside issues from the gracious Speech other than the inclusion of the Hunting Bill, which tells us a lot about the priorities of this Government in terms of parliamentary time and their disdain for a particular minority interest which happens not to suit their own prejudices. Is it true that this Bill is to be rushed through the other place by Christmas? If so, what is the urgency? Can the Minister give an assurance when she replies to this debate that the Parliament Act will not be invoked in the case of the Hunting Bill—which ostensibly is subject to a free vote in both Houses—and certainly not before the Bill has completed its democratic process through Parliament?

Whether or not we are responding to a pre-election gracious Speech, one thing is clear: this Session is unusual in terms of the number of Bills and for what has or has not been included. Can it be, for example, that the sections of the Utilities Bill 1998 dealing with the water industry, which in an atmosphere of absolute chaos were abandoned, or the promised Bill on adoption, or even the long-awaited capital allowances Bill, have been set aside to allow time for the anti-hunting and anti-tobacco advertising Bills? We shall await the outcome of the inquiry into safety on our railways and any legislation that may flow from it.

However, it is interesting to note that the gracious Speech refers only to "progress" being made on leasehold and commonhold reform. What exactly does this mean? Where is the promised Bill? I have here press releases all relating to comments by Nick Raynsford dating back to 1995. In November 1995, Mr Raynsford, who was then a shadow spokesman for the Labour Party, said: The Labour Party endorsed … An End to Feudalism, our programme for leasehold reform launched two weeks ago. We stressed the need for measures to simplify the procedures whereby leaseholders can buy the freehold of their homes … We also proposed a 'right to manage' so that leaseholders have effective sanction against corrupt or inefficient managing agents … The Government promised to help leaseholders but its legislation has proved toothless and ineffective … In doing so it has betrayed leaseholders and it clearly now has no appetite to tackle the problems". In January 1996, Nick Raynsford went on to say that the case for urgent action was overwhelming and the law must be changed. Later that month it was reported that Nick Raynsford had written to the then Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, John Gummer, urging him to take action following revelations in the Evening Standard. He offered his party's full co-operation to bring in quickly, a short, single purpose Bill to safeguard leaseholders from the threat of eviction". On 2nd February 1996, it was reported that a request for immediate action had been made by Mr Nick Raynsford, Labour's housing spokesman, who offered the support of the opposition to a Bill. Again, on 6th December 1996, Mr Raynsford said that, Labour has consistently urged the Government to introduce commonhold legislation and has confirmed that it will not oppose a commonhold Bill … Labour in government will have no hesitation in introducing a comprehensive leasehold reform package, including commonhold legislation". The first Commonhold Bill was published in 1996 by the previous government, with support from the present Minister, Nick Raynsford. Here we are four years on. We had a manifesto commitment in 1997, a consultation paper in 1998, a draft Bill in 1999—and still no Bill. This is a case of all spin and no delivery, and yet parliamentary time can be found for hunting.

The Bill to ease the process of buying and selling homes and to improve the protection given to homeless people will, if the pilot schemes are anything to go by, give rise to lively debate among your Lordships. Despite reports about satisfaction levels quoted by Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, there are many questions as yet unanswered. It is not at all clear just how a "seller's package" will eliminate the need for checks by the purchaser. There is evidence that the level of trust in such packages is insufficient to satisfy the purchaser, who in many cases will seek a further survey, thereby duplicating costs.

Trevor Kent of the National Association of Estate Agents has gone so far as to describe the whole idea of a seller's package as a "farce". It is also the case that the seller's pack will cost anything from £500 to £700. That money is to be spent upfront by the seller. In what way will any of this address the central issue of gazumping? Since 1997, home ownership has become less easy for would-be first time purchasers by the scrapping of MIRAS and the reduction in right-to-buy discounts for council tenants and support for shared ownership schemes.

As for helping the homeless, one is reminded of the words of the Prime Minister in March 1996 when he told a Labour housing conference: Labour will do everything in its power to end the scandal of homelessness [and] the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation". However, since the Government came into office in 1997 there are 13 per cent more priority homeless people and the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has risen by 51 per cent. The report on poverty by the Rowntree Foundation, highlighted in today's press, reveals that more families live in poor households under the present Labour Government than under the previous Conservative government.

