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I thought that I should address first the issues which feature in the Government's forthcoming legislative programme, but the fact that there may be no legislative proposals on some of the topics which I have mentioned does not, of course, mean that they are any less important.
Education is a vital matter to any country and, indeed, every individual. Knowledge, skills, the ability to understand and the ability to reason are vital if our children and grandchildren are going to compete properly in the economy of the world.
The children who started school this autumn will have working lives which will reach beyond the middle of the next century. We do not know what kind of future will be facing them or what opportunities will be open to them. But we do know that competition will not stand still. Around the world, people are demanding the highest possible standards of education and training, and we, in this country, must provide no less for our children. And that we intend to do.
We need to raise the standards for every child; we need to provide greater choice in the educational system; and we need to give our young children the proper kind of foundation so that they will be able to compete in a progressively competitive world. We have also to recognise that each child is an individual. Mercifully, they are not all clones, yet. Each child is a different person--with his or her own peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, talents and ability. We therefore need to provide diversity and choice in education.
The provision of education and training has undergone, under this Government, the most wide ranging set of reforms since the 1944 Butler Act. We have introduced: a national curriculum; regular assessment; inspection and enforcement; and the publication of performance tables. Having introduced so many improvements to our education system, we realise that continuity is also important. A lot of the improvements which are still needed can be made within the existing legislation. But, in some areas, new provisions will be needed.
The Government, therefore, propose to bring forward legislation on three aspects of education in England and Wales. I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Henley will enlarge on his department's proposals when he comes to reply. I will, though, outline them briefly now.
The giving of responsibility to institutions--as opposed to imposing it on them by central government--has been an important part of our education reforms. Grant-maintained status--which, in fact, means self-government--is the logical step beyond local management and we think that it is the best way of running schools. It puts responsibility into the hands of those who care most about a school: the headmaster; the headmistress; the teachers; the governors; and the parents.
The ability to control and manage the resources of a school, including its land and its buildings, is fundamental to self-government. The Bill will provide that control. School assets, which are financed from the public purse, must, of course, be safeguarded. Borrowings will be subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. This will enable increased investment to be made and it should enable schools to benefit from the private finance initiative.
Thirdly, the Student Loans Bill was introduced on 17th November in another place. It will extend the choices which are available to students and it will enable the private sector financial institutions to be brought into the system. Again, this provides choice. Students will be able to choose whether to seek a subsidised private sector loan and, if so, which lender to approach.
It is likely that most subsidised student loans will eventually come from the private sector. After all, it is the private sector which is best equipped to provide loan services on this scale. But students will still have the guarantee of a subsidised public loan through the Student Loans Company if they do not want a private loan.
The housing legislation would implement the proposals which were contained in the Government's White Paper on housing, which was published in June. It will be another step in our efforts to stimulate the growth of home ownership. It will help what are called "social tenants" to buy. It will also help to provide social housing at rents which are affordable to households which are on low incomes. And it will bring more private finance into the improvement of social housing.
The main housing proposals will give tenants of new social housing the right to buy their homes with assistance through a purchase grant. They will ensure that social housing is allocated to those households
The legislation will also help to tackle anti-social behaviour by tenants of social landlords; to replace the system of mandatory renovation grants with discretionary ones; and to make letting simpler for small landlords. Our proposals will also improve the safety and quality of houses which are in multiple occupation.
The legislation will also provide a statutory right to adjudication in construction contracts and it will regulate the procedures by which payments are made. It will also simplify the present arrangements for the registration of architects.
With regard to agriculture, we set out our aims in the rural White Paper which your Lordships debated, at some not immodest length, about two weeks ago. I do not wish to rehearse again all that was said then. I would say only that what we want is an efficient and prosperous agricultural industry; one which is able to take advantage of the huge technological advances which are being made; one which can provide high quality raw materials at competitive prices; and one which can take advantage of, as well as support, the other countless industries upon which agriculture depends and which depend on agriculture.
We also wish to see an agricultural industry which is able to safeguard and enhance the rural environment. This is an important objective which found widespread support among your Lordships. But, in order to achieve our objectives, we will have to overcome a major obstacle; that is the present common agricultural policy. This is, at present, too costly, too inefficient and too wasteful. It can disadvantage the consumers and the food industry and it often provides incentives for production without paying proper regard to environmental considerations.
We think that the common agricultural policy ought to be reformed. There is a case for having reductions in production-related support, with the remaining support aimed more towards environmental and other specific objectives. Reducing production-related support will, in time, lead to the eventual abolition of supply controls, such as quotas and set-aside, whose sole purpose is artificially to limit production.
These constraints inhibit both competition and efficiency, and they prevent the normal economic development of the industry--as well as making it difficult for new people to come into the industry. The changes which we would like to see come about must take place within the framework of a common European Union agricultural policy. This would avoid having competing national subsidies between member states, which would capsize the whole concept of the single market.
We want to take every opportunity to shift the common agricultural policy in the right direction. This will not be an easy task. The majority of member states are reluctant to consider any reforms which they see as going beyond those which were agreed in 1992. But at least the United Kingdom Government's determination to see a change has started a whole debate on the subject. Great oaks from little acorns grow and one hopes that this will grow too.
I think that external pressures will begin to build up on the common agricultural policy in the next few years. For example, both the renewal of world trade negotiations in 1999 and the prospective enlargement of the European Union to include the countries of central and eastern Europe will be powerful engines for change. And, as we move ever closer to these events, I think that other governments will recognise the logic of our case both on the need for reform and on the direction which that reform should take.
The marketing of agricultural produce is also important. There are some good examples in Northern Ireland of what can be achieved. A Dutch supermarket chain has agreed to obtain all of its supplies of beef from Northern Ireland. One might ask, why? The answer is that that is what its customers want. The Northern Ireland meat inspection services have recently been recognised by the United States Department of Agriculture as matching its own high standards. This gives great opportunities for export. Those two developments are based on what is probably the best computerised animal record system in Europe.
Local government is a major part of the public sector and it has a tremendous impact on the day-to-day lives of all of us. It provides care to the elderly and vulnerable; it shapes the environment in which we live by the planning process; it has responsibilities in education, highways, trading standards and a plethora of other activities. It also has the role of community leadership for its area, which includes, of course, drawing together willing partners in a variety of different common causes.
Perhaps the most vital partnership is the partnership between central government and local government. That is why the Government welcome the Select Committee, which your Lordships recently established, which is to look into the state of this relationship today.
The number of activities which are carried out by local government means that, by any method of calculation, local government is big business. Of all the money which government disburses, 27 per cent. is spent by local authorities which actually sign the cheques. No government can--or should--ignore the consequences of expenditure on that scale.
We will, therefore, continue to watch the level of local expenditure. We have to balance the requirement, on the one hand, to spend money on local services against the wider considerations, on the other hand, of the level of public expenditure, taxation, and the state of the economy as a whole.
The Government have created the conditions in which local authorities can provide excellent services. The outcome of the local government review is, by and large, settled, and compulsory competitive tendering for professional services can now take place.
During the last year, we have introduced various measures within the private finance initiative in order to encourage joint ventures between local authorities and the private sector. That enables private sector capital and expertise to be used to improve the condition and the management of the local authorities' assets. We are keen to hear what local government has to say about the private finance initiative. We will certainly look at any problems and we will introduce changes should that be necessary.
