Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that this is a good news Statement in the sense that we now have 11 participating countries in the single currency and we have also chosen the president of the bank? I wish to explain why I believe this is the case and why some of the arguments that have been put forward are wrong. Is my noble friend aware that we have now chosen two people to be president of the bank? Is he also aware that the treaty makes this central bank the strongest central bank in the world? Is he also aware that M. Trichet and Mr. Duisenberg are honourable men who I believe will fulfil their functions properly? Does he agree with me that the combination of the treaty and the right people will result in a successful bank?

Lord Richard: My Lords, it is interesting to note that in this entire exchange no one has questioned the independence, integrity or competence of M. Trichet. No one has alleged that M. Trichet is a French stooge because he clearly is not. No one has alleged that he will not be a good, competent and independent central banker because he clearly is such a person. As regards the people who will run the central bank for approximately the next 12 years, both of them are highly experienced, independent central bankers. That is thoroughly to be welcomed.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, can the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal explain one passage in the Statement

5 May 1998 : Column 520

that I find a little troubling? I believe he said that it was agreed that the next president would be French. However, it was not said that the next president would be M. Trichet. That seems to me to be a mistake. If it is to be M. Trichet, that is all well and good--assuming that M. Trichet is around at that time--but it should not be assumed that any French candidate should follow Mr. Duisenberg.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I shall repeat what I said. My right honourable friend said,

    "There was ready agreement on the following ... we expected his successor to be French. President Chirac made clear that his nomination would be Jean-Claude Trichet, again an experienced and respected governor of the Banque de France".

It was M. Trichet--not just a Frenchman--who was nominated.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, the Statement makes much of the fact that the financial markets remained steady in the wake of the events of last weekend. I put it to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that those markets react unsteadily only when they are surprised. They were certainly not in the least bit surprised by the laughable events of the weekend.

But what is much more important, I am sure most noble Lords will agree with the final paragraph of the Statement which starts with the following sentence:

    "The House will nevertheless agree with me that the biggest challenge to Europe lies ahead".

I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House a question about EMU, which I have tried to put without success to some of his colleagues and which encapsulates what is perhaps the greatest challenge to be faced by EMU; namely, given the lack of labour mobility in Europe, what effect do the Government think the single interest rate required by EMU will have in Italy, for example, if the Italian economy is in decline but a majority of the other euro economies are doing well? Will the interest rate be fixed to suit the Italians, or will it be fixed to suit the others, and at what cost in terms of unemployment and interstate transfers?

Lord Richard: My Lords, the rate will, of course, be fixed by the central bank according to the criteria which it considers appropriate. It would be foolish indeed for any spokesman in your Lordships' House this afternoon to attempt to say what those criteria would be and how they would be applied in the hypothetical case that the noble Lord has indicated.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I draw the noble Lord's attention to Protocol 18 to the Maastricht Treaty which sets out the statute of the European System of Central Banks and of the European Central Bank itself at Chapter III, Article 11.2. If the noble Lord reads that article, he will find that the protocol of this section states nothing about nomination at all. All it states is the following,

    "Their term of office shall be eight years and shall not be renewable".

5 May 1998 : Column 521

I cannot recall any amendment being moved to that protocol. We had negotiations on the Treaty of Amsterdam where no point on this was raised. The correct point at which to raise an amendment to this article was at Amsterdam. It was not important then in spite of the prior knowledge which was apparently held that in 1996 the nominated president had some doubts about the matter. I find this a difficult issue. Why was no amendment moved to make the whole thing completely open and above board? Does the noble Lord expect us to stomach the story that this difference between the French and the Germans is somehow dreamt up by the press? It either exists or it does not. If there was a conflict, why was that? I am afraid that the explanations sound a little thin.

Lord Richard: My Lords, my noble friend will not be surprised to hear that Chapter III, Article 11.2 of Protocol 18 of the Maastricht Treaty is not exactly my bedside reading, nor indeed is it either on my lips or at my fingertips. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the whole of the Community, the Commission, EMU, and the Council of Ministers, together with their respective civil servants, are moving in one direction, but somehow or other they have all missed an obvious legal point which my noble friend has been adroit enough to appreciate. I shall consider Chapter III, Article 11.2 of Protocol 18 of the Maastricht Treaty. I do not know what opinion I shall arrive at, but I suspect that my opinion will probably be on the side of the Council, the Commission and the legal departments of the Commission and the Council and the lawyers in the Foreign Office. I may be wrong and I may experience a Damascene conversion to the legal expertise and perception of my noble friend, but we shall see.

In some ways this 40 minute discussion on the Statement has been rather sad. I believe that noble Lords have concentrated on the trivial and have missed the important point. The important point is that the euro is launched. The markets are treating it as a strong currency and we in this Government will do our best to make sure that it is a success.

