Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Byford: My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? I am slightly intrigued by the fact that on the one hand, she said that there is not the same need to look after and have wildlife protection in the mountain and moorland areas; yet, on the other hand, she begins to argue that woodland and riverbanks are in fact a special issue. In both areas there are sites of special scientific interest. I wonder whether the noble Baroness would like to take us further along that path before she leaves it.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her request for further illumination. I am saying that the research evidence is quite clear: on the open habitats on

22 Nov 1999 : Column 262

mountain and moorland there is little evidence that access has an impact on wildlife, whereas on those restricted, tight habitats--river corridors, coastal strips and woodland-- where access can become very concentrated, the research evidence is clear that there is likely to be an impact. I am merely, as usual in the case of English Nature, making a statement from a scientific point of view.

One of the points in the access debate that we should all recognise is that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said, we do not want to encourage people into their cars so that they can drive to open grounds to have a walk. There is a real need to promote linear access close to where people live. To be frank, I hope that the failure in the past of initiatives to try to promote permissive access on linear routes will be corrected by the legislation that is to come before us.

On the question of transport, as mentioned in the gracious Speech, I was a little worried when coming back to the reformed House that we might miss the presence of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, who has been a doughty campaigner for green transport over many years. I was delighted to be relieved of my anxiety that I might have to help to fill his shoes rather inadequately by the impressive grasp of the subject of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rather sneered at the size of the transport Bill and hoped that its pursuit was not as part of an integrated transport strategy. Thank goodness it is a substantial Bill in pursuit of an integrated transport strategy. It is long overdue because of the total lack of vision or investment in transport policies over the lifetime of the previous government.

Meeting mobility needs without wrecking the environment and dealing with the nation's rather destructive love affair with the motor car is not an easy issue and needs the whole range of regulation and incentives which an integrated transport strategy involves. We need to see investment in public transport, incentives to travel wisely and disincentives to polluting and congesting travel. We must not run away from the issue because it is too difficult. There is no alternative. We know what will happen to transport if we shy away because it is too difficult.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves transport, does she recall a few weeks ago vigorously defending the policy of the escalator for duty on fuel for motor cars? In the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's about-turn on that issue, is she still happy with government policy; and on this subject, is she speaking on behalf of English Nature?

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I stand very much by my words on the transport escalator. I am delighted to see in the pre-Budget Statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to continue regarding the fuel escalator on an annual basis to see what its contribution to this whole package in an integrated transport strategy would represent. We

22 Nov 1999 : Column 263

cannot run away from these difficult issues and a whole range of mechanisms needs to be considered in a balanced fashion.

Perhaps I may conclude by referring to the education proposals in the gracious Speech. I welcome the proposal for the Learning and Skills Council to improve standards for the post-16 education and training provisions. It is a fundamental principle that lack of access to education equals lack of access to opportunity. My noble friend Lord Sawyer spoke with passion on the vision that we need to have for education and opportunity. We do not even begin to approach the basic numeracy or literacy standards of many of our European neighbours. However, some opportunities are coming as a result of the new digital communications media to enable access to education and lifelong learning for all. I should declare an interest as a Vice-Chairman of the BBC. The new integrated digital media of television, radio and the Internet can offer an entertaining and easy way into a virtual curriculum based on the digital archive for which, as licence payers, we have already paid, making it available to everyone in the UK on the Internet through schools, homes, workplaces and community centres. We have to grasp this opportunity firmly. It provides the route from entertainment to attainment for many who would otherwise not engage with education and learning. The BBC would very much like to be able to develop its unique role in this area.

I am fairly frisky about this gracious Speech. It may look a trifle bitty but it makes strides forward and brings the environment to the heart of policy, a manifesto commitment of the Government. I look forward to vigorous debate.

8.15 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I rise to address your Lordships with what I might describe as an element of surprise. I have to be honest and say that I did not expect to be here. Having said that, it is with great honour that I take part in the debate, though I have great sadness about the many contributions that we shall not be hearing from friends no longer with us. I think particularly of my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, who made such a wonderful contribution to debates on agriculture. His presence is very sadly missed.

I should declare an interest as a landowner in north Yorkshire. Before going any further, perhaps I may say to the Government that I think it is a great pity that we have rolled agriculture, the environment and education into one debate as that dilutes the importance of all three subjects. Agriculture and the environment, yes, but education should be treated separately. In future I hope that the Government will take note of my request.

The problems of the countryside are well documented and are certainly too numerous for me to mention today. But for sure, the countryside is about many things--food production, different businesses, recreation, wildlife and so on--and they do not always

22 Nov 1999 : Column 264

mix readily. The Government play a vital role in attempting to achieve a balance and harmony. It is not an easy task--I realise that--but in order to do it effectively an essential prerequisite is to gain the confidence of those who have to deliver these objectives. I am bound to say that, to date, the Government have manifestly failed to do so. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they have successfully managed to antagonise virtually all sectors of the rural community, which is quite an achievement. That is exacerbated by the total lack of mention of agriculture in the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald. I know that that has been mentioned by other noble Lords but I think that it is worth mentioning again. We are talking about one of the major industries in this country, but it was never mentioned in the opening speech in a debate on agriculture and the environment. That is quite astonishing.

There are many examples of where the Government are not looking after the interests of the countryside. There is no better one than the very contentious issue of the right to roam, as mentioned in the gracious Speech. In fact, I cannot think of a better example of legislation designed to drive a wedge between the town and country at a time when we should be working towards better understanding and reconciliation. Apart from there being no research base for the legislation, we are seeing the abandonment of the precautionary principle, which has served the countryside extremely well in the past. I was astonished to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young, say that she did not think there was evidence to show that the right to roam would have any effect on upland wildlife habitats. I ask the noble Baroness: where is the evidence and research to show that this will not happen? I do not expect her to answer now--perhaps we can discuss it at some stage. I should have thought it incumbent on government to prove that it will not have an effect before they start bringing forward the legislation.

On the face of it, this is one of the most potentially impractical, litigious and confrontational pieces of legislation possible. From the evidence I have seen it is not popular with the majority of those who wish to walk in the countryside, not to mention those people who will have to pick up the pieces afterwards. I believe that the Bill will undermine management, disrupt important habitats and their associated species and adversely affect people's livelihoods. At the same time it will criminalise those who have the responsibilities of management if they do not fully comply with the legislation, whereas those given the new freedom to wander at will simply have to abide by some code of practice. That simply is not good enough.

My noble friend Lady Byford asked the Government certain questions. I certainly do not wish to repeat those questions because I think that she covered most of the ones that I would have asked. However, perhaps I may draw the attention of noble Lords to a report in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday headed, "Farmer's foibles set ramblers out to grass".

22 Nov 1999 : Column 265

It reports on a particular individual who overheard a conversation in the Dent car park in the Yorkshire Dales, not far from where I live. The article states:


    "Through his car window he overheard a group from the Ramblers' Association being briefed by their leader before setting out on a walk. They were reminded it was part of 'the agreement with central Government' that members of the association should act as 'eyes and ears' in terms of picking up 'legislative transgressions' in the countryside".

The article goes on to say,


    "He explained these should all be reported so local authorities could check whether they had planning permission or not, adding that authorities in some cases pay informers who report such offences ... The leader was aware that most of his followers were 'workers in the public sector' and would therefore be knowledgeable about legislation in their own fields".


    One rambler who asked about the possibility of any later comeback from these reports was assured there was no fear of this, thanks to the Government's new 'whistleblower's charter'".

I accept that this is a report in a newspaper, but like most newspaper stories, I suspect that there is an element of truth in it. I ask the Government to give an assurance that they totally disassociate themselves from these kinds of allegations of conspiracy. Those are exactly the kind of concerns felt by country people about this legislation.

Many resented the emasculation of the Rural Development Agency. I am bound to say that there was cause for some enthusiasm at the creation of the new Countryside Agency. The countryside desperately needs a champion to fight its corner and this new quango seemed the appropriate one to take up the mantle. Whether it does remains to be seen, but I wish it God speed and hope that it succeeds.

However, it is interesting to note, and worrying to say the least, that given the agency's role in trying to implement the Government's muddled policies on access, in its recently published policy document it failed to mention two important aspects of rural life that will be adversely affected by increased access. The first is rural crime and the second is field sports. Rural crime is a very real problem. While I appreciate that crime is reducing nationally, rural crime is not falling at the same rate as that of urban crime. Quite simply, the criminal realises that the lack of policing in remote areas makes them a soft touch and increased access can only give those inclined towards crime every excuse to be in places where they should not be.

Field sports contribute an annual £3.8 billion to the rural economy. They support jobs and ancillary activities, often in remote rural areas that are in crying need of all the support that they can get. Furthermore, vast areas of countryside have been protected and preserved, thus ensuring that important habitats and species still exist that otherwise would, I fear, have long since disappeared. This has come at no cost to the taxpayer. Indeed, as regards many of the SSSIs referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, many of those designations would never have come about but for the field sports interest.

Perhaps I may refer noble Lords to a report by the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports entitled Countryside Sports and the U.K. Biodiversity Action

22 Nov 1999 : Column 266

Plan, which has been placed in the Library of this House. I declare an interest as I chaired the conference. Nevertheless, the report is worth reading.

For the Countryside Agency to fail to address either of these two vital points which in their different ways play such an important part in country life is astonishing. Is it purely coincidence or is it a degree of cynical pragmatism? Either way, it has been a serious omission.

That takes me on to highlight the need for additional resources in order further to conserve and enhance the habitats of wildlife within the United Kingdom countryside. There is much discussion on the reform of the CAP and Agenda 2000, but despite all the talk about redistribution of funds from the agricultural support systems to the agri-environment budget, unfortunately the sums remain derisory. However, there do appear to be some opportunities within the reform package. I hope that the Government will seize on those wherever possible, in particular within the discretionary elements under the horizontal measures.

But whatever the outcome, it is essential that any money saved on reductions to agricultural support must be retained within the rural economy and reinvested through a combination of agri-environment schemes along with support and help for new businesses. I do hope that the Government can give a firm assurance that that will happen.

Other noble Lords have already pointed out that agriculture will always play a major part in our countryside. Farmers must be there not simply to produce food but to shape the landscape that we all enjoy. However, they cannot do that if there is no money. For that reason, the necessary support mechanisms must be put in place. As Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, said recently:


    "There is a dilemma for the public. They want extensive farming but with the prices that can only come from intensive agriculture".

That is the big challenge facing all of us in the countryside, not least the Government, in particular as we move towards World Trade Organisation objectives, free markets and less support for agricultural output.

I see also that the Government plan to introduce measures to strengthen SSSIs through the possible imposition of management orders. That is a rather ironic situation because on the one hand the Government wish to protect SSSIs and on the other they want everyone to walk all over them. Be that as it may, I can see the need for some protection and I have sympathy for this proposal. However, I believe that it is absolutely essential that such orders should be a means of last resort. By and large the Wildlife and Countryside Act has been a success, not least because of the confidence and understanding that have developed between land managers and wildlife officers on the ground, along with the positive incentive schemes that have developed. This must not be put at risk by new draconian powers.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 267

Furthermore it is important to recognise that most of the damage done to SSSIs is not deliberate but is caused by neglect and lack of resources. The truth of the matter is--the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to this and she is absolutely right--that modern farming encouraged by the subsidy system has taken its toll on such sites and it will take public money to rectify the damage. That is particularly the case in the uplands where overgrazing has been a problem.

