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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I was talking about the colour of his hair! The point is that large numbers of people have never used public transport or they certainly do not use it every day. It is
I turn to the detail of the need to provide a balanced surface transport system. There are a number of issues which are, so to speak, waiting on Ministers' desks. I understand that the Government are to review the further widening of the M.25 within its existing boundaries between junctions 12 and 15. If that project is scrapped--as I hope it will be--I hope that we can be reassured that the £100 million which will be saved is spent on improved public transport and not just returned to the Treasury.
Then there is the Road Traffic (Reduction) Act, which was passed in the last days of the previous Parliament. At present local authorities have no guidance on how to apply the Act. We hope that it is the Government's intention shortly to publish supporting regulations or guidance notes. They are eagerly awaited by local authorities which are keen to have national back-up for existing or future plans to reduce traffic.
It would also be interesting to know whether the Government propose to issue national targets for traffic reduction. That requirement was part of the original Bill, but was removed in order to get the requirement for local authorities to do so established in legislation.
The promoters of the Bill have already drafted a Road Traffic (National Targets) Bill 1997. The willingness of the Government to provide time for a Private Member's Bill to that effect will be another test of their willingness to put integrated transport policies into action.
In two months' time, local authorities must make their TPP--transport policies and programmes--submissions to the Department of Transport. The departmental letter which advises them of the criteria for grants must be in the course of preparation as we speak. Will the letter reflect determination on the part of the Government to transfer funds away from major road schemes towards the smaller schemes for traffic management, park-and-ride, pedestrian safety and cycleways which they foreshadowed in their manifesto?
My impression is that regional government offices and local government in general do not expect any change in the current situation with regard to major schemes, where there have been no new local authority starts within the past 18 months. If that is the case, and if there is to be increased emphasis on package schemes, that would be welcomed by us. On the other hand, the total resources available for minor schemes, including cycle facilities, bus priorities and traffic management, whether or not as part of a package scheme, are a matter of concern.
I appreciate that Ministers cannot give us advance notice of the June Budget but I believe it is important that the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, should recognise that the ability of local government to deliver its share of an integrated transport policy and to pursue the goal of transfer of journeys from the private car to more environmentally sustainable methods depends in considerable part upon the availability of funds to carry out those policies.
Finally, with regard to aircraft noise, there appears to be a stand-off between the Department of Transport and the industry following the department's decision not to defend in court proposed stricter noise controls at London's three main airports. I hope that the new Minister for Transport will give added urgency to the need for constant pressure to reduce aircraft noise around airports and will look again at the formula which links landing charges with improved performance by operators in that respect.
I have given just some examples of the decisions which will have to be taken in the next few months. In a way, I give notice to the Government that the way in which they approach some of those decisions will be taken by many of us as a signal that their intentions toward creating and maintaining an integrated transport policy are real, not merely imaginary.
The private rented sector in this country is very small. That is a great pity. People, especially young people, are unable to move to where the jobs are. Young people often cannot afford to buy a house; and anyway, in today's mobile world they do not want to be tied down to a particular place.
That has not happened by chance. Rent controls were originally introduced for most unfurnished lettings in 1915, as a temporary wartime measure. Tenants were also given full security of tenure. The regulation of private rented property became established on a permanent basis after the First World War. To those with a social conscience, that seemed to be fair and right. Why should a tenant be dispossessed of his house arbitrarily by a grasping and greedy landlord? Unfortunately, that policy has had the most disastrous results.
In the 73 years from 1915 to 1988, the number of houses let in the private sector fell from 90 per cent. to 8 per cent. Because owners of house property were not able to charge market rents and found it very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain vacant possession of their properties, the great majority of landlords ceased to rent out their properties. In too many cases those houses were left empty. Even today, nine years after the 1988 Housing Act, which deregulated the rented housing market to quite a large extent, there are over 500,000 privately owned empty houses. That scandalous situation was made worse every time that there was a Labour Government. Tighter rent controls and more entrenched rights of tenure were enacted by the Labour Governments of 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1979.
Despite those remarks, I have fears that Labour's old instincts against landlords and a desire to protect tenants too much will rule the day. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, can reassure me--I do not expect an answer today but perhaps she will write to me.