Local authorities operate in and with the environment. One of the major pieces of legislation in the last Session was the Environment Act, which received Royal Assent in July. Among many other matters, the Act places Ministers under a duty to give the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency guidance from time to time on their objectives. That guidance must include guidance on the contribution which the agencies should make towards sustainable development.
We published the first drafts of that guidance for wide consultation when the Act was under discussion in another place. More than 100 organisations and individuals commented, and their responses have helped--certainly the Government and, I have no doubt, others too--to develop our thoughts on what is a very difficult concept.
In that regard, I, personally, found fascinating the debate which your Lordships held towards the end of the last Session on the report on sustainable development by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Tombs. In the light of the comments which we have received, we are now preparing revised draft guidance, and this will soon go out for consultation with the agencies and others. Subject to any further views which may be expressed, we will lay the draft guidance as orders before the House and in another place.
Perhaps I may just single out one more example of the way in which environmental policy is developing. There is to be a new tax on the waste which is put into landfill sites. It will be introduced on 1st October 1996 and is something of a departure both in environmental and in fiscal policy terms.
In announcing his proposals for the tax, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he was determined not to impose additional costs on business overall. He indicated that the revenue, which will be raised by the tax, would be used to reduce the employer's national insurance contributions. That is the first time in the United Kingdom where a new tax will be used to promote environmental objectives. We intend to use taxation to help to protect the environment.
We are moving in a rapidly changing world, when technology is moving at a breath-taking pace. To some of us, that is frightening. Too often--and more often than not, I slot myself into this jolly category--it is
The future--the successful future--depends on us all, in whichever sphere we happen to operate, taking advantage of all the opportunities which are open to us, and of all of the new and constantly improving technology which is available to us. These are exciting times which are full of opportunity. And it is up to all of us to make the most of them. In Her Majesty's gracious Speech, we have outlined how the Government propose to play their part.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that there is before your Lordships this afternoon a rather complex menu. It is to do with the environment, education, agriculture and local government. Your Lordships might think that each of those subjects would merit a day of debate but, practice as it is, we have to go along with that. I shall do my best to make some sort of coherent theme out of it all in my remarks.
I propose to say something about the environment and then move on to a few observations about education with which my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris will deal in greater detail when he winds up from these Benches. I shall spend a little more time on the housing proposals which the gracious Speech put forward and which the noble Earl outlined before returning to the whole problem of local government and where its future lies. I put it in that manner because the theme that I wish to argue before your Lordships, which seems to run through all the matters we are discussing today, is that the Government have, perhaps wilfully, misunderstood the nature of pluralistic democracy and in doing so have, over the years and step by step, legislated in a direction which I believe must now be changed.
I start with the environment. Immediately on the theme of pluralistic democracy, I move into what appears to be unexpected territory--the matter of Wales. Strange as it seems, I did not hear and I have not since read any mention of Wales in the gracious Speech. I realise that Wales is something of an embarrassment to the Government in many respects. But I should have thought it reasonable for the Principality to expect some passing reference. After all, Wales does exist and has its own problems and rights.
I am aware that Wales has a new Secretary of State who has, as it were, still to find his feet. To give credit where credit is due, he is certainly making an effort. For example, we have heard that there are certain connections with Yorkshire which are said to establish his Welsh identity. It is true that there was a Norse chieftain in and around York when Norsemen were settling on the north coast of Wales, so perhaps there is a connection. That gentleman's name--and I use the word "gentleman" in its loosest possible term--was Erik Bloodaxe. I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Hague would wish to claim descendancy from that particular chieftain. Then again, I wish to be fair. His immediate predecessor in that office may well have wished to claim such a descendancy. But that is another story and I shall leave it where it is.
The new Secretary of State has of course taken a further initiative. He has made efforts--I think, in his own words--"to get to know Wales". Word has it that he has embarked on a tour of the Principality, staying mainly in what are known as bed and breakfasts. It is certainly a worthy aim which is to be encouraged. At last we have perhaps a modern Gerald of Wales, with the difference of course that Mr. Hague is not the Archdeacon of Brecon and that he carries before him to light him on his way not the Cross of Jesus but the Good Pub Guide.
Noble Lords may think that I am being too flippant but I have a serious point to make. Not so long ago, on 7th November, as the noble Earl pointed out, your Lordships debated the Government's White Paper entitled Rural England: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside. As the noble Earl said, that was a very distinguished debate, the last of a long series of environmental debates in the last Session which, as he said, took in the major and complicated Environment Bill, debates on sustainable development, and various Private Member's Bills dealing with environmental issues. Some of your Lordships may think--and I have some sympathy for this view--that we have had enough environmental debates for the moment. But there will be, indeed there must be, more to come.
We look forward to White Papers which complement the English White Paper and which recognise the existence of other areas of the United Kingdom. Their titles will presumably follow respectively the English precedent: Rural Wales: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside; Rural Scotland: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside; perhaps even Rural Northern Ireland: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside. All those will be a real treat. I invite the noble Lord, Lord Henley, when he replies, to confirm that they will be before us in this Session. While he is about it, he may wish to comment on the somewhat novel constitutional doctrine which their titles embody.
The rural England debate also raised another serious point. Following the clear view of the House expressed earlier that day, various noble Lords declared their various interests--some pecuniary, others unpaid. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, went so far as to declare an interest of a financial nature in observing the speed limit when travelling between his country home and his London home. I thought that that was a little eccentric. Personally, I should have thought that it was a question of obeying the law. Indeed, if I may say so, we had many lectures from the noble Earl in his former incarnation as a Home Office Minister on the virtues of obeying the law. But I cannot comment further on what his financial circumstances might be should he fall into that unfortunate speed trap which he probably detects to be round about Chelmsford. Where I can, and will, comment is on the extent to which owners of land are in receipt of taxpayers' money purely in respect of their land ownership rather than on the economic activity, which is usually agriculture in one form or another, based on that land.
That in itself is of no particular significance compared with the set-aside payments which are made to a number of noble Lords. It raises an important and serious point. Here I follow the noble Earl. If landowners are to be paid taxpayers' money by virtue of the simple ownership of land--through whatever conduit the money arrives--should that not be declared openly? Further--and again I agree with the noble Earl--if, as I hope, the trend is to lay the burden on the owners or long-term tenants of land to desist from maximising their agricultural profit and accept restraint on their normal activities to improve and, in some cases, restore the countryside, should not the price which the taxpayer pays for that wholly benign procedure be openly and honestly declared by the recipients when the House is discussing the relevant matters? I do not wish to pursue the matter too hard at present. For the moment, I shall leave it there. But I have to warn your Lordships that I doubt very much that it will go away.
Of course, no such personal matters affect noble Lords when we come to education. Indeed, noble Lords opposite frequently claim that the fees charged by independent schools to which they send their children are a monstrosity. It has even been suggested that tax relief should be available--in other words, that those who can afford to send their children to independent schools should be in receipt of further taxpayers' money. That, I confess, has always seemed to me an odd argument.
However, what is equally odd is that those who can afford to send their children to independent schools and who, for the most part, do so, seem to pursue with almost hectic enthusiasm continual change in other people's schools--in short, schools attended by children whose parents can afford no other. I say that it is odd which is, perhaps, the mildest expression I can use, not least because, as the noble Earl said, the gracious Speech announced further education legislation despite repeated ministerial commitments that there should be no further education legislation in the lifetime of this Parliament following the mammoth 1993 and 1994 Education Acts. Indeed, the then Secretary of State announced the Bill which became the Education Act 1993 as,
When we come to housing, the same theme of central control becomes fully apparent. Local authorities have been denied their right to use their own money to build houses for rent. Instead, there has been an attempt to push the burden on to housing associations whose major source of funding is, as your Lordships know, the centrally-controlled Housing Corporation. Further, in our view, the housing White Paper made no effort whatever to address what we regard as the real housing problem.
