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House of Lords

Thursday, 7th December 1995.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Better Spoken English Initiative

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action is being taken to pursue the initiatives on spoken English announced by Mrs. Gillian Shephard, M.P., Secretary of State for Education and Employment, on 11th October.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, work is in hand to ensure that the GCSE English certificates show a separate grade for spoken English from next summer. The Better English Campaign steering group has also started work.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Of course, since English of one sort or another has been spoken around these parts for about 1,500 years, no one can expect dramatic improvements in the course of a couple of months, like being able to understand announcements on the Underground. But is it not the case that spoken English was something to which teachers were expected to give classroom attention for long decades before the National Curriculum came into being? Why is it in that case so difficult to meet the Secretary of State's quite modest request of 11th October that:

    "a separate ... grade for spoken English [be introduced] for the summer 1996 examination round"?

I am delighted that the Minister has been able to say that this will be introduced, but it has proved difficult, I understand. Why should this be? Can it be that teachers have treated this subject so cavalierly over the years that, for example, they lack the criteria to judge child A's English as worse than child B's or lack the ability, perhaps even the will, to ensure that child A gets up to child B's level?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is right to put the question in the perspective of some 1,500 years of spoken English. I think that he would accept that it is quite difficult to find a way of accurately assessing, in a manner that is fair and right, standards of spoken English. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked that the SCAA (School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications should look at this with a view to coming forward with proposals which can be in place by the summer of next year. It is important to raise standards. We feel that this is largely a matter for the teaching profession itself to get right. We believe that it is something that it will be prepared to address.

Baroness Brigstocke: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the English Speaking Union--of which I am chairman--is already encouraging young people

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to develop their spoken English skills and that this year over 400 schools entered their GCSE students, 15 year-olds and 16 year-olds, for our public speaking competition? Another 400 schools entered their A-level students for our debating competition. Moreover, over 50 universities entered teams for the John Smith Memorial Mace debating competition. Is my noble friend further aware that the ESU's new centre for international debating and communication training is establishing a national network of workshops for young people that will build their confidence in their ability to speak in public and to debate--in English, of course?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I was aware of some of what my noble friend had to tell me but not of everything that she told me and the whole House with her admirable clarity. All of us are grateful for what she and the English Speaking Union are doing.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that one good test of spoken English is the ability publicly to debate? Will he consider allocating some of the £250,000 to organisations like the Oratory Group which arranges public debating competitions between London schools, where young people learn to deploy a wide and expressive vocabulary, accurate syntax and, above all, a high standard of English grammar--"like what him and me have got"?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the ability to debate is very important. I believe that it is something which this House does exceedingly well. I am sure that the noble Lord agrees with me. As to his specific request, it is an interesting suggestion that the money that we have allocated to the group which will be chaired by Mr. Trevor McDonald will be money for the group to allocate as it thinks best. I am sure that it would be right for that group to take forward the noble Lord's suggestion.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the Minister give the House an undertaking that the English language will remain untainted by "Eurospeak"?

Lord Henley: My Lords, one of the great strengths of the English language--and it is something that the noble Lord ought to recognise--is that throughout the years and throughout its history it has been able to develop and absorb words from other languages. I hope that the English language will continue to be able to develop and adapt in taking words from French, German, Latin or whatever.

Lord Airedale: My Lords, the right honourable lady (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) said in her speech that she did not want people to drop their rich regional accents in favour of so-called BBC English. May we likewise hope that the BBC will not drop so-called BBC English in favour of rich regional accents?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I believe that that is a matter for the BBC. The noble Lord was right to stress that my right honourable friend made it quite clear that

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it has nothing to do with accents; it is a matter of being able to communicate efficiently and properly, so that one can be understood in the right manner.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the widespread satisfaction that greeted the news that Mr. Trevor McDonald was going to chair the body that would help the Secretary of State to improve the nation's English? Will he agree with me that too many television presenters, especially of programmes for young children, seem to court meretricious popularity by aping the accents and slovenliness of the incoherent? Might not Mr. McDonald be encouraged to use his influence and authority to ensure that those presenters rather emulate his own mellifluous clarity of diction and, of course, preserve the excellence of the media English at its best?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord has to say; it certainly might be true of a number of presenters. I should not like to name names, I leave that to individual noble Lords to decide for themselves. As for the noble Lord's remarks in welcoming Mr. Trevor McDonald, can I emphasise how pleased we are that his appointment received a general welcome? I also stress that his group is very much independent of government, and it is up to that group to decide on its own programme of work, which we hope it will do, and take it forward.

Child Prostitution

3.9 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of the recent Children's Society report on child prostitution, they will strengthen the guidance issued to police in order to make protection rather than prosecution the priority in dealing with children who are involved in prostitution.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, the policing of prostitution is an operational matter for chief officers of police and the police service works closely with other agencies to protect children from all forms of abuse and exploitation. As the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration, the prosecution of juveniles for offences relating to prostitution is an exceptional step taken only where other interventions are likely to be inappropriate or ineffective.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Given the indication in a recent report by the Children's Society that prostitution on the streets is an issue of survival for young people, will the noble Baroness agree that in order to remove children from such vulnerable activity there has to be collaboration between government and

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voluntary societies? Will she outline to the House proposals by Her Majesty's Government to remove this scandal from our streets?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have to agree with the right reverend Prelate. This is a scourge involving the exploitation of children up with which we should not put. The Government believe very strongly that agencies should work together. That includes the police, who take such collaborative work very seriously. The report, however, contains an appeal to decriminalise; not to caution, not to press prosecutions and not to convict. I have to say that there are some very knowing and street-wise young people under the age of 18 out on the streets. It is very important that they understand the wrongness of that activity. At the same time, however, we have an absolute obligation to concern ourselves with their protection.

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