The Conservative Government in 1988 took a very important and welcome step in getting Parliament to pass the Housing Act of that year. That Act set up two sets of tenancies: assured and shorthold. Those measures have halted the decline in private rented accommodation and it has expanded. However, the private rented sector has a long way to go. Despite the measures that the Conservative Government introduced to encourage individuals and investing institutions to invest in private letting, many are still reluctant to do so. I talked to a Peer in this House who is rich enough to do so and he said that he would never consider investing in the private letting market. I hope that this Government will implement the Conservative Government's plans to encourage corporate investment in the private rented sector as stated in the Conservative manifesto.
Because I have said quite a lot in favour of the private rented sector does not mean that I am against private ownership of houses. The contrary is true. The fact that more people than ever before own their own homes is excellent. I approve wholeheartedly of the right to buy policy. That still enables about 30,000 houses a year to be sold to tenants. The Labour manifesto does not mention that and I assume that the Government have no intention of repealing the right to buy policy.
I freely admit that repossession, negative equity and other ills in the housing market have caused much pain in the past few years. Perhaps some part of the large majority of the party opposite in another place is the result of that. Who knows? However, the mistakes were in the inflation of house prices in the late 1980s, not in the action to get inflation under control which began in 1989-1990.
Of course, not everyone can or will be able to pay market rents. Social housing will have to be available and more houses built at subsidised rents. Perhaps Conservative Governments in the past 18 years have not put enough resources into social housing, especially in rural areas. Maybe a little less ideology would have been better. However, contrary to the general belief, a great many homes at affordable rents have been provided in recent years: 178,000 between April 1992 and April 1995.
Finally, I should like to mention housing and the environment. I hope that the new Government will look at housing needs and the countryside in a broad way. There are still masses of open countryside where new towns and new villages could be built without ruining it. I disagreed profoundly with my right honourable friend John Gummer in his stated policy of forcing people by draconian planning restrictions to live in inner cities. I told him so personally not so very long ago. People should be free to live where they want, so long as the countryside is not ruined. The not-in-my-area syndrome, let alone the not-in-my-backyard mentality, is very strongly entrenched, most notably among those newly arrived in the countryside. Perhaps the Labour Government will be able to look more broadly at the problem. I hope so.
Lord Rix: My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on their election success and offer the Prime Minister and all his Ministers my best wishes for the future. Perhaps I may take the opportunity also to thank all those noble Lords from all parts of your Lordships' House who have supported the disability cause so wholeheartedly over the past five years. I trust that that support will continue and burgeon in the years ahead. Certainly the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, gave me some hope with her positive references to special needs education, integration, education for children and young adults with disabilities and employment. Because of her helpful statements I shall move laterally to other problems which beset children and adults with a learning disability.
Glancing at the past for a moment, just over five years ago my maiden speech was made on the day when the issues of home and social affairs were the subject of the debate on the Address. I have chosen to speak today as the Minister of State with the responsibility for disability rights, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, are now in the Education and Employment Department. When he made those appointments, perhaps the Prime Minister had G.K. Chesterton in mind:
Each week approximately 200 parents are told that their son or daughter has a learning disability and some 1,200,000 people with learning disabilities come within the Mencap umbrella. All evidence shows that in the fields of education, employment, training, healthcare, social services, social security, housing and civil rights standards vary to an alarming degree. We no longer use the language of the past, but the problems still remain. Families are forced to approach local authorities, health authorities, education authorities, housing authorities, funding councils, and central government in the hope that their longings for open-handed and genuine community care might be fulfilled. Often they are not. Often the responses are inadequate, grudgingly given or withheld altogether. I can only pray that our new Government, through all their relevant departments, will right so many things still wrong within our society.
In the field of community care--which I define as people living where the rest of us live, doing what the rest of us do and being well supported--developments over the past five years have been patchy. There have been some moves forward for people with learning disabilities. Approximately 10,000 people have been resettled from long-stay institutions and are now living in their--and our--community. There is now a small, but growing, group of people with learning disabilities who own their own homes and who have, with appropriate support, taken on all the commitments that that entails. Some 5,000 people with learning disabilities are now in some kind of open employment, gaining greater confidence and self-esteem and contributing by their work. The new housing, training, and employment programmes announced in the gracious Speech, as well as in the statements made today by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, offer promise of further advance--subject to careful gearing.
Unhappily, people in jobs and their own homes are the lucky ones--the ones for whom community care has been a success and has enabled them to lead enhanced lives. I wish more people with learning disabilities had that opportunity. But, alas, one major change has not come about in the past five years: community care is a lottery and the service one receives depends on where one lives and the funding that one's local authority has and makes available.
