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Lord Tope: My Lords, it is 22 years almost to the day since I made my maiden speech in another place. On that occasion, with more youthful enthusiasm than mature judgment, I agreed to make it on the day I took my seat. That left me with little choice of subject. The result was that I made my first and last speech on the shipbuilding industry. I had to exercise considerable ingenuity in also complying with the customary practice
Twenty-two years on, and even more unexpectedly, I now have an opportunity to make another maiden speech. This time I have waited a little longer before doing so and learnt rather more. I have sat in this Chamber and listened with ever growing respect to the knowledge, experience and wisdom shown during debates in your Lordships' House. It is therefore with great trepidation that I rise today to make some brief remarks. However, I hope to do so on a subject about which I have a little more knowledge, and considerably more experience, than I had on the shipbuilding industry.
For the past 20 years I have been a councillor in the London borough of Sutton and for more than eight years now have had the privilege of leading that council. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to digress for a moment to say how pleased I was that 30 per cent. of the working peers created during the Summer Recess are currently active councillors. Too many times in recent years all of us in local government, regardless of party, have had good reason to be grateful to your Lordships for your stout defence of local government and local democracy.
Since my introduction to your Lordships' House I have received both a warm and friendly welcome and much good advice, for all of which I am deeply grateful. I have been advised that a first speech should not be controversial, so it is with some hesitation that I have chosen to make my few comments on education! Nevertheless, it is an area which alone consumes more than half my council's annual budget and is seldom far from the top of our considerations. It is a high priority for my council and my party. But, most importantly, it is the highest priority for the people of my borough and for the country as a whole.
I have also been advised that, speaking in this debate, I can either attack what was in the gracious Speech or regret what was not in it. In common with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I want to welcome what was not in the Speech! As my colleague in another place, Don Foster, said, after 18 Education Bills in 15 years, for there not to be one seems like a major breach of the constitution. As the leader of a local education authority, a parent and, indeed, the husband of a school teacher, I welcome that absence more than most.
As the Secretary of State recognised so soon after taking up her present office, what the education world needs most now is a period of calm and consolidation. I agree with that. I welcome too the conciliatory approach of the Secretary of State, which is so much in contrast to some of her predecessors. She has shown that she cares for her subject and is willing to listen, if not always to agree. That has already earned her the respect of the education world and of local government generally. I hope that we will respond in a similarly positive fashion.
I cannot promise always to be so complimentary of Government Ministers, or what they do or do not do, but I want to start by paying credit where I think it is due. There is much which the leader of a local education
In my first speech, I want to start at the beginning--with nursery education. I am pleased that the noble Baroness made specific reference to that in her opening speech. The future of our country depends on the good education of our children. Perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that a good education for our children depends on a good start. I believe that the best start can be made with good nursery education. And by that I do not mean just starting primary school a little earlier; I mean high quality nursery education, properly resourced and provided by teachers with expertise in early learning.
This has long been a top priority for my party and I welcome the Prime Minister's statement at the Conservative Party Conference that the expansion of nursery education is to be a top priority for the Government too. But I remember that some 22 years ago when I was in the other place the then Secretary of State for Education made the same pronouncement. What happened?--nothing. The same pronouncement has been made consistently ever since then, but no Government have yet backed their words with the real additional resources needed to make them anything but words.
That is a clear and unequivocal commitment which I warmly welcome. But there is not yet any indication of how it is to be achieved. Indeed, some subsequent comments from the Government suggest that perhaps the commitment might not have been so clear and unequivocal as it sounded at the party conference.
The Prime Minister will depend largely on local government to deliver his "cast iron commitment". But local government is now dependent on central government for over 80 per cent. of its revenue resources and faces severe capping on the rest. Local authorities' capital expenditure is ever more tightly restricted by central government. For many local education authorities now, new facilities, equipment and materials can be provided only at the expense of much needed and overdue basic building maintenance.
Local authorities are often told that within the overall limits set by central government they can determine their own priorities and decide for themselves how they spend their resources. Up to a point that is true. But it is rather like telling a condemned man that he can choose the hangman or the firing squad. If there really is to be an expansion of nursery education it can only come through the provision of additional resources, not
Many of us in local government share the Prime Minister's commitment to nursery education. For us it really is a case of, "Give us the tools and we will finish the job". Next week in the Budget and in the revenue support grant settlement the Prime Minister has the chance to show local government that he will indeed "give us the tools". Indeed, if the promised expansion in nursery education is,
Instead we have been told over and over again that next week's revenue support grant settlement will be "the toughest yet". There is no sign that controls on capital expenditure will really be eased, even to allow for the capital work that will be necessary first to provide for an expansion of nursery education in the following financial year, which will be the last of this Parliament.