What is the real housing problem? The problem is this--and it is dire. For a start, homelessness and housing needs are at levels which are wholly unacceptable in a civilised society. No fewer than 120,000 homeless households were accepted by local authorities for housing in 1994; a further 50,000 households are in temporary accommodation, much of it inadequate; over 1 million households wait for a new home on the local authority waiting lists; 100,000 to 125,000 new homes at affordable rent are needed annually; one in 13 homes is officially unfit for human habitation; one in six homes requires urgent repairs costing over £1,000; and some £6 billion is needed to make homes in the private sector fit for habitation. All this ignores the problem of those who were persuaded to buy their homes--often by heavy discounts forced on local authorities--and who now find themselves saddled with mortgages and a sharp decline in the value of the asset which has been mortgaged.
That is the measure of the real housing problem. But the Government's White Paper entitled--and I have to assume that this is some sort of a joke--Our Future Homes, does nothing to address the causes of homelessness. It simply blames those who suffer from it; it abandons home owners to debt, disrepair and repossession; and it turns its back on tenants in the private and public sector.
We shall be debating those matters when the housing Bill announced in the gracious Speech comes before your Lordships. I do not want to pre-empt that debate by going into detail, not least because my information is that the Government do not yet know precisely what is going to be in the Bill. But one thing comes out very clearly from the White Paper. More burdens will be laid on local authorities, the overall resources available for social housing, despite what the noble Earl said, will fall, and the existing problem will be with us for many, many years to come.
It is on the problems of local authorities that I wish to conclude. Since 1979 the count for Bills affecting local government stands at 216. Of those, comfortably more than 60 can be considered major Bills. Key functions in areas such as education, urban regeneration, local transport and environmental protection have been taken away, many to be moved into unelected bodies of government appointees. Local authority discretion over spending has effectively been removed by the mechanism of central government handing out 84 per cent. of revenues and being prepared to cap the rest. Ministers have imposed, and continue to impose, burdens on local authorities without making resources available to undertake them. Ministers have also awarded themselves a plethora of powers to specify, determine or designate outside the realm of parliamentary scrutiny. Finally, we have had the ludicrously botched structural reorganisation in England and an imposed reorganisation in Scotland and Wales.
The balance has clearly shifted away from local and towards central government. Your Lordships, as the noble Earl pointed out, have rightly set up a committee to study the matter. It may well be that noble Lords opposite feel that all is well. Why not have centralised government? What does it matter? I will tell your Lordships why it matters. There are many reasons but two are quite fundamental.
Secondly, local democracy engages local people in the political process, a process from which, by all reports, the population of Britain is more and more alienated. It also provides a training ground for politicians with a future in national politics. It was, after all, Professor von Hayek, who, I understand, is a favourite philosopher of the party opposite, who said,
It has been rightly said that citizenship is not just a matter of exercising choice between one product or service when permitted and voting once every four or five years. The ceaseless exercise of political freedom is not just a right; it is an obligation on every member of any sophisticated community. The time has come for a clear and unambiguous lead--a strong commitment to the value of local government. The gracious Speech was the proper place to do that. It is to the Government's continuing shame that the speech contained not a word on the matter and the Government will certainly live to regret it.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I attended a public meeting last night at which the main subjects for discussion were local services and local finance. At the end of the meeting a member of the public approached me and asked, "It may be a naive question, but could not the local authority ask people, perhaps by a referendum, whether they would be willing to pay more council tax in order for the local authority to be able to spend more on education?". It was not a naive question; it was a good question. The answer, sadly, is no, the local authority cannot do that because of government rules. It cannot spend at the level at which many among its local community might want because of government rules and government capping.
That question illustrates the fact that for all the fine words we hear, the Government are far less interested in real choice than they are in their own control. I believe that the measures announced in the name of quality in the fields of education and housing are rather more to do with centralisation and with an unwillingness to allow diversity and localised decision-making. That is damaging to public services and dangerous to the democratic process.
I suspect the political event of the month will be the Budget rather than the Queen's Speech, but it is of course impossible to disentangle the two. As regards education, like the lady who suggested to me that council tax should be set at a higher level, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe that spending on education is a good investment at all ages, including in the early years. I shall not be conveying new information to your Lordships when I say that research in the United States has indicated that £1, or $1, invested in early years education provides over time a sevenfold return in higher tax revenues from better qualified workers, reduced reliance on social security and reductions in juvenile crime. That is why we on these Benches urge high quality education for all three as well as four year-olds whose parents want it and why we are opposed to the nursery voucher scheme.
The scheme will do nothing to train staff nor to provide infrastructure by way of buildings and equipment. Vouchers will not ensure quality nor will they deliver provision where none now exists. Indeed they may well lead to reduced provision. To fund the scheme almost £550 million will be taken from money currently available to local authorities, with the Government putting in only £165 million of new money. Therefore, to conclude the argument rather than discuss the detail of it in a tedious fashion, I hope your Lordships will accept that that will lead to reductions of 50, 60 and up to 90 per cent. of the SSA funding for under-fives currently available to local authorities.
Another concern I have is one which I appreciated after listening to practitioners involved in early years education. The content of the education on which the SCAA (School Curriculum Assessment Authority) is now consulting so concentrates on achievements which are easily measured that I fear parents will look at the "hard" targets--league tables can be misused in this way--when considering their choice of provision. Early
It is not surprising that there has been so little enthusiasm for the pilot projects for nursery vouchers. Only four authorities--three Conservative and one composed of Conservative and Labour councillors (not members of my party) who have reached an agreement on a conditional basis--are proceeding with the scheme. Those are not pilot schemes. In such a vital area is it not important that the Government proceed on a pilot basis? Instead, the Bill has been announced and we know that the full scheme will go ahead without the possibility of learning from the experience of the first schemes to be introduced, even if one supported those schemes. I suspect that it is necessary to go ahead at this speed so that vouchers will drop through letter-boxes--I say this cynically--on the eve of the general election before the general public see the problems.
Turning to grant-maintained schools, the Government's proposals betray how frantic they are to see the grant-maintained scheme grow when clearly it will not grow without artificial boosts. The fast-track procedure for voluntary-aided schools has been announced on top of such a fast-track consultation, allowing only half the time that the department itself suggests should be given to such consultations. The fast-track procedure to allow schools to proceed removes the requirement for parental ballots. The reasoning which supports that alteration is that:
The proposal to allow grant-maintained schools to retain 100 per cent. of the proceeds of their asset sales is another similar proposal. It is quite wrong, when local council tax payers are continuing to pay off the debt created by the acquisition of an asset, to allow a particular school to sell it. We have restrictions on capital expenditure in education which in some ways are much tougher than the restrictions on revenue expenditure, and there is a growing backlog of repairs. It will be an accident of history which determines which schools have what are termed surplus assets, although I am not aware of many schools which have assets which are surplus. Although I believe that the Prime Minister has commented that playing fields should be protected, I wonder, given the temptation to realise capital assets, whether schools will be able to resist that temptation.
