Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Addison: My Lords, I should like to deal with agriculture and the environment. I shall concentrate on what I believe to be the most important sector of the farming community that requires financial support: the hill farmer, the lowland farmer and those who operate in less favoured areas. These farmers must be first in line to receive support not only through the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance now--not in February and March of next year--but also under the new measures that emerge from the Agenda 2000 package. It is this better targeting of aid that is all-important. These farmers have virtually no options

30 Nov 1998 : Column 303

to adapt. I suggest that farmers in more prosperous parts of the country will have to play their part. I do not believe that a mixed farmer on arable land should be able to expand his beef production for example at the expense of his cousin the hill farmer.

As we approached Europe in the mid-1970s I was already milking 250 Friesian cows under the Farm Capital Grant Scheme. It was then that the political call came for British farmers to produce more food from their own resources. On joining the Common Market I made a seven-year commitment to expand with funding from the Farm and Horticultural Grant Scheme. I more than doubled my dairy cow numbers and milk production and carried out further land drainage and hedge and field realignment. Within no time at all a milk lake was declared in Europe. To curtail milk production and to reduce output on an annual basis milk quotas were introduced. This was a hard pill to swallow, but I believe that it saved the dairy industry and put it in better heart to face the future--until BSE restrictions came into being.

Set-aside, too, was massively unpopular and hugely expensive. In some respects it enabled many arable farmers to use set-aside to their advantage in a vast overheads cost-cutting exercise. But as far as we in Europe were concerned, it cut back the huge stocks of grain in intervention and made the best of a bad job.

The two examples of arable set-aside and milk quotas tempt me to make the following suggestions. We are advised that trading conditions will remain tough. For the farmers I support tonight to be told to adapt is still not good enough. There is only so much bed and breakfast. It is agreed that some forestry is possible but not all farmers are tarred with the same brush. The farmers of whom I speak are, with the greatest of respect, not wealthy with cash in the bank. They cannot just enter a woodland grant scheme, produce a small forest and from day one enhance their income.

I believe that organic meat production when properly supported by the Government within Europe, and the fast-growing requirements of the modern housewife, will show returns to the producer. But if we are to produce a group blueprint for a viable future and a sustainable agriculture that will in turn create a more prosperous farming community, and therefore a more prosperous countryside, we need a managed quota on beef output. This quota system would not be across the board. Its aim would be to restrict production on land that could adapt, thus giving the hill farmer, the lowland farmer and the farmer in less favoured areas the opportunity to maintain output and, in turn, sustain our green and pleasant land. One knows that to increase the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance by 55 per cent. from the reserve is only to buy time, as grateful as we are for it. There must be imagination and flexibility.

I welcome the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, to consider the greater use of environmentally sensitive areas in that they discourage further production surpluses but at the same time give support mostly to small farmers in difficult areas.

As regards beef, what does the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, intend to do with the stockpile of 92,000 tonnes of beef held under the Euro beef scheme? I am told that

30 Nov 1998 : Column 304

this meat is equivalent to 600 million meals. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, asked for a definition of "pesticide". Like my noble friend, Lady Blatch, I and many hundreds of thousands of members of the public demand to know when a food standards agency will be in place. In particular, I read in yesterday's Sunday Times that there was pesticide in 40 per cent. of fresh food and vegetables. Is this or is this not a problem?

I move on to the environment. Given the Government's very busy legislative programme and the many competing demands on parliamentary time, I am not surprised that there is no Bill on the countryside this year. However, I very much expect that there will be one next year, and I would welcome the Minister's commitment in that respect. I anticipate that a countryside Bill would be wide ranging and would include measures to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty, common land and access. As to access, I shall look to the Government to introduce legislation to implement a statutory right of access to open country within national parks.

The Council for National Parks, of which I am a vice-president, believes that there should be a statutory right of access to open country supported by a voluntary management agreement and that this will benefit land owners and those who seek enjoyment of the countryside. This would provide for the certainty, permanency, quality and extent of access that is sought by the Government. Further debate on this subject is required bearing in mind the public's expressed preference for clearly waymarked paths and access nearer to where people live. Within government there is no single officer who is charged with responsibility for policing and overseeing the rights of way process in order to make things better than they are now. Is it not time for this position to be filled?

There is also the possibility of including measures for the future protection and management of an area that the Government are considering currently: the New Forest. I believe that the New Forest should be designated as a national park with a free-standing national park authority, although legislation is not necessarily required to achieve this as the necessary provisions already exist under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, as amended by the Environment Act 1995. This option was not available when the National Parks Review Panel chaired by Professor Ron Edwards reported in 1991 or when the previous government said in 1992 that they would pursue a tailor-made solution. However, if the Government were minded to go down the tailor-made route for the New Forest special legislation would be required and time would have to be made available for it.

National park status would bring a number of benefits to the New Forest including a 75 per cent. funding contribution from central government, a permanent and fixed boundary--the present one is subject to change under the local plan process--a recognised high planning status and well understood powers and responsibilities. The Government will want to introduce measures to ensure the better protection of sites of special scientific interest. A very important element of

30 Nov 1998 : Column 305

this should be the introduction of a nationwide trade ban on the sale of the incredibly precious and irreplaceable resource of limestone pavement.

A countryside Bill of this omnibus nature would also provide a good opportunity to tie up some loose ends. For example, the duties placed on public bodies and statutory undertakers by Section 62 of the Environment Act 1995

    "to have regard to National Park purposes"
does not apply in the Broads. Amending legislation to ensure that this duty applied in the Broads would strengthen the protection of that area and help to emphasise that the Broads are very much part of the national parks family. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is aware of the need for this updating. All of these points could add up to a very significant year for the countryside with some measures in legislation and some not, for example the need to designate the South Downs as a national park.

I believe that 1999, the 50th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, as regards which my grandfather played such an important role, provides the ideal opportunity for achieving an enhanced countryside.

7.9 p.m.

Lord Dahrendorf: My Lords, the combination of subjects which provides the slightly blurred focus of our debate today includes education; and I wish to address my remarks to education but, above all, to the boundary, about which the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, spoke, between education and employment.

I begin by echoing the words of my noble friend Lord Tope when he congratulated the Government on the fact that this year's gracious Speech does not include the announcement of another education Bill. I have long hoped that the time would come when we would not have a Bill but a little space and time to settle down and work within the existing framework. Let me say this in passing. I believe that the quality of government is not measured in terms of the number of Bills. Indeed, I was surprised during the run-up to the gracious Speech at a kind of legislative machismo: "Did you get a Bill in?"; "Did he?"; "Did she?". As a Liberal (not just with a capital "L" but with capital letters throughout!) I think that not having legislation is on the whole better than having it. After all, legislation is regulation. Perhaps we need a little more deregulation, of which we have not seen much yet under this Government. In any case, we must not deceive ourselves into believing that legislation by itself creates a better reality. More often, it is an irritant for real people in real situations.

However, that is an aside. I return to my main theme. If I had anything to do with devising a programme for a reforming government at this time--which I do not--three main subjects would stand out. First, we have to redefine the boundary between what is properly in the public domain and what is best left to private initiative. We also have to make sure that the public domain--public spaces, public services--enhances the lives of all

30 Nov 1998 : Column 306

citizens. Thus the approach to education, health and transport in the gracious Speech is to be welcomed, notwithstanding the need to debate detail.

Secondly, the devolution of power from the centre to the people is crucial for a vibrant, free society. In my view, this is only partly about the nations within the United Kingdom, and even less about regions. It is about strong local government which promotes people's identification with the communities in which they live. That is why as a Londoner I welcome the forthcoming arrangements for a directly elected mayor and a separately elected authority, although I hope that the electoral system chosen will not take away with one hand what the other has given. I look forward also to the creation of a framework for similar changes in the cities and towns, preferably along the lines of the "experimental arrangements" Bill which unfortunately did not get on to the statute book.

Thirdly, there is an area which is underdeveloped in the Government's thinking and on which I wish to spend a few moments. It has to do with work and employment, with changes in the world of work and their consequences for education, employment policies and indeed welfare services, including pensions.

This Government have placed great stress on work. The second sentence of the gracious Speech mentions reforms of education, the health services and the welfare state based,

    "upon the principle of work for those who can and security for those who cannot".
Later the "modernisation" of the welfare state is said to be based,

    "upon clear principles of work, security, fairness and value for money".
Work in the sense of employment is at the heart of the objectives of education, the New Deal programme for the long-term unemployed, and the entitlement of single mothers, widows and the disabled, as well as of pensioners.

All that is fine so far as it goes. But like other pronouncements by the Government (indeed, not just by the Government) it assumes an unchanged world of work. However, we are experiencing important changes in the nature of the labour market as well as in the "personal consequences of work", to quote Professor Richard Sennet, one thoughtful author on the subject. Unless those are taken into account, many of the well-intentioned policies proposed will fail.

The Government--the Home Secretary--recently published a consultation document on the family, Supporting Families. That interesting document begins with a few paragraphs of analysis. It states that families are at the heart of our society. But families have changed. It states that they are under stress. Divorce is mentioned, and single parent families. It states that the family structure has become more complicated; and a modern family policy needs to recognise these new realities. That is well said, but analogous statements could and should be made about work. The image of the job for life has become as outdated as the image of the nuclear family of mother, father and two children; or, rather, those images still correspond to reality for many

30 Nov 1998 : Column 307

but they are only one part of a more complicated picture and we are not likely to get back to the models which they imply.

In the decades to come, normal employment relationships--that is, full-time jobs of indefinite duration, with career opportunities and well prepared retirement at the end--will increasingly become a minority phenomenon, or at any rate one which no more than half the employable population enjoys. Instead, part-time employment, limited term employment, contract work, self-employment, voluntary work and other less orthodox forms of activity will spread further. Women have long known those alternatives to traditional jobs, which is perhaps a reason why on the whole they cope better with the new condition than men, especially young men.

This is not the place to analyse such changes in detail, although a government consultation document on the new labour market might be helpful. But it is the place to say that if such deep changes in the world of work are real and "structural" rather than just "conjunctural", the consequences for government policy are numerous.

Let us take the New Deal programme. Mr. Andrew Smith, the Minister responsible, recently reported that 167,400 young people have so far entered the scheme. That is good news; but where are they now? Recent figures from the Department for Education and Employment show that of every 100 who joined the New Deal in January this year 25 have dropped out or gone on benefits; another 22 are still on the scheme; 11 are in education or training; 11 are in subsidised jobs; 12 are engaged in charitable or environmental activities; and only 19 are in unsubsidised jobs.

Those figures are not cited to criticise the scheme or the government. The achievement of the New Deal is considerable. But it demonstrates also how difficult it is to find normal jobs for those young people. It probably does not help that most of them are led by their parents, teachers and peers to expect such normal jobs.

My point is that such expectations should not be confirmed by government. On the contrary, the Government should operate the scheme on the understanding that there are many forms of work--orthodox and unorthodox, old normal and new normal. The New Deal provides just one example of the consequences of changes in the structure of the labour market. The ramifications reach far and wide. Education for employability is fine but it must be an employability of varied and changeable positions. Entitlements based on work income are fine but they must include recognition of complex work experiences. A second or even third tier of pensions is fine but must not be based on an assumption of permanent normal employment. In fact, all entitlements must be transportable in a world in which jobs as we know them will continue to be important, just as the family, as many of us have known it, will be important but will be available to perhaps only half the population.

A reforming Government need more than catching words. I counted the words "modern", "modernised" and "modernisation" 11 times in a short Queen's Speech without being much the wiser about their meaning.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 308

A reforming government need clear objectives and well-argued principles, but they need also a compelling analysis of real trends in people's motives and opportunities. I hope that it is not too much to wish for such an analysis with regard to the new world of work and its consequences for many policies. Having said that, I for one do not find it difficult to support the Motion before us.

7.22 p.m.

Baroness Wharton: My Lords, perhaps I may say how pleased I was to hear the Minister repeat a Statement in this House which announced that a rescue package of some £122 million would be made available for our beleaguered farmers on the same day, I believe, as my noble friend Lord Palmer initiated a debate to call attention to the present state of agriculture in the United Kingdom. None of us is in any doubt whatever that the farming industry is in a state of crisis and getting worse.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, cannot be here today because as a veterinarian--in fact, the only veterinarian in this House--he would have made an invaluable contribution to the debate.

As an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association and a joint vice-president of the RSPCA, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the effects all that has on animal welfare. The present pricing situation in the livestock sector has and will continue to have a profound effect on the animals concerned.

At the moment farmers cannot afford to seek veterinary care if the cost outweighs the eventual sale price of the animal. In the case of sheep and pigs, that is almost a certainty, and if that is so, several are not able to pay. Many members of the veterinary profession have had to face this dilemma. Fewer vaccines could be given as the loss of a lamb or two would be worth the risk versus the cost of the appropriate vaccine. The actual welfare of the animal is now not the first consideration in ever frequent cases. Often the chosen route is shooting or a call to the local hunt kennels.

There is no NHS for veterinary care and even though call-out charges vary from area to area, the cost of medicines can be high. Veterinarians are acutely aware of costs and do their best to keep them down. The saddest story I heard comes from a three-vet practice in Herefordshire. It is an extreme case but not isolated. A cow carrying a live calf was despatched to the kennels because her distraught owner simply could not afford the cost of a caesarian.

Other countries, for example the Republic of Ireland, are able to supply antibiotics and vaccines cheaper. In the case of antibiotics, these can be bought through the back-door.