I should like to raise a final issue. If rural people are not to be discriminated against they deserve to have the opportunity of accessing as many services as possible. However, by and large, services come from people and people come from jobs. As agriculture changes and buildings become redundant, those same buildings offer opportunities for other development. I am not advocating a free-for-all. Far from it. However, great opportunities are being missed that would allow appropriate development and therefore jobs. Some local planning authorities are still suffering from the notion that they are there simply to hinder rather than to help and create. That needs attention and we need to see change.

We need to see a genuine partnership and trust between Government, their agencies, local authorities and rural communities. We need well thought through incentive schemes that benefit those who succeed and deliver. Above all, the Government must begin to understand and recognise the difficulties faced by those who live and work in rural areas today. There is no point in producing endless consultation papers and then completely ignoring the responses, in particular when they come from those groups and individuals that have practical experience. The Government have a duty to consider the needs of all their constituents. At present one large minority feels thoroughly let down. I hope the Minister can reassure us that things will change.

8.29 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I was heartened when the Labour Party chose to fight the 1997 general election on the theme, "Education, education, education". I note that in the gracious Speech that commitment is re-affirmed:


    "Education remains my Government's number one priority",

though I have to say that that only appears on the second page. It was not just poor syntax and split infinitives that marred the Speech from the Throne, but also poor sub-editing: "number one priority" ought surely to have appeared in the first paragraph in order to copper-bottom the degree of commitment made to education by the Government.

While the Government have made some improvements on their predecessors' record, their performance to date remains disappointing in some respects, especially with regard to the universities, of which, very worryingly, there was no mention in the Speech. As a recently retired vice-chancellor, I should perhaps declare an interest.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 268

I genuinely want to give credit where credit is due. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, I welcomed the two significant initiatives that have emanated from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. First, last year's announcement of the Universities' Challenge Fund to stimulate venture capital funds for wealth generating technology transfer and spin-off companies was exactly the sort of inducement needed. Secondly, and more recently, was the announcement of collateral Exchequer funds to facilitate a strategic partnership between Cambridge, Britain's premier university, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More such projects need to be promoted if UK universities are to maintain their position as being among the best in the world. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, I, too, want to applaud the Science Enterprise Challenge Fund, introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as the restructuring and streamlining of the system of further education that are foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech.

All of those proposals are to be welcomed, but much more remains to be done, and it is a pity that no new initiatives for the university sector were outlined in the gracious Speech. After all, it is now two-and-a-half years since the committee under the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, reported. To date, it is fair to say, it has not received a comprehensive response from government.

The distinctiveness of Scotland's education system, encouraged and enhanced as it has been by devolution, has meant that good progress is being made to develop an overall and coherent policy for tertiary education north of the Border. The fees problem apart, which is symptomatic of the wider funding issues that affect the whole of UK third level education, the principals of Scottish higher education institutions, working in close and profitable partnership with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, are fashioning a modern system appropriate to the needs of the Scots and Scotland. In contrast, England and Northern Ireland are lagging far behind; as is Wales, although it shows signs of getting its act together.

Last March, Professor Howard Newby, Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University, now president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, produced a stimulating paper on the problems facing UK universities in the medium term. In addressing the issues raised by globalisation, the changing mission of higher education, changes in the types and nature of students, the academic profession, finance and the need to reform governance, he highlighted some of the problems that must now be addressed, some of which the Dearing Report had not had time to consider.

Professor Newby pointed to the need for the formation of strategic alliances, both within the UK (such as that being formed by the White Rose consortium of the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick) and internationally (of the type that I have already cited between Cambridge and MIT). But currently, it seems, the Government are prepared to rely too heavily on the regional development agencies to promote such strategic alliances sub-nationally. I

22 Nov 1999 : Column 269

hope I may be proved wrong, but I doubt whether they will be the appropriate vehicles to do that, also whether they will have the vision and drive that will be required.

Professor Newby also looked critically at problems of funding, which Dearing sought to address but which the Government have not had the courage to tackle comprehensively and head-on. And yet it is central to the situation. Professor Newby starkly compares the UK university system to,


    "the British car industry in the 1960's ... a sector which is under-invested and structured to meet a local/national need rather than to compete within a global market place".

I agree with that comparison, but I would go much further than he does by pointing to the problems of the three R's--recruitment, retention and remuneration--with which the Bett Report only tinkered.

As in primary and secondary education, where there are very acute teacher shortages in key subject areas, insufficient candidates applying for headships and a downturn in student applications, so there are similar shortages in higher education. Even the most prestigious universities are finding difficulty in attracting good applicants in sufficient numbers to apply for undergraduate courses in mathematics, some of the key sciences and engineering. At postgraduate level the same is true, although one should add economics to the list at the doctoral level. Because of that, the quality of future academic staff is now at serious risk.

The UK has moved from an elite to a mass system of higher education. Increased demand has been met by increased supply; and quality has been maintained. The productivity increases achieved by the universities were phenomenal. By contrast, the rewards for the staff who achieved that productivity were abysmal. And, as with schoolteachers, insult was added to injury by ministerial statements, particularly under the previous government--as Mr Michael Portillo's brief moment of mea culpa recognised--denigrating them rather than applauding what they had achieved. Earlier, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, rightly paid tribute to the dedication of members of the armed services. By the same token, academic staff and other university staff deserve plaudits for the strenuous efforts they have made in the past decade during a period of remorseless reductions in unit costs.

The fact is that the UK does not possess a fully worked out policy for higher education that addresses the issues raised in the Dearing Report and by Professor Newby. The patchwork of ad hoc initiatives, however welcome in themselves, does not add up to a coherent and comprehensive strategy. The failure to grasp fully the issues of funding, and particularly staff remuneration, will relegate the UK to the second division. The competition to attract the brightest intellects is increasing all the time, as are the salaries being offered. The universities will not be able to compete for their fair share of that talent. We are beginning to eat the seed-corn.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 270

The Government have formed, among their chosen agents for change, no fewer than 318 task forces in the past two-and-a-half years--an amazing growth industry--but, incredibly, not one deals with the problems facing the universities. It is high time that one of them did, for time is running out. I hope that the Minister, in replying, will be able to give reassurance that, although omitted from the gracious Speech, the universities are fully included in the Government's "number one priority".

8.39 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I apologise for not being present for the early part of this debate but I particularly want to address that section of the gracious Speech dealing with proposals for local government. I declare an interest as Conservative leader of Essex County Council and a councillor for longer than I care to think. I am also vice-chairman of the Local Government Association. I speak to the proposed reforms as a long-standing advocate of local government.

Local government has undergone enormous reform over past years and I welcome much of what has happened. Local government reform is an evolutionary process, in which councils change to be better able to meet the needs of those they serve. Change for the sake of change is not a good thing. An obsession with modernisation, with little thought for the substance or impact that it may bring, is not a good thing. The proposals for local government reform concern me deeply.

After the publication of the Government's White Paper, which strongly suggested that they would prefer elected mayors, I thought that it would be a good idea to study other countries that have such a system. For the past two years, I have been looking at local government as far afield as New Zealand and the United States. There are some striking lessons for Britain to learn. Many of the Government proposals are akin to the arrangements in New Zealand.

The important lesson learned from my journeys is that local government relates to a specific locality and, as a consequence, is very diverse. I am not arguing against changes to local government. Far from it. Local government should continue to evolve and adapt, but we must look closely at the nature of the changes.

I believe in local diversity. If a council feels that it needs a mayor and has public support for such a proposal, let it have a mayor. If a council wants a cabinet, that is fine--but just three models is far too limiting. How can the same three models suit a large rural county, small county town, huge city, tiny rural district and London borough? Each of those communities has widely differing interests.

Each council should be free to determine its own decision-making structures. I am sure that the public are not overly concerned whether a council has a cabinet, a mayor, two committees or three. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, the public are more concerned about whether a lorry will arrive to collect their refuse on a Tuesday morning.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 271

In the United States, it is not unusual for a state to have more than one form of local government. It is not uncommon for there to be more than five forms of local government in one state. When I visited Virginia earlier this year, I found that it has a dozen forms of local government. Different structures exist to serve the people of Essex County in Virginia, with a population of just a few thousand, from those that service Fairfax County, with a population of more than 1 million people. Flexibility is needed so that local councils can develop structures that are relevant to their specific localities.

Another striking lesson is that the UK has a huge number of councillors. If new local government structures are to be introduced, we need to look seriously at reducing the total number of councillors. Fairfax County has only 12 councillors, whereas Essex County Council has 79. If we are to have new ways of working we must adopt the whole package, not just pick parts of it. In Essex, an executive of 10 members would mean 69 other councillors not having a fulfilling role, which would not be acceptable. They feel insulted when told that they should do more work in their constituencies. What have they been doing in past years? If there are to be changes, a full and meaningful role will have to be found for many councillors.

As long as a council has transparency in its decision making, clear lines of accountability and proper scrutiny, I see no reason why the Government should not permit far greater flexibility, ensuring that local government is unlimited in the manifestation of its internal structure. If a council wishes to create a cabinet, mayor or committee, let it do so.

My noble friend Lord Bowness spoke about the Joint Committee he chaired on the draft Bill. The Local Government Association made several proposals to that committee, some of which were accepted. We eagerly await the Government's response to the committee's report, which we hope will be published before the Bill so that we know the Government's thinking.

On standards of conduct, I have long experience of working in local government and am certain that the majority of council officers and elected members uphold the highest standards of conduct. However, I fully support the proposals set out in Lord Nolan's report. The Government's proposals go far further and would create a great bureaucracy, which we are not keen to see. Essex has a local standards committee chaired by an independent person and that seems effective. We hope that the Government will think again about establishing a national bureaucracy when the Bill is published.

As to the effect on local government of post-16 education and learning and skills councils, I was a long-standing chairman of a local education committee and was for five years chairman of the Eastern Area Further Education Funding Council, so I have seen post-16 education operate and develop over the past few years. I do not think that people realise what has happened over the past 10 years, how

22 Nov 1999 : Column 272

far we have gone and how far colleges have developed to meet demand. I am the first to admit that there needs to be more co-ordination of post-16 training but to create a quangoland of 50 learning and skills councils is to return to the 1980s Manpower Services Commission and area manpower boards. I served on one of those boards. The previous Government decided to change that system for the better. We are now creating a quangoland of committees, not necessarily occupied by local councillors, which could take us back rather than forward. We need to build on what has been achieved, rather than create entirely new systems.

What particularly concerns me about the Government's proposals is the proposed legislation for youth and adult education. If anybody is qualified to decide where youth clubs or youth provision should be located, it is local government. I represent an area of 10 parishes, each of which is very involved in community youth clubs. Local government works in partnership with the district council and county council. To establish a whole new tier of quangos above youth clubs seems ridiculous. I hope that the Government will think again. Local government should be involved more in post-16 systems, not less. Let us build on what has been achieved over the past few years, rather than start all over again and return to the 1980s.

Post-16 education, particularly in rural areas, and the new local government Bill are designed for urban areas. About half the population of this country live in two-tier areas having counties and districts, and about 80 per cent of the country is covered by two-tier local government. The Government's proposals seem to be designed for urban areas, as though they do not understand what happens in two-tier systems. I hope that the Government will think again before bringing all those proposals forward. We want support and more involvement for local government. I hope that the Government will take those points on board.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I want to speak briefly about the post-16 learning and skills Bill that was foreshadowed in the gracious Speech. The Government have set out their policies in two documents. Bridging the Gap, published by the Social Exclusion Unit, is printed with a green cover but I am not sure that it is a Green Paper. The other is Learning to Succeed, which is incontestably a White Paper published by the Department of Education and Employment.

