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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, will the Minister accept that the early years period in a child's life is probably the most significant of all periods in the development of aptitude skills which make for good learning in later life? Does she agree also that resources placed into that sector would make more difference than any other in educational attainment?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate. It is for that reason that the Government have already taken steps to expand the provision of pre-school education. The Government have made a firm commitment to ensuring that every child aged four has a place. In addition, the Government are committed to expanding provision for three year-olds so that by 2002 two-thirds of all three year-olds will have a place either in a maintained nursery class or in the voluntary or private sector.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the impact that the minimum wage is having on deeply rural communities where some playgroups simply cannot cope with the new designation of their workers who have hitherto been paid on a sessional, and almost honorarial, basis? It means now that such facilities will be lost to those communities.
Lord Tope: My Lords, can the Minister explain the huge discrepancy between the figures of the Preschool Learning Alliance which says that 1,500 groups have closed since 1997 and her own department's figures which suggest that the correct figure is 100? Whatever the correct figure may be, does the Minister agree that voluntary playgroups are now under very serious pressure? Further, can she say when she expects the review that she has just mentioned to report?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there is a discrepancy between the figures produced by the alliance and those which have been collected by the Government. I suspect that some of the discrepancy is explained by different definitions. I believe that the figures of the preschool alliance cover a much wider range of provision than those which apply to the government figures. It is also the case that we get closures in this area followed by re-opening of a slightly different kind of provision in the same locality. So we need to take into account the fact that there have been substantial numbers of new playgroups as well as some closures. Many closures derive from the previous government's very damaging voucher scheme which led to unnecessary competition between the sectors. This Government are keen to ensure that there should be co-operation. I cannot give a precise date as to when the review will be completed, but I shall let the noble Lord know when it is close to that time.
Lord Gainford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, has he any evidence concerning the recent air accident where it was alleged that use of mobile phones by passengers interfered with air crew and ground communication? If so, is any such evidence available as yet?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is no evidence of an accident actually having been caused. However, the CAA has reports of six incidents in the past 10 years, five of them occurring during last year, where the use of mobile phones is suspected of having interfered with aircraft equipment.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a current television advertisement featuring a lady in her home telephoning her husband who is in an aeroplane? The lady is shown talking to him, the telephone is then passed to their dog who barks at the phone and the husband smiles happily. Nevertheless, the husband is still in the aeroplane and the dog is still at home.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not aware of that particular advertisement. However, there are a number of other advertisements where I believe that the performers in them are probably breaking the law in one way or another. Nevertheless, I am glad that the noble Baroness has drawn this particular advertisement to my attention.
Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, can the Minister say whether any similar dangers are involved in the use of mobile phones on board trains and indeed on the Underground railway system? Are there not warnings to discourage the use of mobile phones on trains? If there are not, perhaps the Minister can invent some.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the main danger identified thus far in terms of rail transport is that of being lynched by the other passengers. As the noble Lord will know, a number of operators have introduced quiet carriages mainly for that effect. However, there is no indication that such phones interfere with the actual mechanics of the train.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the CAA is carrying out any trials to detect mobile phones that are inadvertently left on and which may have caused these six incidents, or whatever? Further, can he tell us what systems are being affected by the use of such phones?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is difficult to identify precisely which systems because in the confined space of an aircraft all of the avionics could be affected. Therefore, a number of systems could potentially be affected. The interference which is suspected of actually having occurred relates to the communications system.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, would it be possible for the Minister to give the House further information about allegations in newspaper reports that it is even dangerous to use mobile phones on terra firma?
Lord Whitty: However, the Government are obtaining advice from the National Radiological Protection Board as regards the risk to human health from radiation, and that includes the use of mobile phones because they are low-power microwave transmitters. There is some alleged concern in that area. Although we have no reason to suppose that there is a serious problem, this is a new situation which involves large numbers of people. My colleagues in the Department of Health are supporting various research studies into the matter both in this country and internationally.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether Her Majesty's Government have been in a position to advise air companies as to cheap and effective screening methods which obviate the necessity for these people being put to inconvenience?
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, further to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, can my noble friend the Minister say which agency would be responsible for ensuring that advertisements do not promote illegal activity?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I understand that the Advertising Standards Authority would be the appropriate body. My earlier comment was made in my other capacity as road safety Minister. It seems that a fair number of motor manufacturers show cars exceeding the speed limit by substantial amounts. I think that the Advertising Standards Authority has quite flexible rules in this respect. However, it would be that body because it is required to ensure that such advertising is not illegal.
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