In this economic climate, animal health and welfare programmes could be set back for decades and preventive medicine could also be swept away for reasons already given. What will happen when these farmers find that they are unable to maintain a steady supply of food to keep the livestock healthy through the winter? I am told that some sheep have found their way

30 Nov 1998 : Column 309

to the RSPCA as a way of avoiding the problem of having to feed them. Looking through this week's veterinary record, I see that Aberdeen and Thurso both reported outbreaks of sheep scab in August. Some sheep were rejected from sales due to infection. Poor prices for lambs are apparently discouraging farmers from dipping before sales, so we could well see increasing cases of sheep scab.

An acquaintance uprooted from London and bought 50 acres of good grazing land in Pembrokeshire, which he stocked with sheep. One of those sheep broke its leg and for one reason or another, the vet was unable to visit his farm. Regulations state that it is not permitted to take sheep to the surgery unless a vet certifies that it is fit to travel, meaning that a vet would have to visit and inspect it. I agree that we cannot have animals transported in all kinds of manner from A to B, but a caring farmer could have a problem when faced with such a situation. Veterinary practices are spread out and now cover vast areas. In that case, the farmer paid a knacker man to come and humanely destroy it, but not for his own consumption.

A neighbour of his sold a pen of sheep--that is, 10--at £1 per head. Once auction costs were removed, the farmer received a cheque for 50p. To process that would have cost 98p, leaving our farmer with a deficit of 48p, should he present it for payment. When it costs more to rear to high welfare standards and transport stock to market and then receive less in payment for that animal, something somewhere has to give. It not only affects the farmer's health and well-being but it also affects his livestock. It comes as no surprise to hear that many farmers are thinking about going into organic farming.

I have heard many debates in your Lordships' House about the need for reform of the CAP and the quota system, which I believe is loaded against the UK farmers and penalises them for success in good times. Are we anywhere near to achieving a level playing field? Subsidies per head of sheep encourage over-production. There is a 15 per cent. over-production rate of pigs here and across the EU, again with disastrous results for welfare. To my way of thinking, the CAP is not particularly environmentally friendly either.

I come now to the relationship between consumers, supermarkets and the farmer who grows and rears high quality produce. The British are continually campaigning for high welfare standards to be practised. Farmers are encouraged to abide by the Farm Animal Welfare Council's five freedoms, which do come at a cost. I believe our welfare standards are higher than in many other member states and certainly than in countries outside the EU. Because of pressure from consumer groups, major retailers have insisted on these higher standards, but sometimes I wonder about their actual commitment to the British farming industry. They are buying at rock bottom prices. I would willingly continue to pay a high price for meat if only more of that cost would return to the producer. I simply cannot buy a leg of lamb knowing that the farmer was probably paid less than it cost to rear the lamb in the first place. That is morally wrong.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 310

I do not believe that lowering the price at the supermarket will encourage greater consumption. What we need is a fairer share of the product returning to the source of production. We as consumers cannot have it both ways. We cannot demand high welfare standards on the one hand and then promptly scan the shelf and opt for the cheapest, probably knowing that it came from outside the UK.

While researching this debate with a veterinary friend, I learnt that most imported poultry products come from Brazil and Thailand. Why? I suppose the answer is that the cost of home produce is too high for the big bulk buyers, who prefer the cheaper imports, with their large margin of profit.

A large poultry farm in Wales has closed, with a loss of employment to local people, because it cannot produce chickens for the price the supermarkets are willing to pay. In my own shopping area I asked people whether they knew the difference between "British smoked bacon" and "smoked British bacon". Almost all said "No", or "There isn't any". "Smoked British bacon" is home grown and cured; the other is foreign and processed here. Many shoppers would not dream of buying veal yet cannot understand that calves are the by-product of the dairy trade. I could say that the customer is misled by clever marketing. Why do we not have a clear symbol on every package indicating home produce, rather like the way they do in Ireland? The Irish know what they are buying; I maintain that we do not.

Unless we at home make a determined effort to support our own agriculture industry we will witness the destruction of large areas of the countryside, as much of the uplands will revert to scrub. There will be no livestock to graze it for the farmers will have gone. We will become dependent on imports, not knowing how they were produced. By supporting our farming communities, we will also be preserving the health and welfare of our animals, our rural environment and our heritage.

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, when I was considering my contribution to the debate on the gracious Speech I wondered whether I should speak today or tomorrow because I want to talk about the economic health of the nation. I came to the view that the education portfolio of my noble friend is as essential to the health of the economy as are the briefs of her fellow Ministers dealing with industry. Education is at the centre of whether or not we succeed as a nation. I was therefore delighted to hear in the gracious Speech that this Government are keeping education as a key priority.

I should like to talk about the links between education and our economic health. It is people's skills, creativity, innovation and adaptability that depend on the kind of education that is available to them. However, I should also like to touch on the New Deal. When people talk of the New Deal one senses a kind of cynicism creeping in. I do not believe that anyone expects all the 100 young people to succeed in fully subsidised jobs.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 311

However, the fact that 25 per cent. of them are in training must be progress. At least this Government are trying to make a difference to the lives of those young people.

As the chairman of the Housing Corporation I am fortunate in being able to meet young people on the New Deal as I travel around. One conversation with them puts into perspective all the statistics that one needs to think about. It has made a great difference to their lives. Many of them are living in what are now termed "foyers" which, for a whole host of reasons, are the only places where young, vulnerable people can live. Touching on the point made by my noble friend Lord Sheppard in relation to the fragility of funding of youth workers, that is also the case in regard to revenue funding of foyers. I am sure that we can make progress in that regard. The role that they are playing in the counselling of young people, in the facilitating of their training and their employability, is extremely important. To spend too much time trying to obtain funding cannot be the right way forward.

I was honoured to be appointed to the Dearing Committee whose terms of reference were established with a consensus across all parties in the other place. It is interesting that the terms of reference gave us a direct remit to look at employment, labour markets, international markets and the need for us in the UK to compete in knowledge and technology. Reference was made also to the contribution of higher education to the country's economic performance.

As many noble Lords have said, the world of work is changing. I was fascinated to listen to the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, as to where we are. It certainly hit a resonance with me and is right on the button as to where we are now. The world is changing at a faster rate than ever before and I gather that the knowledge base will double in less than five years. In many of the sectors from where we obtain our wealth creation, knowledge, information and innovation do not have boundaries as we know them. They are global businesses. They do not need to transfer people. The skills can stay where they are and the business moves across the boundaries.

We live in a global village, whether or not we like it. One of the key elements that we possess to succeed and compete is the interconnection between higher education and our workforce and how we use it. Government can help to build on the knowledge-driven economy. I understand that this evening my noble friend Lord Sainsbury is speaking on investment in our science base. I know that because I heard the interview on radio this morning, as other people may have done. He talked of some of the best ideas of partnership and how that will push us forward. I saw that myself when I was deputy chairman of University College Hospital--the partnership between the college and the hospital; the teaching; the learning and the sharing of information on drugs and new treatments.

That brought home my thoughts this weekend on the Rover deal. I regard that deal to be a positive step forward; it could have been so much worse. It is a factory company that has lacked investment over the

30 Nov 1998 : Column 312

years; it needs new models. It now has a German owner, but one who appears to be prepared to invest providing the productivity increases. The productivity has already increased tremendously, but while we were increasing productivity, so were our competitors and they still remain ahead.

The number of jobs that depend on the Rover plant in the Midlands is estimated to be, both direct and indirect, coming up to nearly 100,000. That deal is therefore crucial. I visited the plant some months ago and spoke to management who were telling me about their difficulties. However, they went on voluntarily to tell me about the successful partnership they had with the Warwick Manufacturing Group, which is part of the engineering department of Warwick University. It was founded in 1980 and its first vice-chancellor is now an eminent Member of this House--the noble Lord, Lord Butterworth. He appointed Professor Battacharrye at that time, who worked with the manufacturing group. Its mission statement all those years ago was,

    "To bring academic rigour to industry and industrial relevance to teaching and research".

Those are still very central to our theme and by being relevant, the group now has 1,200 post-graduate students, many working, many in part-time employment, and 5,000 industrialists a year going through their teaching and training.

The Dearing Committee came to the view that the commitment from industry to both research and training, taken as a whole, could be better. But industry wants value for money, and it is right to want that. I saw that as Salford University when they worked on health and safety with local industry. They had no problem in receiving funding for that work. The Warwick Manufacturing Group has an annual turnover of £50 million. I gather that only 10 per cent. of that comes from the Higher Education Funding Council. Much of the balance is provided by their long-term partnerships with industry.

My work in industry over the years and my privilege to serve on the Dearing Committee--the chairman of which is now an eminent Member of this House--confirmed my views that that partnership, the academic rigour of the university working with the best in industry, is crucial to our future. Therefore, I was pleased to hear of the £40 million for the university for industry announced on 21st October.

Another announcement, on 3rd November, was not heralded with as much publicity. It was in the pre-Budget Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On page 34, paragraph 3.25, mention is made of the establishment of a £25 million fund for a science and enterprise challenge. It is intended to hold a competition for the £25 million available to endow up to eight new institutes for enterprise. That goes right to the heart of the partnership needed between universities and industry.

That initiative will bring the teaching of entrepreneurship and business skills into the science curriculum. For too long we have had "Chinese walls". That will help to inspire our scientists and engineers to commercialise their knowledge. There is nothing wrong

30 Nov 1998 : Column 313

with commercialisation, if done in the right way. The initiative will draw on the best international practice and matching world-class standards.

I understand that details of the competition are to be announced at the time of the forthcoming DTI White Paper. I know that neither of my noble friends on the Front Bench are Ministers from the DTI, but if they could give us an inkling about the timing it would be most welcome.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Bragg when he said today that we have the ideas but we let too many of them go out of the country; we do not work on them and commercialise them. I hope that the new initiative will help to bring that about.

Although £25 million is available, one of the key elements of the new fund is that each new bid will have to bring with it the involvement of significant funding from other sources. I believe that those other sources are available if universities can show that they give value for money. Some of the universities I mentioned are already doing that. It is not a new idea. In the USA--Stanford and MIT--there has been enviable success in the creation of new enterprises, new products and wealth. Let us hope that this contribution, when we receive it--and please let us know as soon as possible when that will be--will work for us.

Normally in a debate which includes education, especially as the first topic, we see Vice-Chancellors queuing up to speak. There has been a noticeable absence today. My noble friend the Minister is probably a little relieved at that. It may be felt that everything that needs to be said has been said in the past year.

Without giving away too many tales, I should like to share my view on why that is the case today. I was a member of the Dearing Committee which finished its work in the summer of last year; so it is no longer an official committee. However, you do not create a baby and walk away from it. We decided, as a committee, to track the progress on our recommendations. Therefore, we have met intermittently as a group, informally.

I was present recently at a dinner where around the table there was a consensus that the Government have moved substantially on the recommendations of the Dearing Report. They were delighted with the progress. They felt that there was a lot of scaremongering in some parts of the media and in other places too. But members of the committee, including Vice-Chancellors, felt that great progress had been made.

There were two particular areas among a number we discussed, one of which is topical this week; namely, teaching skills. We dealt only with higher education. I was astonished to find that university teachers do not need an accreditation. That was dealt with in the teaching and standards legislation passed in the past year.

One of the issues we pressed was that of pay. At the moment Sir Michael Bett is looking at the area of pay and conditions. We asked that he look at teachers' pay and rewarding teaching in the same way as we reward research and, where teaching is of a high standard to reward it more than one would normally do so. That

30 Nov 1998 : Column 314

chimes in with the legislation announced by the Government this week. We need to upgrade the whole area of teaching.

The final issue we discussed was that of investors in people. Still--I would suggest almost to their disgrace--many universities do not have in place an investors in people project. That is regrettable in a sector which does nothing else but teach and train people.

7.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, we have debated farming issues three times in your Lordships House in the past month, most recently on the occasion of the announcement of additional help for farmers, and on the occasion of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. I shall try not to repeat what was usefully said on those occasions. However, I want to draw attention to a number of matters concerning agriculture and the environment and to express my regret that they received so little attention in the gracious Speech. I warmly appreciate what has been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, replying to the second day's debate on the gracious Speech, reaffirmed Her Majesty's commitment to creating an inclusive society using phrases such as,

    "the weave of personal, political and contractual relationships in which we all participate ... the set of values--of decency, trust, tolerance"--[Official Report, 25/11/98; col. 131.]
He reaffirmed the Government's commitment to resisting the tendency towards selfish individualism.

I warmly welcome that reaffirmation but the fact is that that society which we wish to see, and which this Government wish to affirm, is collapsing in many rural areas, especially the more remote upland fringes of England and Wales covered, as I know, in my diocese of Hereford. Yes, we have a number of Welsh parishes in my diocese.

There is real and increasing distress as farmers face dramatic declines in income, are forced to abandon their farms, or, in some tragic cases, to take their own lives. In communities which still depend very largely on agriculture, every job lost in farming can mean up to 15 other jobs under threat, and the whole fabric of village communities goes with those jobs. Conversations I have had with a number of farmers over the past weekend leave me in no doubt as to the seriousness of their plight.

There is, of course, a warm welcome for the additional help announced on the 16th November; for the lifting of the ban on beef exports, and for the commitment given by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in that debate to the future of a living countryside and to the family farm--though I fear that the delay until February or March will be hard for many. There are a great many farming families for whom there will not be a Merry Christmas or a happy New Year. But there is much ground for unease beyond that. This help is short-term. Welcome as it is, it does not change the longer-term prospect particularly for livestock farmers and, as has been said, for those in hill country.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 315

Sometimes I suspect that those most badly affected are those who do not receive the HLCA payments because they are on the fringe between hill land and low land.