There are a number of Bills listed in the current programme that will place additional burdens on local government. I hope that the Minister is able to give assurances that any increase in responsibilities will be matched by increased funding. There is also concern within local government that funding is handed down by central government with conditions as to how it must be spent.

It was brought to my notice just a week ago that in presenting a policy committee report to full council, the leader of one county council said: I have pleasure in presenting the report of the inappropriately named Policy Committee. These are not our preferred policies; these are not our preferred budgets; and these are not our preferred priorities. The Committee should be renamed 'the Government Policy Implementation Committee'". Although he was ruled out of order by the chairman of the council, a pertinent point had been made.

Like the Special Educational Consortium, we welcome the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, although during its passage through this House we shall wish to explore each proposal in considerable detail. I was able to secure a copy of the Bill only today, which puts me at a slight disadvantage. I was the Minister in this House responsible for taking through the Education Act 1993, Part III of which dealt with special educational needs. In that Bill procedures were put in place to improve the identification of young people with special needs at an early stage and to make proper educational provision, with a presumption in favour of parents' wishes as long as the provision was consistent with the educational needs of those children. A special needs tribunal was also established to hear the grievances of parents who were not satisfied that their child was receiving education appropriate to his or her needs.

One of my concerns is the aggressive policy intention of the Government towards the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools. Where it is appropriate, and consistent with the wishes of parents, mainstream schools will be the obvious choice. However, for many children it will not be the right decision and will cause much distress to children and parents alike. I recommend compulsory reading of the article in yesterday's edition of the Sunday Times by Melanie Phillips in which she says that, Classroom 'inclusion' is a shibboleth for many educationalists, for whom separate schooling of any kind is an ideological anathema". Is the right of parents to state a preference for special or mainstream education for their children, if it is consistent with meeting the educational needs of those children, to be retained in the Bill? We shall also require assurances from the Minister that the system of statementing will not be diluted and will be exclusively concerned with the educational needs of the child. There may be scope to improve the efficiency of the system. But that should not interfere with the formal identification of learning disabilities and the educational provision required to meet the children's needs.

Conditions which most often present problems to the education service include autism, Asperger's syndrome and dyslexia. It is important that identification of affected children and access to appropriate education are improved. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People is concerned about an effective screening system for new-born babies. Can the Minister inform the House about the timetable for introducing the planned country-wide neo-natal hearing screening system which the RNID believes will make it much easier to intervene with support before language and communication difficulties take hold?

The need to modify buildings in schools, and in the further and higher education sectors will take time and will be costly. The Government have made over £200 million over three years available for that purpose. However, local government will need to be kept fully informed of its additional duties under the Bill and will look to the Government to include it in discussions about the drawing up of a new code of practice and implementation of the proposals.

The Minister will know, as I learned when I was at the then Department for Education, that this House takes an intense interest in those issues and is able to bring much enthusiasm and expertise to bear on our debates. We can look forward to a lively, but always constructive, debate which I trust will result in a better deal for people with disabilities.

The gracious Speech promises other major Bills in secondary education. I remain puzzled. Why is it necessary to have yet more legislation for more specialist schools, urban school reform or even city academies—legislation exists to do all those things—or could it be that the Government have other plans? Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position.

If there are to be further major education Bills, it would help if the Minister could give us the timetable for their introduction into this House or another place and what they are designed to address.

I should like at this stage to pay a very warm tribute to my noble friend Lord Harris of Peckham. Over many years he has made a significant contribution to education. His involvement in the creation of city technology colleges was truly pioneering in providing education for young people in inner-city areas. He is now to make a major contribution to the development of a city academy, which is a city technology college in all but name, in his home town area of Peckham. In addition to that, and in response to the tragic death of Damilola Taylor, my noble friend is to help to build a community centre in Damilola's name.

