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House of Lords

Monday, 1st November 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

Doreen Elizabeth Massey, having been created Baroness Massey of Darwen, of Darwen in the County of Lancashire, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Jay of Paddington and the Baroness Castle of Blackburn, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Lord Smith of Leigh

Peter Richard Charles Smith, Esquire, having been created Baron Smith of Leigh, of Wigan in the County of Greater Manchester, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Donoughue and the Lord Evans of Parkside, and made the solemn Affirmation.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to visit the Land Registry and the Combined Courts Centre and will also deliver the annual Pilgrim Fathers Lecture in Plymouth on Friday, 5th November, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

AS/A-level Examination Reforms

2.49 p.m.

Baroness Young asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether sufficient information will be available to schools in time to introduce the new AS/A-level system in September 2000.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): Yes, my Lords. My department and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have sent schools and colleges a wide range of advice and guidance on implementing the reforms arising from the Government's consultation on our manifesto commitment to,

    "support broader A-levels and upgraded vocational qualifications, underpinned by rigorous standards and key skills".

The awarding bodies have now published the new AS/A-level specifications in draft form. The final versions will be available in January.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, does she accept that the fact that

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schools will not receive the new syllabuses until January will leave very little time for staff to prepare to teach pupils eight or nine months later, given that the new teaching will be coupled with a requirement for a complete reorganisation of the sixth form in order to have both the staffing and the necessary skills to teach four or five AS-levels in the first year sixth?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, that is not a fair criticism of the QCA. It sent out a detailed guidance document on the new qualifications in April and a detailed curriculum guidance suitable for a wide range of schools and colleges in September. Synopses of all the AS and A-level specifications were sent out in mid-October. The draft synopses are similar to the final version; and indeed schools were always told that the final versions would be available in January.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is understandable that the noble Baroness will not accept a criticism from my noble friend Lady Young, as I suspect she will not accept a criticism from me. However, will she accept that there is genuine anxiety on the part of staff on three counts: first, that they will not receive information until well into the new year; secondly, that they do not have the staffing to gear up for the new subject syllabus in the new year; and thirdly, that they do not have the resources to do so because there is an unprecedented top-slicing of money by the Department for Education which is eating into the core funding of our schools?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am always happy to accept criticisms, even from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, when they are valid, but I am afraid that none of these is. To take the three points she mentioned, as I indicated, schools have already received an enormous amount of information about the changes, and the changes have been welcomed. This Government have finally done what had been necessary for a long time; namely, broaden the sixth form curriculum. That has been welcomed not only by schools and FE colleges, but also by employers and the universities. The noble Baroness mentioned staffing. The Government are investing £17 million in development programmes to support staff in developing the new curricula. She also asked about resources. The Further Education Funding Council has put £75 million into--

Baroness Blatch: But, my Lords, that is FE--

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, further education and sixth form colleges have more than half the total number of full-time students aged between 16 and 19. If the noble Baroness will wait a moment, I shall move on to talk about schools. FE is receiving a further £75 million, and the schools will have an enormous increase of over 5 per cent in their budget through the local education authority settlement for the year 2000-2001.

Lord Tope: My Lords, does the Minister agree that while we must do all we can to expedite arrangements

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for AS and A-level examinations in September next year, it is high time we developed a single nationally administered qualification system covering both academic and vocational qualifications?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Lord raises a big issue. We are taking steps to create a more rational and coherent system, including in these particular reforms aligning the GNVQ system much more closely to the A-level/AS-level system.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us would prefer to scrap A-levels completely and introduce the baccalaureate?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, yes, I am aware that there are those who would like to see a radical reform of the curriculum for 16 to 19 year-olds. The Government judged that the right way to proceed was to build on the good qualities of A-levels by defending the academic rigour that is central to them, but at the same time in the hope that, given the new opportunities, far more young people will study a rather wider range of subjects than the very narrow and rather restricted curriculum that they studied previously.

Streetworks: Operations Control

2.55 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to introduce legislation to give local authorities control over the digging up of streets so as to minimise the difficulties caused to both residents and traffic management.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, streetworks operations are governed by the New Roads and Streetworks Act 1991. The Government seek to achieve a balance between the need for the utilities to install and access equipment from time to time and minimising the disruption caused. On 13th October, my department published a consultation document on incentives to minimise disruption and improve streetworks co-ordination in England. It proposed that utilities should be charged for occupying sites for longer than necessary.

The Earl of Kinnoull: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that somewhat disappointing reply. Is he aware that the chaos caused by utility companies digging up our streets and pavements with unco-ordinated plans and uncoordinated management is well known and well documented and that it has become a public disgrace? Is he further aware that local authorities clearly do not have satisfactory statutory powers of control over the many utility companies--there are some 26 of them--that they

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could have if the Minister implemented powers given to him under the 1991 Act? When, as has happened in one case, a London street has been dug up 30 times in one year, does that not call for firm action rather than dithering delay with yet more consultation?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I note the noble Earl's concern. Indeed, many others have expressed concern about the degree of disruption. But there are conflicting priorities here. The utilities must have access to their own facilities. The important thing is that we improve co-ordination. There is already a fairly substantial code of practice on co-ordination. However, it is also true, as the noble Earl indicates, that the final sections of the 1991 Act have yet to be triggered. We had hoped, as had the previous administration, that there would have been agreement on proceeding. There has not been that agreement. The consultation document to which I referred offers two options on charging utilities. We hope for feedback on that consultation by January, after which those powers will either be triggered, or powers will be introduced in new legislation.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that when the utilities cause problems on our streets, half the problem is that they do not know where their pipes or cables are? Does my noble friend agree that about 10 years ago there was a plan for all the utilities to be required to map exactly where their pipes and cables were, and that that plan was cancelled by the previous government?

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