A new and unwelcome development is the collapse of confidence in land values, something which has not been mentioned in this debate. That is the basis on which even small farmers have always felt that they could sustain their business through bad periods and managed bank borrowing.

The day before yesterday I spoke to a young farmer's wife who told me about their situation. She and her husband are trying to make a go of a farm of 200 acres: 40 acres receive a Less Favoured Area subsidy, but the rest is not particularly good land. They have been struggling with a mortgage. Each year they make a plan with their bank manager. For the past two years that plan has collapsed in ruins as prices plunged and their income plunged with them. They decided that if they could sell the 60 best acres of arable land (which has an arable subsidy, and a derelict cottage for which there might be planning permission) they could sort out their financial problems and start again. There was not a single bid for the 60 acres. A senior partner in one of our firms of land agents told me just before that time that he would not even try to sell a good deal of the farm land now being offered to him. That is a dramatic change from the fairly recent past.

Where can we find any ground for hope? Perhaps in the reform of the common agriculture policy. I hope so. Many of the proposed changes do make sense; for example, a de-coupling of support from production, especially arable production, and a greater emphasis on environmental and rural development measures. I wish that there were more help for farmers to enable them to convert to organic methods. In this we lag behind many of our European partners, and it is absurd that so much organic produce which one sees in our shops is in fact imported. It is the transition to organic farming which is so hard to manage. Many of us look to the Government for much more vigorous support for this change. Of course, the market is not unlimited, but it is certainly not being satisfied by organic produce from our own farmers at present.

Then there is the matter of modulation, which has been fiercely resisted by most of the bodies representing farmers and landowners in Britain. That is because, as practised hitherto, modulation has involved the support of very small farmers, mainly in southern Europe. It has been irrelevant to UK farmers; indeed, it has been somewhat resented by them. The issue highlights the almost impossible task of formulating a coherent common agricultural policy for a region as huge and diverse as Europe. But I believe that the reform process offers us a window of opportunity.

There is now one mechanism under discussion as part of CAP reform which would give to each member state a national maximum envelope of direct aid, with freedom for each state to decide how it should be spent. Within this national envelope, we could introduce our own system of modulation, strongly discriminating in favour of small farmers and offering no subsidy at all above a certain acreage. I believe that such a policy

30 Nov 1998 : Column 316

might not be greatly welcomed, at least initially, by the CLA and the NFU, which represent mainly landowners and farmers with larger farms, not so much those with smaller farms and not at all effectively the tenant farmers. However, it would be very much in the interests of our remote rural communities. I urge the Minister to take that suggestion very seriously.

In the debate on 16th November, after expressing support for the family farm in relation to the reform of the CAP, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said, I thought rather alarmingly, that he was not sure whether this had been fully thought through. Perhaps I may be allowed to supply a little bit of the thinking at this point: national modulation in vigorous support of the small farm within our envelope of direct aid.

I turn now to agriculture and the environment. The Countryside Stewardship scheme is valuable and welcome, but still under-funded. There are farmers waiting to join the scheme who are unable to do so for lack of money in the scheme. Much more desirable is the system of environmentally sensitive areas, which has already been mentioned. But, again, it is under-funded, unavailable in many places because many areas have simply not been designated and it is unfairly financed. Against a total sum, in round figures, of about £3.5 billion in support for production, only about £100 million is spent on environmental support. ESAs are expensive because they require specialist officers whose job is, in effect, to teach farmers how to farm environmentally extensively, which many have never done and need to learn. All the officers' time in the process is costed as an overhead to the ESA budget, when it could well be costed as technology-transfer, coming out of a different pocket.

A further worrying development in the area of ESAs is the recent decision of North West Water--a major landlord in the Lake District ESA--to take 50 per cent. of the ESA payments from new tenants, rather than allowing them to benefit from the whole package. Here is a matter which I believe requires the department's attention if the scheme is to work as intended. Farmers are much more willing to work than they were in the past in ways which embrace the task of landscape management--for environmental reasons, to encourage bio diversity and to attract visitors who can, in turn, help to sustain the rural economy. We must give them every support and encouragement in their new vocation.

Time is short, but I should like very briefly to touch on two other environmental matters. It is a cause of considerable disappointment that the gracious Speech did not provide for legislation to set up a strategic rail authority, although I acknowledge that the Deputy Prime Minister has robustly assured us on a number of occasions that it will in fact start its work in shadow form. I believe that it is an environmental priority of a very high order that we should transfer much more traffic from road to rail. The potential is still enormous and there is public good will which is considerable. But there are many critical pinch points in the rail network--for example, Rugby to Birmingham, as well as Welwyn and other points on the Great North Eastern Railway main line. No solution will be found to these acute problems without some kind of government intervention

30 Nov 1998 : Column 317

and direction: a rigorous cost benefit analysis of the capital works required; the hypothecation of new transport taxes, such as road pricing taxes, as revenue for infrastructure improvements; and a strong strategic rail authority to set out coherent priorities, if necessary to knock heads together, and to stop the unseemly quarrelling which has recently broken out between Railtrack and the train operating companies.

After those technical and specific comments, noble Lords may be wondering what all this has to do with a bishop and why he should be trespassing in such areas. I must tell the House that I sometimes cannot resist the temptation. However, perhaps I may return to what I regard as the fundamental environmental question. There was one sentence at the very end of the gracious Speech about the environment and the global climate. Perhaps I may contrast that with the excellent, thorough and well-researched report of this summer's Lambeth Conference on the same subject. I was privileged to take part in the group which studied the environment. There were bishops from all over the world who told from their own personal experiences harrowing stories about what is happening in terms of climate change and the degradation of the environment. I shall not bore your Lordships with the theology, but perhaps I may read just a few sentences from the report:

    "It is our contention that environmental issues are of primary importance ... our relationship to the created order is fundamental to human well being. We therefore claim for environmental issues pre-eminence in time, energy and prayer. There is little time. World governments will not prioritise these issues because of perceived political cost... It is also clear that the consequences of these ecological changes fall disproportionately upon the poor of the world. Yet despite this awareness, the social and political resolve to create a more ecologically sustainable way of life has not materialised".

This Government have shown themselves prepared to embrace policies which may, I think, rightly be described as idealistic, not least in their commitment to tackling world poverty. I greatly welcome and admire that commitment. World poverty is inextricably linked with environmental issues. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, rightly referred to the Government's action in support of the conferences in Kyoto and Buenos Aires and the consultation document on climate change. I submit that the most important issues facing humanity are, as the Lambeth Conference claimed, those which concern the future of our planet. I fervently hope that they will receive a higher priority in the next gracious Speech.

7.58 p.m.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, legislation is to be introduced to create a greater London authority and the new mayor will be duty bound to produce an integrated transport strategy for London. The legislation will include new powers to introduce road user charging and a workplace parking levy, as my noble friend Lady Blackstone has already mentioned. But the key to the success of any new legislation aimed at tackling road congestion and improving the environment is the need for the policies to be seen as fair and acceptable by the public. Policies must be based on sound scientific principle, resulting in real benefits and going with the

30 Nov 1998 : Column 318

grain of peoples' lives. People will not accept restrictions or charges if they cannot see the environmental sense of the policies. They will be seen simply as revenue raising measures and will lack public support.

Perhaps I might give your Lordships an example of a policy which is jeopardising the long-term acceptability of environmental legislation--roadside emission testing. The AA, among others, strongly supports the principle of roadside testing but is opposed to the way in which it is being implemented. Stopping motorists at the roadside to check that their exhaust emissions are in line with legislated levels is both sensible and worth while. However, to issue an on-the-spot fine of £60 to motorists who fail the test, with no period of grace to fix the fault and, indeed, no requirement to fix the fault at all, is unjust and makes no environmental sense. The vehicle rectification scheme gives a motorist a specified time in which correct any specific fault. Somebody failing the roadside emission test has no such period and does not have to show that the fault has been corrected.

There is also concern that people have failed the test immediately after passing an MOT or having the vehicle first serviced to the manufacturer's limits, returning to their garage straight away and then passing the emission test again. This reflects how the vehicle has been driven immediately before the test. Many vehicles will fail the test if they have been stuck in traffic but will pass the test once they have been driven on the open road.

Consequently, it would appear that the siting of the testing sites has been selected to work against the motorist. And, to make matters worse, local authorities are not even assessing the impact these tests are having on local air quality. Air quality is discussed frequently alongside global warming and the effect modern society has on it. The motor vehicle is thought to contribute to both.

It should be mentioned that when diesel powered cars are compared with their petrol equivalent, on average, the diesel vehicle can travel 50 per cent. further than a similar petrol engined car; because it uses less carbon fuel it emits less carbon dioxide; it produces less overall noxious emissions; and with the new technology for particulate traps and ultra low sulphur, diesel fuel particulates will no longer be a problem; it is simpler and more reliable; and diesel fuel, being non-volatile, is less flammable than petrol. So, overall, a diesel engine will not have the same deleterious effect on the environment and on global warming as a petrol engine. It is a matter of attitude and facing facts which will finally overcome the old fashioned views that diesel powered vehicles are slow, noisy, dirty and smoky. For those reasons, both for the environment and for minimising the use of fossil fuels, serious consideration should be given to reducing the taxation element placed on diesel fuel.

A daughter document of the integrated transport White Paper is that on road safety targets and strategy, which is due to be published in January at the earliest. Not only are the professionals eagerly awaiting the document, but they would like a clear indication of what the targets will be and which years will be taken as the

30 Nov 1998 : Column 319

base line on which progress is to be measured. There is also the need for a road safety Tsar to monitor progress--but, knowing what happened to the Tsars, perhaps another name would be more appropriate. There is the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, with which I have a close working relationship, which could be well placed for filling the role of independent and impartial champion of road safety, with its wide and diverse expertise to assess progress and suggest amendments to policy. But, whichever route is taken, there has to be somebody or some organisation to monitor all activity both in place and proposed.

It was during the debate on the gracious Speech in 1996 that I tried to draw attention to the need for hypothecation of fines resulting from Gatso speed cameras. It is well known that speed cameras and those placed at traffic lights have been proved to have a beneficial effect on road safety. It is also well known that the police set the speed cameras at a higher speed than the actual speed limit because they are unable to process the number of motorists caught exceeding that limit. So we know they work. In some areas of the country motorists are seen to slow down to the actual limit in advance of it coming into effect because they know that any cameras in those areas are set at the speed limit and not one mile per hour more. If an administrative charge were levied from the fixed penalty notices the scourge of speeding inappropriately would be addressed.

I happened to be watching a television programme a couple or so days ago about crime experienced in London's Oxford Street. The final comments were that the unacceptably high crime levels had been cut by one third since the introduction of closed circuit television cameras. And here we have a problem with attitude. Everybody will praise the cameras reducing crime levels in Oxford Street, but few people will praise a few extra speed or intersection cameras being placed on their way to the shops or wherever they are going--even if lives are saved as the result.

I believe that Lancashire Constabulary is to pilot a scheme of zero tolerance towards road traffic offences, which has been shown to work in the Australian state of Victoria. In Victoria, this has effectively reduced the number of deaths and serious injuries on the road by a dramatic amount and the spin-off is the reduced cost to the community--each death and injury has a monetary value in police investigation, hospital costs, loss of earnings, home care and so forth. It is perhaps worth drawing attention to the fact that the Government's publication on road accidents in Great Britain estimates the cost of each fatality at £902,500; for serious injury £102,000; and for minor injury £7,970. The total annual cost is about £10.5 billion.

The Victorians had considerable opposition at the beginning of zero tolerance, but now it is an accepted fact of life and motorists no longer say rude things about it--either audibly or under their breath. It works in Australia and let us hope that it is given a good trial here because without doubt it will work and the road casualties will be seen to be reduced. Purely as an aside, it would be interesting to get local authorities to look critically at crashes in their areas, because it is not unusual for two

30 Nov 1998 : Column 320

adjacent counties to have very different casualty levels. One wonders why this is so. Without critical analysis, how do they know what they are achieving?

We spend millions of pounds on cancer, AIDS and BSE research but are prepared to tolerate about 3,600 deaths on the road every year. Why? Large amounts of money and police personnel are used to investigate each murder and suspicious death--and this is as it should be. However, the cause of a road death is not classed to be of similar importance and does not attract the same level of resources. But in both sets of circumstances the dead person will have had a horrible death, is equally dead and leaves behind friends and relations. But because people are killed on the road every day, the effect it may have is overlooked. If road deaths were shown to be similar to a jumbo jet crashing every month or so--as indeed they are--perhaps more resources would be channelled into improving driving standards and making drivers more responsible for their actions.

Finally, I turn to the vexatious subject of vehicular taxation combined with road safety. Since the Second World War vehicles have become quieter, more economical, faster, larger, more powerful, they handle better and they crumple better in a crash. A Transport Research Laboratory report indicates that the severity of an accident tends to increase with the combined mass of two colliding cars. It also indicates that if downsizing of cars were to take place in the form of a uniform mass reduction of 5 per cent. this could lead to 3.8 per cent. fewer casualties on built-up roads and 2.9 per cent. on non-built-up roads.