The gracious Speech makes reference to changes secured in the law during the past Session of Parliament. I, too, have reflected on some of those changes. In particular, I recall with profound dismay the Government using the Parliament Act on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, which makes it legal for the first time ever for buggery to be performed on schoolgirls and schoolboys of 16 and 17. That Bill was not supported publicly. It was a Bill that was subject to a free vote in both Houses. Even more of a constitutional outrage is that the Parliament Act was used before the Bill had completed its passage through both Houses. I know that I speak for my noble friends on these Benches, and I suspect for other Members in this House, when I ask the Government not to regard that as a precedent to be repeated.

I am disappointed also not to see any reference in the gracious Speech to strengthening the abuse of trust clauses. Having supported the lowering of the age of consent for homosexual acts, the Government accepted that there are categories of people in positions of trust over children, and that they should be subject to particular legal constraints. However, there were glaring omissions from the list; for example, part-time teachers, some youth workers and, in particular, personal mentors. There are 20,000 personal mentors being established by the Learning and Skills Act. Those are people who will almost certainly work one-to-one with some of the more vulnerable of our young people, but they will riot be subject to the abuse of trust sections of the Act. I hope that this can be dealt with by the introduction of another Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

We learned from the media today of a measure not flagged up in the gracious Speech: that the "morning-after-sex" pill is to be sold like sweeties over the counter. The Government really cannot wring their hands about the levels of promiscuity or about the early age at which young people are sexually active while at the same time using the Parliament Act to lower the age of consent and to legalise the act of buggery on children of 16 and 17; or, perhaps, is the message that it really does not matter what you do so long as you do not get pregnant?

Education is said to be the first priority of the Government. Much has been done. I am reminded that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. On that basis I am delighted that many of the reforms initiated by the previous government are in place and have been developed: rigorous inspections of all schools by Ofsted; regular assessment and testing of children's work with published results; better information to parents; improved curriculum for teacher training colleges with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy; and the development of specialist schools and city technology colleges, now called city academies.

However, there the flattery ends. Grant-maintained status was abolished in favour of a massive rise in central bureaucratic control. Grammar schools and sixth forms remain threatened. The DfEE continues to hold back at national level unprecedented sums of money. Funds to support endless schemes have been established, for which heads and their teachers have to spend precious time bidding, often unsuccessfully.

Education action zones, on which untold sums of money have been spent, remain a mystery in terms of what they have achieved. Trying to get information about any objective assessment of their progress from Ministers is nigh on impossible. I have been asking questions for the past 18 months. I have asked also how much private money has been contributed to each action zone but to date to no avail. Despite the constant reference to extra funding, which is double and even triple counted, schools are not seeing their core budgets rising. We all know that there are some local authorities which tend to hold money back. One only has to read the excellent report published today by Nick Seaton of Real Education to know that. However, central government and the DfEE in particular bear the greatest responsibility for denying schools their rightful entitlement.

The level of violence in the classroom is on the increase. The Government's policy on exclusions makes the situation very difficult for teachers. I recently visited a primary school that had exhausted every possible strategy to deal with a disruptive pupil. As a last resort the head, with the support of governors, decided to exclude the pupil permanently. However, the headmistress is under enormous pressure to reinstate the pupil. That cannot be in the interests of the other children in the school or in the interest of the excluded child.

Three weeks ago on television the Secretary of State, Mr Blunkett, said that the staffing situation in our schools had almost reached meltdown. That was only days after the Minister in this House claimed in answer to a Question from me that there was no crisis in teacher recruitment. Parents and teachers would have welcomed from the gracious Speech a programme to free schools from bureaucratic control, the freedom to receive and to spend more of the total DfEE budget, and to be granted more control over their affairs at a local level. That is certainly what I and my noble friends would have supported.

3.49 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, from these Benches I thank the Minister for her broad and wide-ranging introduction to the debate. As she said, the agenda set for the debate, covering, as it does, education, the environment and agriculture, is wide and has relatively little coherence. Others on these Benches will cover the issues of the environment, housing and agriculture. For my part, I should like to use the opportunity to dwell on educational issues, which are an important part of the gracious Speech and of the agenda which the Government have set themselves.