I begin by congratulating the Government sincerely on the way that they have approached the problem of social exclusion in our society. They have not rushed in but have taken a great deal of care to ascertain the nature of the problem and the best way to deal with it before they proceed. I have one or two suggestions to make in the context of their proposals. First, Bridging the Gap is about 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in education, training or work; that is to say, those who probably did not succeed in school. It proposes four solutions. The first is a graduation ceremony for all

22 Nov 1999 : Column 273

young people at 19. There are different paths to graduation, some academic and some less academic, which are not as yet fully defined. It is also proposed that there should be financial support for young people in education on a modest scale.

However, the fourth element that I want to talk about this evening is a new support service to help steer 13 to 19 year-olds "through the system". The new support service is mainly, but not exclusively, for severely disadvantaged, disaffected and socially excluded young people. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the youth department of Toynbee Hall. The fact that I have participated for the past 11 years in summer holiday camps for young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties may perhaps give me some modest authority when I speak on these issues. The Government appear to assume in Bridging the Gap that it will be easy to access these disaffected and socially excluded 16 to 18 year-olds. It will not be. At 16 a young person in that category has probably been truanting for several years. At best they see school as irrelevant; at worst, they see it as the enemy that has failed them.

By 16 many of the young people I know have become part of an alternative street culture. Having been rejected, as they see it, by school and mainstream society, they live in an alternative culture with its own values and taboos. Most of them survive in the black market. A boy who has been betrayed by the system, as he sees it, and has learnt to survive on the streets will normally be very reluctant to return to the system which rejected him. Remember Kimball O'Hara, the hero of Rudyard Kipling's Kim--and he was a good guy.

Such young people will have to be tempted away from their own sub-culture and persuaded to try again in the mainstream. That can be done only by someone whom they learn to trust. First, one must gain the confidence of these young people and then build it up to the point where they will give it a try. Finally, one must be prepared to keep on supporting them until they can fly. Sometimes that takes several years.

Youth work of this kind is being done as we sit here: it is being done across the country by committed youth workers in both the statutory and the voluntary sectors. There are youth clubs in the inner cities and on the estates; there are clubs that focus on sport; and there are detached youth workers. I mention one project in Kent of which my wife is chairman. There detached youth workers in several North Kent cities wander about and pick up young people off the streets, in clubs and coffee bars. Gradually they win their confidence and encourage them by offering them the opportunity to get accommodation on condition that they enter into training, and then they support them in doing so. That scheme has been highly successful.

I refer to the work that is done at Toynbee Hall, where gaining the confidence of young people and building it up is tackled in a different way. We offer them a free camping holiday. There they meet slightly older young people, many of whom are undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge, who

22 Nov 1999 : Column 274

come along on a voluntary basis to work and make friends with these young people. Together they undertake the Duke of Edinburgh's Bronze Award Scheme in the form of a 16-mile hike with an overnight bivouac. Most of those young people have probably never walked further than to the nearest bus stop and do not have the slightest hope of getting a GCSE as matters stand now, but when they have done that hike they stand 10 feet tall. I believe that youth services of this kind are absolutely crucial gatekeepers. These services are crucial if the Government's new support service is to work for those who need it most.

I should like to draw attention to two problems: first, in some cases the provision of statutory youth services and grants to youth services by local authorities have been cut to the bone. There is an unacceptable difference between the worst and the best. The Government's audit of youth work in September 1998 showed a range in expenditure on services for 13 to 19 year-olds. The best authority spent £292 per young person and the worst £18. That represents a difference of between 4.5 per cent and 0.4 per cent of budget.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, suggested that responsibility for the Youth Service should be handed back to local authorities. If so, the local authorities must do their job and there must be a system to ensure that the bad ones do as well as the good ones. In some local authorities there is a terrible funding problem and voluntary youth services must rely entirely on voluntary contributions without any support from local authorities.

The second problem is that by a perverse quirk it seems that the Government's own plans may be the worst enemy of the Youth Service. In Tower Hamlets, which is one of those areas in which the Government are trying out their excellent idea of learning mentors, local schools are advertising for learning mentors at a salary that is £3,000 to £4,000 above that paid to youth workers. Exactly the same qualifications are required. If a youth worker becomes a learning mentor, he or she works only nine to five, has full school holidays and gets £3,000 or £4,000 more. One can imagine what happens. I declare an interest. We have lost our senior youth worker in that context, as have many other organisations. The Government must face the fact that there is about to be a crisis in the Youth Service as a result of the best staff being siphoned off as learning mentors.

I apologise for not giving the noble Baroness notice of the two questions that I should like to ask. I shall fully understand if she prefers to write to me. Do the Government have any plans to ensure that in every local authority where it is needed there is a properly funded youth service that is adequate to cope with all disaffected and socially excluded young people in the area? Secondly, will the Government put in place funding, recruitment and training to start to rebuild a national cadre of youth workers properly trained to work with disaffected children and recruit them into the Government's new support service?

22 Nov 1999 : Column 275

8.58 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for both the commitment that he has explained and the searching contribution that he has made. A number of noble Lords would like to have answers to the questions that he posed. This debate has surprised me. One would imagine that everything began in May 1977. We have heard formidable speeches from noble Lords and Baronesses opposite who have described the scale of difficulty which the Government now face. Very little reference has been made to the problems that the Government inherited, some of which will be more difficult to resolve than others.

One is astonished by the nature of the amendment that the Opposition has tabled which uses the word "vision". That is not a word that one commends Conservative politicians to use. I think back to 1979 when the then new Prime Minister quoted St Francis and offered a Franciscan vision as the approach which the new government would follow, and then swiftly propounded that there was no such thing as a community: that everything depended on self. That change in government approach went to the heart of many of the problems that our society faces today, of ensuring that people devote themselves to voluntary service in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, explained. There is the difficulty of persuading good people to stand for election in local authorities since they are likely to be subjected to demeaning comment and cynical assessment.

I shall watch with interest the way in which the Government approach the problem, but I do not think that they should take advice from noble Lords opposite. I cannot recall any structural change or any fiscal arrangement introduced by their government between 1979 and 1997 which was helpful, reassuring or gave confidence to those concerned about the welfare of local government in Britain. I have only to compare the way in which Westminster City Council was stuffed with money. I do not wish to spend much time on that issue; I have other matters on which I wish to speak perhaps more fiercely. But my own local authority faced great social problems, and had twice the proportion of its population in school as did the borough of Westminster, and since education covers almost two-thirds of local government spending, it was not reasonable for the Westminster local authority to receive an amount five or six times higher per head. It was able to declare a rate of £35. On the same basis of support, my own local authority would not have had to change the rate but would have been able to give at least £250 a year to every man, woman and child of our population of a quarter of a million. One can understand why people like me became very cynical about the last government's approach to local administration. They brought forward Westminster City Council as their flagship in electoral triumph when the party was wiped out in virtually every other part of the country.

I should like to have made a number of comments on the broad subjects of the debate. I would have been tempted to speak on education, as a

22 Nov 1999 : Column 276

former schoolmaster with experience, reasonable qualifications and substantial employment at the sharp end of education. However, we should wait to make a proper assessment of the contribution which the Government are making.

I should like to have followed the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, on energy, and to point out that the world will burn more coal in the future than it burns today and that it might be highly desirable for us to keep our footing in the industry to provide the world with a more adequate basis of clean coal technology. But I have been involved in conservation for decades and I think it appropriate to make some comments about that subject.

The noble Lord, Lord Monro, referred to our involvement in debate in these matters. My mind goes back to 1979 when my report as chairman of the appropriate committee of the Council of Europe led to our attending the Environment Ministers' conference in Berne. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, was the Minister representing the United Kingdom. He gave me an assurance that the Government would not merely sign the Berne convention but would implement it. They did so by bringing in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It was a useful measure but matters have moved on. Needs have intensified. We need the Government properly to fulfil the commitments into which they entered in the manifesto of 1997. I am delighted that the Queen's Speech makes reference to the protection of wildlife. It needs protection.

Some species are doing quite well. The otter benefited from the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 which I took through Parliament. But far more species are in decline. The bank vole may well be in danger of disappearance from most if not all our island. Many other examples could be given.

I am anxious about access. I do not object to the principle that responsible access by foot to open country is desirable. While it is right and reasonable for people to have the capacity to enjoy our countryside--after all, it has inspired art and culture, and has given pleasure to millions for generations--the Government should insist that there is a responsibility too. There has to be adequate rural policing. I listened with interest to the important comments made by my noble friend Lady Young as chairman of English Nature. But I also know my own area. I can point to the very real dangers which unfettered access will provide. I stated in the House recently that I was greatly reassured by the fact that close to my home were four pairs of skylarks. Within a fortnight of those comments, two of those pairs have disappeared because people insisted on driving 4x4 vehicles over the area where the skylarks were about to breed.

Close to my home is a small lake; it is not mine. But I have been horrified by the way in which motor cycles and 4x4 vehicles have ripped up the footpaths around the lake. Although it is not my lake, over the summer months I have been collecting two or three sacks of

22 Nov 1999 : Column 277

litter; and during the school holidays 250-odd plastic bottles were simply chucked aside. As far as I understand, the legal situation is that the owner of the land is responsible for removing litter and material dumped upon that land. If we give the right to people to enjoy unfettered access, and they use that as an opportunity to dump and discard their litter all over the place, are we going to say that the landowner then has to take responsibility for and bear the cost of that removal?

There is more mobility, and mobility has increased to an astonishing extent the amount of litter in the rural areas of England and virtually everywhere else. When I raised the issue in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister said that things were getting a lot better. They are not. In some parts of our country, the problem is almost obscene and the litter legislation is of no effect whatever. If we are to protect our environment and landscape, and to safeguard wildlife, we have to recognise that the pressure and irresponsibility of quite a lot of people will be--as it is today--counterproductive. I trust that those dangers will be properly considered; and the open country close to the conurbations which is most vulnerable to the devastation of that irresponsibility needs to be especially considered. We need more bobbies on the rural beat, as well as their presence in the towns. But we need the police to have adequate support both within the community and the courts.

A young man living not far from me has been using his air rifle irresponsibly. He was fined in court recently and then his gun was returned to him. I take the view that if we are to protect our environment properly, the courts should be much more willing to order the confiscation of items used in the committing of an offence. For example, the amount of limestone paving in some of our upland areas is diminishing rapidly because it is being stolen and put in people's rockeries. The people who are taking it are grossly irresponsible because they know that it is against the law. If they insist on breaking the law in that way and they are apprehended, the courts should say, "Well, you took the material in your vehicle. Your vehicle will be confiscated".

That would certainly happen in the case of young people who are allowed by foolish parents to drive their off-the-road motorcycles uninsured, unhelmeted and unlicensed on private land. I suppose that that is a matter for the people who own the private land, but in most of the cases which come to mind, they use the public highway to reach the land where they become a nuisance.

It is not merely a problem in South Yorkshire. There are thousands of areas in this country where there is little peace and quiet for people living near open country where such motorcyclists--often, I am told, with stolen bicycles--operate. The chances of wildlife surviving in those areas is not high. Even worse is the number of fatalities and serious injuries among those young people, one of whom was killed not far from my home a few months ago. We must have a sense of responsibility and if parents cannot act responsibly then the community must do so.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 278

I recognise that there are many problems in rural Britain. A noble Lord opposite said that people should have long memories. Farmers should recognise that, while the Government have not become terribly popular, and while they do face great problems, it was a Labour Government which gave rural England, and probably rural Britain, not merely the basis of prosperity after the war, but light and power and a standard of living which rural Britain would not otherwise have enjoyed--certainly not if it had been left to the private sector.