This brings me back to vehicle excise duty. The keeper of a mini car pays the same excise duty as the keeper of a large Mercedes or a powerful Ferrari and probably thinks that this is unfair. It is being suggested that VED should be levied in bands according to engine size or to the form of exhaust emission gasses. I understand that the DVLA computers are somewhat elderly and out-dated and would be unable to accommodate detailed changes. But to encourage road safety and smaller, less powerful and more economical vehicles, perhaps a new form of composite banding could be introduced along the lines of fuel economy, power to weight ratio, exhaust emissions, maximum speed and overall dimensions. There are those who would not find such a system equitable, but I hope that most people would think that this formula could be fair to everybody. The average car would attract average excise duty, but the average car with a very powerful engine would attract a far higher excise duty for the benefit of road safety.

I return now to my opening remarks. If a road safety initiative is explained and understood, the motorist will eventually agree with it, even if it concerns vehicle excise duty.

8.10 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, the gracious Speech has one overriding theme--modernisation. So stated the right honourable Peter Mandelson at the start of his speech last week. He went on to say:

    "We are modernising the country, its system of government, its public sector and the economy".--[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/98; col. 210.]

30 Nov 1998 : Column 321

Today we have a chance to look at exactly what is proposed.

We are promised legislation to modernise local government in England and Wales; legislation to improve the regulation of financial services and markets; legislation to provide a fair basis of water charging; legislation to create a greater London authority and the establishment of regional development agencies, to name just a few. We are promised draft Bills on the freedom of information, the reform of party funding and the conduct of councils' business. We are promised consultation on the reform of the teaching profession and the promised proposals for the setting up of the Food Standards Agency, although since the gracious Speech was made I wonder whether the Government have changed their mind. This was referred to by another speaker earlier. I say this because, in answering a Written Question about the food standards agency by Mr. Corbett on 25th November, the Minister replied:

    "The Government are fully committed to the establishment of the Food Standards Agency as set out in the White Paper published in January 1998. It is a matter of regret that, because of the government's heavy legislative programme in other areas, it has not been possible to secure a space in the forthcoming Parliamentary session".
He goes on to explain:

    "I am holding discussions with my right hon. friends as to how we can, in practical terms, enhance these current joint working arrangements and lay further foundations for the Agency".--[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/98; col. WA10.]
Will the Minister, when he responds, enlarge upon the situation? What is meant by this reply and will we have the opportunity to discuss these matters later?

As other noble Lords have said, there was nothing in the gracious Speech about the environment. Where is the action to protect our beleaguered environment? Where is the intention to aid agriculture and allied industries? The Government say they will:

    "work to secure reform of the common agricultural policy".--[Official Report, 24/11/98; col. 5.]
But what sort of promise is that? It is open-ended, non-directed, unfocused, unmeasurable and, at the moment, unlimited. For a government with a massive majority, this is a weak programme which ignores the fundamental issues facing the people of this country today in their everyday lives.

Today we are considering the Queen's Speech in regard to education, the environment and agriculture. I will begin with the last first.

We in this House are all keenly aware of the great difficulties under which our farmers have been working. The vote of the European Union Agriculture Council for the lifting of the worldwide ban on the export of British beef last week was welcome. However, I might remind your Lordships that it was only a partial lifting of the ban, as at present it does not cover beef on the bone.

Additional payments are to be made to sheep and hill stock farmers, for whom we had been lobbying. They are grateful for the additional financial help. Some might say it is too late, but it will help a section of the farming community who have been under great

30 Nov 1998 : Column 322

difficulties. Some farmers were driven to consider whether to destroy their stock, as was mentioned earlier, or to go out of business altogether. Farmers are asking for a fair deal and an opportunity to compete on a level playing field. A fair deal should not mean that our farmers compete with imported produce which is grown, reared or manufactured under conditions that are no longer acceptable in this country. For years British farmers have set the standards in animal welfare, a point very well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton. They should not be penalised.

If the food standards agency is not to be established immediately, who will undertake the work, who will they be responsible to and what means will they have for putting in place scrutiny and accountability procedures? What will happen to correct labelling?

Last week, on Wednesday, 18th November, there was a debate in this House at which, unfortunately, I was not present. I took the trouble to look through the Official Report and I picked out certain themes that came forward from that excellent debate on agriculture. It was my noble friend Lord Stanley who asked the Government what were their long-term future plans and strategies for agriculture, because at the moment we are lurching from crisis management to crisis management. What are the conservation schemes? They will be totally useless unless they encourage profit within the agricultural system.

My noble friend Lord Wade raised the question of the need to establish positive policies to create rural projects. My noble friend Lord Gisborough spoke about the issue of early retirement schemes, which was talked about back in December of last year and was to be dealt with immediately. Since then we have had no further policy. My noble friend Lord Peel commented that skills are essential in maintaining the landscape of the uplands in Great Britain, which are so much enjoyed by so many people. It is interesting that the majority of those are in areas that have been designated as SSSIs. It is a testimony to the fact that the role of farmers is absolutely essential in relation to the success of those uplands.

I turn from one standard to another. The gracious Speech highlighted the Government's commitment to raising standards in our schools and, in particular, within our teaching profession. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree with this aim. But there are, at the same time, many who are concerned about the attack on academic excellence and the determination of this Government to squeeze our grammar schools, a point ably raised by my noble friends Lady Blatch and Lady Buscombe.

During the passing of the School Standards and Framework Bill earlier this year, an attack was made on the whole question of selection by academic ability. Aptitude, not ability, became the fashion. I have a question for the Minister. In bringing forward these proposals to enhance the status of teachers, how will the Government assess teachers who are achieving accepted standards? Will they be paid more on the results of their pupils? If so, how will the Government assess the important contribution made by hard-working teachers

30 Nov 1998 : Column 323

who work among the less able who are unable to achieve that same level of academic excellence and among those who live in socially deprived areas? Will individual schools be allowed to pay and employ staff at differing levels, or will it be the school organisational committees which will have the overall say? Will the freedom given to schools participating within the education action zones be extended to all schools?

Lastly, I turn to local government and the environment. The gracious Speech confirms the establishment of the regional development agencies, which will have a remit for both rural and urban areas. But the Government have already cut back on their financial support for councils in rural areas. For those living and working in rural areas, this has become a double blow. It is more costly to provide many local council services in rural areas than in urban areas. With an increasingly ageing population, additional stresses will be placed upon local councils. I should like to pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Anelay, who cannot be present this evening, who, along with colleagues on these Benches, raised during the passage of the Regional Development Agencies Bill through the House the concerns felt by rural councils.

For many people our countryside is an area to which they go to enjoy themselves in their leisure time. But for others it is both their workplace and their living environment. The land is and has to be a living, working, viable business. It is not a chocolate box piece. It does not keep its vibrancy by chance but by being financially sound. Rural shops, village schools, local communities and, most of all, transport accessibility are crucial if those areas are to thrive and grow. What a shame there is nothing in the Queen's Speech about transport. Providing services for those living in rural areas is more costly, but rural social deprivation is already with us and is set to increase unless the Government give greater thought to rural needs.

This Government, in reducing financial assistance to rural councils, have shown a lack of understanding as to the needs of those areas. That is on top of a persistent attack on the country way of life, including the threat of unrestricted right to roam and the ban on traditional country pursuits.

I wish to conclude my remarks by raising a specific issue with the Minister. This is in a way a little unfair to him as he has been in the Chamber all afternoon. I wonder whether he would like to comment on the announcement made this afternoon by the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown. The latest government statistics, due to be released tomorrow, will show that average incomes have plummeted by a third on last year. Hill farmers and the livestock sector will be hardest hit, but Mr. Brown warned that no additional money will be given to farmers by the Treasury. Speaking at the Smithfield Show, Mr. Brown said it was unlikely that the Government would increase the terms of their recent multi-million pound rescue package for farmers. He said that the cut-backs mean that there is unlikely to be any additional cash to help promote the collaborative marketing initiative launched at the Smithfield Show on Sunday. Similarly, the Government are unlikely to help

30 Nov 1998 : Column 324

the Meat and Livestock Commission get beef back into the European market which we so badly need. These are serious and important issues.

The debate this afternoon has ranged widely but a common theme has run through it. Skill, success, excellence, preservation and renewal are all essential to the future of those working in education, the environment and agriculture.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, in my contribution to today's debate on the gracious Speech, I wish to raise three issues which are relevant to our agricultural industry. I shall mention the livestock auction system, a Royal Commission and the third world. Before I expand on those issues, I wish to declare my interest as a Celt and as a farmer.

Farmers must hold on to their livestock auction system of marketing their stock, which has been proven as the best system in the world. We must encourage stock producers to regard livestock markets as a "farmers' parliament". After all, the livestock market is still the place where they meet, usually on a weekly basis, and discuss the burning issues of the day within the agricultural industry. Many come to market from isolated farms and very often it is the only place where they can meet fellow farmers and discuss prices, purchase a variety of farm supplies and, most of all, compare mutual problems and discover solutions to them. If they do not support their local markets but continue to turn instead to dealing directly with the big supermarkets, ultimately they will have to accept the prices dictated to them by those large conglomerates.

The loss of every individual livestock market will contribute to the gradual reduction in the influence of the "farmers' parliament". I believe that the farmers will profoundly regret the day when, and if, the auctioneering system should collapse altogether. Anything we can do to stop the octopus-like domination of the supermarkets must be worth while. Auctioneers are the champions of the smaller producers. They have a very valuable place in the food production chain in keeping the smaller producer alive. The auction markets are the biggest producers of livestock--farmers are very welcome to deal with them if they have just two animals or 2,000 to sell--and they have to make the supermarkets fully aware of that. I often wonder whether the voices of producers, consumers and all those living in the countryside are being heard in Westminster. I hope that they are.

Once again I urge the Government to set up a Royal Commission forthwith. I have raised that matter three times this year. On the first occasion the Minister was not very appreciative of what I was saying. On the second occasion he was willing to consider it. On this occasion I hope he will agree to set up a Royal Commission. I say that because the Government are going to introduce a Royal Commission to solve the many problems facing your Lordships' House. I firmly believe that the farmers and others who live in the countryside should have a similar opportunity to discuss

30 Nov 1998 : Column 325

and express their points of view so that the insurmountable problems facing them at the moment can be solved before a huge catastrophe occurs.

The late Mr. Tom Williams, the agriculture Minister in the 1947 Attlee government, saved the agricultural industry from disaster by introducing the guaranteed price system, which operated successfully for approximately 40 years. Unfortunately, successive governments have made tremendous mistakes by believing that there is such a thing as a cheap food policy. So-called cheap food is being paid for dearly by the farmers who produce the food. That is why I urge the Government to think again about their policies. There must be a realistic price for the end product if the farmer is to have any chance of surviving in the years to come. If the countryside fails, there will be no winners. We shall all be losers. Let us reform the common agricultural policy in a way that will not discriminate against UK agriculture. We need a fair deal for the countryside in the new EU structural funds, fair competition within Europe and the progressive removal of the milk quotas and the set-aside scheme.

I now turn to the issue which I have been raising over the 25 years in which I have been in the Houses of Parliament. I have raised it on many occasions but Ministers have taken no heed of what I have said. It is time that we should consider alternative policies to help those living in the third world instead of paying our farmers and producers in the Western world for not producing the much-needed food required in the world. The European Union is pursuing an outrageous policy.

Some 800 million people in the world are hungry and world population will double in the next 25 years. There is a need to increase food production now to help those starving millions. I hold the view that if we have a food surplus in Europe we should employ people to process the food in the proper manner so that it can be distributed to those in need in the third world. Many of us on both sides of this House believe that we must create a caring society, but are we really doing that? That is the question we must ask ourselves. Many of us on both sides of the House profess that we are Christians, but are we? It is time that we helped the world's undernourished forthwith. I urge the Government to take the appropriate action.

I welcome the Government's small handout to the sheep farmers of approximately £4 to £5 per ewe. From my understanding of the present situation, every flockmaster has made a loss of approximately £30 per ewe for the year on the hills. That is not encouraging for the young farmers living on the uplands.

To put the present crisis in perspective, the sheep valuation of my grandfather John Howells, Brynglas, Ponterwyd, Cardiganshire in 1900--nearly 100 years ago--was as follows: 200 breeding ewes at £1 each (that equals £200) and 30 ewe lambs at 25p each. In Devil's Bridge market last week, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Young who farm at Tynffordd Ponterwyd sold their breeding ewes at 9p each. That explains it all in a nutshell in my view. The majority of people living in the countryside are aware that the Government have lost control over

30 Nov 1998 : Column 326

their agriculture policies and have handed them over to the supermarkets. My message to the Government is, "Prove me wrong within 12 months."

8.32 p.m.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford made a wide-ranging speech which demonstrated his expertise in many fields. He marked the Government's cards to deliver better rail services and I certainly echo his view. As we know, there was no major transport Bill in the gracious Speech. However, we have heard from the Government that all but some six out of 90 measures in the White Paper on transport do not require primary legislation. All those who are interested in seeing the White Paper adopted at the earliest possible opportunity will watch with interest to see how all these other measures are introduced without primary legislation.

Tonight I wish to talk about the integrated transport policy relating to London. The policy depends largely on the willingness of and incentive for people to leave their cars at home. But there is an obligation on government and local authorities to promote and encourage public transport to provide reasonable alternatives. Let us not forget pedestrians and cyclists and the needs of some 40 per cent. of the population who do not have access to cars at all. I believe that in Greenwich the figure is even higher; it is probably nearer 70 per cent. We should also see this measure as a move to allow pedestrians to regain some of the streets and to be protected from the fast moving steel boxes on wheels driven by people who are of course well protected themselves, as my noble friend Lord Simon told us a few moments ago.