Assessment and choice remain key problems. The reality for far too many people with learning disabilities is that they are not assessed according to their individual needs; they are told what they will receive from the services available. There is no choice and sometimes there is no offer. Essential services such as respite care are still denied to many people. The Disabled Persons And Carers (Short-term Breaks) Bill, which I introduced
People with learning disabilities are also disadvantaged in many areas of health provision. Once the NHS unhelpfully monopolised all responsibility; now it too often disclaims all responsibility. Access to mainstream as well as to specialist health services is required and is too often problematic. People with learning disabilities are still being denied treatment. The recent case of a woman with Down's syndrome who was denied a heart/lung transplant is a very real illustration of that. But even basic services are still giving great cause for concern. Speech and language therapy, which is so often the key enabling children and adults with learning disabilities to communicate, falls short of requirements. I am glad that the Department of Health is looking at that and hope that the new Minister will act on the evidence his officials are acquiring.
Mencap estimates that 5,000 homes for people with learning disabilities need to be built or acquired each year for the next five years just to accommodate those leaving long-stay institutions or moving away from the care of elderly parents--often single parents. At the moment the number of places being provided is probably well under 2,000. We expect better things from the new Government's more ambitious housing plans and can offer practical advice on how housing, social services and social security can be marshalled to that end.
The Prime Minister over recent weeks has spoken about rebuilding community and ensuring that every member of society is valued. I agree with that whole-heartedly. However, for many people with disabilities "NIMBY-ism" and prejudice rule. The Disability Discrimination Act sought--though perhaps not hard enough--to modify the behaviour of employers and of those providing goods or services. But much more needs to be done to change the attitudes of society as a whole. Mencap is very ready to be involved in a further public education programme and will continue to campaign for full enforceable civil rights for all disabled people.
We had hoped for a more visible presence of that area of concern in the gracious Speech and regret that yesterday's Answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, merely confirmed that there is little prospect of any legislation in this parliamentary Session. I wish also to draw attention to the concerns about disability expressed by my noble friend in his contribution to yesterday's debate on the Address--concerns shared, I am sure, by many in your Lordships' House and of course by Mencap. Nevertheless, I am pleased that one of the relevant Ministers has already opened negotiations with disability organisations and that the Minister again today gave us further assurances in that respect.
We heard in the gracious Speech the Government's legislative plans for the coming parliamentary Session, an ambitious programme for education, jobs and constitutional change. I strongly favour education, jobs
A healthy society is an inclusive society. An inclusive society is one in which all citizens have a valued place, with the opportunity to give what they can, uniquely, offer; and to receive what they, uniquely, need. This is the sort of society in which I, and I am sure all your Lordships, wish to live.
I shall end this speech as I started, by paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton, which is my message to the new Government: "Smile at us, pay us; pass us; but do not quite forget; for we are the people with a learning disability who have never spoken yet".
Earl Attlee: My Lords, some have suggested that I have recently jumped to a sinking ship. However, I appreciated that being an Opposition Back-Bench Peer would be quite an interesting duty. I was also sure that even new Labour was not "the answer", but it is clearly a vast improvement on old Labour. It would have been totally dishonest to jump to new Labour just because it was likely to win the General Election. However, with my family connections, and with my name, I wish new Labour well. Nay, I really hope that it succeeds in its objectives, because if it does it will be great for the country. In any case, at the moment I think that the election result was good for our democracy.
Unlike my new noble friends, I spent only a few weeks on the Government Benches, so I feel no sense of loss. What I had not calculated on was that the road transport Minister would be in this House and the interesting opportunities with which that would present me. It has recently been suggested that the hereditary Peers are out of touch. I should like to claim that I am fairly well in touch with road transport issues. Indeed, I have to declare an interest as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association, and I am not just a figurehead name. I am also closely involved with the recovery industry.
I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as Minister with responsibility for roads. I am sorry that she has temporarily left the Chamber because I think she would have found my comments quite interesting. She will obviously be bringing a fresh and clear mind to the issues, but I believe that she will be well advised by her officials, whom I know to be excellent and who will serve her well. However, with the recent changes, I shall also have extremely good advice, particularly from the Road Haulage Association. The Minister will need a little time to master her brief, but I am sure she will soon be debating the virtues of 44-tonne as opposed to 40-tonne articulated vehicles. I do not propose to weary your Lordships at this late hour with the differences.