As the Minister made clear, the one specific Bill on education in the gracious Speech is the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. It will be introduced in this House and its Second Reading has already been set down for Tuesday 19th December. We welcome the Bill. It will implement the proposals put forward in the 1998 White Paper, which set out a programme for action on meeting special educational needs and has been long awaited. It is not a field in which I have specialist knowledge. I am not even the special educational needs governor in the primary school where I am a governor. But many in this House have a great deal of knowledge of these issues and I shall be a learner from, as much as a contributor to, our debates on the Bill.

My understanding is that the Bill will introduce a number of new responsibilities and obligations on what are now termed educational providers—the schools, colleges and universities—not to treat those with special needs less favourably than those without such needs. It will require those establishments to make "reasonable adjustments" to "policies, practices and procedures" in order to do so. In practice this means that in many cases substantial changes will have to be made both to the physical buildings to make them "access friendly" for the disabled, and, perhaps even more importantly, to make due allowance for teaching methods and procedures.

The Government have put money aside to meet those obligations—£200 million over three years, I gather, in respect of teaching requirements and a further £170 million to help with access expenditure. Is that enough? It is immensely important that there is enough funding to meet the needs. Research has shown that educating all children together, including those with special educational needs, can be of mutual advantage provided that sufficient support is given to those with special needs. But those of us who have been school governors and have sat in observing or helping with classes know only too well how those with special needs can also demand disproportionate time.

For example, in its briefing on the Bill, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People refers to the need to train ordinary classroom teachers to understand and cope with deaf children. Yes, yes, but where will our already over-committed teachers find the time for such training? It is not just a question of meeting the costs of such courses but of the money to buy in supply teachers and extra classroom support; and, in the present circumstances, of finding such teachers. In the primary school where I am a governor we have had a vacancy for such a classroom support position for two terms and we have had no applications.

Once again, therefore, there are two key issues for the achievement of the Bill's aims: resources and capturing the hearts and minds of the teachers. The Government came into office three-and-a-half-years ago preaching "Education, education, education". It is no secret that from these Benches we shared those priorities. Indeed, at times we almost felt that they had been stolen from us. It has long been our perception that many of the failings of modern Britain, whether one is talking about the productivity gap or the "yob" culture, stem from failures in our education system and that we need a wholesale revolution to turn things around.

Nor is it a secret that had we been in government we would have done things differently. We argued from the start of the Government's term of office that education expenditure needed to be increased and that if necessary taxes should be increased to pay for what we saw as an investment which the country could not afford not to make—and to make quickly and immediately. We argued also that capturing the hearts and minds of teachers was equally important and that that could not be achieved by a regime of constant blame and criticism of the teaching profession.

Nor on these Benches would we meekly have allowed the Treasury to dictate priorities and stick for two crucial years to the seriously inadequate Conservative budgets of the mid-1990s.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Does the Liberal Democrat Party still stick to the idea that there should be a specific rise in income tax in order to finance education?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, we are of the opinion that there is a case for raising income tax by one penny in order to provide an extra £3 billion for the education budget.

Nor would we have allowed the flawed Ofsted regime of constant carping and blame to undermine the morale of the teaching profession in the way that it has. The chickens from the long years of under-investment in education are now coming home to roost. Yes, at long last we are seeing resources put into repairs and maintenance. But still too many schools, when visited in this new monsoon climate we seem to be enjoying, have buckets in classrooms to catch the drips coming from the ceiling.

We face an increasing crisis of teacher shortages. The age profile of the teaching profession, like that of nursing, means that many will be retiring in the course of the next 10 years. Others are leaving because they are just finding the pressures too great; and we have not been recruiting enough to fill the places that are vacant. Yes, the Minister has told us that we have more teachers in place than ever before; but if we going for smaller classes in primary schools and in secondary schools, we need more teachers. We cannot do without more teachers. The recently released figures on teacher recruitment show that, in spite of all the blandishments being offered, graduates are just not opting for the teaching profession.