I very much welcome the Greater London Authority Bill in the gracious Speech because it provides an opportunity to put these ideas into practice, as the GLA and the mayor will be responsible for all transport in London, including cycling and walking, allowing them to impose charges, to raise money and to spend it on public transport. The Bill will provide a framework to tackle transport problems and the mayor will have to produce an integrated transport strategy. The mayor will take over responsibility for London Underground. I am a little concerned at reports in the Evening Standard today which state that he will not gain control over London Underground until everything is signed, sealed and delivered. After all, the mayor will be elected by Londoners and it will be sad if he has no say in how London Underground will be structured in the future. The mayor will have powers of direction over Transport for London and, most important of all, he and the London boroughs will have enabling powers to introduce road user charging--or congestion charging, as it may be called--and a levy on non-residential parking.

I welcome the principle of local delivery and hope that the Government will take this opportunity to let go the reins and to allow the elected representative to deliver our transport system in accordance with the wishes of the electorate of London. Let us consider what difference the GLA and the mayor could make and what measures could be initiated now without primary

30 Nov 1998 : Column 327

legislation. I see the transport objective for London as reducing the need to make journeys and encouraging greater use of public transport, cycling and walking and less use of the car. The key will be the ability of the mayor to limit traffic by imposing charges, the revenue from which he can put towards community or public transport.

The dead hand of the Treasury must not be involved. I was concerned to read reports in many newspapers last week that the Treasury had decided not to go ahead with changes to company car taxation allowances--which I think most noble Lords would agree encourage high mileage by company car owners--after representations from the motor industry that people would forsake their modern company cars for older cars which are therefore more polluting. That to me means that the motor industry fears a drop in sales. Surely the Treasury is not so naive as to fall for that one. Is our transport policy designed to become more sustainable or is it designed to prop up the motor industry?

In this country we have the highest percentage of company cars in Europe. That phenomenon dates back many years. I believe that the answer is to scrap company car benefits completely. If people need to use a car for business they should buy their own car or obtain a loan from a company and be reimbursed for business miles travelled; otherwise, I fear that we shall perpetuate the feeling among company car owners--who I believe own the majority of new cars--that private mileage is free. I think that is a dangerous proposition to perpetuate.

What will the GLA and the mayor do with the revenue from these charges? We can get a foretaste of that from what has already been done with regard to the London parking scheme. A Written Answer in Hansard of last week stated that in 1996-97 London boroughs received £163 million in revenue from the on-street parking scheme. It cost them £91 million to administer and £72 million was fed back into public transport. Westminster did best as it made a profit--if you can call it that--of £33 million to be reinvested. Many other local authorities, of course, did not even make a so-called profit. That is only charges for on-street parking. There is much potential for reinvesting such charges in public transport.

When legislation is introduced, what more provisions will the GLA enjoy? There may be charges for congestion and being on the road in a motor vehicle. Tests recently completed in Leicester indicate that people need to be charged about £8 to £10 a day before they leave their cars at home and take public transport. I believe the key to this is for the charge to be incurred at the point of use and not by means of a vehicle excise duty, whether or not that is different as between diesel and petrol--my noble friend Lord Simon mentioned this--paid at the beginning of the year, with a relatively low charge for mileage thereafter. I think there will be howls of anguish if a congestion charge is introduced, but the whole point is that the money raised from such a charge could be used to improve public transport and to provide reasonable alternatives, be they bus lanes, buses, underground trains, ordinary trains, or whatever.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 328

It will have the added bonus of reducing road congestion so that buses and other essential service vehicles can get around.

Even now, a start has been made with last week's launch by the Minister responsible for London of 360 bus-lane cameras. That will start the process of enforcing existing regulations. Several noble Lords, including myself, have been lobbying for that for a long time. I am sad to see that the installation of 360 cameras will take five years. I believe that the money raised from the fines levied will go to the Treasury. I hope that in future the GLA Bill will provide not only more bus lanes and more cameras, but also that the GLA will be able to keep the revenue raised from the fines.

The other major measure in the Bill will be a provision to charge for non-residential off-street parking. That is the other major deterrent to the use of the company car. I have already argued that company car drivers have virtually free travel. That, and free parking at work, makes life very easy for them. If we are to reduce the number of cars on the roads, especially at peak periods, the charge should be set high enough to be a real deterrent.

I was interested to read that in the Government Response to the Environmental Audit Committee Report on the Greening Government Initiative, the Deputy Prime Minister, in pledging, to put the environment at the heart of decision-making, stated:

    "I believe that Government is making great strides to ensure that we properly think through the environmental, social, and economic effects of our policies, and reduce the environmental impact of our operations"--
in other words, it starts at home.

Noble Lords may be aware that there are 3,500 private parking spaces for officials in Whitehall. There is also generous parking provision for this House and another place. I submit that the Government and Parliament have to set an example. I know that many noble Lords and officials work unsocial hours, but there are taxis. We must set an example, as must local authorities. One visits many local authority offices where there are lovely parking places for officials and members, but visitors do not get much of a look in.

With regard to setting an example, I was particularly interested in our debate on the roads review which was held on the last Sitting day in July, when the Opposition's transport spokesman, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, complained bitterly that he had been delayed getting here by car because "somebody had had the temerity to install an extra set of traffic lights at Lambeth Bridge". Having seen those traffic lights, I must say that that is one of the most difficult places for pedestrians to cross. That is why the local authority, Lambeth, had put in a pedestrian crossing. I welcomed it--he did not--but there we are. Pedestrian crossings are important.

Generally, it is becoming more socially acceptable to use public transport, to walk or to cycle, especially for younger people. They are very aware of this issue. Many of them seek in their own lives to keep the use of the car to a minimum.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 329

If such measures are introduced, London will have the opportunity to set its own policy within the national framework. I sincerely hope that it will grasp the opportunity, raise the necessary charges that will reduce road congestion, improve air quality--it is frequently at danger level, especially in the summer--and spend money on creating a world-class public transport system, a world-class environment and a better quality of life for its residents, workers, and tourists, not forgetting all those millions who have no access to a car. I welcome the Bill and shall follow its progress with great interest.

8.43 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I should like to say a few basic words about the interrelationship of agriculture with the environment in our countryside. Everything that I say will be well known to the many experts in your Lordships' House who have already spoken and I fear that it will probably appear very banal to them. However, because it is so well known, it often goes unsaid and, therefore, unrecognised by those who are not such experts.

I must declare an interest in that my family and I farm. As I have also the prudence to be a barrister, I hope that it may be taken that my concern for rural poverty is not wholly self-motivated.

Today I speak about the ordinary rural countryside, not about the special areas of outstanding natural beauty or of environmental sensitivity, but about the land which is the heart of rural Britain and which most people take for granted. Most urban folk--they are the great majority of our population; and nowadays the great majority of our rulers--speak of the countryside and think of its appearance as though it had some objective, natural and permanent status; as though our landscape had always been there, looking as it looks now, or as perhaps some of the urbanites say, "As it would look now if the farmers were not busy wrecking it".

That is, of course, very far from the truth. Originally, the natural state of most of our countryside was either low, dense scrub or bare, open wasteland. The glorious patchwork of fields, hedges, woods and barns that we see now is the product of the care and thought of many generations of devoted farmers and estate owners. When one sees a nicely shaped wood on the crest of a hill, one has to remember that nature did not put it there. It is salutary to remember that it was almost certainly planted and maintained by a landowner, for either hunting or shooting.

The other fallacy at the heart of much urbanised thinking is that if only farmers would go away and stop their nasty practices, the countryside would be a lovely leisure resort, with glorious rambles among wild flowers and birds. People do not realise that if the land is not farmed, in a short time it will revert to dreary, impenetrable scrub and brambles, as was so vividly described by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, in the debate in your Lordships' House on 18th November.

People have to understand that sustainable agriculture is an essential if the environment of our countryside is to continue to exist in the way that everyone wants it to

30 Nov 1998 : Column 330

exist. The diversification of the rural economy is obviously desirable and can add bits and pieces to a few people's incomes. Apart from farming, there is no other use for the bulk of our countryside. We cannot have golf courses everywhere, even if we wanted them, because there would not be enough people, fortunately, to play on them. Diversification would take up only a small part of the countryside. It has to be farmed if it is to continue to exist.

Of course, farming is a business and, as such, it has to be allowed to adopt methods that enable it to compete and to suffer the rigours of competition, in the sense that those who are not farming efficiently may fail. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, explained so vividly, farmers in this country, however efficient, cannot produce at the low prices of eastern Europe where wages are low and rules are nil.

Although farming is a business, there are two important ways in which it differs from normal industry. First, if one is in manufacturing and if there is not a good market, one can stop production, go on to a three-day week and put the cars and the widgets produced into wraps until the market recovers. Going "on hold" is not open to a farmer. You cannot put your cows into wraps and send your men home. You have to go on feeding the animals at great cost and, as was explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, that can present a farmer with enormous problems when an animal is sick and a vet is needed. Unlike a factory, you cannot shut farmland. If a factory is not viable, it can be closed. Then, it is to be hoped, it can be put to some other use: it can be re-let or re-occupied; or as a last resort it can be demolished, and houses or whatever can be built on the land. But if a farm goes out of business and no one else will take it on, there is no other use for that land. That part of the countryside and our environment will just disappear. Farmers want their land to look good and wish to look after it, but no one can maintain a pleasant countryside if his business is losing money.

Thus it is essential that government--I say advisedly "government" rather than "this Government", because it is a problem that all governments have failed to face--recognise that a long-term agricultural policy which renders good farming viable is essential if England's green and pleasant land, and indeed that of Wales and Scotland, is to continue to merit that description. It is long-term policy that is vital. Emergency measures such as the recently announced aid are of course welcome as an adjunct. But what is required is a long-term policy which will give confidence and security.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford emphasised the personal problems caused by the farming crisis. Of course those exist. I am merely putting forward the environmental aspects of the same problem.

As well as government producing this policy, it has to be explained to the electorate--in their capacity both as voters and consumers--why such a policy is needed. Most of our people nowadays do not understand farming and do not appreciate the simple facts behind my remarks. As one of the topics before the House today is

30 Nov 1998 : Column 331

education, surely the right place to start the process of knowledge is in the schools. If children of the next generation do not understand this problem, we are doomed.

8.52 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, it seems an exquisite form of torture to require the maiden speakers, all of whom I congratulate, to wait for so long for their slots in a debate with so many speakers. We have covered a great deal of ground in the debate. I wish I had time to join in the fascinating discussions on the arts and consumption. I share a local shopping centre with the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, although it never occurred to me when I was a local councillor to carry out a survey of the type to which she referred.

I shall not trespass on the areas covered by my noble friends, particularly education and agriculture. But before I go into any detail, perhaps I may wonder aloud what the Queen's Speech is for. As other noble Lords have said, so much has been so widely trailed. And why not? After all, this was not a Budget with an overnight tax rate change. So much was mentioned during the previous Session which we had begun to expect and which, as my noble friend Lady Maddock said, has not been included--unless of course they are items that fall under the significant paragraph,

    "Other measures will be laid before you".

There have also been some interesting developments which have been treated as something of a side dish, such as the "quality of life" indicators announced the day before. This is not an attack on tradition (or maybe it is) but I ask whether a modernising government might not mean a more seamless approach. In that context I note that this will be the first Session in which the Commons can use a procedure for carrying over Bills. Perhaps the Opposition ought to welcome the opportunity to call attention to the Government's implicit admission that they cannot do everything that has been trumpeted. But perhaps the real point is that we understand the need to leave time for some high jinks over legislation that is to come.

I have always supported a consultative and open approach to legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked what qualifies certain measures for pre-legislative scrutiny. I ask: what disqualifies any measures? Therefore I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt--until the contrary is proved--and assume that draft legislation on local government will be a positive approach to councils' conduct of business; that it will be more than just a technical consultation; that it will not be procrastination by another name; or allow the Government more time to persuade more authorities to go for the mayoral model. I hope that one opportunity it will provide will be that of consultation and real discussion with local authority staff. I should like to take this opportunity to note that the assumption by mayors and councillors of executive powers raises issues of morale and career structure for local government staff. That is a point that we should not overlook.

One item whose omission from the Speech I most regret is the proposal that had come from the Government to give local authorities a duty to promote

30 Nov 1998 : Column 332

the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. Given her remarks, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, would agree with that. The Minister was much quoted as considering reform as having three pillars: best value, democratic reform and finance. It seems that we are to have at most one-and-a-half of those pillars--the half-pillar being finance.

I am no supporter of capping, but I am certainly no supporter of capping after the event; that is, after the local budget has been set. That is how capping started its career. We shall no longer have crude and universal capping--or rather we shall know if it is universal, but we shall not know whether it is crude unless we know the criteria applied by the Secretary of State. I fear that I regard the change to capping as potentially a centralising measure, more opaque than transparent. I wish I saw here more of the overturning of centralising shifts to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred.

Success in a local financial system depends on its ability to connect with its citizens. Post hoc capping, indeed any capping, makes a nonsense of the work of imaginative authorities in their dialogues with their citizens and in developments such as local tax contracts. I appreciate that none of this is straightforward. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, mentioned foyers, the noble Lord, Lord Clwyd, referred to the music service, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, described the erosion of funding for the Youth Service. There is a dilemma here: local discretion or central direction. And we all know that a statutory basis for a service does not necessarily guarantee funding.