So that the Minister knows where I shall be coming from, I should like to explore one topic in particular. I refer to what are known as cowboy operators. The worst preventable disaster this country has suffered in recent times was the Dunblane disaster. We all know
What I am sad about is that, despite finding him so good to work with and despite all his efforts when in opposition, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, will not be handling this legislation. Nor will he be answering the interesting Starred Questions concerning public expenditure on firearms legislation that will be tabled just at the time the Government find out that the public purse is not bottomless. At least we are fortunate enough to see the noble Lord on the Front Bench.
In 1993 there was a disaster at a place called Sowerby Bridge when a laden tipper truck suffered total brake failure and killed six people, including the driver, in one go. The Dunblane disaster was at least three times worse, but that kind of disaster is, mercifully, extremely rare. The Sowerby Bridge incident was totally preventable. Similar preventable fatal accidents occur frequently but, thankfully, with fewer casualties at one time.
I should like to explore and explain the problem of cowboy operators. The trouble with the transport industry is that it is highly regulated. However, those who flout the law have a significant advantage precisely because of the regulations. On top of this there is the problem of new entrants to the industry having a touching belief that their costs consist of only fuel, wages and sometimes road fund tax and insurance. Depreciation and tyre wear are novel concepts. Major repairs are regarded as disasters. The net result is that many operators are offering completely uneconomic rates, thus depressing the market rate for the job, and so they become cowboys. Sooner or later the authorities catch up with them. However, in these cases there seems to be great reluctance on the part of the licensing authorities to remove their operators' licences. In addition, the previous Government did not seem keen to impound vehicles operated without a licence. I hope that the ethos of this Government will enable them firmly to grasp this nettle of impounding, but I accept that we may have a problem with lack of parliamentary time.
Why are governments, in general, not firmer? One reason may be the mistaken belief on the part of government and licensing authorities that the removal of operator licences may deprive people of their employment. That is obviously true in the short term, but what about the industry generally and in the long term? There is a finite amount of goods to be moved. But the cowboys will have their drivers driving for too long, their vehicles carrying too much and their mechanics, if they have any at all, doing too little. In effect they are taking employment opportunities away from those who would do the job properly. But the
Multi-agency checks often detect offences that would cause any reasonable person to call into question the operator's good repute. Examples are the peculiar switch that just happens to switch off the electronic tachograph or the engine which by some amazing coincidence has the same serial number as one from a stolen vehicle. Another one is accidentally taxing a two-plus-three 38-tonner at the three-plus-three 32-tonne rate and happening not to notice the slight difference in vehicle excise rates. I realise that it is confusing for the Minister to have an out-of-touch hereditary Peer banging on about two-plus-three and three-plus-three articulated vehicles, but I am sure that she will soon get to know the jargon better than I do.
However, one of the worst examples of cowboy operation is the employment of a driver who is still claiming benefits. This is a despicable practice, not only because it is defrauding the social security budget, but also because the driver is often forced to accept a very low wage and is persuaded to carry on claiming benefits in order to be better off than not working at all. I am hoping that the Government's social security legislation may provide a useful opportunity to do something here in terms of the automatic loss of good repute.
Surely we need more effective and comprehensive enforcement, coupled with a legal duty on the part of the licensing authorities, so that they have to revoke the licence of the cowboy operator who flouts the law. If a cowboy is found to be continuing to operate his vehicle, it must be impounded. If that is done, the industry might be able to enjoy decent rates for the job and buy more environmentally friendly equipment and the public would be much safer.
I do not see many fundamental differences on road transport policy issues: one only needed to listen to the interesting and well thought out speech of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. It is just as well because we are both due to speak at the Franco-British transport conference next month. I agree entirely with his comments regarding priority for buses and the night-time operation of goods vehicles.
I am not so sure about the interesting contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. She mentioned the cost of public transport, but I have a horrible feeling that over the years, by subsidising commuter trains and the Underground, we have only succeeded in increasing the value of housing in the south east and its commuter belt. If over, say, the past 25 years we had increased the cost of commuter transport in real terms, the rail operators would then have been more profitable. There would then have been money in those businesses to pay for improvements and even new lines. The noble Baroness will soon jump to her feet--we have crossed swords before--and point out that this policy would increase road traffic. She is quite right, but only to the
In the coming years I am sure that we shall have many interesting debates on this and other issues. However, the Minister will have to forgive me if I tease her from time to time on issues which are not her ministerial responsibility, such as London Underground. I am very pleased that she has her portfolio and look forward to providing constructive and helpful opposition for her.