Should it be a priority for legislation to permit grant-maintained schools to borrow commercially? That is another indicator that, despite their early statements of even-handedness as between the various education sectors, there is not such even-handedness. The proposals will advantage the grant-maintained sector. This is not the politics of envy. The proposal will advantage certain schools within that sector. When one
My noble friend Lord Addington will refer to the student loan scheme, but I hope that in replying the Minister will explain to your Lordships the benefits to students in the changes to the scheme. Will the money raised by transferring the scheme to the private sector benefit students? I suspect not. After all, students can borrow from the private sector now.
Another area of investment which we on these Benches regard as vital is housing. Investing in good quality housing is good long-term investment. Investing in the construction of homes and schools is a very good way of getting people back to work as well as providing them with accommodation. But this year and next it is estimated that over 12,000 more construction workers will lose their jobs simply as a result of last year's cuts in housing association house building.
We are well aware, because the debate is now widespread, that the value of investment in housing is not merely directly financial. It affects people's health, education, stability and access to meaningful work. People who lose their homes become trapped in a downward spiral with their escape routes shut off. To be topical, investment in housing is investment which supports families. Two of the main causes of family break-up are lack of homes and jobs and insecurity of homes and jobs.
Almost 20 years ago my late noble friend Lord Ross of Newport, then Stephen Ross MP, introduced the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, which had support from all sides because it was recognised that homelessness was a long-term problem. If we return to a position where temporary accommodation and 12-month contracts are the norm we shall be taking a huge step backwards in the battle against homelessness. From these Benches we shall fight the repeal of the homeless persons legislation.
The long waiting lists for housing are clear. As has already been mentioned, the real problem is the severe shortage of affordable housing to rent in this country. Fewer houses were built last year than in any year since the Second World War. If rumours about Budget cuts are true, only 16,000 new properties will be built next year. That is fewer than the number of people on a large city's waiting list alone.
Turning from quantity to quality, reference has been made to renovation grants and renovation of homes to a proper standard. Yet the Government propose to scrap the mandatory scheme. I would be the first to accept that the present scheme is not perfect; it is quite bureaucratic and complicated. However, is this not merely a smoke-screen to hide a further reduction in funding?
The Government's economic policy over the past few years has hit home owners badly. Attempts to pump up the housing market have accompanied an anti-inflationary policy, and the whole has led to more than a thousand homes being repossessed every week and more pressure, day by day, on local authority waiting lists. One and a half million people are thought
It could have been a sensible policy to encourage housing association tenants to buy their homes, but the policy is flawed. The dogma of "right to buy" raises its head again. We were glad to see the alteration in the schemes for rural areas, but the real problem--the numbers problem--is not being addressed.
We on these Benches would have a very different housing Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, we do not yet know quite what the Bill will contain, but I doubt that it will allow local authorities to spend accumulated capital receipts on a phased basis. It certainly will not make clear the continuing duty of local authorities to offer secure tenancies to families made homeless through no fault of their own. It is unlikely to provide new powers to bring back into use some of the 800,000 empty properties in England. Nor is it likely to lead the way to investment in our young people by making councils responsible for providing accommodation for homeless 16 and 17 year-olds who currently slip through the welfare net and are treated as neither adults nor vulnerable minors. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe in choice and diversity. We do not believe that the route to it is to concentrate on increasing owner-occupation as a matter of dogma.
Today's debate extends to the environment and local government. We may see next week in the Budget the proper co-ordination of environmental and economic matters--for instance, a substantial increase in investment in public transport to improve the economic infrastructure and encourage a switch to public transport in order to reduce pollution or a shift in taxation from the ownership of private cars to the use of private cars--but I doubt it. We may see a switch from taxation on what we want more of, employment, to what we want less of, pollution and the depletion of resources, but I doubt that too. We are likely, I admit, to see some extra spending on education, and I welcome that. However, it is unlikely to be of the order of the £1.4 billion estimated to be required simply to stand still.
The speaker at the meeting which I attended last night made a sensible point. Budgeting should be about investment as well as taxes. There is a wealth of support for investing in people and building for the long term. Although I was glad to hear the Minister's words about the importance of local government, I was surprised at his words that the Government have extended the scope for local government to provide good services. That has not been the experience at the coal face over the past few years.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, I shall avoid the challenge taken up by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, of producing a coherent speech on the wide range of issues before us today. I shall confine myself to speaking on education. The paragraph on education in the gracious Speech is thin in content. I suspect that for most people that will be regarded as a mercy. Those in education at this time want stability rather than further change.
I wish to refer to two proposals in the gracious Speech. First, there is the expansion of nursery education for four year-olds. How will that be provided in rural areas? Much of my diocese is remote. Villages are distant from one another. There is still a network of rural schools across North Yorkshire. But how will the provision for nursery education be made to work in those remote rural areas? If nursery education were to be provided only in certain centres, it would do great damage to the network of local rural schools in particular should families begin to send their four year-olds into the nearest town. We need to maintain the network of schools in those remote rural areas. The provision does nothing to address what I believe is an even more important issue; namely, the involvement of parents in the early years of learning. If there is one key change that would affect fundamentally the learning capacity of our children, it is the involvement of parents at every stage of their children's learning.
I have a query regarding the proposal that grant-maintained schools should have borrowing powers. The basis of the Government's proposals is that the governors of grant-maintained schools should be able to use their property, land and buildings as security for borrowing on the open market. That presumably is intended to attract private investment into the education service.
For voluntary schools--both aided and controlled schools--the land and the buildings are not in the ownership of the governors. They are vested in trustees. Therefore governors will not be able to borrow money against land and buildings vested in another body. There seems to be a belief that somehow trustees will borrow money for governors, or that they will act jointly with governors in obtaining a loan. There are considerable difficulties regarding that possibility. Trustees are bound by charity law and therefore the sale or mortgaging of the trustee-owned parts of a school site is unlikely to be a real option for former voluntary grant-maintained schools.
We need to recognise that the interests of trustees and governors are not necessarily identical. The governors are concerned with the life of the school. The trustees may well have wider responsibilities and will need to have regard to trust assets in the long term, not merely with a view to meeting schools' immediate needs. If school trustees were to sell or mortgage away trust property, it would have the effect of frittering away the Church of England's historic educational trust assets.
There is a real concern. At present, it seems that the legislation will be permissive. However, if it were assumed that governors of grant-maintained schools will borrow, and if that assumption were taken into account when school finances were calculated, it would place those voluntary schools which had become grant-maintained at a great disadvantage, for the reasons that I have outlined. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some assurance that that matter is being considered.
It is ironic that the Government are apparently keen to bring private finance into schools, in particular into grant-maintained schools. Yet there is little recognition that in the existing aided schools--those which have not become grant-maintained--there is already a considerable provision of money from outside government sources. Aided schools have to provide 15 per cent. of any capital expenditure from whatever sources they are able to find in the Churches. Already in aided schools we make considerable financial provision. The 15 per cent. of capital expenditure is no longer required for those schools which have become grant-maintained.
That leads me to a sentence which is not in the gracious Speech. The matter was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I refer to the suggestion that church-aided schools should be offered a fast track to grant-maintained status. It was suggested by the Prime Minister in a speech earlier this year. He said:
I have to say that it is not that many. With regard to the Church of England, 138 schools have become grant-maintained out of a total of some 4,682. With regard to the Roman Catholic schools, 130 have become grant-maintained out of some 2,300 schools. I recognise that the Government are disappointed at that slow response from aided schools, but there are good reasons. It does not seem that large numbers of church schools seek grant-maintained status.