We want to meet the Prime Minister's objective of accelerating the expansion of nursery education. But we need to know how we are to do so--and when. Central government cannot again raise expectations and then leave local government without adequate resources to fulfil those expectations.
The provision of good quality nursery education must be a top priority for cental and local government. Not only does it provide that all-important "good start" to the education of our children and young people but it can do much to prevent many of the problems in later life which we are discussing today.
I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord who replies to this debate will be able to give some indication that the Government's commitment to nursery education this time is more than mere words. I hope that he will be able to tell us how and when the Government will be backing those words with real additional resources. That would be a real investment for the future.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, it is my pleasure and privilege to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on his excellent speech. I am sure that we all agree that maiden speeches are very daunting affairs. It may be that the noble Lord has not enjoyed his speech as much as we have; but I hope now that he will be able to enjoy the fact that it has been completed.
As he has told us, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is no stranger to the Palace of Westminster, because he represented Sutton and Cheam for a short time. But since then he has had a distinguished career in local government. I come from the voluntary sector of my party so it was with great interest that I read that he has held high office in his party from the time when he was national president of the League of Young Liberals to his present position today as president of the London Liberal Democrats.
We may not always share the noble Lord's views, but I am sure that we shall always listen to him with attention. We look forward to his future contributions and hope that it will not be too long before he makes his next speech in this Chamber.
I welcome the measures outlined in Her Majesty's speech for the legislative programme for the coming year. In particular, I applaud the Government's continued commitment to law and order and the important measure to create a jobseeker's allowance. I support also the proposals to streamline the NHS and to safeguard non-state pensions while ensuring equality and choice.
In practically every survey of people's worries, law and order top the poll. Safety on our streets and in our homes is something that we all cherish and expect. Personal safety affects our whole way of life and so I welcome the Government's determination to intensify the fight against crime.
I am pleased also that there will be a Green Paper setting out the options for the introduction of a national identity card scheme. Legislation in that area would act as a deterrent and would be a valuable aid to the police. I believe also that it would be a very popular measure with the public who, I feel, would prefer an identity card which is obligatory rather than voluntary.
Over recent months it has been extremely heartwarming to witness the decrease in the number on the register of unemployed people. In particular, I welcome the measure to reform their benefits and to give them assistance through individual advice to get back into work. I like the idea of a back-to-work bonus for those willing to take part-time work as a stepping stone. That measure would not only be of benefit to the individual concerned but also to the whole family. The misery which unemployment can bring is well understood. Therefore, I very much welcome incentives of that nature.
I am delighted that the Government are to introduce a Bill to fight discrimination against disabled people. Noble Lords feel particularly strongly on that issue. Much has been done to promote the needs of disabled people and the proposed Bill will build on that. It is always important to introduce measures which are practical and acceptable to those on whom the financial burden will fall. But we all want to find ways in which to give greater independence to disabled people. I hope that the consultation that has taken place during the summer months will result in finding a way in which to give them that independence without imposing excessive burdens on business and industry.
The recent reforms in the National Health Service have concentrated on decentralising decision-making by passing the power to NHS trusts, family doctors and local health authorities. It is vitally important to minimise bureaucracy. That decentralisation has meant that now proposals are made to abolish the regional health authorities and to substitute the district and family health service authorities with all-purpose authorities. I am sure that that will be widely welcomed.
It has always seemed strange to me that women have retired earlier than men as, on average, women live longer than men and because of career breaks, women usually have a shorter time in which to make contributions towards a realistic pension. Therefore, I welcome the equalisation of the state pension age, especially as its implementation in 2020 gives everyone concerned time to prepare.
Following recent problems with regard to pensions, I welcome the introduction of measures to help to increase the security of occupational pensions. It is vital that employees who, through regular payments, prepare for their retirement are safeguarded against fraud and theft. Confidence was shattered by the Maxwell saga, and through the changes proposed, the legislation will restore that necessary confidence.
I look forward to the Bills which will come before us. I am sure that we shall have strong and informed debate in the months ahead as the Bills progress to the statute book. I believe that the proposed measures will enhance the quality of life; they will be good for the country; and I am sure that they will be widely welcomed.
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