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House of Lords

Tuesday, 31 October 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Marine Environment

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, protection to many areas of special conservation value is already afforded under current legislation. Existing protected sites in the marine area include 78 special protection areas for birds, 65 marine special areas of conservation and three statutory marine nature reserves.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Natural England advised Defra to close some 60 square miles of Lyme Bay, where the seabed containing some of the most vulnerable marine life, including sea corals, sponges and all sorts of wonderful things, was being destroyed by scallop dredging. That advice was supported by the Southern Sea Fisheries Committee, so the closure was supported by both environmental and economic interests. How does the noble Lord explain the Minister’s inexplicable response of closing only three small areas, making enforcement extremely difficult, and of closing them to all activity, including crab potting, line fishing and recreational angling? Is not Defra’s approach nonsense?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness is misinformed. English Nature requested closure because of the pink sea fan, not because of the reef. That was done, and in fact four small areas containing 92 per cent of the known pink sea fan sites—part of the corals—have been protected. The reef is at risk, but we were not asked to deal with that. That will come later, but so far the case has not been made for it. As I said, English Nature did not request us to do what the noble Baroness implied.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is the Minister aware that this year a number of salmon grilse of extraordinary light weight have been caught? It is believed by many that the sand eel population is being scooped up by factory ships and turned into oil and that that is having a very damaging effect on the fish species further up the food chain. Will Defra look again at the problem of sand eels, which are very important for the fish and bird populations?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am certainly happy to take that back to the Defra Minister responsible for fishing because we want to protect the species that are currently protected and we also want to protect the seabed. We have certain legislative powers that we can use in advance of the marine Bill, which is what the Question was about—hence, the protected areas to which I referred in my Answer. I shall certainly take the matter back.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, although the conservation of the seabed is very important, the viability of our ports is also important? Ports need to dredge the seabed to get the big ships in. Can he ensure that the conservation requirements on those ports as regards dredging are not so stringent and strenuous as to prevent them from operating as they should be able to with ships of a reasonable depth?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, my understanding is that the precise areas and locations where excavating and dredging are permitted are carefully calculated. The activity is controlled and policed. I do not have any information on difficulties for those who are keeping ports open or for those who excavate the seabed. That is done only under licences, which are strictly policed.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, when may we reasonably expect a marine Bill?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, in due course. I will not say “shortly”, which is the answer that we always used to get, because I do not think that it will be shortly. That matter is still under discussion. I cannot forecast the slot in the parliamentary timetable when it will appear.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I accept that the Minister says “in due course”, but what plans do the Government have to protect some species that are under threat around our shores? On the question put by my noble friend, the sand eel problem is not a new one; it has been highlighted in the House on many occasions.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, apparently in 2007 the offshore marine regulations will enable us for the first time to designate sites, even beyond territorial waters, to protect species and habitats of European importance. Some new powers will accrue to the Government in advance of the marine Bill. Clearly, I do not think that the marine Bill will appear early in 2007, but the offshore marine regulations are due at that time.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, what about sand eels?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I said that I would take the issue back to Defra and the fishing Minister, which I shall certainly do.

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Children: Speech and Language Professionals

2.42 pm

Baroness Walmsley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, speech and language development is crucial to maximising children’s life chances. Some children require support from speech and language professionals, and often it makes sense to provide those services in Sure Start children’s centres and in schools. The decision on the location of speech and language professionals is for primary care trusts to make with local authorities. The special educational needs code of practice, issued in November 2001, offers guidance on speech and language therapy provision.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that 1.2 million children have communication difficulties and given that if they cannot speak fluently it is very hard for them to learn how to read fluently, which can lead to social exclusion and even crime, what workforce arrangements are in place to ensure collaborative working between health and educational professionals, so that they can jointly deliver services? Secondly, as early intervention is so important, how many speech and language professionals are already in place in children’s centres and how many have advanced plans to have them?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, there are now more than 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres up and running, and a good number of them have speech and language therapists in place. We do not have the breakdown of the figures for speech and language therapists by location, but with plans to increase the number of children’s centres to 2,500 in 2008 and to 3,500 by 2010, we would expect to see steadily more speech and language therapists employed therein. It is the responsibility of local children’s trusts, which bring together the local authority, the education service and the local NHS, to plan that provision locality by locality.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, it sounds as though my noble friend agrees that the research shows that early intervention is almost the only chance of preventing a lifetime of stammering and heavy social and economic disadvantage. How does he respond to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which says that six out of 10 NHS speech therapy departments are too under-resourced to plan for or to meet demand and that half say that the standard of their service has significantly declined?

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Lord Adonis: My Lords, we completely agree on the importance of early intervention. My department has paid for and distributed in each local authority new materials to promote early intervention among practitioners, including Communicating Matters, a module on communication and language in early years settings, made available to all local authorities. More than 5,000 copies have been circulated.