Topically, we have heard a statement today on social services--another service which is to be modernised, as I see from the title of the White Paper. Ensuring that standards are met is vital. But how far is that to be taken? Charges for domiciliary care are very different from dealing with, for instance, abuse in a residential establishment. Undoubtedly, spending on education in many authorities has led to a crisis in social services, moving money from social services budgets to an education budget, especially because social services are demand-led and the demand is escalating. The issues of rationing, and not rationing by the back-door, are as live in social services as they are in the health service.

It would make more sense to deal with finance and structures together. We could then see the role of finance in the new structures. I extend that to issues such as capital and borrowing. No doubt the legislation will give us the basis for reconsidering council tax banding, protesting at the thresholds for council tax benefit and the gearing effect, and much more. But real modernisation lies in autonomy in dealing with one's finance and--and noble Lords would expect us on these Benches to ensure that this point is included--an electoral system which properly reflects local votes. We are sad that the one measure that could so effectively modernise local government and increase turnout--a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred--has been so steadfastly ignored.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 333

In London we shall have a new voting system and a new government. I have no doubt of the interest of this House in the issue, since I recall that it did not accept the abolition of the GLC with complete equanimity. I am not an "anorak" on voting reform, but, if we are to have a referendum on an alternative to first-past-the-post, and if that alternative is to be the system suggested in the report by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead--and I am glad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is present--it seems to me that we should reconsider the voting system for London. It would be logical to use the system which we shall, I hope, consider in a referendum. That will be one of many aspects of the Bill, which I understand to be approaching the size of the London telephone book. But we shall not protest at that because we shall welcome London having its own strategic government. I am afraid that my noble friend Lord Tope will tell me off for that afterwards!

We shall look with constructive criticism at the balance between the mayor and the authority, at the balance of power between the mayor and central government, at the relationship with the boroughs, at issues which may not at the moment be included in the 300-clause Bill, such as the community councils for London, and at issues such as the timing of the new authority and whether there will be a shadow authority or whether decisions will be made by central government and perhaps even the appointment of officers imposed on the new authority.

We shall consider, too, the new London development agency. We should welcome the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, should he care to become involved. He referred to the boundaries of the regional development agencies. During the passage of that Bill we discussed the relationship which London should have to its hinterland.

I cannot help but applaud the DETR's cunning in giving powers to the mayor to levy congestion charging. I guess that the Government will take the credit if it works and the mayor will take the responsibility if it does not. But surely piloting congestion charging should be undertaken in a less complex city than London.

My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned the report in the Evening Standard today that the Government will delay the transfer of control of London Underground to the mayor. The editorial in that newspaper said that this,

    "casts a huge shadow over the credibility of the new mayor".
I hope that the Minister can clarify the situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, also referred to bus-lane cameras. What he did not say was that their enforcement is undertaken by the police, whose resources are sorely stretched.

I have mentioned briefly council tax benefit. The lessons from housing benefit are unhappy ones. I shall take a moment to mention just two aspects, the effect on the availability of housing stock and the effect on the tenants, both of which are reflected in a letter which I recently received from a local agency which looks

30 Nov 1998 : Column 334

after single, homeless people. The issue of homelessness, as my noble friend Lady Maddock said, does not always receive the attention it deserves--and I seem now to have cleared the public gallery, but perhaps that is merely a coincidence! The letter from the accommodation scheme in Richmond says:

    "I am having great difficulty finding landlords who will accommodate people on benefits. All the new landlords I approach do not want tenants on housing benefit ... There is not one estate agent I know that accepts people on housing benefits".
The writer makes the point that these are not factors peculiar to the leafy borough of Richmond: Hounslow was an area where property could always be found, but that is no longer the case. She says:

    "All my clients live in fear of eviction. They all know that their tenancy is precarious ... These are the very people whose spiritual, mental and physical health is precarious and who need security and constancy to heal".
This is not a situation of this Government's making, but neither have they yet unmade it.

To link housing and education, in response to a point made at the start of the debate, I say to the Conservatives that, if there have been any rigged ballots, they have been in housing in the area of large-scale voluntary transfer. I do not suggest that particular ballots were rigged, but I point to the fact that tenants are deemed to have said "Yes" unless they say "No" to the proposal.

To turn to the area of environment and transport, as my noble friend Lord Ezra said, the Deputy Prime Minister has been gaining in reputation for his concerns for the environment; but I fear that they translate more into words in South America than legislation in SW1. The "tall order" of far fewer journeys by car in five years' time, to which he urged us to hold him 18 months ago, is, I believe, still as tall, and now the target is for the far more modest objective of reducing traffic growth rather than reducing traffic.

Sustainable development appears to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech only in the context of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill.

Those who are faced with rail fare rises, reported last night, must wonder about the expected time of arrival of the strategic rail authority and whether it will meet the reliability or punctuality indicators. They must also wonder at the lack of choice in the service, because the market is not between different rail operators but between rail and road. We all wonder about the date of arrival of the so-called daughter documents to the transport White Paper which are such an important component of the Government's programme.

We look forward, too, to the discussion which I hope we may have on environmental taxation, including such things as the banding of vehicle excise duty, as advocated by the noble Viscount, and, I would add--not in any spirit of not wanting to share--by these Benches for many years.

I started by asking about the role of the Queen's Speech. I end by echoing the words of my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf. It may not be the case that less legislation is more. It is certainly arguable that less legislation is better.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 335

9.7 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I congratulate the maiden speakers in the debate this afternoon. Like my noble friend Lady Blatch I shall not name them all but that is not to suggest that the quality of their contributions is not greatly appreciated by all noble Lords.

Education has already been covered by my noble friend Lady Blatch and I do not intend to dwell upon it. As to agriculture, I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Tope. He is my friend but not my noble friend. Given our common educational background and the area from which we come, our joint experience of this matter is somewhat limited. Therefore, I am particularly grateful for the points that have been made by my noble friends Lady Byford and Lord Addison, the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. There are major issues connected with agriculture and the countryside that must be addressed. We look forward to hearing from the Minister who is to reply to those points.

I add my voice to those who have asked about the food standards agency. We on these Benches noted the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, to the proposed legislation to help those with disabilities. We welcome any proposals to help such people, but we shall look carefully at the details of that legislation.

It is of interest to note that the matters covered by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which is the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister, were not given any time for debate in the other place, perhaps because, as noble Lords have observed this afternoon, it is more a matter of what is not in the gracious Speech than what is. As so often with her Majesty's Government, there is more rhetoric than substance. Let us take the environment. The Labour Party manifesto stated:

    "We will put concern for the environment at the heart of policy making so that it is not an add-on extra but informs the whole of government from housing and energy policy through to global warming and international agreements".
It may be at the heart of policy making, but it is not at the heart of the gracious Speech.

I am bound to remind noble Lords that all the amendments tabled by noble Lords from various Benches to the Regional Development Agencies Bill, which received a mention in the gracious Speech, to put the environment and sustainable development on the face of the Bill were rejected. The Deputy Prime Minister has stated that he wants 60 per cent. of new developments to be on brownfield sites. But have we seen new planning guidance? Have we seen that intention carried through in some of the decisions that have been made by the department that affect the green belt?

Her Majesty's Government returned from Kyoto hailing a great triumph and proposed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 12.5 per cent. However, they have not explained how that objective can be reconciled with their power station policy and their resolve to keep coal-burning electricity generation. I have not heard any explanation of what the Government intend to do to

30 Nov 1998 : Column 336

implement Kyoto given the intransigence of the United States as seen at the recent conference in Buenos Aires. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, posed a number of difficult questions in relation to these matters to which we shall be interested to hear the answers.

As has been noted on many occasions--as it is so noticeable by its absence it is worthy of repetition--the gracious Speech is virtually silent on transport matters, apart from the proposal by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, in opening the debate this afternoon, to give the new Mayor of London power to raise additional taxes from the London motorist by way of congestion charges and a workplace parking tax. Without significant proposals to improve public transport will it have the desired effect or will it just increase costs and have an adverse effect on the economy of London, the health of which is already being questioned by some commentators?

There was the White Paper entitled New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone. My Lords, not this year. The foreword to that document states:

    "With our new obligations to meet targets on climate change the need for a new approach is urgent".
How urgent is "urgent"? It appears that the Government would rather take time attempting to reform your Lordships' House than to take steps to protect the world's environment. I am sure that the world will be very impressed.

The only proposal that has emerged, but merely in draft, is for a strategic rail authority. Other noble Lords have referred to its omission. But perhaps I may put a specific question to the Minister. Some speakers today suggested that a number of matters within the White Paper can be carried forward without legislation. But one item, referred to in paragraph 4.81, Reducing social exclusion, talked about introducing a national minimum standard for local authority concessionary fare schemes for elderly people with a maximum charge of £5 a year for a pass entitling the holder to travel at half fare on buses. That paragraph stated that the change will require legislation. I am sure that the House will be interested to know what is proposed in that direction.

The Deputy Prime Ministers's words at the time of publication of the White Paper on 20th July, reported at col. 794 of the Official Report were that,

    "The House can be sure that the White Paper has a demand on the legislative programme".
It seems that perhaps that was wishful thinking.

Housing has been referred to by some speakers, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. It is another area of silence at a time when, although the Labour Party manifesto stated that most families want to own their own home, the Government have just completed consultation on a proposal to reduce the discount available to those who wish to buy their own homes.

Like other Members of your Lordships' House, the publication of the Bill on London government is keenly awaited. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be able to share with your Lordships' House the thinking on what is rumoured to be an exceedingly large

30 Nov 1998 : Column 337

Bill. I hope that the Bill will be published shortly because every time it is discussed it becomes longer. The sooner it is published the better.

I have posed this question previously. Do the Government see the mayor and the assembly as a new top tier local government unit for Greater London, or as a regional assembly? It is often spoken of in the same breath as the Welsh assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. I submit that it is an important question because if it is a top tier local authority, London will undergo a major local government reorganisation and the existing authorities are bound to lose rather more powers than central government are likely to yield. If it is to be viewed as a regional assembly, it will be the first of the English regional assemblies and we should know that that is what the Government seek to create. There should be total transparency in this matter--perhaps a little freedom of information. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government seek to have a strong mayor, capable of acting on his or her own account, or is the power to rest with the assembly? Alternatively, does the answer depend on who gains the Labour Party nomination for the mayoralty?

We from these Benches will wish to ensure that the authority meets the lean and mean description that has been given to it on occasions from the Benches opposite. We shall want to see that the promises that the authority will not take significant powers from the boroughs are honoured. We shall want to see that Greater London has a system of government whereby it is clear where the powers lie: with the mayor, the assembly, the London regional development agency, or the boroughs, just to mention some of the elements. I do not intend to reopen the argument about the abolition of the Greater London Council. But unclear relationships were one of the worst features of the previous arrangement under the former Greater London Council. I think that that is agreed by all parties which had dealings with the council under whatever political control it happened to be.

It is not altogether comforting to read the Government's consultation paper on the planning proposals for London where the mayor is to have the right to order certain planning applications to be refused. Do those applications have to be referred to the mayor? It is stated that there would be only a small number, perhaps a maximum of 300. But this has all the worst elements of a two tier planning system which in the past led to wasted costs and delay, to say nothing of lost opportunities. That is not the way for London to keep its world-class status--although I have to say that the wording of the gracious Speech suggested that the Government thought that London still had to attain that status.

We shall want to encourage the Bill very carefully. I suppose that the Evening Standard has been more carefully read by Members of your Lordships' House tonight than on many occasions. I, too, have to ask the Minister to confirm or deny the reports which have appeared in the Evening Standard as to whether or not the Underground will pass to the mayor.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 338

I turn now to local government, a subject dear to the heart of Labour when in opposition. The manifesto states that local decision-making should be less constrained by central government. However, what steps are envisaged in the legislation to bring that about? What about crude and universal capping which is to be replaced by a flexible system? Is that a euphemism for the discretion of the Secretary of State?

Legislation is promised to enable councils to choose one of three different methods of running the authority. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, expanded on that when she opened the debate. In particular, we shall consider the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark about the position of the Church in the event of a local authority undertaking the reorganisation of its committees.

But whatever the merits or otherwise of those various proposals, the Government are saying in their White Paper that while councils may produce their proposals for change based on those models, in that new free state for local government, the Government are intending to take reserve powers requiring councils to hold a referendum on one of the models if the Government consider that insufficient progress towards change is being made. That is hardly an example of less local government; more an example of central government coercion.

I wonder when we shall see consultation on the possible power to vary the local business rate. When shall we hear more about the changes to capital financing?

The proposals for a new ethical framework have objectives of high standards of conduct, openness and accountability which we all support. But the proposals are laced also with a potential for bureaucracy and central control. We need to see the evidence which justifies a standards board with a presence in each region, each of the nine established solely for RDA purposes, no doubt. Regional panels, which will hear appeals from councils' own standards committees, may order a disqualification of councillors for, perhaps, five years. Councils will have a right to appeal to a national body to be established. In addition, the standards board will have a role in issuing guidance and information on best practice for conduct in local government. What is happening to the role of the DETR? Who is paying for that? What is the position regarding the proposals for the abolition of surcharge and changes for local government under the existing regime?

