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3.6 p.m.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with permission, I should like to make three brief announcements. The first concerns today's Statement. At a convenient time after 3.30 p.m., my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham will repeat a Statement which is being made in another

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place on Welfare to Work and benefit uprating. Secondly, on today's debate, Members of the House will remember that, following a decision made in July, we have a target rising time for this evening of 10 p.m. If I may say so, the system of an advisory time worked well on Thursday. If Back-Benchers were to restrict their speeches during today's debate to 10 minutes, the target time of 10 p.m. would not be exceeded.

Finally, on my favourite subject, which is recess dates, your Lordships will be aware that an announcement about recess dates was made in the Commons on 31st October by my right honourable friend Robin Cook well in advance—right up to next autumn, which is quite a precedent. I cannot go as far as that, much as I should like to. Many people naturally want as much as advice of recess dates as possible. Before I announce them, perhaps I may say that there is no need to make notes, because I shall ensure that the dates are placed in the Library, where I am sure that they will be popular reading matter. I strongly stress that, as everyone will appreciate, they are provisional and dependent on the progress of business. That is especially true because I have tried to give such good notice.

The dates are as follows: at the Christmas recess, we aim to rise after business on Thursday 19th December and return on Tuesday 7th January—or possibly the previous day. That is always the proviso. At Easter, we rise after business on Thursday 10th April and return on Monday 28th April. At Whitsun, we rise after business on Thursday 22nd May and return on Tuesday 3rd June or the previous day.

The eagle-eyed among your Lordships will have noticed that those dates pretty well match those for the other place, with the exception of their February break, to which they have become accustomed. Sadly, I cannot make any promises about a February break but, if business were to move speedily, it may be possible to arrange for a day or two during the week beginning 17th February.

I think that I said that the dates would be available in the Library. They will not; they will be in the Printed Paper Office. I am sure that wherever I had put them, your Lordships would have found them. As for the summer, which is the area to which I cannot progress at this stage, my view is that the two Houses of Parliament work best when the sitting patterns of the two Houses run roughly in parallel—as has been the case in the past. That now means that, if we were to follow precisely the pattern in the Commons, this House would rise two weeks earlier in July and sit for two weeks in September. That would, of course, be a major change, and the House will, naturally, wish to express an opinion on it. Therefore, my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House will table an appropriate Motion on an agreed date. The usual channels have agreed to that, and it will now take place on Monday 25th November, as first business after Questions.

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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

3.10 p.m.

Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Wednesday last by the Baroness Turner of Camden—namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in opening the debate, I shall outline the content of the Bills coming forward from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Bills relating to environmental and rural policy. I shall also outline my department's continued commitment to raising educational standards and the ways in which it will continue to tackle the problems of truancy and other anti-social behaviour and promote the development and reform of higher education.

I shall begin with the local government Bill from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The Government believe that local government is of critical importance in delivering high quality public services to local people. As the White Paper Strong Local Leadership—Quality Public Services stated, we want vibrant, innovative and responsive local government, delivering the quality of local leadership and public services that their communities need. We want to work in partnership with local government to make that happen. The Bill represents an important part of the new agenda for local government and will help councils to deliver more effectively, so that they can make a real difference to the quality of life for local communities.

Perhaps the most important measure in the Bill is the replacement of borrowing approvals with a new prudential regime that gives local authorities greater freedom to borrow, provided that they have the means to service the debt. Deregulation is an important aspect of the new agenda, and the draft legislation will help to cut red tape and improve efficiency, by giving freedoms and flexibilities to councils as well as additional incentives to high-performing councils. All local authorities will have the power to charge for discretionary services. New trading powers will be conferred on best value local authorities. That will be available to local authorities depending on performance. Local authorities will, of course, not be allowed to charge for services that they have a statutory duty to provide.

