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I turn now to some of the specific points that have been raised on education in today's debate. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, pointed out, rightly, that much work has been undertaken already to raise and improve standards in education. That point was made by other noble Lords. There is nothing that we wish to do to undermine that progress. Rather, we wish to build upon it.
But I have to say that we still lag far behind our European competitors. International comparisons show clearly that our children are performing at a level well below that of many of our economic competitors in both maths and English. As my noble friend Lady Blackstone highlighted in her opening speech, we are determined to raise standards, starting with literacy and numeracy. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced recently very stretching targets in that area.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked also what savings would be released by the withdrawal of funding from the assisted places scheme. We estimate that between £20 million and £50 million will be saved in 1998-99 and 1999-2000 respectively. That will help to fund our priority of reducing class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds, the priority group.
The Audit Commission estimates that nearly 900,000 places remain unfilled in our schools. Not surprisingly perhaps that was not highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in his speech. But it means that there is ample scope to accommodate those transferring back into the state system.
I am happy also to be able to respond to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on the Government's plans for the withdrawal of the nursery vouchers scheme. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also raised that issue. We shall make an announcement shortly which will deal in detail with the points that they raised.
Several noble Lords commented on the importance of early years education. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, stressed, and rightly reminded us of, as he often does, the importance of those very early years. We have asked local education authorities to produce early years development plans. Those will set out their proposals for three and four year-olds.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon referred also to the importance of parents participating in their children's education both at school and, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, before school. It is a subject dear to my heart and as someone who is just about to finish taking my fourth child through primary school, I have no illusions about the importance of getting parents involved in the very basic partnership between school and home in developing those important fundamental, basic skills. At the end of going through the reading scheme of The Village with Three Corners for the fourth time, I have to say that if I ever had to do it again I might go completely mad.
The right reverend Prelate voiced his disappointment at the absence of any reference in the Queen's Speech to the work of the further education sector. Although there is no specific reference in the Speech, perhaps I may make it clear that FE features very much in the Government's plans to raise standards in education. We shall be discussing a number of new and exciting initiatives within the FE sector to ascertain how these can fit in with our plans for lifelong learning.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the Greenwich judgment. There are no plans at present to change the current position under the Greenwich judgment whereby
Perhaps I may now turn to the department for which I have responsibilities; namely, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I should like, first, to thank several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Borrie, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, and I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for the welcome that they expressed for the creation of the joint department under the leadership--or the "weight" of the leadership, which I believe was the phrase used--of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister.
This new department is a major demonstration of the Government's commitment to pursue the goals of sustainable development across Whitehall and to ensure that the environment becomes an integral part of all our policies, not just an "add on" that is always in danger of being dropped off. I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Moran--and, indeed, many other speakers--who stressed the need for a sustainable development policy, will feel that the creation of this department provides a framework in which we can take that forward.
There is a huge challenge ahead for all of us who care about the environment and about sustainable development to engineer the changes that we need to make if together we are to create a world that actually offers the quality of life that we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy. If we are to succeed in that, we will need to involve a very wide group of people to work in partnership at local, national and international level and aim for higher living standards while at the same time safeguarding and enhancing the environment and developing an integrated transport policy to fight congestion and pollution.
The need to take the lead in the international community is, I believe, well recognised, not just in Europe but also in the wider community. I am sure that the whole House will be pleased to learn that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be leading the UK delegation to the UN General Assembly Special Session next month and that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has also begun to take steps to put environmental policy at the heart of our foreign affairs.
The point was made during the course of today's debate that we must look at how we deal with these issues as a whole Government. We have committed ourselves to extending the powers of the other place to help promote environmental appraisal of policy and sustainable development across government. Subject to the agreement of the other place, we propose to create a new scrutiny committee to promote high standards and to monitor the assessments that departments make as regards the impact on the environment of their policies. We believe that this development could have a very significant role in our initiative to green Government.
The noble Lords, Lord Moran and Lord Beaumont, raised the crucial issue of water resources and supply. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday held a summit meeting on the water industry. All the water companies in England and Wales were invited. The Director-General of Water Services--the economic regulator--and the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency spoke at the conference. Environmental and consumer bodies and many other organisations were also represented.