There is considerable resistance to that suggestion from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. That resistance is not because we are opposed to grant-maintained status for church schools. The Church of England Board of Education, of which I am chairman, will offer advice to governors which will set out a range of factors which need to be taken into account when a school is deciding whether it ought to become grant-maintained. We are not opposed to grant-maintained status. However, we are strongly opposed to the proposals to differentiate between church-aided schools and other schools. My colleague, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds--who is chairman of the Catholic Education Service--and I have already seen the Secretary of State to express our resistance to these proposals. That was further supported by a statement from the Catholic bishops' conference last
We believe that, if these proposals have any merit--and we are by no means convinced that they have--they should be applied to all schools, and not to church schools only. Perhaps I need to repeat the point made already by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee; namely, that the period for consultation upon this significant proposal is very short. It has been extended by one week, but we are having to respond extremely fast to proposals that will affect very considerably the status of church schools.
Not only do we feel that we do not want a differentiation between aided schools and other schools; we also feel that proposals to do away with the parental ballot would be ones that we should want to resist strongly. The Churches have come slowly and lately to the notion of parental ballot; but we have been convinced that we should be concerned about parental wishes. The parental ballot was the Government's creation, and was reinforced in the 1993 Act. In the Churches, we could not acquiesce in a situation whereby our aided school parents were treated differently from other parents in this respect. It would be unfair to parents and it would lead to a perception either that the Church attributed less importance to parents than others did, or that the Church sought special and privileged treatment. My board is stating firmly that it opposes any different treatment for aided school parents over the matter of ballots.
There is a suggestion that the proposals put forward should be extended possibly to all categories of schools. Clearly, that would overcome some of the Churches' difficulties. We should not then be in the situation of saying that our schools were being treated differently from other schools. But were that to be the case, this set of proposals becomes even more far-reaching. It should certainly not be introduced on the basis of the very slim consultation paper which has so far come out and the very short consultation that has taken place. This should surely come about only with the production of a White Paper, which should then lead to proper legislation in a Bill devoted exclusively to this particular matter.
I believe it is accepted that church schools, aided and voluntary, Roman Catholic and Church of England, and other church-aided schools, make a very substantial contribution to our education system. These schools are sought after. They are popular. Many are over-subscribed. They are of good quality and produce excellent results. Above all, they have the capacity to treat each youngster as an individual. That is a matter to which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred in his opening remarks and which we all believe to be important. As such, they need to be preserved and enhanced. We shall look to see that any government legislation improves quality and provision in our church schools.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I, too, welcome the proposed expansion of nursery education and I shall confine my contribution to this issue. It is indeed gratifying that the Government have finally
My quarrel with the Government, however, is about the method of implementation. My quarrel is with the voucher system, which I believe is an experiment with market forces rather than a well-planned and well-resourced initiative.
I live in the London Borough of Wandsworth, one of the four local authorities to take part in the pilot introduction of this scheme. I have a particular interest in the scheme since my daughter currently receives free nursery provision at our local primary school and my son will, in due course, receive his nursery education via the voucher system if the Government's proposals are carried.
The introduction of the scheme is a complex matter which will preoccupy this House in due course. But for now I address the simple question: who gains in Wandsworth? It is not four year-olds currently in LEA schools. They already have a free place. In Wandsworth, a full-time place costs some £1,900 a year and a part-time place some £1,100 a year. Thus, "choice" here means choosing to pay more to have a place in a private nursery. All private nurseries cost more than £1,100 a year, which is the current value of the voucher. Indeed, one private nursery close to where I live costs over £6,000 a year for a full-time term time place. It is not four year-olds who are already in private nursery, since by definition they already receive a nursery education. Therefore in educational terms in Wandsworth no four year-old will benefit in a practical sense. The only beneficiaries will be the parents of four year-olds in private nurseries. They will have a windfall gain of £1,100 a year to offset their current fees.
Some cynics have suggested that this is in itself an objective of the Government; namely, a bribe to parents to ensure their support. I do not subscribe to that view. I believe that there is more to this scheme than bribes alone. I believe that the voucher system is about putting in place a financial mechanism for expanding the nursery sector through increased parental contributions, not at this stage but in the future. The parallel here is with the expansion of the higher education sector, which has largely been financed by users taking out ever greater loans as government support is reduced. I have received no guarantee from Wandsworth that in the future I shall not have to pay something to bridge the gap between the voucher value and the actual cost of nursery education. If it is the intention of the Government to finance the expansion of nursery provision through requiring parents such as myself to contribute then they should say so and we can have a debate about it, rather than talking about choice, diversity and vouchers.
A second limitation is that there will be an incentive for LEAs to switch to part-time provision, since they will receive the same value voucher whether the child is in full-time part or part-time education. In my case this would not be a problem, as we chose part-time education for my daughter. It is the case, however, that most needy children who require full-time places may suffer. That cannot be right.
A third limitation is that the scheme fails to operate as an incentive to authorities already providing a high number of places and may instead result in penalising them. Currently, the pre-school education of three to five year-olds is discretionary. The announcement of the voucher scheme strongly implies that it is now an entitlement. Such a contradiction can be resolved only at the expense of LEAs which have already exercised this discretion and LEAs that currently provide education for three year-olds. Can the Minister guarantee that the education of three year-olds will not be affected by the introduction of this scheme?
I believe that an opportunity to strengthen pre-school learning has been lost. The introduction of market forces is at best an irrelevance and at worst will force down unit costs to the value of the voucher and thus lower standards. Private providers may seek to reap the benefits of a windfall subsidy to parents who are currently paying out of their own pockets. Employers may choose to withdraw existing childcare subsidies. I have already spoken about the additional bureaucratic burden. But worse than all of these administrative problems, the proposed expansion of the provision will not be targeted to the children who will benefit most. Markets cannot make a judgment of need but people and experts can.
We should develop a coherent, locally responsive service which embraces the full spectrum of providers to meet the needs of our children and the aspirations of their parents. I for one will do all I can to adapt the Bill that will come before this House to meet those aspirations.
Lord Geraint: My Lords, I have listened with interest to wonderful speeches delivered by Members on both sides of this House. On whichever side of this House noble Lords may sit, it seems to me that they care about the problems of others. That is what we suggest to the Government of the day should be debated in the time to come. In my experience, it is very unusual for agriculture, the common agricultural policy or the reform of that policy not to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I wonder why. Perhaps the Minister in winding up tonight will tell us the reason.
Mention has already been made of Wales. I happen to be one of those who belong to that wonderful nation. We are saddened that we are not mentioned in the gracious Speech one way or another. Perhaps the majority of Members of the Government and the other
The noble Earl referred to a new paper on rural England and the quality of Irish cattle. It was said that we could learn a great deal from the way that they marketed to the Dutch market. My personal view--I may be wrong--is that the only reason why Dutch people go to Ireland for beef is that they get it cheaper than if they buy it in England, Scotland or Wales. I am glad that they have that opportunity to send their beef to the Continent.
I know that noble Lords are not interested in the fact that I am now a retired farmer. The main reason for it was that under the new Agricultural Tenancies Act, which I favoured, last month I was in a position to give up my two holdings to two young families to start farming. I was very proud of that. I am indebted to the Government for introducing that Act. I hope that it will go from strength to strength, and that many more young people will be able to enter this proud industry.