School Standards and Framework Bill

5.39 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 15, at end insert--
("( ) In respect of any infant class, nursery class or reception class in any maintained school which includes one or more children under compulsory school age, the limits imposed by the Secretary of State under this section shall not exceed the limits from time to time established by regulations for the size of similar classes provided by the independent or voluntary sector.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 3 is a probing amendment. It is intended to clarify the Government's position on four year-olds in reception classes. It is widely held that the current policy for four year-olds in

5 May 1998 : Column 522

reception classes places many vulnerable children at risk. I hope that the Government's intention in setting down Part I of the Bill includes the intention to use their delegated powers in such a way as to protect those children. However, on the face of the Bill there is no indication of that, and the noble Baroness at Second Reading did not give any indication of what policy is likely to be.

To give some idea of the scale of the problem, in 1997 there were 343,824 four year-olds in reception classes, representing 51 per cent. of all four year-olds. There are probably more than that today. It is quite an important group, yet there are no regulations whatever governing class size or teacher-pupil ratio for four year-olds. They seem to fall somewhere between the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment.

Perhaps I may remind Members of the Committee of the regulations in relation to other groups of four year-olds. These fall under regulations from the Department of Health depending upon the Children Act. In summary they require, for four year-olds in day care, a staff ratio of 1:8; in nursery schools, a staff ratio of 2:20, and in nursery classes, a staff ratio of 2:26. However, in the case of nursery schools and nursery classes the two adults have to be made up of a trained nursery teacher and a trained and qualified nursery nurse. Why is it that in a reception class we can have 35 four year-olds with one teacher? It is a ridiculous anomaly. It has to be said that the Department of Health in its guidelines, while it does not feel itself able to lay down what should be done in reception classes, does say:

    "Local education authorities and schools should determine what staffing levels may be appropriate in particular cases".

It also states:

    "Studies by HM Inspectorate have shown that the provision made for those who are younger than 4 years 9 months has not always fitted their needs".

In another section it says:

    "For three and four year-olds research suggests an upper limit of 6-8 for peer group size [is best] to optimise peer interaction".

What has been happening in practice? Why is this so important? The answer is that primary schools across the country for some reason, possibly financial, have been "hoovering up" four year-olds into their reception classes and very often numbers are reaching well over 30. This may be good for the schools' finances but it certainly is not good for any of those children who are vulnerable. It will be agreed, I am sure, that a child's success in integrating into school and benefiting from education is dependent upon the child having the necessary confidence, emotional maturity and social skills to cope when he or she arrives at school.

A four year-old from a stable, loving, supportive family who has gained self-confidence in the early years, a child who has learnt to play with other children, may be able to cope with a class of 35 children. By contrast, for a child who is just four, who has had little or no encouragement or socialisation, who lacks self-confidence, and who is often from a family suffering multiple disadvantage, to be plunged into a

5 May 1998 : Column 523

class of 35 children, most of them older than himself, is a terrifying and traumatising experience. It can cause that child to hate and reject the school. Indeed, that very often is the case. Those children, as the noble Baroness said earlier, may well go on to violence, disruption, truancy and exclusion, and end their schooling functionally illiterate.

I hope that the amendment will enable the noble Baroness to give the Committee an assurance that the regulations which the Secretary of State will issue under this part of the Bill will ensure that four year-olds in reception classes have the benefit of class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios at least as favourable as those which, rightly in my view, are required from the private and voluntary sectors and for maintained nursery schools. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: I rise to support the noble Lord in raising this very important issue. I was somewhat disappointed that the Government did not take the opportunity in the Bill to clarify the whole area of the ratio of teacher or supervisor to young children. I hope that the noble Baroness can give us an inkling of the thinking of the Government on the issue.

Things have changed a lot in recent years. I think of my children; that is partly how I came to be involved in politics. I had to deal with all the bureaucracy of playgroups which I was helping to run. I look at what happened to my own children. They were fortunate enough to go to a playgroup; they were then able to go into their school at rising five--not actually as young as some children now--and have two or three days a week and then half-days for the whole term before going into school so that they could get used to the playground and to being in a big group. I fear that that does not happen so much today. The reason is partly because of what has happened in recent years, particularly the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme. There were difficulties. As the noble Lord said, schools were "hoovering up" four year-olds in some parts of the country because that was how they could get money into their schools. The noble Lord is absolutely right. That may have been in the interests of the schools, but it certainly was not in the interests of young people.

We have an opportunity today to look at proper provision for children from the time they go into nursery classes or into playgroups and to examine realistic, sensible and consistent ratios between those looking after the children and the children themselves. It clearly is a muddle and has become more so in recent years. I hope that the Minister will give us an inkling of how she sees this working out. It does not appear to me from the Bill that it is clear what will happen to these large classes of four year-olds. When someone just reaches the age of four they are very young and very vulnerable in a large school situation.

5 May 1998 : Column 524

I return to the point. It is not just what happens in the classroom; it is all the other things that happen in school. The four year-old who enters the playground is a very small person in a big playground. I look forward to the response of the Minister.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page