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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House how much taxpayers' money the last Government spent in opposing such cases for over 12 years instead of negotiating a reasonable settlement with the union which would always have been open to them? Further, in view of the recent successes achieved by Dr. Enderby and her colleague, will my noble friend give consideration to ensuring that these speech therapists are entitled to back pay in respect of the losses they have sustained during the 12 years they have been waiting for a successful conclusion to such cases?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am sorry to have to tell my noble friend that the total as regards legal defence costs in such cases so far amounts to around £1 million. So far as concerns retrospective payments, I am sure that they will be the subject of the preliminary talks which, as I said in response to my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, it is proposed to hold later this month.
Lord Quirk: My Lords, does the Minister agree that fully trained speech therapists like Professor Enderby, formerly Dr. Enderby, are a very special and valuable resource and that one of the ways in which their lot could be relieved, as well as the issue of equal pay, is the support of a cadre of well-trained speech therapy assistants to whom could be delegated some of the work that is reconstitutive after the properly expert therapists have made the appropriate diagnosis?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his suggestion. As he said, Professor Enderby is an extremely distinguished member of her profession with an exceptional international reputation for both academic and practical work. I shall draw the noble Lord's suggestion about additional support to the attention of my honourable friend the Minister for Health in another place who is looking in detail at the practical outcome of the issue.
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, as the Minister was critical of the previous Government's action in contesting this case, would she like to assess the costs of the 1,000 withdrawn cases which were being promoted by the MSF and which the courts decided were no longer pertinent? Further, in her supplementary reply to her noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke, was the Minister suggesting that this Government will be retrospectively compensating people for the Government's failure to foresee the future?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for those points. As I said in response to my noble friend, the details of such settlements, both for individuals and for the profession as a whole, are under general consideration and will be the subject of the preliminary talks, without prejudice, this month. I understand that there are still 1,500 cases remaining to be settled. Therefore, the question of their position will obviously be of crucial importance.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I rise simply to point out that I forgot to declare my interest in the matter as I am president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy. I apologise to the House for that omission. However, is my noble friend the Minister aware that we will be monitoring the negotiations as they continue?
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is especially important for children to be able to communicate properly? Does she also agree that there is a dearth of speech therapists and long waiting lists of young children needing their services? It is important that any problems children may have should be dealt with as quickly as possible as soon as they are diagnosed. Can the Minister expedite any negotiations so that young people are encouraged to train as speech therapists and thereby ensure that the number of such waiting lists can be cut?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Of course it is important that children should be helped as early as they can be through the professional activities of speech therapists. However, the relationship of that issue to the question of the pay claims is not direct. I shall draw the suggestions of the noble Countess for practical change
The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, it would not be practical to restore those playing fields which have been sold in recent years. But we intend to ensure that playing fields which schools and their local communities need are not sold in future. My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Secretary of State for National Heritage are discussing this as a matter of urgency.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that those of us who are interested in the problem very much appreciate the new thinking on the sale of playing fields? However, if necessary, would the Government consider introducing legislation on the matter, although I appreciate that there would be difficulties associated with it? Is my noble friend further aware that the previous Government's disastrous record of selling literally hundreds of playing fields was opposed by the Sports Council, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, the National Playing Fields Association and many other organisations? Therefore, I hope that the Minister will realise that when the Government do take action they will receive overwhelming support.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. Yes, of course, I am aware of the concern on the part of many of those organisations which are concerned with sporting activities for young people about the previous government's record in selling off school playing fields. I believe my noble friend is aware that to ban all sales of school playing fields would require new legislation. With my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage, we are looking at ways of ensuring that all school pupils have access to proper sports facilities. Perhaps I may add that proper sports facilities are more than just grass playing fields. We are also looking at ways to improve sports facilities generally for all types of school; for example, indoor facilities and all-weather pitches are particularly important for schools on restricted sites in built-up areas.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I believe the noble Lord opposite is fully aware that LEAs are free to dispose of school playing fields which they own in the same way as they are able to dispose of any other assets, provided that their schools continue to meet the requirements of the school premises regulations and that the needs of those schools and those of the local communities that they serve are properly met. That is what we aim to ensure.
Lord Howell: My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister has just indicated, most of the school playing fields were sold off in defiance of the school premises regulations, as amended in 1996. Therefore, will she give an undertaking that there will be a thorough review of those regulations, bearing in mind the fact that school use and community use should be written into them? Will my noble friend also bear in mind the fact that there is no provision to provide playing fields for any children aged eight, which is now an anachronism? Further--and most important in the minds of some of us--despite what my noble friend said about indoor facilities, most of the national games are played on God's good grass, which is under-prepared, not properly maintained and in many cases is a scandal and danger to the players. Will my noble friend the Minister kindly take all those matters on board in her review of the situation?
Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords; we are examining all the options. However, perhaps I may pick up one of the questions raised by my noble friend. My department is particularly keen to encourage schools to work closely with their local community. Many schools already actively welcome local people making use of their facilities, and we want to build on that. Before considering any land as surplus, schools really should look carefully at the needs of the communities that they serve.
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