The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, on becoming the Minister for Higher Education. In the Government's education plans I hope that there is continued support for distance learning. Distance learning has a long history: the Corinthians--who first heard St. Paul's Epistle--being an early example of this method of teaching.
I declare an interest as president of a new examining body which has close association with a distance learning provider currently introducing 20,000 students to the joys of manual bookkeeping each year. Although that is a significant number of students, I realise that it is not making much impact on the one-third of adults who say that they have done no learning since leaving full-time education, or the 80 per cent. of adults who see no likelihood of taking up learning in the next three years. These are sad statistics and distance learning could be one way of bringing people back into learning.
Employers have a responsibility for training staff and it must be in their interest to do so. Whereas large firms can provide training in-house, small firms will probably have to contract out and really small businesses have to fund their own courses and work on them out of business hours. We find that many of our students are already in work and doing their bookkeeping course as part of their own life long learning. It will be interesting to see more details of the Government's proposals for individuals learning accounts.
Students decide to study by distance learning for a variety of reasons, mainly because of existing work or family commitments, which deprive them of access to normal college-based tuition. The majority are unable to demonstrate working experience and are therefore unable to prove competence in the workplace in order to achieve an NVQ. I hope that the new government will continue to provide funding for relevant vocational qualifications which still rely on traditional assessment of competence by examination--or as I believe they are now to be known, "time constrained assignments"--to ensure that vast numbers of students are not deprived of the qualification that will give them competence to return to the workplace. This is particularly important for those people who are long-term unemployed; for those who wish to make a complete career change; or for women who wish to return to the workplace after many years raising a family, during which time the working environment may well have changed beyond all recognition.
As well as private providers, colleges of further education, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, have an important role to play. Distance learning students study at their own pace and at times which best suit their employment and family commitments. When they have completed their course of study students wish to take an examination quickly and are often unwilling or unable to wait for the traditional June and December examination sittings. It is here that colleges are encouraged to provide external distance learning students with the facility to sit properly invigilated examinations on their premises at times which are suitable to students, be it weekends, evenings, or during the summer holidays. It is unfortunate that many colleges still turn their backs on external students, failing to recognise the huge market that they represent. Having got the learning bug, the student is more likely to wish to continue his study, it is to be hoped for life.
I hope that the Government will reinstate the £69 million demand-led element in college funding, which was cut from the 1996-97 Budget, as much of this money was earmarked for provision by colleges to distance learning. The BBC's campaign to encourage people to become IT literate with the programme "Computers Don't Bite", the Open University and other educational programmes, are all part of learning encouragement. But there is still room in this multi-media age for cost effective training for a mass market by traditional paper-based learning. Cost can also be a problem.
Viscount Chelmsford: My Lords, I should like to bring the House back briefly to transport policy. Clearly, there are some matters that are common ground to all parts of the House. We do not like congestion on the roads; we do not want to pollute the atmosphere unnecessarily; we wonder why so much freight must travel by road and why it cannot be moved faster and cheaper by rail; we wonder why so many cars have single commuting occupants and why buses are not better patronised. We even grumble at the enormous coaches that inch their way into London streets which were never designed for anything so large, but we never ask ourselves how they can do this, cut rail fares "stupid" and yet make a profit.
Two months ago this House debated the Second Reading of the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, which I was disappointed to miss. I got no further chance to comment since it was part of the closing down package of the last Parliament. The Act asks local authorities to set targets to reduce local traffic volumes but does not explain how they are to do so. That seems to me a pity since there are some good ideas around that ought to be advanced.