At the same time, I should like to commend some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. I live in the Dearne Valley in a brownfield site which is going to be very attractive. It is essential that we safeguard our green land and that the brownfield sites are developed. It is only through that development and through the replacement of blight by hope that jobs will come. If that sort of area is not developed, then the movement to the south-east will never be prevented and the prospects for the proper management of the British countryside will not be adequately fulfilled.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, following the White Paper on transport, the department published a daughter paper about the bus industry--and it is about the bus industry that I should like to speak. The paper was entitled From Workhorse to Thoroughbred. I am not a horseman, but I am told that such a transition is impossible to achieve. However, I should like Ministers to consider carefully the measures which many people in the bus industry believe are essential to bring the workhorse up to the status at least of being "best in class".

Two-thirds of public transport journeys are made by bus in Britain, yet nearly the whole focus of the public transport debate is on railways. Significant shifts of passenger journeys would be made from car to bus if the quality of bus travel were significantly improved. That may be achieved quickly and at modest cost to the public purse. On the other hand, improvements to railway services, or the building of light rail systems, or of new roads will take far longer to achieve and will cost much more money.

In Oxford, bus use has increased from a high base by at least 65 per cent over the past 10 years. That is the result of a partnership between two large bus groups and the local authority. Easy-access, low-pollution vehicles operate along priority routes, offering low fares, high frequency and good services at weekends and in the evenings. I should like to discuss briefly how that good practice might be spread.

Before doing so, in the light of some remarks made by a spokesman for noble Lords on the Conservative Benches, I draw attention to the fact that we had the benefit, if that is the right word, of a visit from the Opposition spokesman for the environment and transport, the right honourable Member for Wokingham, John Redwood. Despite the fact that he states regularly--we have heard it again today--that there must be good alternatives to the use of the car,

22 Nov 1999 : Column 279

his derogatory remarks about the bus industry have infuriated the large national companies which have invested extremely large sums of money in buses in Oxford.

He has said also that we should reduce car-parking charges and encourage more cars to come into the cities, knowing that that will choke city streets and make quite impossible the operation of efficient bus services. Furthermore, he goes on to talk about creating more capacity. Again, we heard those words today. That is shorthand for, "We should build more roads", and yet the same person says that we must not cover the country in concrete, building more houses. In fact, as regards the covering of the country in concrete, the people who live along the A34 in north Oxfordshire or, indeed, in Somerset or Devon, along the A30, know that the noise from those roads can be heard for miles on either side of the roads, causing people great misery.

I return to the bus industry. First, the Government must make it clear in the legislation that they are about to bring forward that quality partnerships which offer clear advantages to users--for example, through ticketing, joint timetables and good interchanges--will not be struck down by the competition authorities. The Minister will be aware of the quality partnership in Flintshire where two rival companies replaced six disconnected routes to offer a regular service of eight buses per hour from Deeside into Chester. Although that offers significant advantages to passengers, it has been branded by the Office of Fair Trading as anti-competitive. A simple test needs to be introduced in the new legislation whereby if a quality partnership can be demonstrated to offer real benefits to users, it should be exempt from action by the Office of Fair Trading.

I submit that the test should be the benefits enjoyed by users, not a theoretical test of the structure of the producer side of the industry. I reflect the interests of users because I am chairman of the bus appeals body which hears appeals from bus users about the inadequate services with which they are often provided.

Obviously, there are potential abuses in a quality partnership and a requirement to keep fare rises in line with the retail prices index would be welcomed by users and would serve to prevent a de facto monopoly provider abusing a position of dominance in the market. Real rises in fares have been shown to be a major influence in respect of the loss of bus passengers.

When addressing the competition elements of quality partnerships, another feature of competition in the bus industry needs attention when the law is reformed. At present, any operator may decide to enter the market and register a new competitive service to run just ahead of that of a rival. One has the ridiculous situation of a route on which there are two buses per hour--that of the incumbent and that of the new entrant--which run within two or three minutes of each other and then there is a wait of 57 minutes for the next bus. Such registration is usually undertaken

22 Nov 1999 : Column 280

not with the intention of developing the market or offering a better service to users but with the object of levering a rival operator off the road.

I trust that the Government intend in new legislation to review the powers of the traffic commissioners. In my submission, the commissioners should be allowed to insist that new services being registered should divide the interval so that if somebody else wants to enter the market, a service is provided at half-hourly intervals. The waiting interval would then be spread evenly.

I have two simple points for the Minister, the answers to which I hope we shall hear in the summing up at the end of the debate this evening. I do not believe that either require legislation but they would give a great fillip to those of us anxious to see the rural bus grant initiative succeed. The needs of rural areas have been referred to by many noble Lords during the debate.

My first point relates to a promise in the White Paper to introduce an arrangement whereby pensioners should enjoy a minimum concession of half-fare travel. That proposal was published in the White Paper in July 1998 and most local authorities expected the arrangements, including the necessary finance, to be in place by April 2000. I have heard from other sources that that may be postponed until April 2001. I hope that the noble Baroness may be able to assure the House that April 2000 is still indeed the target date.

Many poor, elderly people in rural areas find the cost of bus fares a major barrier to their inclusion in a wider range of activities. The initiative for providing all buses under the rural bus service grant has not, unfortunately, enabled those people to take full advantage of the opportunities which have arisen.

My second point relates to the rural bus grant which was introduced last year to run for three years. Many services which are supported with that money have to be retendered in the year 2000 and the tender periods usually run for four or five years. Such services are supported by a mixture of local authority revenue grant and rural bus grant. On the same route, some journeys are supported by one form of support and others by another form.

I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government's future intentions for the rural bus grant beyond the third year so that local authorities may plan and let tenders for contracts in April next year with some degree of confidence. If operators are to buy new, easy-access, low-pollution buses, there needs to be some certainty about levels of public support extending beyond 2001. Concessionary fares and an extension of the rural bus service grant would receive a warm welcome in rural areas where, for other reasons, as we have heard, the Government may seek some approbation.

Persuading young people to continue to use buses is vital to stem the lemming-like rush to buy an old car and drive to school or college. That is particularly prevalent in rural counties, many of which do not provide free travel to over 16 year-olds who go to

22 Nov 1999 : Column 281

school or college. I ask the Government to consider a further extension of half-fare concessionary travel to include all in full-time education. The cost would actually be very low.

Whatever bus operators themselves undertake in the way of investment, the appeal of the bus will not increase unless buses have sufficient priority on the highway to provide reliable journey times. The productivity of the vehicles and the drivers also depends on that. I hope that the Minister--perhaps not this evening--will reiterate, for the benefit of those who do not seem to have appreciated the fact, that the bus lane on the M4 has brought great benefits to bus, coach and taxi users and at the same time has benefited car users even at peak times. Will she also tell us whether those authorities proposing significant bus priorities will receive favourable consideration in the allocation of credit approvals in the review of the provisional local transport plans now taking place?

Returning to my horse analogy, in considering local transport plans it will not do to award each contestant a rosette. There must be winners--and they must be the authorities which have the plans and the courage to manage traffic growth. The bus industry can do much for itself, but it is dependent on government and local authorities for the management of the highway, investment in bus priority measures, and enforcement of waiting restrictions. I, along with many bus users, look forward to buses receiving an appropriate share of attention in the forthcoming legislation, the first significantly to affect the industry for 15 years.

9.22 p.m.

Lord Plumb: My Lords, I join with so many of my noble friends in expressing my disappointment that there was not more reference to agriculture and, in particular, rural development in the gracious Speech. I declare an interest in that I am a farmer. I am also the president of the AONB in the Cotswolds, so I have great interest in the diversification of the growth and development of the countryside and in protecting the interests of the countryside.

Much reference has been made to the despondency and the despair that exists in the farming community throughout the length and breadth of the land. I hear it said by farmers who are quite substantial landowners that they believe that there is a hidden agenda to get rid of agriculture altogether and to import food into this country. That would be a very sad state of affairs for our economy.

I share the concern of my noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm who expressed the anxiety of many farmers. He said everything that I wished to say so I shall concentrate my few remarks on access to the countryside, which is very much part of the declaration in the gracious Speech.

In the aftermath of a conference held in Cork in 1996 on rural development, attended by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, the European Commission's Agenda 2000 proposals carried forward the concept of integrated rural development as a second pillar in Europe's common agricultural policy. The rhetoric of

22 Nov 1999 : Column 282

that move is currently much stronger than the reality of the proposals, but the concept has attracted much attention from policy makers and commentators throughout Europe. Support for a longer-term shift towards a common rural policy is clearly growing.

Sustainable land use policies are therefore of growing importance and in the light of the present growing crisis in agriculture, farmers and landowners are looking for all forms of diversification. The "Right to Roam Bill" therefore must be seen as of considerable significance to farmers and the whole of the rural population. While I welcome the initiative of government to improve the protection for SSSIs, that must be matched by a real commitment by government to negotiate positive management agreement with owners with adequate funding. As my noble friend Lord Rotherwick said, that too must meet with a full understanding of what it means to those people who are involved.

Access to the countryside does not mean that anyone or everyone has the right to roam. Of course there are people who wish to go to the countryside--the Ramblers Association and others--who act responsibly, but that responsibility must be taken seriously. The Labour Party manifesto in 1997 said that its policies included greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside. Let that be spelt out in more detail so we can better understand what it means by "greater access" and "open countryside".

It is important that the countryside does everything possible to satisfy people's needs, particularly in the area of recreation. But farmers and landowners will feel angry and disappointed if the agenda for change takes us down the legislative route of imposing additional burdens on hard-pressed owners and occupiers of open country who are already facing additional cost burdens arising from environmental and other legislation. The day-to-day management cost of open access on farmland, together with occupiers' liability costs are, as we well know, substantial. By their decision the Government seem to have completely misunderstood the fact that what they define as "open country" is actually made up of individual farm businesses, many of which are already operating--as has been said so often during this debate--at the margins of economic viability.

The Government have also underestimated the significant cost to the public sector of proper wardening and management of their favoured approach. I welcome the commitment to strengthen and develop the system of rights of way. I speak with some knowledge of farming a farm that has many rights of way across it. I believe that that approach offers more satisfying recreational opportunities to more people with less interference with farming and, ironically, closer to their homes with a general right of access to open country. What farmers do not want in their present circumstances is yet more red tape, more legislation and quangos that are going to appear to govern their lives.

So there are many questions that need to be answered. What definitions of "open country" will be employed and what legal status would they have in

22 Nov 1999 : Column 283

advance of a new statute? What would be the position of "island sites" to which no right of access currently exists? Will consideration be given to appeals on mapping, for example? That is a very serious issue because it is not easy to map out the particular areas that we are concerned with. It is essential, in the interest of fairness, to give owners and occupiers the chance to appeal.

What we have before us promises to be the worst of all worlds for farmers who would be on the receiving end of a statutory right of access if a compulsory scheme were adopted. There is inevitably a likelihood of friction and confrontation between the public and landowners which would not help to further town and country relations which we are all trying to achieve in one form or another at the moment.

A sense of injustice encourages negativism and minimalism. What farmers need is encouragement and support to assist them in providing good recreational opportunities for the public, not the politics of punishment seeking to claw back agricultural payments where footpaths are obstructed. The Rights of Way Act 1990 is surely sufficient and the correct mechanism for dealing with these problems.