The local government Bill will abolish CCT. I am well aware that local government felt that CCT was a curtailment of the right to organise the provision of services as it wished. However, it needs to be seen against the background of the time; namely, inefficient direct labour organisations which tended to run services if not for the convenience of the council then for the convenience of the employees. They provided the empires of committee chairmen who could be proud of the size of their empire, usually measured by the number of people employed. CCT swept that away and saved the country billions of pounds. Residents found that, at last, there was some point in complaining since

30 Nov 1998 : Column 339

well-managed authorities ensured penalties for failure to comply. The private sector wanted to ensure that it was able to bid on the next occasion and responded. Now the Government are to take the step of abolishing CCT.

It may be argued that the climate is different, and, indeed, I agree that it is. But it may be argued also that the CCT process, while heavy in terms of bureaucracy, delivered results. We need to be certain that we do not abolish one piece of bureaucracy for another; that the benefits from best value will be at least equal to if not greater than CCT.

It was described by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, as pragmatic, proactive and participative with performance management, audit elements and measures for failure. But local government should not believe that best value is the end of the tendering process. Best value is defined in the White Paper but it is made clear also in paragraphs 7.27 and 7.28 that the Government will issue guidance which will explain factors which should be considered in making a choice where services are not to be delivered directly. Indeed, where authorities have incurred significant or sustained deficits in providing services directly the Government will not hesitate to use their powers to instruct a council to make alternative provision for its services. So it is difficult to see how many local authorities will not feel obliged to put out to tender most of their services. The Audit Commission is to draft guidance on a new system of control and audit to assist self-assessment and the Government are to intervene wherever the authorities fail to remedy performance failure. Legislation is to be brought forward to enable all that to happen.

It is interesting to note from the White Paper that to help authorities establish authority-wide objectives and performance measures, the Government will introduce a new framework of performance indicators, standards and targets. Is that an example of the Government knowing best and trying to second-guess local decisions?

Reference has been made today to the RDAs. Local decisions will be very much in name only in relation to the RDAs. We debated that at length at the time of the Bill in your Lordships' House. But since the gracious Speech has referred to them, I should say that mentioning them in terms of decentralising decision-making to the regions really gives quite the wrong impression. Indeed, it ignores the threat which those government-appointed, guided and directed bodies pose to local government, its powers and its integrity.

So there is not much in the gracious Speech for local government, the environment or transport. What is left is a promised draft Bill on the strategic rail authority, a Bill on water charging and a Bill on the national non-domestic rate. With regard to the water Bill, we welcome the proposals on metering options but have real doubts about the prohibition of disconnection at the expense of customers who pay. There must be some protection for those who cannot pay; on that we agree. But it is by no means certain that in those circumstances disconnections do take place. But are the paying customers to support those who will not pay? The idea

30 Nov 1998 : Column 340

that those moneys are easily pursued as a civil debt is misconceived. Perhaps it should be put on the same basis as a council tax.

The contents of the gracious Speech--or the lack of content--will have disappointed many different interests. The lack of any real proposals in so many areas will ensure that the next deluge of glossy consultation papers, White Papers and their sons and daughters when published, and the reviews set up to produce policy, will all be treated with widespread scepticism.

9.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, we have had an extensive debate tonight and I shall do my best to respond to the majority of points, but we may be here some time.

My first duty is to reflect on the veritable vestal gallery that we had of maiden speeches; first came the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who implied that he was nervous in this Chamber. I suggest that his reception proved that he had nothing to fear; it is much worse in the Church of England.

He was followed by my noble friend Lord Bragg, who indicated clearly that he is quite as able to perform in the North Bank Show as he is in the South Bank Show, and who brought some illumination to the future of our cultural industries. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, with his 30 years experience in local government, offered us a number of interesting insights. I understand that those in local government in his part of the country believe that the Kingdom of Essex has already been restored.

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, brought us her views with great clarity, so much so that I may not be able to respond because she was so eminently non-controversial. The noble Lord, Lord Clwyd, raised the profession of musical accompaniment, citing the noble Lord, Lord Menuhin, and also Plato, who, so far as I can remember, was never a Member of this House. Nevertheless, he had a good argument and we should respond to it.

The noble Lord, Lord Stafford, gave a detailed speech indicating his commitment to the environment. In relation to the points on the landfill tax credits, I shall have to write to him. Finally, I come to my noble friend Lord Sawyer. I have known Tom Sawyer--if I may engage in a bit of lese-majeste for a moment--for many years in the life that he described. He was a trade union official for a rival trade union; he was a member of a faction of the National Executive when I was trying to control him. But the worst thing he ever did to me was one of the worst things that can happen to anyone; that is, when one's successor joins the House of Lords one feels really old. Tom's commitment to life-long learning, which I trust will be continued in this House, was notable in his speech.

This second Session of Parliament will of necessity be somewhat shorter than the first, even though in this House it will prove to be at least as exciting. Therefore,

30 Nov 1998 : Column 341

some of the comments that related to things which were not in the Queen's Speech rather than things that were, were misplaced. The Government would have faced justified criticism had they put forward a programme that was clearly unmanageable in this House or the other place. The Government believe that the programme outlined in the gracious Speech is achievable and will deliver what we have promised. The proposed Bills we have discussed today are an essential part of the agenda.

Contrary to the anxiety expressed in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the key theme of the debate and the Government's policy in the areas covered by the debate is sustainability. We are talking about the medium to long term. The keys are: sustainable use of resources; sustainable agriculture and rural development; sustainable skills and creativity; sustainable infrastructure in housing, transport, water and so forth, and, not least, a sustainable system of democracy.

It is not just in the Houses of Parliament that things have to change in order to regain legitimacy and support among our people. As indicated by my noble friends Lord Bassam, Lady Goudie and others, and indeed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, local government needs to be re-legitimised in the eyes of many of our people. We believe that our measures will help to do that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, among others, raised a question as to why certain items were put forward for advance drafting purposes at a pre-legislative stage and others were not. This is an important and democratic innovation and one which I thought had considerable support on all sides of the House.

As to the question of why certain constitutional elements were not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny in the same way, I could, of course, respond that the reform of the House of Lords in terms of replacing the hereditary element has probably had 600 years of pre-legislative scrutiny and, as my noble friend Lady Jay indicated, it is about time we started to take action. However, in the area of local government it is important that we have a pre-legislative stage on the new structures of local government. The local government White Paper package contains some of the most radical changes that local government has seen in recent decades. The proposal on new political structures and the new ethical framework are some of the most complex and novel aspects of local government reform in history. They are fundamental and involve an awful lot of people. They need detailed scrutiny. I believe that an important role will be given to this House in engaging in such scrutiny.

Perhaps I may say, on the area of sustainable environment, that it is important not to dismiss what went on in Kyoto and Buenos Aires. That was a major achievement of this Government, not least by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Without him, it is probable that the negotiations in Kyoto would have failed and that the negotiations in Buenos Aires would have been considerably more difficult.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 342

As a result of decisions made in Buenos Aires, we have an action plan agreed by 160 countries, including the United States of America and the developing countries, to cut greenhouse emissions. The political resolve has been queried. The political resolve is there--in varying degrees, I admit--among those countries, but in this Government it is clear that the UK is at the forefront in tackling the problems that threaten our planet in the next century. We are the first country to have launched a comprehensive consultation on how to meet our legally binding climate change commitments and move towards the goal, to which we reiterate our commitment, of a 20 per cent. reduction in CO 2 emissions by 2010. One item in the gracious Speech which relates to that issue is the Bill on pollution prevention and control. That Bill will strengthen and streamline the regulatory regime for the most polluting processes.

Many other issues do not need primary legislation, particularly in the field of transport. An example is that of shifting road traffic away from roads and car use to other forms of transport. The vast majority of such matters do not require new legislation. They require a resolve by national and local government in partnership with the private sector and individuals. We need to involve individuals who make the choice every day of their lives as to whether or not to use their car. Seventy per cent. of households have access to a car--somewhat less than 70 per cent. of the population--and make that choice every day. We have to change the consciousness there. That does not require new legislation; it requires a resolve on behalf of national and local governments and our other political and social leaders.

The Government have recently launched a barometer of the quality of life. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to that, and others have queried it. It is important that we no longer measure the quality of life in this country by statistics of production and growth. Areas such as health, jobs, air quality, traffic, housing, educational achievement, wildlife and sustainability are vital factors.

There are a significant number of measures which the Government can bring forward in the environmental field which do not require legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, was one of the few speakers who addressed this environmental field in detail, although the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, also did so in part. The noble Lord asked in particular a question in relation to energy efficiency. The new guidance from Ministers to energy regulators will ensure that regulation engages with our objectives on the environment. There will be statutory guidance to regulators on social and environmental objectives, including energy efficiency, and a new duty for the regulator to have regard to the guidance. That is all spelt out in the White Paper. The Marshall Report adds a number of measures which we will be pursuing in relation to costs in industry.

There was a specific question on the gas industry regulator and the energy efficiency standards of performance as regards translating the electricity regime into the gas regime. In responding to a recent Question,

30 Nov 1998 : Column 343

the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will recall that I indicated that current standards are a matter for the regulators and that the new gas regulator will, among other matters, need to consider standards of performance in relation to the gas sector. We shall shortly have a single regulator for gas and electricity, although the latter will still be operating under separate regimes. We very much welcome the success of the electricity standards of performance since 1994 and hope to extend that. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, in relation to other aspects of energy efficiency, including combined heat and power.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred to a number of housing issues. I reiterate the commitment that we made to the House in the debate a few weeks ago that over the lifetime of this Parliament we shall be making available an additional £5 billion for investment in housing in the UK which will allow local authorities to tackle the estimated £10 billion backlog of renovation work in local authority stock and in other stock which is causing problems in their areas.

The noble Baroness also raised the question of leasehold reform. I can tell her that we have issued consultation documents on proposals for widespread reform. We believe that it is a flawed system and that we need to give leaseholders the same degree of security and control over their homes as other home-occupiers expect. We are introducing measures on home ownership, on improvement of local authority stock, on leasehold reform and on improvement of the private rented sector.

I move now to the area of transport. Many speakers referred to the White Paper and expressed some degree of disappointment that the White Paper is not totally translated into legislation. I repeat: much of what is in the White Paper does not require primary legislation. We are not dependent on a massive transport Bill in order to make a reality of the integrated transport strategy laid out in the White Paper. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, the vast majority of proposals in the White Paper do not need primary legislation.

Real progress can be made on the integrated transport front without legislation. We have already committed in the comprehensive spending review an extra £1.1 billion over the next three years to improve local and public transport. The Government will be investing a further £700 million in the maintenance and better use of existing road networks rather than expending it on massive new road schemes. Central to this is the strategy of reducing the growth in road transport, especially as regards the private car. That requires a carrot and a stick. It requires the carrot of improving public transport, safer streets and safer alternatives to using a private car. It also means that the cost of motoring will increase; for example, on fuel taxation, on vehicle excise duty and on company car taxation, where decisions have yet to be made. In particular, it will involve the road user charge legislation which we will be introducing in the first instance in the Greater London Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about the new systems of guidance for local authorities. Those are already under way and we hope to issue the final version

30 Nov 1998 : Column 344

following consultation in about February of next year. The noble Baroness also asked about road user and workplace charging. I can tell her that that will indeed be included in the London legislation. We shall shortly be consulting on the details of how the schemes might work across the country.

It is in that area that we hope to see a direct effect on reducing the pressure on our roads, particularly in our urban areas. We also hope that it will provide additional money for local authorities to spend on transport projects; in other words, in reply to my noble friend Lord Berkeley, the money will be raised locally and spent locally. It will also be earmarked--hypothecated, if I may use that term--on transport projects. In July, I announced the outcome of the roads review, which means that we will be shifting substantial resources to improving the maintenance and management of existing roads and building new ones. Therefore, very much has been done and is in the process of being done in terms of changing priorities in transport.

Nevertheless, the gracious Speech made provision for two central features of our integrated transport policy in legislative terms. We have been granted advanced drafting authority for the strategic rail authority. We are already establishing a shadow strategic rail authority to ensure that the authority proper will hit the ground running as soon as the legislation is passed. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and others referred specifically to that issue. The strategic rail authority will bring a new sense of direction to the rail industry. Passengers are sick and tired of a rail industry which fails to deliver for them.

We will be setting up the strategic rail authority as soon as the legislative timetable permits, but in the meantime the shadow authority will drive forward changes on the way in which railways are planned and regulated. That meets many of the concerns expressed by, among others, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that we are appointing a new British Railways Board chairman, a new franchising director and a new rail regulator. They will engage in sweeping changes to mark an end to a very unhappy phase in our railways policy.

In the Greater London Authority Bill, not only will there be powers to introduce road-user charging and work-place parking charging, thereby giving additional resources on transport fronts for both the new Greater London Authority, the mayor and the London boroughs, but there will also be a substantial responsibility on a strong mayor tasked with producing a single integrated transport strategy for London. In that strategy the mayor will consider all forms of transport. The London boroughs will be producing implementation plans for putting the mayor's strategy into effect at local level. The mayor will be able to integrate transport policies and environment, development and planning policies because he will have the strategic responsibility in all of those areas.

To support the mayor, the Government are creating Transport for London, which will be a powerful new transport body to take over responsibility for services

30 Nov 1998 : Column 345

and to implement the strategy. TFL will take over London Transport's responsibility for both buses and tubes. It will run a key network of London's most important roads. Through the mayor, it will have a strong voice concerning the capital's rail network. It will also have important responsibilities for taxis, minicabs, the river and Docklands Light Railway. Therefore, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, it is clear that we will have a strong mayor with a strong transport policy.