In addition, the introduction of the business improvement district schemes will allow authorities and businesses to work together as partners to put in place local projects to improve town centres and

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commercial areas. Small businesses will also benefit from a new small business rate relief scheme that will benefit properties with rateable values of under 8,000.

The Bill will keep council tax fair, through a fixed 10-year cycle of revaluations. It will be made clear that additional bands can be created without new primary legislation. Authorities will have greater freedom on the discounts and exemptions from council tax that they grant, notably allowing them to reduce the discount on second homes. The Bill will also remove rent rebates and rent rebate subsidy from housing revenue accounts. There will be additional flexibility in the determination of housing revenue accounts subsidy, and perceived barriers to rent restructuring will also be removed.

I turn now to the planning and compulsory purchase Bill. As noble Lords will be aware, planning plays a keyrole in the delivery of other government priorities, such as new housing, transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. Without an effective planning system, we risk constraining the economy, at a cost to everyone in the UK. In our reforms, we will ensure that the changes do not erode the ability of the public to participate as appropriate. The planning system has served us well over the years. However, 90 per cent of councils fail to meet their speed of decision-making targets, while the process of updating plans is expensive and takes several years.

In July, the Deputy Prime Minister announced an extra 350 million for the planning system over the next three years. More money, however, must mean a better standard of service. Extra money will go only to authorities that demonstrate their commitment to high quality planning. We will not hesitate to take action if local authorities are not performing.

Alongside those additional resources, the planning Bill will put in place the reform needed to make the planning system fairer, faster and more predictable. We want to bring clarity, certainty and a better sense of strategic direction to planning. Therefore, the Bill will speed up the planning system at national, regional and local level; reform the process for handling major infrastructure projects; increase the participation of the local community from the start; simplify the development plan process, ensuring a more responsive plan-led regional and national system; improve the development control process; introduce business planning zones to help businesses start up and grow; and take forward some of the necessary reforms to the compulsory purchase system that were announced by the Deputy Prime Minister on 18th July.

With the proposed changes contained in the planning Bill, we seek to introduce a planning system for the 21st century. We want a system in which the role of the community is strengthened but in which the shackles are removed from business. Most of all, it will have agreement and consultation at its heart, ending the damaging adversarial system that has held too many of our regions back for too long.

The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was published on 14th November. It takes forward our commitment to establish elected regional assemblies in

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the English regions that want them. Part 1 provides for the Government to cause referenda to be held on whether a region should have an elected assembly, sets out the questions to be asked and defines those eligible to vote. An elected assembly will happen only if the people in each region want it. The Bill sets out the conditions to be met before the Government can require a referendum to be held, including consideration of the level of interest in holding a referendum.

Part 2 provides for local government reviews to be conducted by the Boundary Committee for England before referenda are held. They would determine the best unitary structure of local government for the parts of a region that currently have both county and district councils. The changes would go ahead if—only if—an elected assembly were established. Part 3 provides for the Government to require the Electoral Commission to give advice on the electoral areas for an elected regional assembly, if the Government propose to establish one. Part 4 provides a power for the Government to pay grant to the voluntary regional chambers.

Our approach offers prospects for all our regions. It offers elected regional assemblies to regions that choose one, while strengthening existing arrangements in all regions. Assemblies will have real powers to make a difference in key areas—jobs, transport, housing, culture and environment—and to tailor regional solutions to regional problems. In short, they will help all regions to contribute to and share in the nation's prosperity.

I turn now to the measures proposed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to protect our environment in the Water Bill and the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill.

The Water Bill takes the Government's commitment to the sustainable management and use of water resources in the face of climate change to a new level. Reform of abstraction licensing will give new impetus to water conservation but will also reduce the regulatory burden. The Bill will also help to build a more stable and transparent regulatory environment for the water industry. At the same time, it will put customers at the heart of regulation and extend the opportunities for competition within the Government's wider agenda for water.