I am sure that this debate will continue. I hope that it will because it is a matter of concern to all of us. I hope that all parties concerned will have a full opportunity for participation.

9.31 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, the new consensus on transport policy is quite remarkable, not least in that the Treasury now allows the heresy of hypothecation its place at the heart of government. The time spent on preparing for this transport Bill has been well spent, not least in the excellent series of consultative documents such as Breaking the Logjam published a year ago.

It is arguable that the solutions available today were not available until recently either politically or technically. The fact that congestion is growing apace has driven us all to what was unthinkable earlier. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, was correct in one respect about the technology for congestion charging. It will be another two years in fact before that technology is on stream.

The principle of hypothecation has transformed the transport debate out of all recognition. It has demolished once and for all the caricature that only the man in the Rolls Royce with the big cigar in his mouth, scattering £50 notes to passers-by would benefit. Apart from anything else, if his £50 notes are now used to finance public transport, that will help alleviate social exclusion and will be a powerful engine for greater equality of opportunity.

There was no chance of an acceptable approach to congestion charging or workplace parking charging without hypothecation. But the Government have grasped the nettle and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor are to be congratulated on their joint approach to this matter.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 284

After years of debate, now is hardly the time for anyone to describe the new policy consensus as anti-car. That phrase is not worthy of the Official Opposition, especially as the agenda for the present policy was emerging well before the change of government. Moreover, I note that the chairman of Vauxhall, Nick Reilly, who is one of the most forward-looking leaders of the automotive industry, has backed the proposals on the two new charges after receiving fresh evidence that congestion levels would otherwise soar over the next decade.

However, all of this will be set at nought if the message does not reach the grass roots. Here I should like to declare a minor interest having been the chair of a committee of the Round Table on Sustainable Development which reported last year. The report was entitled The Multi-stakeholder Approach to Sustainable Business. It advocated that companies--certainly large employers--should discuss their impact on the wider environment with the major stakeholders, including local authorities, trade unions and the environmental NGOs.

The need for companies to have green transport plans fits like a glove with this concept of multi-stakeholding. I hope that the Government will initiate some kite-mark tests for drawing up such plans and perhaps a national award for the best achievement. The idea of multi-stakeholder meetings can be heretical for local government; it is certainly heretical for some environmental NGOs. But it is surely not too much to ask as a millennium initiative that the different stakeholders sit round a table to see what they can achieve together, rather than continuing to lob hand grenades at each other from what they hope is a safe distance.

This is where the workplace parking charge will find its proper place. It is logical--as, indeed, in another context might be the hypermarket parking tax--but the logic requires very careful discussion or we will have a knee-jerk reaction as we saw with the out-of-town retailers. The consultation on the parking levy seems to assume that small firms or small numbers of vehicles could be exempt. I have to say that Ministers should think very carefully about the credibility of this. As we are constantly told that small firms account for over half of the labour force, there will be charges of inequity. It would be perilously close to bringing into mind my favourite true anecdote when the TUC met Mrs Thatcher, then Prime Minister, to discuss the question of small firms. John Monks asked ironically--never use irony is the moral--why she did not exempt small firms from the 30 miles-an-hour speed limit. "Take a note of that", the Prime Minister said to her private secretary.

However, if I may say so, the balance of presentation must also strike some positive notes for the motorists as for the residents of areas with heavy traffic flows. It would be helpful at this stage if the Government could combine messages on congestion and the environment with proclaiming that they are in fact building more new bypasses, underpasses and other such improvements than they were two years ago. I believe that to be the position.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 285

What is often not accepted by everyone in the environmental movement is the degree to which environmental protection may require more road expenditure rather than less. I have been involved--and I give this as an illustration--in a local debate in Farnham where it is clear that the £20 million or so needed for an underpass is not only compatible with but also an essential condition for enhancing the environment. There must be many such examples.

The overall message has to be a better quality of life. It is an overwhelmingly popular principle. John Kenneth Galbraith entitled his famous work a generation ago, Private Affluence and Public Squalor. That phrase is instantly recognisable in the field of transport today. There will be pride in the new Jubilee Line. That will be true of public investments in every part of the country; in other words, there is the public expectation of high quality. The days should be long passed when one would have to carry one's suitcase up 39 steps at Tottenham Court Road station or accept that air conditioning--here I follow the noble Lord from the Liberal Democrat Benches--is standard for aeroplanes or cars but not for commuter trains or for local bus services. Superficially this is the concern that people have when they say in a rather defeatist mode that there is no way in which we shall ever stop the increase in congestion. I think that we are on the edge of a breakthrough but that breakthrough needs to be powerfully exploited. I believe that the Government's approach strikes exactly the right balance and that it deserves, and will receive, wide national support.

9.40 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I rise, funnily enough, to talk about agriculture! The noble and elegant Baroness who is to reply to the debate does not look at all "agricultural". I have been trying to get away from looking agricultural all my life, without success. When I made my maiden speech in the Commons, I thought that I was dressed perfectly in my new suit. I thought that I was a smooth fellow. After my speech an old Tory Member said to Jo Grimond, "Ah, Jo, that fellow of yours made a good speech". Jo said, "Thank you" and then the Tory spoilt it all by saying, "You can see he comes from Caithness, a great shaggy brute". However, we do not all look like that in Caithness.

I want to bombard the noble Baroness with some more figures. I do not think that we can do this too often because the state of the depression in agriculture is not fully understood. I want the figures to be placed on the record. These are figures provided by the Scottish Agricultural College which has put forward estimates based on the 1998 crop year. The net farm income figures for less favoured area (LFA) specialist sheep show a profit of £6,147; the direct subsidy receipts were £27,385. The LFA cattle made a profit of £3,805; the direct subsidy receipts were £25,707. The LFA cattle and sheep made a profit of £2,693; the direct subsidy receipts were £36,228. Lowground cattle and sheep lost £6,572; the direct subsidy receipts were £14,218. Cereals lost £5,854; the direct subsidy receipts were £27,977. General cropping made £8,352; the

22 Nov 1999 : Column 286

direct subsidy receipts were £27,021. Dairy made £47; the direct subsidy receipts were £8,444. Mixed farming made £416 profit; the direct subsidy receipts were £26,284.

Those are horrifying figures, but they are absolutely true figures and they show the state of the industry. There is one more set of figures that the noble Baroness must endure. These figures are also provided by the Scottish Agricultural College. I refer to the cost of farm general workers. Their estimated annual average cost is some £15,000 a year; that of tractormen, £16,750; dairy stockmen, £21,740; other stockmen, £16,230; shepherds, £16,490; grieves--that means "foremen", for the Englishmen here--£17,840. Therefore, one can see that the rewards for farming are not great, to put it mildly. Farming is in its worst state since the early 30s and the difficulty of coming out of it is much greater than it was then.

Farmers are now taking action. A friend of mine has a nice 300-acre farm; next door his friend has another 300-acre farm. They have put the two together and bought the requisite machinery. They have no men at all; the two farmers are the only people working that land. There used to be five men on each farm. The decline in numbers has been steady since the end of the war, but the past two years and this year have been catastrophic for the numbers engaged on the land, not including those who are in part-time farming.

Farmers will get by if they are decently financed. Others are getting by through niche farming. I have a neighbour with 50 acres. He grows turnips for shopping and he has a flock of pedigree Suffolk sheep, but probably the best-paying things he has are six loose boxes, which he lets to ladies who have horses. But not everyone can grow turnips for shopping, and there are already too many flocks of Suffolk sheep.

The Government say that organic farming is an answer. I have nothing against organic farming. I think that it is a goodish thing and they should encourage it--I do not think that ordinary farming is as bad as it is made out--but, inevitably, as more and more people take up organic farming prices will fall and, with production so low, it will not be profitable. It is certainly not the long-term answer to the problem of agriculture in this country. It is a part answer, but it is not the long-term answer.

Then we have the great hopes of the environmentalists. I am an environmentalist. I planted a lot of trees on my farm when I was farming; I preserved a herd of roe deer on some rough ground that I had, and so on, but farming was the main thing. But environmentalists--many of whom I know--are rather impractical about farming. They now have great hopes about a thing called "cross compliance", which is a form of blackmail to make farmers take measures that they may not want to take. They say that if farmers do not comply under Agenda 2000, they will not get their agricultural subsidies. The figures I have given show quite clearly that farming cannot survive in the present circumstances without those subsidies.

If, in addition, we are to have a lot of people renting land from owners to farm--able young men farming perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 acres with good equipment and

22 Nov 1999 : Column 287

combining all crops--they will need a new system to keep up fertility and a different rotation. That is one of the things that people have to do to make a profit. It is not socially desirable but it is coming; it is here now, and there will be more of it.

The Government should also think of encouraging local industry. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, is not in his place. He always says that when the mines were closed down, the miners did not squeal. But all governments were good to the miners; they put extra money into evolving industries in areas where they closed the pits, many of which are now areas of high employment. But that cannot be done in farming areas; on the contrary. The Government should spend money to encourage small industries and to encourage people to develop and to run their own affairs, either part time or with niche objectives.

The Government must also encourage, with help and with money, co-operation--not only in production, but in selling. There is no doubt that Milk Marque has been broken up because it had a monopoly position. The monopoly position held by Milk Marque was nothing compared to the monopoly position that the supermarkets in this country have today, and it will get worse. Therefore, we need to look at all these matters and the Government must have them in hand.

I see that I have spoken for nine minutes and I have been beefing about people who have spoken for over 10. Therefore, I shall say only that the Government, when talking about world trade, should remind the Americans who complain about subsidies in Europe of the 7 billion dollars that they have just given to their farmers. Perhaps that should be stressed. They should also remember that the primary producer has always had the rough end of the stick.

Frankly, I am sorry that the Milk Marketing Board and the Potato Marketing Board have gone. I believed that those were good measures. I believed that they were Labour measures, but apparently they were not. We have returned to the condition of extreme competition in which the primary producer is always in a bad way. I believe that the Government need to ensure that some protection is given to the primary producer--I talk about the small ones; the big ones can cope--to keep away the worst of the wolves.

9.51 p.m.

Lord Lyell: My Lords, one of the benefits of being, once again, the tail end Charlie is that the speech that I would have made has been made by my noble neighbour Lord Mackie. I declare my interest as both a beef and a sheep farmer not 100 miles away from the old farm of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and from his new residence. However, he knows me well enough, and knows the area well enough, to agree that the figures he has produced are not a mile out from the results which I have tried to achieve and which we are still trying to achieve.

I believe that both my noble neighbour and myself are extremely lucky to follow the speech of my noble friend Lord Plumb. During the problems that we have

22 Nov 1999 : Column 288

had, particularly in trying to sell our beef to Europe, let alone other problems on agriculture, it occurred to me that my noble friend Lord Plumb is but a telephone call away from the Minister of Agriculture. So there may be help and guidance through the thicket of European regulations and, indeed, personalities in Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. I declare a small interest in that about 12 years ago the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, gave me a particularly Lucullan feast on my only visit to Strasbourg. We did have beef, but I learned a great deal from him there and indeed from the European institutions.

My noble friend Lord Plumb made a salient point in his speech. He referred to the increasing burden of what he called red tape and administration that is increasingly demanded of farmers who are, by and large, practical men and in some cases in Angus practical women as well. However, from the wonderful maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, we have found that there may well be information technology and aids to farming that provide helpful information. But among the more efficient farmers of Angus and, I suspect, throughout Scotland there is perceived to be a major burden of what they call "red tape" but what we might call "controls and problems".