Many other questions were raised in relation to transport policy, but I fear that I must write to noble Lords about them. I recently met the noble Lord, Lord Brougham, and his colleagues and I shall write to him in detail on the points he raised. Likewise, I shall write to my noble friend Lord Simon, who raised a number of detailed questions on the policy in relation to motor vehicles.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and others mentioned an article in tonight's Evening Standard dealing with the powers of the mayor in relation to London Transport and the strategy for establishing a public-private partnership in London Underground. London Underground will shortly report to Ministers on the progress of the PPP. Until then, there will be no decisions on the timing of the handover of that responsibility to the mayor. It is not true that the powers of the mayor are being diluted. The mayor will have responsibility for the rest of transport and London Underground will be transferred when the PPP is complete.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, questioned me on concessionary fares. I fear that that is one of the few areas which requires primary legislation. We will produce that at a later stage in order to ensure a minimum standard on concessionary fares across the country.

Coming closer to home, my noble friend Lord Berkeley asked me about reducing parking places within Whitehall and, by inference, Westminster. The Government are taking a lead in introducing green transport plans to reduce solo commuting by car into London. We have a clear target to have those plans in place for Whitehall headquarter buildings by March 1999. The situation with regard to this Palace is not a matter for me.

I move on from dealing with the transport side of the Greater London Bill to its wider aspects. Since the abolition of the GLC in 1986--as I think most noble Lords appreciate now, whatever position they took at the time--London has lacked strategic direction and accountable government. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, asked me whether the new Greater London Authority and the mayor will be a regional authority or local authority. London is unique. It is neither regional nor local in the same sense as the rest of the country. The metropolis requires--and will get--special treatment. It will be a strategic authority, with powers devolved from the centre. It will also co-ordinate the activities on those strategic areas among the London local authorities. For 12 years London has had to put up with unco-ordinated and fragmented policies with

30 Nov 1998 : Column 346

imposition from central government. That will end. We are pledged to bring strategic leadership and democracy to London, and the people of London approved our proposals in a referendum in May. The new Greater London Authority will be a new type of government, tailored specifically to London's needs.

When producing his strategies, however, the mayor will be under a duty to consult with relevant London organisations, including those who represent the London business community and the London boroughs. In answer to questions from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and others, I can give an assurance that we have no intention that the GLA should duplicate the roles of London boroughs. The boroughs will retain the vast majority of their current functions, including their planning and development control functions. Key borough functions, including housing, social services and education will be specifically protected in the legislation. The GLA's role will be to co-ordinate those things which are done best on a city-wide basis. We want the boroughs and the GLA to work in partnership for the benefit of London as a whole.

The noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, raised the question of the electoral system. I hesitate to tread in this area. All I would say is that the system was approved in the referendum. It is the same as the additional member system approved for both Scotland and Wales. I gently pass over it by saying that it is not the same as that proposed--but not accepted by this House--in relation to the European elections.

We will have a strong mayor but we will also have powerful democratic accountability through the GLA in London. The mayor will have a number of powers, which no other local authority will have, but he will also be subject to the will of the people of London through their direct election of him or her and there will also be his or her accountability to the GLA. That, incidentally, will apply to whoever is the mayor.

On the broader aspects of local government, the Queen's Speech referred to two Bills. The first to be introduced in this Session is the Local Government Bill covering the new duty of best value, which replaces compulsory competitive tendering. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bassam, and others, who welcomed the Bill in broad terms.

The White Paper package contains other measures. The most important ones are the financial messages which are contained in this Bill and the structural and ethical measures contained in the Bill for advanced drafting. They are the most important and we intend to pursue them. We said in the White Paper that we would discuss further on these issues and we are currently in discussion with the Local Government Association and local government throughout the country.

The Bill that will be before your Lordships delivers on our Manifesto commitment to introduce a new duty on local authorities to secure best value. The provisions in the Bill have been worked out in consultation with local authorities. Best value will require local authorities to deliver services to clear standards by the most economic, effective and efficient means available. Under best value, local authorities will be required to

30 Nov 1998 : Column 347

challenge the purpose of the services, compare their performance with the best, consult those affected and use competition to best effect. These proposals on best value have already been acted on with enthusiasm by the 37 authorities in England and by the Welsh authorities who are running best value pilot projects. Those authorities have already demonstrated that best value works and represents the future for local government. As my noble friend Lady Goudie indicated, it will also be popular among councillors and their voters in local government. This replaces a CCT regime which was inflexible and which forced authorities to put services out to tender when there was no real need and often no real market. Compulsion has soured relations between local authorities and the private sector and caused divisions within local councils. We believe that we are moving to a better system and one which, contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, is not too bureaucratic and does not impose an unnecessary burden. Although challenging, the proposals will be simple and they will formalise effectively good practice. Indeed, it has to be said that the framework will be much less prescriptive than the CCT regime.

The Bill also covers the issue of council tax regulation. The Government are committed to getting rid of the crude capping regime that we inherited, which caused such difficulty between national government and local government. Nevertheless, we will include within the Bill reserve powers which will enable us to limit excessive council tax increases, as was stated in our manifesto. We hope that that reserve power will be used rarely, if at all. We are confident that the removal of crude capping arrangements will not encourage local authorities to engage in irresponsible and excessive spending.

Contrary to what was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I believe that these powers will be more flexible, more discriminating and more transparent. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has a long and honourable record in local government but he is a representative of the party which brought us capping in the first place and the whole fiasco of the poll tax. For him now to say that we are centralising by proposing new draconian powers over local authority finances I find a little rich.

The Bill on which we will be engaged in a pre-legislative process will contain potentially some of the most radical changes local government has seen in recent years. A number of noble Lords referred to that. The process is central to the modernisation of local government but it leaves a good deal of choice with the local authorities themselves and with their electors. It is true that even under the present regimes no two local authorities are run in exactly the same way. The three models with which we will come forward in the Bill will give councils everywhere greater scope to design decision taking arrangements which best suit their areas. This involves the separation of the executive functions from, if one likes, the legislative functions. The Bill will also contain references to the new ethical framework. Again, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, was excessive in his accusation of centralisation. It will

30 Nov 1998 : Column 348

primarily be the councils which will have lead responsibility for their own standards and the new independent body which will be able to deal with complaints. That is not heavy-handed central government. That is allowing local authorities to sort out their own problems--and we know that there are problems of all descriptions in local government.

It has taken me 26 minutes to reach education, yet education is in many ways the central part of the debate today, though it was, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, my noble friend Lady Blackstone and I know only too well, a central feature of the previous Session of Parliament. It will be less so in this Session. Nevertheless, some important points on education were raised in the debate and we are taking some important initiatives. I would rather not re-run the arguments of last Session to any great extent and perhaps I will not even say what I was going to say about grammar schools. Since the regulations on grammar schools come in only this week, I find rather strange the accusation that we are gerrymandering the situation with regard to grammar school ballots. Most objective observers have noted that, if anything, the grammar schools regulations lean over backwards to protect the position of grammar schools. A ballot will not take place unless there is a substantial parental demand for it in terms of triggering the whole process. If, indeed, the vote goes against grammar schools changing their status, the issue will not be raised for another five years. I do not recognise the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness about the disruption of education in those grammar schools. Our approach, however, is to try to bring the majority of schools into a strategic approach to provision within their areas. We believe that the option of changing the status of grammar schools has to be available to parents. We are pursuing it in that context.

More generally, we want to give a real choice in education. The noble Baroness attacked us for restricting choice, but the opposite is true. We are giving choice to the vast majority of people, not just the few. We are all in favour of excellence but we are not in favour of elitism. We are in favour of extending equality of opportunity to everyone. The noble Baroness may say that is pure socialism. I do not particularly mind that, but I would rather refer to it as equipping the whole population of this country with skills and opportunities for the next century.

To underpin the comprehensive series of measures to raise standards, we shall have committed £1.65 billion by the year 2001-02 for better school buildings and equipment. That is more than double the investment made in the final year of the previous government. As regards the commitment on class sizes, we shall introduce our class size pledge by 2002. This year's spending of £62 million will ensure that 100,000 fewer infant school pupils are in classes with more than 30 pupils and that 600 extra classrooms are built. We have also made substantial investment in further and higher education which will see the numbers undertaking that education increase. I do not wish to rerun too many of the arguments of the previous Session, but it is notable that the number of places taken up in higher education is well above the 1996 level.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 349

However, central to these measures is the role of the teaching profession. School teachers are absolutely central to our standards agenda and to create the right atmosphere in our schools in delivering the improvements in standards that we want. My noble friend Lady Blackstone referred to the Green Paper. There have been a number of queries on that but the Green Paper, which will be published shortly, will set out our proposals to modernise the teaching profession, giving teachers opportunities to develop and progress, together with the rewards they deserve. We propose an updated system of pay and rewards for good teaching to attract the best graduates to the profession. We are not advocating crude payment by results but a more sophisticated assessment measured against performance standards. We want to be able to reward good teachers, particularly those in "difficult" schools. I hope I have reassured the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on that point. Full details, however, will be available when the Green Paper is issued shortly.

It is important that all have access to the opportunities that education provides. It is important, in particular, for disabled citizens. A Bill to establish a disabled rights commission will help to secure those rights for disabled people in education, services and employment. Central to the remit of that commission--as my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton spelt out--will be its remit to work towards the elimination of discrimination and to promote equality of opportunities for disabled people in all spheres; in other words, to turn the rights which exist on paper into reality, as my noble friend Lady Gould requires.

The education system is central to much of our strategy. I shall briefly address some of the points which were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to his belief in the need to establish a Minister for children. I believe that the various agencies within Whitehall are now engaged in much more "joined up" government than has previously been the case. Our local government reforms will help in that regard. The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, mentioned the Youth Service. We are considering the Youth Service and we aim in the medium term to put it on a stronger statutory footing. For the moment we are still consulting on that, but it is clearly our intention. We recognise the importance of the Youth Service.

My noble friend Lord Bragg referred to 30,000 media students. It is important that they help to create a vibrant and competitive entertainment industry in the 21st century. I very much welcome the support of my right honourable friend Chris Smith for the project which my noble friend Lord Bragg has described to us today. We would wish to discuss further with him how we can implement that.

Among other matters the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark raised the question of local education authorities and Church representatives as voting members of local authority education committees. I shall have to write to the right reverend Prelate on some of his other points. The local government White Paper states that there will continue to be Church and parent representatives, with voting

30 Nov 1998 : Column 350

rights, on those council committees which are concerned with education. The Government are aware of the Churches' concerns that they should not be side-lined in the decision-taking process, either under the proposed legislation on political management structures or in authorities experimenting within the current legislation. Government officials have already had, as the right reverend Prelate may well be aware, a positive and constructive meeting with representatives of the Churches to discuss their concerns. We shall continue that dialogue throughout the consultation on the Bill.

I fear that on other questions relating to education I shall have to write to noble Lords.

I now come to agriculture. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, was quite correct in saying that I have relatively little experience of agriculture. Therefore, I shall detain your Lordships for less time than I have on other areas. Nevertheless, even with my limited experience of rural areas, I know of the current serious state of the agricultural industry, to which my right honourable friend, Nick Brown, referred today. The full figures will be announced tomorrow. Farm incomes have suffered a serious deterioration over the past two or three years and tomorrow the figures will confirm that that situation has continued. That will have serious effects not only on the viability of agriculture, but also on the environment, animal welfare and the rural economy as a whole.

The Government are constrained, to some extent, by the CAP from taking unilateral measures to support the UK market. However, we have used the elements of freedom that we do have, and the elements of CAP support which are available to us, to try to offset the joint effects of the strengthening of the pound and of the catastrophe of the BSE crisis on much of our farming.

On 16th November my right honourable friend announced a new package of aid for farmers worth an additional £120 million, on top of the aid that has been given already because of the BSE crisis.

The aid for farmers is aimed at the short-term difficulties, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. It is not a long-term solution to the problems of British agriculture, but it will cushion it for the immediate period.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, raised the question of the reform of the CAP in relation to enlargement. That is a bigger issue, I fear, than I am able to go into at this time of night. However, our concern is that the agricultural policy will change. Enlargement will force it to change drastically, as will the World Trade Organisation negotiations. Also, there will be a growing will among many countries in the EU to change that policy. In the meantime, we have to engage in short-term measures, like the £120 million to which I have referred and the support to hill livestock compensatory payments that have been made. Although those rates were not increased, hill farmers were given extra support by an £85 million special aid budget granted earlier this year. We continue to be particularly sensitive to the needs of hill farmers.

30 Nov 1998 : Column 351

The only other area that I had better touch on briefly is the food standards agency. Clearly, we have a commitment to produce a food standards agency. It is not in the programme for this Session, but we are engaging in further consultation on the matter. We also intend to take action on providing better information for consumers, better scientific information and better product-testing in the interim before the agency is set up. However, nobody should doubt that we shall bring forward legislation for a food standards agency as rapidly as possible.

I have spoken for too long. On the other hand, there are a lot of issues that I have not dealt with fully in the course of the debate. I shall read Hansard carefully and pick out those that deserve a further answer. I thank noble Lords for their patience and in particular those who made maiden speeches; and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. It relates to a very important part of the Government's programme and we shall be delivering it for the whole of this Parliament and probably beyond. So I hope that we shall return to many of these issues in this House at a later date.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page