On my noble friend’s points about the resourcing of centres, the number of training places for speech and language therapists is 74 per cent higher than in 1999. The number of speech and language therapists working in the NHS is 39 per cent higher than in 1997. The resources have been increasing, as has the number of job opportunities.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, what, if anything, are the Government doing to help the parents and carers of these children to complement the work of speech and language professionals?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the development of the children’s centres, of which there are more than 1,000, is a substantial help to the parents and carers of these children that was not available before. As I say, we have plans to increase that 1,000 to 2,500 by 2008, and 3,500 by 2010. There is a substantial programme of investment in this area.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the enormous importance of learning songs and singing together for linguistically deprived children? A good deal of research shows that children with a small vocabulary increase it enormously if there is singing in class. Can the Minister suggest ways in which primary school and reception class teachers can be encouraged to get children singing as a way of improving their vocabulary and ability to communicate with one another?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. Indeed, when we were debating the Education and Inspections Bill at 11.30 last night, the issue of singing was to the fore, with contributions from many noble Lords.

This is a vital area of work by local authority music services. For example, the Manchester Music Service, which I visited recently, has exemplary materials, now available nationally, for training ordinary primary school teachers—without their being trained as vocal teachers—in singing. That has a great capacity to be extended nationwide. The recent report by the Music Manifesto champion, Marc Jaffrey, particularly highlighted the room for expanding singing in primary schools, and we intend to take that forward.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the Minister noted the prevalence of speech, language and communication difficulties among young offenders, as highlighted in the Unstarred Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, last Friday? Many of these problems had been undiagnosed before the young offender came into an institution. Does that not indicate that, in spite of the increase in provision under this Government explained by the Minister, it is still inadequate?

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Lord Adonis: My Lords, as I said, there are now 39 per cent more speech and language therapists than there were in 1997; there has been a significant increase. Of course, the noble Lord is right about the severe linguistic and literacy disadvantages of young offenders and adults in prison: we must do a great deal more.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, is speech and language therapy available for children in care?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, arrangements should be made for children in care, who will be attending the children’s centres and schools to which I have referred, where there has been significant expansion in speech and language therapy provision in recent years.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Does the Minister agree that the new training provisions for the special educational needs co-ordinators, extended under the Education and Inspections Bill, should include some training or experience in communication difficulties?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we are certainly prepared to look at that. As the noble Baroness knows, mandatory training is to be introduced for new SENCOs for the first time under provisions in the Education and Inspections Bill. We have only just started drawing up the arrangements for that training, including its contents. We shall look at it further, and I shall get back to the noble Baroness when the work is further advanced.

Chewing Gum

2.50 pm

Lord Selsdon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, chewing gum was defined as litter in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, to enable fixed penalty notices to be issued to individuals caught disposing of gum inappropriately.

There is currently a Defra-chaired group involving manufacturers and local government, with a remit to reduce the amount of gum on the streets. It has focused on long-term behaviour change, working with local authorities to deliver an advertising campaign, supported by local activity, including education and enforcement.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that fairly bland reply, and I hope that he will not find my supplementary question unhealthy.

Is the Minister aware of the results of my research, undertaken in preparation for this Question, into the lifecycle of the chewing gum? As he knows, it starts life in a wrapper, with a nice notice on the outside:

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“Please use this wrapper prior to disposal”. It then enters the mouth, where it is mixed with saliva, often with respiratory pathogens and occasionally with blood, if you have recently been to a dentist for teeth cleaning. It is masticated and then given its exit in the form of excrement. This excrement is either spat on to the pavement or disposed of in other ways and carries with it certain dangers. As it hits the pavement, it is commonly or colloquially known as a “gum turd”. This gum turd may retain viruses and bacteria for as long as it is wet. Then it becomes a “flat”, and then it is cleaned up at a cost of maybe 50p per piece or less if there is a major discount for 30 pieces per square metre.

Will the Minister confirm that there is no possibility of people catching a contagious disease from a gum turd, a flat or a stain? Is he aware that underneath us now, in the House of Lords entrance chamber, there are three pieces of gum? Would he inspect them tonight, to make sure that the evidence is not withdrawn?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, on the latter point, most certainly not. The noble Lord raises a serious issue. Gum is not biodegradable. The manufacturers keep promising to make biodegradable gum, but we see no evidence that they are doing anything to that effect. It costs local authorities a fortune—on average, I understand about £13,000 per local authority. With the number of authorities, that is about £5 million to clear the stuff up. It lasts, I am told, on the street for something like three or four years. It is expensive to clean. Some local authorities have used people on community service orders to try to clean it up. It is unsightly if it gets on clothes and shoes. It is a very anti-social way of disposing of something that one has purchased. Ninety-one per cent of our high streets are affected, according to samples. It is a serious issue, and it is going to look a right mess, particularly all over London, as we go towards the Olympics.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the Irish have persuaded Wrigley’s to donate €7 million to help clean up the problem. Do this Government have any intention of trying to persuade Wrigley’s to do the same in the UK?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are going to learn from the Irish work. I understand that part of the money will be spent on a contract with one of the universities to try to find a way of manufacturing biodegradable gum. That can be done in Ireland, and we can learn from it here.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, my noble friend will agree with me that this is a very sticky Question, of course—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I do not think that matters are helped by the sight of football managers chewing away on TV. What kind of message does that give to young people who are watching?

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