I have many things to say, but first I should like to congratulate the Minister once again. He has gone public by saying that an inquiry will be held into the great deal of paperwork that farmers become involved in before they can claim grants and subsidies. It is a step in the right direction. I believe that farmers who apply for grants and subsidies face too much red tape and bureaucracy which can be cut if the Government initiative proves to be successful. I wish that inquiry too the best of luck.
I am proud to be a sixth generation hill farmer who has lived in the same area for a very long time. I have farmed up to 2,000 feet above sea level. Many years ago a well known Englishman, George Borrow, travelled from the top to the bottom of Wales. He passed through our village of Ponterwyd. In his book he says of our area that it is a place where people will live when crows will die. That is true of Ponterwyd and other villages like it in different parts of Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. I believe that it is the duty of the Government of the day to look after the interests of people who have farmed the hills so well for generations and looked after the environment and the beauty of the countryside. They form the lowest paid sector of the agricultural industry.
Having declared my interest, I make a plea on behalf of hill farmers. A good third of them currently survive on less than £5,000 a year, which is well below the social security threshold. It is those farmers in the uplands of Wales and Britain who look to the Budget on 28th November for a measure of relief for this hard-pressed sector of the industry. The timing of the hill livestock compensatory allowance to coincide with the Budget offers the Government a very real opportunity to display an element of compassion. I honestly believe--the noble Earl knows it--that it is for the Government to decide what the HLCA is to be, not
In the past two years funding has effectively been slashed by the Government's failure to increase HLCAs in line with inflation. It must never be forgotten that HLCAs form nearly 25 per cent. of the total income of Less Favoured Area farms. The Chancellor will do himself no favours by denying help to the hard-pressed hills. They would soon lose their appeal to the public if they returned to scrub and dereliction. The very future of hill farming is now at stake. Hopefully, representations from the unions and other bodies have not fallen on deaf and insensitive ears. I know that the Farmers' Union of Wales, the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers Union of England and Wales have made representations to the Minister. I hope that in his wisdom he will accede to their request.
The sheep industry can continue to be one with a turnover of £3.5 billion, employing in excess of a quarter of a million people. On the other hand, badly guided by government policies and public misunderstanding, it could lose direction and go into sharp decline. Let us hope that Ministers can get their act together. Will they try to remember that they are dealing with living, thinking and caring hill farmers who are very worried human beings? That is the plea that I make on behalf of my own people wherever they live in any part of this country.
Finally, let me say how disappointed I was when I read a report from the Farmers' Union of Wales about the Government White Paper on rural England. I know that we shall debate that issue soon rather than later. A consultation with the YFC movement in this country was reported as follows:
I hope that the Government will do something to help the young entrants who want to come into the industry. It may not be as successful as some of them would wish, but let us hope that we can do something to help those youngsters. With farming as the main economic activity in rural Wales, it is vitally important that we keep abreast of problems and consider all views. I hope that the Government will take heed of the meeting between the YFC and the Farmers' Union of Wales representatives and their request and that the White Paper for Wales will not recommend that local authorities should sell the smallholdings that we have
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, this afternoon I should like to spend a few moments speaking about the importance of education as a form of prevention for some of the ills of our society today. Prevention is a long-term policy. Unfortunately, our democratic system tends to be biased toward short-termism and prevention is not very attractive to party politicians. It may therefore be an appropriate subject to raise from the Cross Benches.
Many of our social ills today can arguably best be dealt with by prevention and prevention through education. For some of them there is no other solution. In particular, in my view, there is an urgent need for young people in schools to have better preparation for the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood. They need to learn how to make responsible choices and to respect the rights of others, particularly the powerless and children. Your Lordships will hear in a moment why I refer particularly to children.
I want to focus now on one example of an area in which prevention is the only solution because cure is impossible; namely, lone teenage motherhood. Curiously, in numerical terms it is a less great problem than many of your Lordships and, I suspect, the Government may suppose. Births to lone teenage mothers--lone mothers under 20 years of age--comprise only 10 per cent. or 12 per cent. of the total births to lone mothers in this country. Nonetheless, those 24,000 or so lone teenage mothers are a very important minority. They are mostly girls who lack any supportive family. They have either rejected or been rejected by their family. When a girl of that age becomes a lone mother, the stress and loneliness in bringing up a child can indeed be very hard to bear, especially when living in accommodation provided by local authorities and consisting of small boxes and one-room flats often in very unattractive blocks.
Those mothers are at an age when most of their contemporaries are enjoying their youth. So, although the mother usually sets out with the best intentions in the world, she is in a situation which offers a very poor prognosis both for the happiness of the mother and for the satisfactory rearing of the child. The cards are stacked against such a child. It must be said that a great many of them subsequently enter that sad underclass which is developing in our society. We in the Stepney Children's Fund see many of them.
The reasons for early teenage pregnancy are becoming better understood by those who work in the field, although there is still a need for research. Of course, one must include carelessness and ignorance. Eagerness for independence and for status seem to be the most important driving forces and sometimes, pathetically, the need for someone to love. The Government believe that income support and housing are important influences and I am sure that they certainly contribute. But I do not believe that they are usually the prime motivation, although a
At the Stepney Children's Fund I have been amazed at how little young people understand about the sacrifices as well as the pleasures that are involved in parenthood and how little they know about the needs and demands of young children. In America a doll has recently been invented which contains a computerised system that sets off a siren every two hours. The only way to stop it is to hold the doll in your arms and stick your thumb in its mouth for 20 minutes. Noble Lords may not believe it, but apparently that has been quite effective in dissuading a number of young ladies from becoming pregnant. That is a true story.
Research in America and also in this country at Exeter and York Universities has shown that properly designed and well delivered courses in schools, directed at both boys and girls, can lead to a significant reduction in early teenage pregnancies and motherhood. Such courses need to be interactive. They need to involve discussion groups and outside speakers. In particular, suitably trained peer group counsellors or advisers have been shown to be very effective. They need to include relationship education, life skills education and education about parenthood and the needs of children. Sex and drugs education simply become part of such a course.
The Government have provided an education Bill which requires schools to prepare young people for the responsibilities of adult life and they have provided inspectors to see whether or not they are doing so. The Government, or so they believe, have provided the money to accomplish that task. Why, then, do the majority of schools still not teach those matters to their pupils? That is the state of affairs which exists in the country today. I believe that the reason is that the effectiveness of such courses depends upon their being very well designed and well delivered so that they engage the interest of the pupils. That means well trained teachers. Often teachers lack the confidence to deliver such courses and are reluctant to take on the job. So the courses are not delivered, or are badly delivered, in schools.
For some years Relate, the Children's Society, the NSPCC and other organisations have been developing training materials for courses of that kind. Recently I was approached by Relate, the NSPCC and the Children's Society, who want to get together to form a training team to deliver such courses of education. Initially, such training would be targeted at schools in high risk areas such as some of the inner cities, where lone teenage motherhood is most prevalent.
The cost of such a pump-priming scheme to develop teacher training in schools would be £150,000 a year for the first three years. Thereafter it would be self-financing. As there are between 20,000 and 25,000 births to lone mothers under 20 each year, it seems reasonable to suppose that at least 5,000 of those births, at a most modest estimate, could be prevented. That means that the cost per mother and child would be £30. Apart from the misery saved for the mother and the
Your Lordships may therefore be surprised to hear that the Department for Education and Employment felt that it could not provide one penny piece towards supporting or encouraging such a scheme. I hope that the funding can be found, perhaps through the private or voluntary sector. It would be terribly sad if the Government were to be seen not to want to support such an important initiative. It may be true that there are "no votes in prevention" but there are votes in caring--and what we are talking about is caring. I hope the Government will think again.