The Bill will reform abstraction licensing to improve water resource management and promote greater water conservation by water companies, giving the Environment Agency new powers to manage licensing in the interests of the environment. The Bill will also simplify the abstraction licence application process and set a threshold, so that many smaller abstractors will no longer need a licence, while removing most of the existing exemptions based on the purpose of use of the water.

The Bill will replace the existing Director-General of Water Services with a regulatory board, amend the regulator's duties to strengthen regulatory certainty—thereby giving greater weight to customers' interests—

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and give the regulator a duty to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. The Bill will also provide for the setting up of an independent consumer council for water to represent and pursue the interests of customers and consumers and to extend the opportunities for competition in the supply of water for large non-household users.

The Waste and Emissions Trading Bill will help to address two key environmental challenges: climate change and sustainable waste management, which is part of sustainable development. The Bill will take forward the UK's policy to combat climate change by putting on a statutory footing penalties for the world's first economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme. It will also help meet our obligations under the landfill directive to reduce the landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste, which is itself a source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

This Bill shows our firm resolve to meet both our domestic and Kyoto commitments on combating climate change and to take forward sustainable waste management following the waste summit last November and the strategy unit's report on delivery, which will be published very shortly.

As the Gracious Speech made clear, a Bill will be introduced to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on hunting with dogs. My right honourable friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will bring forward a Bill based on evidence and principle once his considerations of the consultations are concluded.

Finally, I wish to turn to the business of my own department and to reaffirm the Government's commitment to raising standards in education. As mentioned in the gracious Speech, raising educational standards remains the Government's main priority for Britain's future prosperity. We have already achieved significant milestones as a result of the increased sustained investment in education. These have included making a real difference to the lives of children, families and their communities through the Sure Start programme; through the Early Years commitment to education; and, through the childcare provision, more than 1 million children now benefit from new childcare places.

We have the best ever results at key stage 2; we have made sure that infant class sizes have been cut; 50 per cent of our 15 year-olds achieve five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, a target we met a year early; and record numbers of students are starting university, with a 3 per cent increase in the number of UK-domiciled students enrolling at UK higher education institutions between the academic years 2000–01 and 2001–02.

Despite these achievements, we want to go further. The transformation of secondary education will continue to raise standards, improve classroom discipline and enhance choice for pupils and parents. The 12.8 billion investment in education announced in this year's Spending Review will provide the investment we need to see through the programme of transformation.

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With the implementation of the new Education Act, the reforms will see a new school system that will be specialist both in the distinctive ethos of each school and in the focus it will bring to each child's individual talents. This means diversity, not uniformity, with every school being unique and having the incentive to improve. This means a move away from the one-size-fits-all model with the expansion and creation of different types of schools. We therefore want to increase the number of specialist schools to 2,000 by 2006, create 33 new academies and 300 advanced schools.

We want to use our best schools to raise the standards of the rest by encouraging schools to learn from each other and, where necessary, take over weak and failing schools. Success will, in turn, be rewarded with greater freedoms and flexibility.

To take these reforms to the next level we need clear and effective leadership at all levels within our schools. The new national college for school leadership will lead the transformation in the quality of school leadership, and the new leadership incentive grant will ensure that our most challenging schools have the leaders they need.

It also means a relentless drive against poor behaviour, indiscipline and truancy. Parents have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that their children attend school regularly, but, as noble Lords know, about 50,000 children are absent every day without their schools' permission, and in our recent truancy sweeps half the children stopped were with their parents. The Government are determined to reduce unauthorised absence and to make parents face up to their responsibilities and are already implementing a number of measures to help achieve that. These include setting targets for local education authorities and schools; funding electronic registration schemes in high-truancy schools; a sustained publicity campaign, including leaflets setting out parents' responsibilities; regular truancy sweeps, including a national campaign in December; and powers for magistrates to impose a variety of sentences on parents, including parenting orders, fines of up to 2,500 and imprisonment.