My right honourable friend made it clear that he was seeking a co-operative approach to tackling those problems, but we also seek an approach that will deliver results. He announced that the Director-General would be setting tough mandatory leakage targets for each company with a view of securing substantial reductions in leakage over the next five years. This was part of a 10-point plan. Each water company has been asked to respond within the next three weeks to the challenge represented by that plan.
Perhaps I may turn now to transport issues. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley made contributions in this area. In transport it is difficult to overstate the challenges we face--or the costs of getting the response wrong. As has been pointed out, we are becoming an increasingly car-dependent nation, and we face the prospect over the next 20 years of a doubling in road traffic growth from current levels. In part this is a reflection of the greater freedom of movement and choice that the car can bring and which we all sometimes want to enjoy. But we cannot and must not shut our eyes to the damage, both economic and environmental, that this brings in terms of congestion, poor air quality, climate change and noise and in a range of other areas.
Our response to these challenges was spelt out in our manifesto, where we made it clear that we regard an integrated transport policy as fundamental to the battle against pollution and congestion. As my noble friend pointed out, for too long we have seen an unco-ordinated and inadequate approach to the provision of transport systems and infrastructure. In contrast, this Government will establish and develop an integrated and effective strategy at all levels--and regional and local levels are as important as the national level in these areas--which will provide genuine choice, a choice that too often simply does not exist at present, to meet people's transport needs.
One clear aim of this strategy will be to boost the status and effectiveness of public transport. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about the London Underground. That is one specific part of the public
We recognise, too, the importance of bus services as part of a balanced transport policy. We shall therefore be giving early consideration to what steps need to be taken to ensure that there is proper regulation of bus services at a local level and to encourage partnerships between local authorities and bus operators to improve the benefits to passengers and reverse some of those trends alluded to by my noble friend Lord Berkeley regarding the number of different modes of transport using our roads at present.
The other side of our transport strategy is of course the road network, and we will be taking forward our manifesto commmitment to conduct an overall strategic review of the roads programme. I believe it is extremely important that we get the scope and context for that review right. The road network clearly has a vital role to play in an effective and integrated transport policy and is hugely important in some of the areas of regional development referred to today and in terms of economic regeneration. But we must also ensure that it discharges that role in a manner which is sustainable. The review will look at the competing issues in depth and will evaluate schemes against the criteria of accessibility, safety, economy and the environment.
In dealing with transport matters it is important, too, that we recognise the role that the aviation and maritime industries play, not just in the UK but also in the international arena. So we will follow aviation policies which support the UK industry and benefit the consumer and which are environmentally sustainable. I hope that that deals at least in part with one of the issues raised by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Benches.
My noble friend Lord Murray raised the issue of the merchant shipping industry. I assure him that we will act in a spirit of co-operation to achieve our manifesto commitment of helping our shipping and port industries to develop their economic potential to the full. And we will continue to promote the uses of inland waterways and coastal shipping to improve our environment and reduce levels of road traffic.
My noble friend Lord Murray also raised the issue of training for merchant seamen. I hope he will have taken heart from the emphasis given by my noble friend Lady Blackstone in opening the debate to the importance of training in all sectors. The Department for the Environment and Transport is very anxious to play its part in the new deal--for example, by ensuring that the proposed environment task force makes a successful contribution to that programme. I am glad to assure my noble friend that we shall certainly be working with our partners in Europe, as well as with the national maritime industry, to encourage and take forward those proposals which are intended further to develop the supply of high-calibre and highly motivated seafarers for the merchant navy.
A key objective for all modes of transport will be the maintenance and enhancement of safety, and in particular we will seek to create an environment in which all sectors of society are--and feel--safe when using public transport. It is a great pleasure for me to have been given specific responsibility for promoting and enhancing road safety, and I assure your Lordships that I will work not only to achieve reductions in the numbers of those who are killed and injured on our roads every year, but especially to enhance the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, for example through supporting and promoting the crucial initiatives which aim to provide safe routes to schools.