Finally, if the noble Lord, Lord Morris, when he replies, were able to give an indication as to whether the Opposition, if they were to form a government, would be prepared to support education for better relationship skills, life skills and parenthood, that would be extremely helpful.
Lord Lyell: My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his interesting comments about the population size. Instead, I shall declare my interest straightaway and then draw your Lordships' attention to the parts of the gracious Speech which deal with agriculture and Northern Ireland, in both of which areas I have interests to declare. First, I farm in Scotland and I am a forest owner. Therefore, anything I say may have some relevance with regard to the hill livestock compensatory amount, arable farming in Scotland and set-aside.
The gracious Speech has a strong reference to combating fraud. There is no more doughty champion of that aspect than the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and all of us would support him. The gracious Speech states that the Government will take measures in Northern Ireland to,
I think all farmers agree that it must be right to continue the fight against fraud. Exactly the same campaign is carried on everywhere in the United Kingdom, not least in Northern Ireland. The year 1984 was for many farmers a benchmark year. It was the year when the European Community made the first serious efforts to reduce agricultural spending. It introduced quotas for dairy production. One benchmark figure that was given to me is easily remembered. In 1984 the cost of disposing of the surplus milk produce of each milking cow throughout the Community was £108. Very swingeing quotas were imposed with varying effects throughout the Community. After two years the total number of milking cows had been reduced by around 15 per cent. I inquired about the cost of disposing of the surplus milk produce after two years of quotas. I was told that in 1986 the figure was approximately £106 per milking cow. Your Lordships will see that even when stern efforts are made to reduce common agricultural policy expenditure, even without the fraud, it is fairly difficult. Farmers will find methods to improve their efficiency.
It is a great pleasure to find that several aspects of my speech have been touched upon already by my noble friend the Minister in three flattering comments concerning Northern Ireland agriculture. He referred to computerisation. Anyone who has been across the water will appreciate that agriculture needs excellent computerisation to keep track of all the four-footed bovines. Thank goodness sheep do not necessarily come into that formula. The success story alluded to by my noble friend would never have come about without the enormous effort and professionalism of the Northern Ireland farming industry. That industry is different from the industry elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In Scotland and England--not so much in Wales--there is a fairly large arable sector. However, in Northern Ireland, as in Wales, dairying and stock are the two most important sectors. Currently there are around 6,000 dairy farmers in Northern Ireland, a figure which reduces every year by about 1 to 2 per cent. An enormous benefit is that the average size of the Northern Ireland herd is near the Euro-perfect size of about 40 cows producing about 200,000 litres. Above that the advantages from the common agricultural policy are definitely reduced.
There are other facets to Northern Ireland agriculture, let alone to the rest of the agricultural industry in the United Kingdom. Over the past 10 to 12 years farmers have not necessarily been producing their crops, their milk, their meat and any other output just for the sake of production. Marketing and quality of production are riding in first place. Indeed, in Northern Ireland strenuous efforts are made to assist in quality assurance. The Department of Agriculture has promised £60 million over the next five years for the rural development programme which is targeted at increasing the quality of the produce from the industry.
The gracious Speech refers to facilitating economic development in Northern Ireland as one of the priorities of the Government in this parliamentary year. I stress to your Lordships that those words more than anything else will bring about a continuing quality of life, let alone peace--I shall not talk about the peace process--for 1·5 million brave and excellent people among whom I had the privilege to work for six years.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I wish to make a contribution on nursery education and grant-maintained schools. The case for nursery education is overwhelming; it has been supported on many occasions in your Lordships' Chamber from all sides of the House. We are now presented with this mouse of a policy: nursery vouchers. The main requirement in nursery education is to provide new places. Vouchers of themselves will not create new places. Last year the Secretary of State herself described a voucher scheme as "unwieldy" and this year described it as "not the favoured option". There are some quick changes there.
The Government have admitted that parents with vouchers will not be guaranteed a place. The Secretary of State has said that the vouchers are worth £1,100 each. The cost of a full-time nursery school place is twice that amount. The substantial difference will obviously be of considerable importance to many parents. I was interested and delighted that my noble friend Lord Ponsonby made specific reference to that difference, speaking, as he said, as a parent with children now at school.
The Prime Minister said at the 1994 Tory party conference that there was "a cast-iron commitment". Those were the words he used. They are misleading words. It is interesting that a briefing note issued by the Department for Education and Employment should use almost the same words. It said that there could be,
Do education Ministers ever get out of their offices? There has been overwhelming demand for nursery places from parents for years and years. The money being spent on introducing the pilot scheme is understood to be considerable. The figure that has been mentioned is no less than £22 million. That kind of money, or any kind of money involved in this scheme, should be spent directly on providing more places.
The funding of the scheme needs to be looked at closely. The bulk of it is to be found by reducing SSA for all local education authorities. This is to be achieved by taking the £1,100 to which I referred, which is the value of the voucher, from the LEA for each four year-old it currently educates. The LEA may or may not recoup the money through redeemed vouchers. If they do not, that money is lost to the LEA. That is yet another blow to local education authorities. If that is not the position, I hope that the Minister who is to reply will clarify it. It is of quite fundamental importance.
The Government continue to press their policies relating to grant-maintained schools. During the Summer Recess the Prime Minister said that he wanted all schools to be grant maintained. By any normal or common sense standard the policy has been a failure in spite of the huge incentives offered to schools which choose to change status. After some three years, 1,100 schools out of 25,000 have chosen to opt out. When these statistics are put to Ministers they respond by saying, with great pride, that one in five children in secondary education in England is in a grant-maintained school. One in five in one sector of education is counted as a success? As The Times pointed out recently, at the present rate it will take 100 years for all schools to become grant maintained.
Huge sums have been given to some schools--I have examples here--and the system has been condemned by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Many schools are said to have been deliberately over-compensated at the expense of local authorities whose budgets, as I believe we all know, are already overstretched. The committee also said that some double funding has occurred and that that is unacceptable. I remind your Lordships that this is a committee with a built-in Conservative majority. The system is apparently to continue but there has been talk of the so-called "top-up" percentage being reduced. I ask the Minister to comment when he replies.
Perhaps the most significant statistics relating to opting out are those for the last academic year showing that only 50 schools voted to opt out compared with 555 in 1992-93 when the policy had just begun in the immediate aftermath of the last general election. That has been pointed out on a number of occasions from this side of the House. The Government, never at a loss for excuses, trot out yet another one. They say, "Ah, we are only concerned about giving parents and governors a choice, not about the number who decide to opt out." That was certainly not the original aim and purpose of the scheme, and the Prime Minister's recent statement confirms that view.
I turn to a disturbing development in the saga. When the Prime Minister made his reference only two or three months ago to all schools opting out, there was an implication that some other way of opting out might be considered. He referred specifically to what was called a "fast-track" for church schools. The clear intention was not to have a ballot at all or something like that.
The right reverend Prelate referred to a meeting held this weekend. Perhaps I may embroider the point by quoting the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference. Those taking part did not mince their words. They called the proposals "discriminating and divisive" adding that they
It was because of this situation and other rumours that I asked the Minister an Oral Question on 17th October. I asked the noble Lord to give an assurance that the Government will not dispense with ballots. After all--I stress the point--this is surely of the utmost importance. I remind your Lordships that the Government's philosophy is based wholly on what they call "parental choice". We hear that phrase time and time again in relation to this and other areas. Ever since the establishment of grant-maintained schools we have been told that it is the parents who decide these matters, not the Government, not education committees and not politicians. The Government say that it is entirely a matter for parents.