We are also launching a pathfinder scheme to speed up the existing prosecution process. Parents will be given 12 weeks to ensure that their child attends school regularly. A hearing date will be set for the end of that period and if there is no sustained improvement the case will come to court then.

But unauthorised absence has a wide variety of causes and so local authority education welfare services, which work with parents to secure regular attendance, need a range of tools to deal with parents in different circumstances. We are therefore considering ways of extending that range, including options for swifter and more effective action against parents who refuse to take their responsibilities seriously. We will be bringing forward proposals in this area in due course.

The development and reform of higher education forms a central part of the Government's commitment to education. We believe that the country's record on

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higher education is already first class. Our universities and colleges are crucial to our economy and if we are to sustain our position against increasing global competition a programme of rigorous and continuing reform and investment is essential.

In January we will publish a strategy document setting out our vision for the development and reform of higher education over the next 10 years. The strategy will have three key elements: ensuring that our universities can continue to compete with the best in the world in terms of the excellence of their teaching and research; widening participation towards our target of 50 per cent of 18 to 30 year-olds having the chance to enter higher education by 2010; working to break down the traditional barriers that have prevented people from disadvantaged backgrounds benefiting from higher education.

The strategy will also outline the Government's plans for making the most effective use of the additional resources we are making available for higher education, and will set out how we will be developing the student support system so that it reinforces our aims of excellence, access and participation while sharing the costs of higher education fairly among all those who benefit from it.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to building a strong society through the continuing reform of the public sector with reforms to secondary education, higher education and local government, as well as protecting our environment through the promotion of greater water conservation and meeting both our domestic and Kyoto commitments to combat climate change and take forward sustainable waste management. The Bills and programmes that I have outlined today support these aims.

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for opening today's debate on the gracious Speech. I always consider it a privilege to take part in these debates which signal the start of a new Session of Parliament.

It was once regarded as a cardinal sin to leak the contents of a Budget or a Queen's Speech. Today things have changed dramatically. There are no more witch-hunts to find the perpetrator of the leak because no less a person than the Prime Minister himself openly—some would say blatantly—uses radio, television and newspapers to disclose the contents of the gracious Speech. I, for one, lament this trend. I believe that it does a great disservice to Her Majesty.

The subjects covered by the debate make it very difficult to do justice to the many issues which arise from the seven Bills mentioned in the gracious Speech. It is also inconsistent with the time allowed under the new procedures of the House. However, I shall be ably assisted by my noble friend Lady Byford, who will wind up the debate for these Benches. My noble friend will also deal with environment and rural affairs issues. I can think of no one more able to deal with Bills on the environment and the countryside, or more dedicated to these issues, than my noble friend Lady Byford.

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I am also conscious that my noble friend Lady Hanham will be taking at least three of these Bills through the House and, including pre-legislative scrutiny, perhaps even four. My noble friend has a distinguished record in local government and I know that she will bring her expertise to bear when it comes to the detailed scrutiny.

I make one plea to the Leader of the House—that is, that the recent procedural changes do not impede in any way our ability to scrutinise and revise the Bills set out in the gracious Speech.

By way of pre-emption, I should like to make one procedural comment about the Hunting with Dogs Bill. As I understand it, when introduced, the Bill will be on the basis of a free vote in both Houses. The Minister, Alun Michael, said in another place:

    "The votes this week leave the two Houses diametrically opposed—indeed, I have rarely seen an issue on which the divisions have been greater. It is precisely for that reason that it is right to see how it can be resolved with as much agreement as possible".

He went on to say:

    "We promised in our manifesto that this issue would be resolved. Should there be no way through, and should the new Bill be frustrated in its passage rather than scrutinised and improved, the Government could not properly stand in the way of the application of the Parliament Act, which of course would be a matter for this House".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/02; col. 457.]

I have no doubt that the Prime Minister and Mr Alun Michael are genuinely seeking the widest possible consensus on this issue. It is my fervent hope that sensible and tolerant minds will prevail.