Why? It is actually not a question of pay. Ask any teacher and you will find that their main complaint now is about the bureaucracy imposed on them; plans to be written, targets to be set, and then reports to be prepared on how you have achieved those tasks; and in between you have to get on with teaching. If you are a primary school teacher, you are lucky if you have one free period from teaching each week. As with the medical profession, many teachers have traditionally come from families where one or both parents are teachers. It is there that we are now losing out. These children observe the lives their parents lead, and vote with their feet. I am delighted to see the advertising campaigns that are being run to attract teachers. I am glad that Chris Woodhead has left Ofsted so that we can at last see a regime that is more supportive of teachers and their efforts. I hope to goodness that between them these measures will bring in more teachers because we have a real crisis on our hands.

Years of under-investment in education also shows through at the national level. It is now well known that in 1997 we were spending less of our GDP on education—4.5 per cent—than in 1979. What is less well known is that, thanks to following Tory spending limits, the figure fell in the years 1998 and 1999 and only now, with the Comprehensive Spending Review money beginning to come through, is it starting to rise. Education, education, education; yet the Government allow the percentage of GDP spent on education to fall.

It is not as if we were high up in the league tables anyhow; and it shows through in other ways. Last week a new league table came across my desk—the OECD International Literacy Survey—in which Britain is ranked 11th; with Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada, the US and Hungary, in that order, ranked above us. Perhaps most shaming was the fact that over 20 per cent—more than one in five adults in this country—have literacy and numeracy skills insufficient, in the words of the survey, to cope with modern life". In other words, their skills are insufficient to read the label on a medicine bottle and understand what it means. That is an indictment of our education system. We perceive it as a legacy not of poor teaching but of many long years of under-investment in education.

To do them justice, this Government have begun to turn things around. They are now belatedly putting more resources into education, although whether they are putting in enough remains a moot point. The emphasis on smaller class sizes and numeracy and literacy in primary schools is welcome, although we are sad that class sizes in secondary schools have risen over the same period.

We are glad to see the emphasis on early years education and, at long last, the recognition that we need to pay more attention to the further education sector and the development of vocational skills. But this, too, requires adequate funding. Funding both in this area and in higher education is still seriously short.

I conclude with a few words on the issue of vocational skills. One in live adults in this country—7 million people—are what is termed functionally illiterate. This helps to explain why we have a "yob" culture. Members on the Conservative Benches in this House yearn for the return of grammar schools, but they should remember that this was an education system which gave a splendid education to the top 20 per cent of the age range—indeed, I was one of those who benefited from it. However, the system wrote off the other 80 per cent. It put academic education on a pedestal and afforded only a low status to vocational education and allowed what at one time had been a vision of technical schools to wither on the vine. To too great an extent, I believe, this remains the case today.

In its final report, the National Skills Task Force made it clear that Britain faces a chronic shortage of people with what are called level 3—the equivalent of A-level—vocational training and skills. If we look at Britain's educational profile today, we are currently encouraging more and more young people to pursue academic A-level courses and go on to universities, but we still have too many leaving school at the age of 16 and not enough undertaking vocational courses and going on to further education and training. There is a great gap between those achieving only at level 1—bare numeracy and literacy—and the increasing numbers going through to academic degree level qualifications at level 4. If we compare ourselves with those higher up the literacy league tables, we see that we, in contrast to other countries, have far too few students achieving qualifications at level 2 and level 3.

The great challenge to education for the coming decade is to fill that gap, to get the yobs off the streets, into training and thus trained for proper jobs. It is no good laying down curfews or even, if I may say so, providing Connexions mentors to chase them up and counsel them at the ages of 16 and 17. That is treating the symptoms, not the causes. We lose these children from the school system at the age of 10, 11 and 12 rather than at 16 and 17. The access issue in Oxford arises mainly because there are too few pupils from homes in social class 5 who even achieve the required qualifications.

As with the issue of disability, reversing these trends requires a revolution, one in both resources and attitudes. But if we are to reverse those trends in illiteracy, which underlie Britain's yob culture, and to build, as the Minister said in her speech, a modern, inclusive and competitive society", it is a revolution that we shall have to make happen.

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