It was very revealing that in the answers he gave to me and some of my noble friends, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said that he could not give an assurance on the continuation of ballots. The words he used were ominous. He referred to "smoothing the path" and perhaps, even more significantly, said:
Your Lordships should note the words, "for the moment". I hope that the Minister will be more forthcoming and--I hesitate to say this, because he is an honourable man--perhaps more honest and more specific when he replies to the debate.
The Government give the impression all the time that parental choice in schools is being met. At this time of the year, when so many children are in their new secondary schools, many parents have come to realise that choice of school is a myth. It is simply not possible to give parents universal, unfettered choice. We all know that in every area some secondary schools acquire a good reputation, whether justified or not. It is natural that parents will want their children to attend those schools. Inevitably, in many cases there are not sufficient places for all who wish to attend. What happens then? Parents can appeal, of course, but figures given in a parliamentary Answer are significant. Appeals against refusals of school places rose from 20,981 in 1989-90 to 41,927 in 1992-93, the latest date for which figures are available. The short answer to my rhetorical question is that many parents do not have the choice about which the Government so loudly trumpet.
The basis of my complaint and concern is not that sufficient places should be available to meet the wishes of all parents. That would not be practicable. My concern is that the Government deliberately and continually give the impression that all parents have a choice of school. Let the Government be more honest and make it clear to parents and children that there is no such thing as complete freedom of choice.
The Government have restricted choice in yet another way. The present legislation on choosing to opt out provides for a ballot of parents; it also provides that some governors should be parents of children attending that particular school. The decision taken in a ballot on whether to opt out or to stay within LEA jurisdiction is permanent. However, some of the parent governors after a certain period will no longer have children in the school and that in itself could lead to a change of opinion among parents about whether opting out or staying in is best for the school. In fact, that is happening now. Opinions do change, mostly on the basis of experience, but it is not permissible to have further ballots to allow a different view to be expressed.
The Minister may recall that when the Bill was being debated in your Lordships' House amendments were tabled to make provision for a possible change of opinion. Some of those amendments were tabled by noble Lords opposite. The Government argued that chopping and changing would affect the running of a school--and that would be true if it happened. But it would not happen. No one ever suggested such a thing. Suggestions were made about periods of seven, 10, 12 or even 15 years. A good case could be made for all of those periods. But the Government are so besotted with the principle that they will not permit the expression of other views. They pay lip service to parental choice in education and do little or nothing to try to meet the legitimate aspirations of parents or the shortcomings of the present legislation.
We can take some consolation from the present position. This is the last Queen's Speech for a full parliamentary Session from a Conservative Government before the next general election. I am certain that the people of this country will ensure that it is the last Conservative Queen's Speech for many years--and their record on education will make a significant contribution to that defeat.
Lord Kenilworth: My Lords, the last few gracious Speeches have provided a number of environmental legislative measures which have now become law, underlying Her Majesty's Government's commitment to the pursuit of sustainable development and in keeping with the objectives set out in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
This gracious Speech has almost no reference to further environmental legislative measures save for the environmental permutations of the construction of the high-speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel.
As a noble Lord with particular knowledge and expertise in landscape architecture, having my own landscape architectural practice, I wish to touch briefly on two issues. I refer first to the protection of ramblers' rights which are represented by the Ramblers Association in the light of the sale of much of the Forestry Commission's land and, secondly, to Her Majesty's Government's plans for the decommissioning of the North Sea oil rigs.
There has been much media interest recently over the controversy that since 1991 walkers have lost their freedom to roam over 136 square miles of woodland despite repeated ministerial pronouncements on safeguarding public access to land sold by the Forestry Commission. Government figures show that, of the 35,000 hectares of woodland sold since agreements were introduced in October 1991, only 506 hectares have been safeguarded. Currently, 108 publicly owned woods are up for sale, but only 12 carry any guarantee of public access.
As we are all aware, privatisation of Britain's forests has been taking place since 1991 but recently there have been a number of ugly confrontations between landowners, particularly farmers, and ramblers wishing to exercise their rights to walk through their fields. I understand that walking is the most popular recreation in Britain today and I have enormous sympathy with the ramblers' protests over the increasing threats restricting access to their long-established walks.
However, I do not feel that bridleways should be given the designation, as they have in several cases, of byways, allowing off-roaders legal access. There have been numerous complaints about byway lanes wrecked by four-wheel drive vehicles and scrambler motorbikes
Can the Minister give any assurances both as to the protection of ramblers' rights and as to whether there will be any legislation preventing four-wheel drive vehicles and scrambler motorbikes from wrecking byways?
The second issue I wish to address is that of the decommissioning of the North Sea oil rigs. Following the Brent Spar fiasco last year, the debate has raged as to the cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits of the clean seas policy.
According to the UK Offshore Association, there are 219 installations on the UK Continental Shelf, including steel and concrete fixed platforms, floating production platforms, loading units and subsea production systems, and about 7,000 kilometres of pipeline. The association believes that 75 per cent. of the platforms are likely to be brought ashore for abandonment. That therefore leaves 25 per cent. for which a long-term solution must be found in order to safeguard the environment for future generations.
As to the choice of onshore or offshore disposal, I am of the opinion that there ought to be a combination of both. Whatever the claims of Greenpeace--that as much as £630 million could be saved by the Government and the oil industry if the UK co-ordinated an international approach to the removal of most North Sea oil and gas platforms--I am of the opinion that deep sea platform operators will face far lower costs with offshore abandonment than onshore disposal. It must be appreciated that onshore disposal of deep sea rigs such as the Brent Spar would not just cost much more, but could give rise to major safety hazards in their transportation to the shore. My suggestion is that deep sea platforms should be considered case by case and alternative uses for such platforms be considered, such as heliports or emergency rescue centres.
In the light of the closure of several shipyards in Scotland, with the resultant loss of jobs, have the Government considered developing a platform-abandonment facility, perhaps re-opening yards such as Ardyne Point in Argyllshire or Loch Kishorn in Wester Ross, which are currently mothballed? Certainly there needs to be a co-ordinated discussion among the oil industry, Government and the environmental campaigners to reach satisfactory compromise on this issue.
I certainly welcome the ruling that after 1st January 1998 no installations are to be placed on the UK continental shelf unless their design and construction is such that entire removal upon abandonment would be feasible.
Finally, I wish to touch briefly on education for dyslexics. As a child I suffered severely from dyslexia, but was fortunate that my parents were in a position financially to arrange specialist assistance and send me
If children with dyslexia are not properly taught and treated in their early years, that can result in lifelong disadvantages. I welcome the Government's initiative on nursery vouchers for children aged four to five years as that will enable a greater number of children with dyslexia to be diagnosed and helped at the most important time in their lives.
Current statistics from the British Dyslexia Association and the Dyslexia Institute show that 4 per cent. of the population suffers from dyslexia and that, if properly treated at an early age, the costs per child can be fairly low. However, if left to later in life, the cost of remedial treatment rises dramatically.
A popular phrase is, "If he or she cannot learn the way you teach, you can teach the way he or she learns". Bearing in mind that 15 per cent. of all school leavers have poor reading skills, the value of the special teaching methods is obvious. Can the Minister in his winding up speech give any assurances of further assistance for the treatment of dyslexics?