I now declare an interest. I am president of ITS Focus. ITS stands for intelligent transport systems. Such systems are about getting messages to and from moving vehicles. We can reduce congestion. We can use the stick of road pricing and charge cars electronically to enter areas where congestion is expected. We can use the carrot of messages to drivers: "Accident: road blocked: take next left for motorway", or "Warning! You are approaching high road pricing zone", or "Spaces in car park at city centre". Such messages can reach drivers via their car speakers or as electronic road signs. We can and are beginning to make use of the bus, the underground and light rail much more acceptable to the public. I have described some of these carrots in other debates. Equally, we can use the stick to make it harder or more expensive to park the car at its destination. I would have reminded the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, had he been here that bus travellers now had some very interesting signs--Countdown in London and Stopwatch in Southampton--which told them when the next bus was coming. One can already see that in some areas of London. There are now cameras at the front of buses which will photograph the number plates of cars that transgress by using bus lanes. Those car drivers can be automatically had up for breaking the law. Bus travel is now far more satisfactory for the travelling public than it used to be.
Another way to reduce emissions without requiring compulsory reductions in car numbers is to reduce pollution levels from fuel. The electric car will be close to Utopia when it develops sufficiently. In the meantime, I note that 25 per cent. of London buses now use low sulphur fuel and that plans exist to extend this percentage significantly. I also read in the Financial Times that large parts of the world are changing to reformulated petrol, which is also known as RFG. This replaces aromatics such as benzine with oxygenates. According to one major oil company, despite being slightly more expensive, RFG already accounts for 30 per cent. of US gasoline sales. In Continental Europe it now accounts for 95 per cent. of sales in Finland. Sweden has introduced tax incentives to support it. Greece has invited the California Air Resources Board to advise it on pollution in Athens. RFG is said to become mandatory in Italy by the end of this year and in France by the year 2000. Germany is said to be interested. The Financial Times adds that in the UK national air quality strategy reviewers are assembling evidence--whatever that means. In general, the benefits that are claimed for RFG are as follows. On average, carbon monoxide is reduced by up to 25 per cent.
In summary, emissions from vehicles can be reduced through avoidance of congestion, by improved fuels and/or by the compulsory reduction of a number of vehicles that are licensed to travel on the roads. The Road Traffic Reduction Act offers local authorities no advice on how these required reductions are to be achieved, but I have been told recently that the Government are encouraging city councils to consider congestion charging. I ask the Minister when she replies to confirm that she is offering such guidance to local authorities. I also ask the Minister whether she supports the development of products that use intelligent transport systems to help reduce congestion and achieve cleaner air for all of us to breathe.
Before I embark on the main subject of my speech, I should like to say a few words on the proposed abolition of the voting rights of hereditary Peers. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees referred to the dog that did not bark in the night. The party opposite has taken to referring to the sword of Damocles that is hanging over their heads. My fear is a very different one. I fear that hereditary Peers will behave impeccably in the coming 18 months. There may be token resistance on the odd Bill or amendment here or there, but they will be positively helpful to the Government in defining their programme. The nightmare is that my colleagues in another place will then weaken in their resolve to reform this House.
The argument will be: why spend time reforming the House of Lords when there are so many other more important things to be done? If that were the argument, it would be a mistake and a lost opportunity. I am pleased to hear from the Leader of the House the Lord Privy Seal that there is still a firm intention to introduce such legislation. I am sorry to hear that he is unable to commit himself to including it in next year's gracious Speech.
I turn to the main matter that I wish to touch on this evening which I believe is of central importance to the way that we lead our lives. It is also a matter that I do not believe has been touched upon in the debate this evening. I refer specifically to the working practices of parents with children of school age and younger. I declare an interest in that I have two young children and my wife runs a charity called Parents at Work. That charity is aimed at improving the working practices of parents with children of school age and younger. I am aware that the Government are sympathetic to the aims of family-friendly working practices, but it is worth rehearsing the reasons why the balance between working life and family life needs to be redressed. In 1997 British men worked longer hours than any of their European counterparts. In some two-thirds of couples with children both partners work. That is a higher
One aspect of our long hours culture is that men are very reluctant to identify their requirements as fathers to their employers as that may call into question their commitment to the job. While there is a good deal of media attention to the changing nature of fatherhood, for most men the reality is that this is a private matter to be worked out with their families rather than their employers. The bottom line is that parents spend less time with their children than ever before and that is undesirable from any perspective.
The Government are to introduce a number of measures that will help. I have in mind the national childcare strategy, the welfare to work scheme, the minimum wage, the 48-hour week and the enhancement of flexible working practices. There is now a range of flexible working practices which allow mothers and fathers to spend more time with their children. I am thinking in particular of flexible working days, maternity leave, paternity leave, enhanced leave arrangements and the many other options which some firms are beginning to introduce.