My second point is about markets and level playing fields. That was particularly well covered by my noble friend Lady Byford, who referred to all the problems and controls which are particularly prevalent in the pig sector as well as elsewhere in the livestock sector. I ask the noble Baroness who is to reply to convey to her right honourable friend that it is possible that one solution to the agricultural problems which are particularly prevalent in Scotland, but also I suspect throughout the United Kingdom, is what I would describe as good housekeeping. That solution lies with the Minister and with government departments; namely, the prompt payment of hill livestock compensatory allowances. It is the fair payment of those allowances. In other words, the amount that comes from the European Union should be passed on in full at the proper rates of exchange, green pounds and so on.

Although it is a long time ago, I have had some experience of the other side of the fence, where the noble Baroness is sitting. In Northern Ireland I always watched out. They did not call me CB--citizen's band or cynical so and so--for nothing. When I was on the other side of the counter I was quite often advised that the Treasury or the department might find some problems. If the noble Baroness will pass on my queries about what I call good housekeeping that will be a valuable first step in assisting the increasingly difficult situation in agriculture, especially in Scotland.

My third point is about science. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Soulsby is not in his place. Perhaps I may say that if the rest of the remarks in today's debate, particularly my own remarks, were to pass by, I would certainly retain today's copy of Hansard in order to read my noble friend's speech. I would keep it, cherish it and above all digest it. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, might not agree

22 Nov 1999 : Column 289

with all of the points that he made, but for those of us who care about the countryside, the environment and, above all, about agriculture, having an expert such as my noble friend Lord Soulsby in your Lordships' House to explain the problem of genetically modified crops and other aspects of science is particularly valuable, since it is only through a knowledge of science that any of us will be able to make progress on environmental or agricultural matters.

The battle for farming is not yet won. My noble neighbour Lord Mackie will know that I am an Angus boy. I tend not to spend 85p. when I can get something free. In your Lordships' House we get a daily copy of the Financial Times. On the last Thursday in October I happened to scan down the front page, which referred to the results of a well-known brewer. The column said that the brewer "hits" at UK beef quality. The article, which is certainly more authoritative than anything I can dig up--went on to quote the brewing company--it was in brewing but it is now in what is called the beverage market--as saying that UK farmers were unable to supply it with sufficient beef of acceptable quality and that it was unable to buy more than half the beef that it required from the United Kingdom in spite of a "Buy British" policy. The company stated that it sells 7½ million steaks a year but it could not find the quality good enough to meet its rigorous standards from British farmers.

That seems to be 150,000 steaks each week. My noble neighbour may be able to tell me how many prime beasts might be required to provide 150,000 steaks a week. But that article went to my heart like another stake--I ask noble Lords to forgive me for the pun. I produce what I hope is quality beef. I am very proud that we put through to the market between 250 and 300 fat Aberdeen Angus beasts a year. Most of them go to the premium market. It hits home to me the fact that there is still a problem.

It is not necessarily my fault and it is not the fault of your Lordships' House that the Government's business managers interposed transport in the debate. I have referred to the county of Angus, I have referred to Scotland and I have referred to Kirriemuir. I can come from that Arcadia to your Lordships' House only because of the increasingly efficient transport. I shall make one final point about education. I have before me a 45 year-old German grammar book, which is part of my on-going education in your Lordships' House once a week when we receive German lessons. I hasten to add to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that computers do not do everything. One still has hard work to do with one's irregular verbs and other nouns, which is what I am doing.

When my book was being used 45 years ago it took 10 hours to go by train from Dundee to King's Cross. Nowadays--and I believe that my noble friend can confirm this--it is possible to make the journey in six hours. There are trains every hour and sometimes from Edinburgh every half hour. My noble friend Lord Monro mentioned the West Coast line and we shall discuss that in detail when we come to debate the transport Bill. My noble friend Lord Peel said that he

22 Nov 1999 : Column 290

had had one or two problems with the East Coast line, but I pay enormous tribute to the companies that run that service.

I should like to make one final comment on education because it is the subject of the noble Baroness who is to wind up the debate. This Government have pointed out repeatedly that their main priority is "Education, education, education". Twenty years ago there was a programme on Italian television that stated, "It is never too late". One saw marvellous pictures of people at least 50 per cent older than I attempting to become literate. I am now attempting to become information technology literate, but I still try to use such talents as I may have to learn foreign languages. As a good Scottish boy, I am delighted that once a week we have lessons in foreign languages. I am particularly grateful to receive those lessons here in your Lordships' House.

However, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am saddened that there was no specific mention of agriculture in the gracious Speech. Furthermore, many noble Lords have pointed out that this subject will be closely intertwined with other matters such as access to the countryside and the rights of ramblers. We shall come to all those issues, and I look forward to a busy spring and an even busier summer.

10.1 p.m.

Lord Tope: My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging debate today and that is perhaps inevitable when the subjects range as broadly as education, transport, the environment and agriculture. We have covered everything from information technology in the 21st century classroom to hunting with dogs. Most recently we have been told of a noble Lord learning German from a 45 year-old grammar. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that there could be a task for him to do here in this House as well.

I do not envy the Minister in her attempt to respond to all the points that have been raised in the debate, although I am not entirely sure what my noble friend Lord Mackie meant when he said that the noble Baroness does not look "agricultural" to him. Perhaps we should not speculate on that tonight.

We have heard two excellent maiden speeches today. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, spoke of the role of information technology. I am sure he is right when he says that the role performed by new technology will change not only the classroom but also our current teaching methods. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord when he suggested that it will make class sizes largely irrelevant. I believe that class sizes will always be relevant. However, I certainly agree with him on the importance of coming to terms with the changes in teaching methods as well as new learning strategies that will emerge from the information revolution.

We heard another excellent maiden speech on education and the arts from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall. As I reflected on the unconventional teaching methods she experienced as a child, I felt saddened by the rather prescriptive nature

22 Nov 1999 : Column 291

of education nowadays. I doubt whether our children will have that kind of experience. My only regret about the speech of the noble Baroness was that she resisted the temptation to treat us to some of the folk songs she said that she could still remember singing. I cannot help feeling, with the greatest of respect, that that would have considerably livened up our debate, even at that relatively early stage.

Unlike the Minister, I do not even have to attempt to reply to all the points that have been made today. As a suburban Londoner--I suspect that I look like one as well--it would be best if I leave agriculture and the countryside to those with far greater firsthand experience than I. However, as a suburban Londoner it is also probably better if I try to resist the temptation to speak on transport matters, albeit for exactly the opposite reasons. In common with many noble Lords I experience transport issues every day. Were I to start on the subject I fear that I would have no time to say anything else. All I shall say on the subject, particularly in the London context, is that I have no doubt that it will be "the" issue in the forthcoming GLA elections. I say to the Government with the best of intentions that they will have a very hard job persuading Londoners not only that their solution for the London Underground is the best solution, but that it is any solution at all. Indeed, they seem to have been having some difficulty in persuading one of their own candidates that it is the best solution and, if reports are to be believed, have failed even to persuade their own most likely candidate.

Mention of the GLA leads me to the few comments that I want to make on local government before I turn to the main part of my speech, which will be on education. First, on the subject of elected mayors, it is tempting for a speaker on the Liberal Front Bench to feel slightly triumphant following the events of the past week and we have allowed ourselves an occasional wry smile. But that would be short-sighted of us; it would be a mistake. The events of the past week have done no long-term good to the future of democracy or the future of London. For those of us who believe in active democracy, what has happened has been a major setback.

In common with 97 per cent of local councillors, I am not a fan of elected mayors and remain to be convinced. If cities, and other places for that matter, wish to experiment with elected mayors, and if that is what local people really want, so be it. I have no problem with that. But I have learnt one lesson from the events of last weekend. When we come to examine the local government legislation, I urge the Government to consider providing for the recall of directly elected mayors. We debated the issue in this House during the passage of the Greater London Authority Bill and your Lordships formed a view which, sadly, the other place overturned. I hope that we do not come to regret that experience. If we are to go ahead with elected mayors in other cities, there must be some means of impeaching--if one wishes to use that word--or of recalling, the powerful elected

22 Nov 1999 : Column 292

mayor. It is a major gap in the Greater London Authority Act, and one that should not be repeated in future legislation.

As several speakers have commented, I urge the Government to concentrate on the desirable outcomes for local government. There are outcomes on which most of us would probably agree. The public are concerned with outcomes; they are not concerned with the process--and neither should be the Government. The Government should concentrate on what should be the outcomes for local government, and give local government the freedom to reach those outcomes by whatever means it wishes in accordance with local needs and priorities.

I turn now to education. I was pleased that in opening the debate the Transport Minister confirmed again that education remains the Government's number one priority. It seems that this year the flagship of the Government's legislative programme as far as concerns education will be the Bill to establish a new learning and skills council to plan and fund all post-16 education and training.

Liberal Democrats have long advocated a more streamlined system for the post-16 sector with greater equity of funding. For too long the further education colleges have been the "secondary moderns" of the 16-plus sector. We also look forward to a great deal more detail on how the arrangements will affect school sixth-forms and indeed the local education authorities, whose functions Mr Chris Woodhead is so anxious to slim down. More equitable funding means improving the worst, not reducing the best.

If the Government's press releases are anything to go by, they seem to have offered to a bewildering number of interest groups the prize of being at the very heart of the new post-16 arrangements. Perhaps I may mention just three. First, the employers; secondly, the national training organisations; thirdly, the lifelong learning partnerships. There were others. An embryonic organisation that goes through more than three heart transplants in five months sounds to be in for a difficult birth.

The Liberal Democrats want the Government to give more importance to the role of regional development agencies. The 47 local learning and skills councils ought to have a direct relationship with RDAs. If some parts of England are to move to democratically elected regional government, as we hope, that democratic process should oversee all the target setting, planning and direction. I raised exactly that point in Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill and still believe that is a major gap in the powers and duties of that authority.

I hope that when the Minister replies--this is more her subject than some of the matters mentioned today--she will indicate whether she sees a role for regional government in post-16 education.

We would like some reference to the role of the universities for industry. It is already clear that the UFIs will not operate within the same boundaries as learning and skills councils or local learning partnerships. That seems a sad example of disjoined

22 Nov 1999 : Column 293

government. Coterminosity, or the lack of it, is all too familiar a problem to local government. We should not make that problem even worse with the legislation.

The special needs Bill will be another significant piece of legislation. We welcome the move to encourage conciliation between parents and LEAs in dispute over services for children with special needs. We welcome in principle the proposed requirement for LEAs to set up partnership schemes that will offer advice, information and independent support for families of children with special needs. I say "in principle" because of course that is a good idea but I say, as someone who led a local authority until recently, that it is a false prospectus to keep giving councils new duties without giving them new funding.

The same caveat applies to the proposal to establish special needs tribunals. Local education authorities will apparently be forced to implement tribunal decisions against tight deadlines. Duties on councils to make school buildings more accessible to disabled pupils will equally prove a cruel illusion unless councils have the extra money they need to fund improvements. We look forward to reading the report of the Disability Task Force in early December to learn how its recommendations may influence the special needs Bill. I note that the Government are to establish a right for disabled children not to be discriminated against at school.

I join my noble friend Lady Hamwee in welcoming the Government's decision to use the opportunity of a local government Bill to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I have campaigned to protect school pupils who are perceived to be gay or lesbian from discrimination, harassment and physical assault at their schools. The repeal of Section 28, although it is almost entirely symbolic, will be a powerful challenge to homophobes and bullies.