I hope to integrate thinking on safety throughout a variety of transport issues. In that context, I shall be interested to hear the suggestions of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, in relation to improving the safety of goods vehicles. I must apologise to the noble Earl that I was not in the Chamber to hear his contribution. I have wide responsibilities, as has been pointed out, but I am afraid I am not completely bionic.
The theme of public safety extends beyond the issue of transport. It informs government policies in other crucial areas of public life. We are determined to reform the arrangements for dealing with food safety and to restore the confidence of the consumer. That is why we published Professor James' report for immediate consultation. The Government fully support the general thrust of his recommendations, which provide a clear direction for strengthening the handling of food safety. We are determined to get it right, and there remain many practical issues to consider. We will be seeking the comments of all interested parties before preparing legislation.
In the meantime, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture is making changes in his department in preparation for an agency. These include steps to increase the involvement of consumers in the Ministry's business and to make more information available on the Government's food safety policies.
On agriculture, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, properly raised the issue of BSE. He was also generous in his introduction and welcome to me. As with other former colleagues like the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, looks any older either, but I suspect that all three of us are deceiving ourselves.
On the issue of BSE, which was raised by other speakers, there is no question of our underestimating either the seriousness of the issue or the obstacles that the history of the last months and years has left us with. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, made a number of points and posed detailed questions to which I shall respond, if I may, in writing. I agree entirely with his main point that we have inherited an extremely difficult situation. Agriculture Ministers have opened a constructive dialogue with the European Commission and EU member states with a view to producing a European solution to the problem and ensuring a common approach to the issues of cattle traceability and marketing, which the noble Lord specifically mentioned.
The common agricultural policy was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer and others today in their speeches. The Government will seek further reform of the common agricultural policy, to provide more effective support for farming communities and to redirect CAP funds for the benefit of the broader rural economy and consumers. We would like to hasten the phasing out of intervention and export subsidies which build up food mountains, dump cheap produce on to world markets and are intrinsically vulnerable to high levels of fraud.
On the issue of green compensation raised in the debate, the House will be interested to know that my noble friend Lord Donoughue will meet the NFU tomorrow to discuss the issue. As for organic farming, raised by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, I fully admit to not being an expert. I believe that he will ensure that I am one in a short time, but perhaps I may write to him on the specific issue of funding for organic farmers.
The noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, raised the important issue of conservation. It is clear that the common fisheries policy needs to be changed to achieve more effective conservation of fish stocks and to safeguard the future of the fishing industry.
Another central aim of the Government's manifesto is to devolve power outwards. Some of the legislative proposals in the gracious Speech welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, will ensure that local decision making will be less constrained by central government and be more accountable to local people. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, and the noble Lords, Lord Wade and Lord Borrie, all asked detailed questions about regional development agencies which we see very much as not being a standard model designed in Whitehall and imposed on everywhere, but developing organically, responding to the needs of the region. We very much take on board that we shall have to see how they mesh in with the other agencies working within the regions. I shall have responsibility for taking through the House the Regional Development Agencies Bill, together with the Local Government (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill, which we hope will regenerate housing, and the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill.
On the London Bill, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that a real choice will be given to the people of London. If he parses the sentence in the manifesto carefully, he will see that it is implicit in it. I believe that the proposals will be widely welcomed and I should be surprised if they were rejected. Certainly within this House there has been widespread support. Who knows, if we are to believe what we read in the papers, perhaps some of the candidates for mayoral election will include Members of your Lordships' House.
The programme outlined in the gracious Speech is a formidable one, but we believe it is also achievable. There are areas where I know that some will be disappointed that we have not been able to include additional legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, mentioned the issue of disability, although I hope that he will have taken some comfort from the opening
But even without legislation--and it has not been possible to include in this Queen's Speech all the legislation in all the areas that many of us would have wished to see--there is much that can be done by other actions. I counsel the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, against too much cynicism. Oscar Wilde had something to say about cynics who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is perhaps in the area of values that the nation has most welcomed the change that took place on 1st May.
In his speech, my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside referred to the Athenian oath of allegiance. I must tell your Lordships that it struck a particular chord with me. It may amuse my noble friends to know that the oath, with a slightly bizarre musical
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