I should explain that I am talking not just as a new man who is a member of the new Labour Party but as one who also has his darker side. I am a manager in an international oil company. I spend much of my working week exhorting people to meet deadlines which could be described as challenging. I understand that in the commercial world there are only the fast and the dead, and that few lament those who fail, but while that may be a good maxim for people at work, it is not a way of life and it needs to be balanced against people's wider responsibilities.
It is easy to be pious about family friendly working practices. It is equally easy to dismiss them as bad for business. I hope that the Opposition will judge the Government's measures by what is good for the family as well as what is good for business. I wish the Government well in their legislative programme.
Viscount Brentford: My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Hayman on their positions. Secondly, I endorse thoroughly what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said about family friendly work places. That is an important point. My wife was talking about that subject at a conference last Saturday. It is something which as a family we feel is important and to which I shall return later.
I shall refer first to youth homelessness. There was recently a Shelter and Midland Bank poll. The pollsters talked to 1,000 young people aged between 16 and 25. They found that over 80 per cent. of them are more afraid of not having a home than of being unemployed. That strikes me as challenging and surprising. I should have thought that unemployment would have been the greater fear, but in fact having no home is the younger generation's greater fear. That is why I believe that tackling youth homelessness is an important issue.
An inquiry into youth homelessness was discussed by the all-party parliamentary group on homelessness and housing need. It is a group that I attend when I can. That inquiry came to the conclusion that 246,000 people aged between 16 and 25 were homeless at some point during 1995. That is a great proportion of people in that age group who have had a period of homelessness. It may not necessarily be for the whole year, but at some point they were homeless.
One of the problems that the inquiry highlighted was that caused by the journey from dependence to independence. It is one that young people must naturally take. At the age of 16 they will still be dependent upon their family, but by the time they are 25 they should be independent. The report found that since the 1960s the journey from dependence to independence had begun to break down. In the inquiry's view, the overwhelming cause of youth homelessness is family breakdown, which tends to result in a sudden leaving of home.
I ask the Minister whether the Government will build on the previous Government's positive support for families, whether two parent or one parent, and try to strengthen the family structure which has been deteriorating in recent years. Will the Minister say what are the Government's views on benefit levels for youth unemployed and the homeless, and how they will fit in with their new proposals for dealing with youth unemployment?
That inquiry also found that special attention needs to be paid to care leavers. There was another report commissioned by the YMCA which was carried out by Staffordshire University. It found that one in five of the young homeless had a background of local authority care. From time to time I asked the previous government about the facilities available to prepare those leaving care for life in the wider world. That often includes moving directly to independence without any family back-up.
Those reports emphasised the need for prevention--an aspect of homelessness which is given less consideration. I wonder what plans there may be for schools and other educational establishments to help educate and prepare young people--care leavers or not--on how to cope with life away from where they were living while at school, because I believe that prevention is important.
Secondly, I turn to the issue of homelessness in general. An excellent debate on the subject was initiated in January by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. I participated in that debate, but some of my questions
Perhaps in conclusion I may fire a number of questions which the Minister may be unable to answer tonight. However, I shall be happy to receive a letter in answer. First, what do the Government expect the Housing Corporation and local authorities to spend on repairs and renovations over the next couple of years? I believe that there is a great need for new housing. Secondly, will such renovations bring properties up to the current energy standards? It is important that in renovating buildings are brought up to the required standards. Thirdly, will the Government include in their plans the demolition and clearance of old houses when the standards that are now required cannot otherwise be reached? We have some ancient living accommodation in this country and there is a great need for more demolition and more building.
Fourthly, as it is estimated that 1.6 million UK homes are unfit for habitation, and the highest number are in the owner-occupied sector, are the Government considering making available grants for privately owned houses--obviously, subject to restrictions--to enable them to be brought up to standard? What is their policy on dealing with privately owned homes which are below the required standard?
Fifthly, will the Government continue to bring empty accommodation into use? Several times I said to the previous government that one of the scandals of our country was for one reason or another having so much empty accommodation when there are homeless people around. I hope that the new Government will continue the efforts of the previous government to try to reduce that scandal. They continue to say that the time for rhetoric is past and that now is the time for action. I hope that they will be able to implement that proposal.
Finally, will the use of capital receipts, which I am happy to see being used for new building, affect the Government PSBR? I believe that that was always the reason given by the previous Government for not using the capital receipts for rebuilding. How will they avoid that problem?
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