Another group of young people at risk are those who have been--in some cases, throughout their childhood--in the care of local authorities. We are pleased that the Government intend to give more help to such young people.

I was concerned that earlier in the debate we had a proud boast from a member of the Government Front Bench that they were well on course to meet their target of reducing infant class sizes to below 30 by the end of this Parliament. Of course that is welcome. We supported the moves when they were introduced a couple of years ago but warned then--and I point out now--that in many primary schools it has the effect of making classes larger for pupils between the ages of eight and 11.

Even more significant is the deeply worrying fact that secondary school classes are the largest they have been for 20 years. We shall no doubt be assured that those difficulties, like so many others, are being put right by the Government. The most recent figures show that education is still failing to attract good graduates to shortage subjects. While there can be no doubt that rates of pay are a significant factor, the Government should give serious thought to the fact

22 Nov 1999 : Column 294

that many talented students regard school teaching as a job where one is not only told what to teach but how to teach--which is not attractive to clever, imaginative and creative young graduates.

It has been said that this is to be the last full legislative programme before the next general election. It certainly provides the platform for that election. With so many Bills it is a large platform but it is also remarkably small and timid in terms of ideas. It is almost as if the Government have already run out of steam, in which case the sooner we have the general election the better.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, this has been a long but very interesting debate. As others have said, we heard an excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, who focused on the role of arts and music in the curriculum and outside it. One of my pet beliefs is that the role of music in particular--I include art and drama--provides a vehicle for children with learning difficulties. Educational therapists up and down the country now use art and music to help young people not only to build up their confidence but to improve and enhance their learning abilities. I agree with absolutely everything that the noble Baroness said. We look forward to hearing more from her.

I refer also to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. In everything that he said his enthusiasm for information technology not only in the education of children but for all--even my noble friend Lord Lyell could benefit from it--was evident. He is very much 21st century man. We also look forward to hearing further from the noble Lord in future debates. There are genuinely exciting opportunities in the use of information technology in order to improve the delivery of education in our schools.

It is not possible to do justice to the enormous breadth of the subjects encompassed by today's debate. I plead with the Government to reconsider the wisdom of combining education, employment and all the subjects which are the concern of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I share the view of all noble Lords who have spoken today that it is unforgivable to make one of the shortest opening speeches--only 13 minutes--on the gracious Speech without any mention of agriculture, which is one of the headings of today's debate. I shall be happy to receive in writing from the noble Baroness after the debate all the answers to the questions and concerns that I shall raise on education in order that she can major on the answers to the questions raised on the countryside and agriculture.

My noble friend Lord Brabazon dealt most effectively with transport issues. My noble friend Lady Byford led an impressive list of speakers in a powerful speech on behalf of agriculture and the countryside. I add only two points. What a pity that the introduction of a Bill on the right to roam now

22 Nov 1999 : Column 295

flies in the face of an incredibly effective voluntary relationship between the owners of land and those who want access to it. My noble friend Lord Peel is absolutely right. This legislation will drive a wedge between town and country people. The voluntary principle works and it should be allowed to develop.

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell majored on environmental, planning and economic development issues in an effective way. My noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith, Lord Bowness, Lord Hanningfield and others referred to local government matters. I agree with all of them. On one point I am in strong agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Tope. We hope that when the Bill in question comes before the House it will give as much flexibility as possible to local authorities to determine their own structures and to be more concerned with outcomes. Change is a costly business and it must be managed. If there is to be change, will local authorities be paid by government to manage it? When the Bill reaches Parliament in its final draft, as a result of the sterling work of my noble friend Lord Bowness and his joint committee, I expect it to be word, dot and comma perfect.

Much has been made of the so-called £19 billion allocation of funds for education over three years. I say "so-called" because, as has been pointed out by those responsible for parliamentary statistics, there has been triple counting. When challenged on the issue on television, the Secretary of State, Mr Blunkett, claimed yesterday that he had made no secret of cumulative counting. I have trawled in vain through speeches, Hansard and press cuttings from the Department for Education and Employment for references to triple counting. The truth is that hardly a day goes by without a project being announced which is funded from that £19 billion. Each time that occurs, the core funding for schools is eroded.

The Secretary of State announced yesterday more allocation from the service development fund for beacon schools, special units for the behaviourally sub-normal, mentors and learning centres. No one argues that those are not important, but the allocation is coming from core funding for schools. Unprecedented sums which should be going into schools are being top-sliced and controlled from the Department for Education and Employment; and to that must be added the massive increase in costly bureaucracy which is pre-empting much-needed funds destined for our schools, colleges and universities.

I want to read one of many letters I have received; it is typical of what is now coming from schools. It is from the head of a grant maintained school. He says:


    "I have to confess that I too was sadly deceived by the Government. The assurances were fulsomely and repeatedly given but, as you say, the situation is little short of disastrous. We are coping with a reduction of £170,000 per annum which has meant three temporary staff contracts not being renewed, cuts in capitation and building maintenance and so on. The desperately sad thing is that we see no tangible benefits from being back within the 'network' of the LEA with its 'services'. As in common with all good GM schools, we neither missed nor

22 Nov 1999 : Column 296

    needed the services. We certainly miss the £170,000 ... I live in hope, but with no conviction, that the Government will eventually see sense".

My own local authority, Cambridgeshire, put out a press release supported by the Labour, Liberal and Conservative leaders. It states:


    "Education chiefs at Cambridgeshire County Council have reacted angrily to a new Government announcement which will mean less money than expected for schools next year.


    "Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong has written to all local authorities with the shock news that the additional cost of government plans to introduce performance related pay for teachers will not be entirely funded with new money as expected.


    "Instead it will come from cash previously thought to be available for improvements in the funding of Cambridgeshire schools ... The whole of the education movement will be annoyed at this U-turn by the Government".

A secondary head said:


    "Once again we seem to be facing a twist in the way funding is allocated to councils, and hence to schools".

A primary head said:


    "This news is extremely disappointing and very demoralising ... Primary headteachers and their hard-working, dedicated staff across Cambridgeshire will be bitterly disappointed to hear this news".

The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, made references to Westminister City Council. We did some smart footwork after the noble Lord spoke. My authority, Buckinghamshire, Derbyshire and Darlington all receive between £200 and £300 less per pupil funding than North Yorkshire. But the rub is that, after two and a half years of this Government, Westminster receives between £500 and £800 more per pupil than North Yorkshire, Darlington, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire and Derbyshire. So whatever were the noble Lord's criticisms, the position has got worse in two and a half years.

We do not have the details as regards the consultation on the 16-plus issue. It is difficult to do anything other than pose questions. For example, how will the funding of post-16 education and training be provided? Will it recognise genuine variable costs of different post-16 courses? For example, we all know that engineering and engineering-related courses are costly. Given the proliferation of organisation at regional and local level--for example, the Rural Development Agency, small business services, franchises, local learning and skills councils and local learning partnerships, in addition to local authorities and many other commercial and industrial bodies, does the Minister accept that duplication and costly bureaucracy will displace focus and will siphon off again much needed resources from education and training providers? To what extent will the national learning and skills council replicate the work of the FEFC--the Further Education Funding Council? For example, will the staff simply transfer with a wider remit? Will there be sufficient flexibility for large organisations to contract with the national learning and skills council, and for other employers to contract with providers having the choice to contract either nationally or locally directly rather than through third parties?

22 Nov 1999 : Column 297

Approved private training providers are concerned that they should be funded on the same basis as the public sector and not through FE colleges, since they are, after all, competitors. There is considerable concern also about the number of local learning partnerships and the demise of the training and enterprise councils. What is the rationale for that? What is the future of our school sixth forms? What will be the criteria for funding them and what account will be taken of the desire of a school, its staff, its pupils and its parents who wish to keep the sixth form? What power does the adjudicator have in relation to those matters?

Only one contributor today has referred to universities in any detail. I am fascinated by something that the Chancellor, Mr Brown, is reported to have said: that almost all young people will be expected to go to university by the year 2010. That is a fairly absurd statistic. What is the latest target for places in universities, and again, how will those extra places be funded? Where is the response to the Dearing report, and what is the Government's response to the Betts report on universities?

I turn now to the important subject of special educational needs. We have no details as yet. I can tell the Government that we will give wholehearted support to any strengthening of early intervention, which is critical. Early intervention will go a long way towards providing a long-term solution to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. However, there has been a disturbing increase in the numbers of unstatemented children identified as having special educational needs. Do the Government have a view on that issue and do they have any plans to break down the data in that area into the way that boys, as distinct from girls, are affected?

I support the concerns and the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about the education and training of disaffected young people. I know that the noble Lord has considerable knowledge in this area. I have seen the holiday schemes run by Toynbee Hall and I must say that they are impressive and most effective.

I turn now to the thorny question of Clause 28. It will come as no surprise to the Government that we shall oppose the repeal of this clause. The promotion and proselytising of homosexuality as an acceptable or desirable lifestyle--which is what Clause 28 was installed to prevent--is different from dealing with those sensitive issues in the curriculum.

What is the Government's view about the news which broke today that children as young as 14 are being encouraged to act out homosexual scenes in the classroom? A game called "Spot the Heterosexual" and role-playing such as pretending to be a married man who has sex with another man in secret are included in the educational pack for teenagers. It has been put together by part of the National Health Service, and, because it purports to be educational, it is not governed by Section 28 of the Local Government Act which prohibits education

22 Nov 1999 : Column 298

authorities from openly promoting homosexuality. The people who produced the pack say that it is well within government guidelines on sex education. I should be interested to know from the Minister whether that is the case.

No one can take issue with the constant drive by the Government for higher standards in education. However, the Government's efforts are more than countered by their attack on grammar schools; an attack on selection of children with an aptitude for all subjects except for academic ability; the threat to reduce fees to support the college tutorial systems at Oxford and Cambridge; the abolition of grant maintained schools and consequent loss of autonomy; and the refusal to honour promises to young people who were offered a place on the assisted places scheme all through primary and secondary schools. All the evidence shows that, where education meets the needs of all children from those with special educational needs to those with exceptional academic ability, all children benefit. You do not improve the rest by weakening the best.

The amendment to the gracious Speech proposed by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on Thursday last states that the Opposition,


    "regret the failure of Her Majesty's Government to reduce the burden of taxation and regulation and deplore the incoherence and the lack of vision of the measures proposed by Your Majesty's Government for the coming Session of Parliament".--[Official Report, 18/11/99; col. 38.]

That applies as much to today's debate as it does to all our other debates on the gracious Speech. The level of taxation has been commented on by the OECD and the House of Commons Library statisticians as having grown faster here than in our neighbouring European countries. There is a lack of coherence in education and employment policy and a serious lack of vision in tackling the problems of agriculture and rural Britain.

The attack on hunting and the right to roam, like House of Lords reform, has little to do with foxes, care of the countryside or strong independent second Chambers but has more to do with class warfare and the politics of envy.

The Greater London Bill was the worst example ever of poor drafting, both in terms of quality and quantity. I know that noble Lords will not wish to see a repeat of such drafting in respect of any Bill in the new programme. There is no doubt that the programme announced in the gracious Speech will keep us burning late-night oil well into the summer and maybe even the autumn of next year. There is a great deal of legislation before us, some of it contentious. I fully expect this House to be robust and vigilant in defending its right to scrutinise and revise each Bill in detail without fear or favour of the other place. I thank most warmly in advance my noble friends and colleagues on these Benches for their support and involvement in that important work.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 299

10.31 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall on her excellent maiden speech. She demonstrated that her village primary school has not only given her the exposure to the arts which she enjoyed so much at the time but also a gift to speak which has continued throughout her life, and earlier this afternoon we saw a manifestation of that.

