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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the importance of children's first experience of school. If that is an unfortunate or negative experience it can be very damaging in the long term. It is very important that when young children start school they are in an environment which is supportive and meets their needs. I assure the noble Lord that the Government are firmly committed to raising standards in all types of early year settings. The Government will undertake consultation early next year on the establishment of a new uniform regulatory and inspection regime for all early years settings that offer nursery education and day care services.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I should like to repeat part of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which was not dealt with in the reply of the noble Baroness. Is it the intention of the Government to level up to the more generous teacher/pupil ratio that is required of private nursery schools or to level down to that required in state provision, or neither? Can the noble Baroness inform the House whether the Government have any intention of controlling the fees charged by private nursery schools as a condition of entering into planned nursery provision in local authority areas?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government are looking at the whole issue of pupil/teacher ratios.

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As the noble Baroness will be aware, our decision to abolish the assisted places scheme so as to provide more teachers and smaller class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds will affect reception classes--that relates to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne--so that all children in reception classes will benefit from class sizes smaller than those that existed under the previous government. On the noble Baroness's second question about fees charged, we have asked all local authorities to carry out early years development plans in conjunction with the voluntary and private sector. We shall be asking them to look at the whole issue of the fees being charged.

Baroness David: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most of us are happy with her Answer, but that we would like to know how soon that will happen? What is the pupil/teacher ratio in local authority reception classes at the moment? How soon will it come down to a level which most of us, I am sure, would like to see?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I think that your Lordships will agree that the Government have got on immediately with trying to reduce class sizes for primary schools and infant schools with children aged five, six and seven. That will happen as soon as possible. We made a manifesto commitment, and we will meet it.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the contribution made by playschools in recent years in filling the gap where nursery provision is not available? Is she aware that the reception classes have taken away valuable resources from playgroups, which is causing them to close in their hundreds? What future plans does her party have for playgroups?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we greatly value the work of playgroups. We deeply regret the fact that, as a result of the divisive voucher scheme introduced by the previous government, some 800 playgroups have had to close. In the new programme for the expansion of provision for all four year-olds we have asked local education authorities to work with the playgroup movement. I do not believe that reception classes have taken resources away from playgroups. What is needed is sensible, planned collaboration between the voluntary and the maintained sectors. That indeed is what we intend.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, are local authorities entitled to refuse children with learning disabilities, either in this age group or among the five and six year-olds to whom she referred, just because they say that they are unable to provide the special care required?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting children with special needs, whatever their age. Under the previous government, some local authorities were unable to provide places for children under five who had special needs, but the new Government's proposals will ensure that all four year-olds, whatever their needs, will have a place in a maintained, voluntary or private school of some kind.

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The Millennium Dome

2.53 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether a project director for the Millennium Experience at Greenwich has been appointed with the sole responsibility to ensure that the Millennium Dome and related structures are completed to the agreed specification, timescale and estimated cost.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the New Millennium Experience Company appointed Mr. David Trench as Director of Sites and Structures in May 1997. Reporting to the chief executive, he is responsible for all sites and structures contracts and for ensuring that they are completed to time and budget. In addition, Sir Alan Cockshaw, former chairman of AMEC, was appointed to the board of the New Millennium Experience Company in June. He is taking an interest in all construction matters.

Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does the project director whom he mentioned have full authority, without reference to committees or anything like that, to take all decisions necessary to complete this great project to time and estimated cost?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the New Millennium Experience Company is a company and not a local authority. Mr. Trench reports directly to the chief executive. He has responsibility under her.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, why are Her Majesty's Government not publishing interim accounts? Who is Mr. Trench?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall answer the noble Baroness's second question first. Mr. Trench was appointed two years ago to--I suppose the phrase is--clean up the problems in the British Library. He has done so successfully and to the great satisfaction of Her Majesty's Government. As to the interim accounts, the New Millennium Experience Company was only formed on 12th March this year. Its audited accounts, which are what make sense, will become available only after its first full year, which will end on 31st March next year. However, the Minister without Portfolio, in his evidence to the Select Committee yesterday, undertook to ensure that management figures would be made available as soon as is practicable.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, is there any news yet about a Lambeth working party, which was mentioned a week or two ago, which is studying the idea that the Millennium Dome should have some Christian aspect, as the millennium is supposed to commemorate the founding of Christianity?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Lambeth working group, to which I have referred on a

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number of occasions in response to questions, continues with its work. It is in close discussion with the New Millennium Experience Company in the planning of what is to go into the Millennium Dome.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, do the Government consider that the Millennium Dome will be profitable or, in the end, a terrific cost to the nation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the total cost of the Millennium Dome has been well publicised. The full budget, including inflation, is £758 million. That will be met by a combination of contributions from the National Lottery, visitors, and, to a more modest extent, the taxpayers. That balance of income and expenditure has not changed.

Higher Education Tuition Fees

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether all moneys saved as a result of the abolition of maintenance grants to students in higher education and the moneys generated by charging fees for tuition will be dedicated to higher education.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced in another place on 23rd July that the Government would ensure that savings from the new funding arrangements would be used to improve quality, standards and opportunity for all in further and higher education. We have already taken decisive action to address the serious funding problems facing higher education. The funding package announced on 23rd September will allow an extra £165 million to be spent on higher education in 1998-99. In addition some £15 million of the higher education savings has been allocated to the further education sector to contribute to meeting the Government's priorities for reducing social exclusion and increasing employability.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. If money is to be saved exclusively at the expense of higher education students and their families, and spent elsewhere, even if it is in further education or elsewhere in the budget, then it is a tax on those students and those families.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the previous government left the further education sector severely underfunded. It was in an even worse situation than the higher education sector. The increase in funding of £83 million for the further education sector, which includes a £20 million increase in employer contributions to employer-led provision in further education, will provide for a resumption of growth in student numbers, geared particularly to widening participation on a financially sound basis. The Dearing Committee recommended that the cap put on the expansion of higher education by the previous

3 Dec 1997 : Column 1368

government should be lifted, and that some of those places should be provided in sub-degree courses in FE colleges. The Government have already made a start towards meeting the Dearing Committee's recommendations.

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