I wish to congratulate also the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, on what was again an excellent maiden speech. He is a great expert on information technology and in particular on its application to education. My department has benefited greatly from the advice which he has been able to provide and I hope that we shall continue to benefit from it.

At the beginning of the debate, my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston outlined the DETR's legislative programme and the thinking which underpins it. The transport Bill will help to bring about the modernisation of public transport, improve the road network and bring greater choice for all.

Our local government Bill will lay the foundations for more responsive, ethical, accountable and innovative local government. Our manifesto commitment to give people greater access to the countryside and improve protection for wildlife will be fulfilled through the countryside Bill. Those measures will help to improve the quality of life for people in this country.

In my response, I wish to concentrate mainly on education and in particular my department's two Bills. However, I shall try to respond to the major points raised in the debate on both DETR and agricultural policies. Some of the issues raised perhaps belong to the debate on the following two days and I am sure that my noble friends on the Front Bench will try to pick up some of those points.

I need about three hours to do justice to the range of issues that have been raised by your Lordships this evening. I do not always agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but on this occasion I agree with her that it is almost impossible to have a meaningful debate on the wide range of issues covered in the debate today.

I shall try to do justice to the points raised on agriculture. I shall not pick up all the questions that the noble Baroness put to me, although I must pick up some points made on education as my noble friend was not able to say a great deal on that subject in his opening speech.

The Learning and Skills Bill will contain proposals to promote learning among people over the age of 16. It will take forward the ideas in our White Paper, Learning to Succeed. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate, to my noble friend Lord Sawyer and to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, all of whom broadly supported the changes that we are making.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 300

The Bill will set in place a new body, the Learning and Skills Council, which will plan and fund all post-16 education and training in England. The new council will work with the schools sector to ensure that we have coherent provision across education for all 16 to 19 year-olds. It will assume responsibility for funding colleges, work-based training for young people and workforce development. It will also develop adult and community education by working with local authorities and provide information and guidance to adults.

Perhaps I can assure noble Lords who raised the question of the role of local authorities in the new system. I believe that the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Hanningfield, both raised that matter, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Local authorities will be important partners in the new arrangements. They are uniquely placed to provide vision and leadership in local communities. For the first time they will have influence over all post-16 education and training, not just adult and community funding. They will certainly have a central role in the local learning partnerships.

The national Learning and Skills Council will work through 47 business-led local arms, which will replace more than 70 training and enterprise councils (TECs). It will also work with the RDAs. I believe that that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. The Bill will ensure that there is a direct link between the RDAs and the national Learning and Skills Council and its local arms.

At this point I want to express my gratitude to the TECs and the TEC National Council and also to the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) and its regional committees. They will be abolished, which I thought perhaps was not entirely clear having regard to what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. Their continuing efforts will help us to create a smooth transition towards our new goals.

The Bill will clarify the powers of the Secretary of State and the LSC to intervene in colleges to ensure high standards--that must be part of the vision to which my noble friend Lord Sawyer referred--and it will root out mismanagement.

It will also set in place new independent inspection arrangements. The legislation will integrate inspection processes for young people learning in schools and colleges up to the age of 19. That will be achieved by making the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) responsible for the inspection of all provision. In addition, it will create a new Adult and Learning Inspectorate (ALI) to work with OFSTED within a common inspection framework.

Those measures are vital to the modern provision for learning. Our changes will not produce more duplication but will stop duplication as well as put in place a rigorous inspection regime to drive up standards. I hope that the Learning and Skills Council will help to make lifelong learning a reality and create a more rational system of funding for both colleges and private training providers--and for employers. Our proposals will encourage business to

22 Nov 1999 : Column 301

become involved in setting the agenda. Industry will work through national and local LSCs on a range of issues, particularly on-the-job training. They have an unprecedented opportunity to drive the change process.

Too many young people struggle to make career choices amid the turmoil of growing up. Too many fall through the net and miss out on the opportunities that lead to successful and fulfilled lives. We shall put in place a new service offering a comprehensive structure for advice and support for all young people from the age of 13. Drawing on the recommendations of the Social Exclusion Unit's report, Bridging the Gap, the new service will help them to make choices and will promote social inclusion. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for his welcome of the Government's proposals in this area. I agree with him that a lot of good work is being done by both voluntary and local authority youth services. I shall certainly look into the point he made in relation to the impact of mentors on youth workers. The answer therefore to his questions is "yes" in both cases.

According to recent statistics, 170,000 young people were not in education, training or employment. This Government are committed to dealing with that terrible waste of potential through the formation of the new support service.

I was a little sorry that no one in the course of this debate, until we reached the Opposition spokesman on education, mentioned the special educational needs Bill. It is an important new piece of legislation to help to support the raising of standards of achievement of all children with special educational needs. It also reinforces our commitment to fairness of educational opportunity for those children.

The Bill will place a duty on LEAs to offer a parent partnership service. The service would include providing parents of children identified as having special educational needs with access to an independent parental supporter for help and advice. I shall leave further discussion of that Bill to its introduction, whenever that takes place.

I shall not say much today about universities in response to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, other than that the Learning and Skills Bill will give the Learning and Skills Council powers to co-operate with the Higher Education Funding Council, similar to the powers of the FEFC. The local learning and skills councils will work closely with HE institutions in their areas and listen to their advice.

I am grateful for the comments made in relation to higher education and enterprise and the changes the Government introduced in that area. But in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, I can say that the Government have already provided a comprehensive response to Dearing. The response was published well over a year ago and I am happy to make it available to both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. However, we will be debating universities in this House again quite soon.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 302

The noble Baroness raised a number of questions in relation to educational funding in general. Perhaps I may respond briefly rather than replying in great detail to all her points. There will be an increase of at least 5 per cent per year in cash terms for school budgets in each year of the CSR. The £19 billion is a three-year programme. We are still announcing the third year of that programme which does not begin until next April.

I turn now to some of the other points raised on education. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, suggested that the reductions we are making in class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds are at the expense of other age groups. That is not the case. Between January 1998 and January 1999, the overall pupil:teacher ratio improved. That was the first improvement for 10 years.

I pick up a couple of points made about ICT which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, and my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. The importance of the Internet is enormous. The role of the BBC and other broadcasting bodies is huge. We now have a £1 billion programme linking all our schools to the Internet. In the past year alone, there has been a fourfold increase in connections with primary schools. Ninety per cent of secondary schools and two-thirds of primary schools are now connected. We shall certainly see a further transformation of our classrooms as a result of these very significant changes.

I very much agree with the point made about ageism. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, is getting to grips with the Internet as well as with his 45 year-old book on German grammar. Perhaps I may borrow the book from him and brush up on my German grammar which is extremely rusty.

We are also making important changes as regards literacy and numeracy, which were raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. It is right that the area with which she is concerned--the arts--should not be neglected. I am sure that she will be the first to agree that if we are to have primary Shakespeare that really works, it is extremely important that young people are literate and learn to read early.

I now turn to questions of transport and spending. Under the plans of the previous administration, we would now be spending nearly £1 billion less on transport each year than we are doing at present. In contrast, our plans over the next three years will provide an extra £1.8 billion, excluding rail franchises and London Transport. That is a very significant increase.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and, I believe, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised questions as to whether money raised from road user charging would be additional funding. My noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall also mentioned hypothecation in that respect. The Bill guarantees that local authorities beginning a charging scheme in the next 10 years will keep all that money for spending on transport for at least 10 years from the start of the scheme.

22 Nov 1999 : Column 303

As regards road user charging, we inherited high and growing levels of traffic congestion. Statistics show that unless something is done, car traffic will grow by more than one-third over the next 20 years. Congestion costs the United Kingdom billions of pounds every year; frustrates motorists; and harms the environment, health and quality of life. So, doing nothing is really not an option. That is the most anti-motorist policy that we could possibly pursue.

The Bill guarantees, as I said, that any local authorities starting a charging scheme will be able to keep the money available. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, suggested that there was no point in such schemes until we have better public transport. Surely we need to do both at the same time. It is very hard to attract people back on to buses, which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, was particularly concerned about, unless we can create space on the roads.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked two questions. He asked about pensioners travelling on half fare. We shall be introducing that as soon as possible, subject to the progress of the Bill. We shall also be considering the rural bus grant in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, asked a number of other questions. I wonder whether he would mind if I wrote to him in response. I have all the answers before me, but I will not have time to say anything about local government or agriculture if I go through them. However, on the point about bypasses, I can tell the noble Lord that 19 of the 37 schemes in the roads review were bypasses, and that is more than the last government built in the previous five years. The noble Lord raised a number of questions on the National Air Traffic Services and our plans for PPP in this area. Again, I could go through all the points now, but I think it would be better for me to write to the noble Lord.

I should like to say a few brief words about modernising local government. The modernisation of local government is very central to our plans to modernise Britain. Our framework for its reform stretches for 10 years or more and will open the way for councils to meet the challenges and needs of the 21st century. We took the first steps with the Local Government Act 1999 in the last Session, replacing inflexible and outdated schemes on compulsory competitive tendering with a new duty of best value. The Government are committed to local government which is open, accountable and secures the delivery of efficient, high quality local services.

A number of questions were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Bowness and Lord Dixon-Smith, about the joint committee of MPs and Peers providing pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. The Government were very grateful to Members of both Houses who took part in the proceedings of the joint committee. We have reflected on the opinions that were expressed and have refined proposals in the draft Bill in order to bring them forward as part of this Session's

22 Nov 1999 : Column 304

legislation. We intend to publish a government response to the joint committee's report, which should be available to read alongside the Bill. On the question of secondary legislation, I can tell noble Lords that we intend to make drafts and guidance available wherever possible during the Bill's passage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, asked about local government structural reform and innovation. Councils will ask local people how they want to be governed; indeed, I believe that that issue concerned a number of speakers in the debate. Councils will also have to consult with local people in the new structures and all councils will be expected to move to whatever new ways of working meet the needs of their communities today.

Again, I would be grateful if I could respond in writing to a number of the other issues that were raised on local government. Perhaps I may also write to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who made some interesting points about energy efficiency, about the climate change levy and about the implications for CHP and renewables. Similarly, I hope that I may write to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, regarding her points on housing and homelessness. Of course, a number of these issues will be picked up in the Green Paper that will be published later.

I turn now to the countryside and the Bill that we will be bringing forward. Again, I shall have to be very brief. Various views were expressed about what the Government propose to do in this area. However, I was a little surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, felt that there was a serious conflict between what is being proposed on access and on the preservation of wildlife. The Government's view is that making the countryside more accessible should help to foster a greater sense of concern and understanding of its well-being. There is not uncontrolled and unfettered access. The new right of access will be limited in scope. There will be clear restrictions to prevent damaging activities. I of course acknowledge the concerns on this but perhaps that reassurance will be helpful.

I turn to agriculture. I feel rather as if I am in the firing line here. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, said that I do not look "agricultural". He should see me in the country at the weekend sometimes! My parents used to rear pigs and therefore I have a little experience of small-scale pig farming.

A number of speakers questioned the fact that agriculture is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Of course the Queen's Speech deals with the legislative programme. There is no major agriculture Bill in that programme this year. However--


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page