However, apart from the inordinate use of parliamentary time, if an acceptable compromise is thwarted by a Back-Bench amendment for a complete ban, and if the two Houses remain "diametrically opposed", to use the Minister's own words, the Government—and it would be the Government—would be unwise to use the Parliament Act on the back of a free vote and on an issue which not only divides both Houses but divides colleagues within each House. It is an issue which is very divisive throughout the land between town and country people.

My noble friends and other noble members who wish to defend hunting with dogs will not deliberately frustrate the Bill, but you can be sure that they will defend their right to fulfil the role and duty of this House, which is to scrutinise the options with energy and much expertise. Should the Government continue to defend the use of the Parliament Act on the grounds that the commitment was a manifesto pledge, might I remind the Prime Minister, so was the promise not to introduce tuition fees before the 1997 election—a promise that was broken within months of coming to office. I shall return to that later.

The local government Bill, which has been considered in draft form, was described by the Deputy Prime Minister as "dry and technical". When my noble friend Lady Hanham comes to discuss this Bill—technical it might be, but dry—no—my noble friend, on behalf of these Benches, will be concerned to

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influence the final form of the Bill to ensure that the reforms will be in the interest of local government and of local people.

Certainly, the Local Government Association has welcomed the new freedom for local councils. However, like us, it will be interested in the detail of the proposals, especially those features of the Bill which were not included in the draft version. Of course, the Bill comes at a time when local government funding is a very vexed issue. As we all know, there is a review of the local government funding system under way which will report before too long. The Government have stated that they are concerned to make the new system more easily understood and that it will improve transparency and accountability. I am tempted to say, "Do not hold your breath". The system is about as transparent as a London smog of yesteryear and it is subject to constant manipulation.

Some say that the system should be fair and simple. We believe that it should be transparent and as fair as possible. However, too much simplicity creates too much rough justice. And talking about rough justice, it is understood that substantial moneys are to be moved from the south of England to the north and the metropolitan areas. To emphasis that point, I quote from the words of my right honourable friend Sir George Young, in another place:

    "More than 304 million is being taken from a group of people who happen to live in one part of the country and given to a group of people who happen to live in another".

He continued:

    "A Hampshire teacher will contribute towards 47 per cent of the county council budget whereas a teacher in Durham will contribute towards 20 to 25 per cent. That is a geographical stealth tax".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/02; col. 432.]

It looks as though the situation for the southern local authorities is about to get worse.

An issue that will be dealt with by my noble friend Lord Howe in the debate on health nevertheless has an impact on local government finance; namely, the Government's plans to tackle bed blocking by the elderly in hospitals. How crazy it is to levy a financial penalty on a local authority that is already spending above its standard spending assessment on social services and which cannot afford the money to fund sometimes expensive home support packages, especially where the relationship between the local authority and the health authority is good and where much is being done in partnership to tackle the problem. Perhaps the Minister, when he winds up, will explain the logic behind that proposal.

Before I leave the issue of funding I must raise one more point on behalf of local government. What percentage of the police and fire service budgets is now being spent on meeting pension obligations? The last time I saw figures it was over 25 per cent and still rising. I ask that question because it must be having an impact on that part of the respective budgets to pay for operational services.

The regional assemblies Bill will be vigorously opposed by my noble friend Lady Hanham on behalf of these Benches. The United Kingdom is top heavy

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with governments—European, national, a separate parliament and assembly for Scotland and Wales respectively, London government, county councils, district councils, town and parish councils, town mayoral offices and now regional government.

Public services will not improve by creating a new type of politician and more talking shops will not boost economic growth or help the vulnerable. The taxpayer is funding that inexorable additional cost of more committees, more politicians and their support systems, much greater bureaucracy and a burgeoning number of quangos. The argument that regional government will be closer to the people is fallacious. The regions are enormous and local knowledge will be at a premium which will result, as we all know, in a poorer service to local people.

Many of us have suffered the frustration in this House of trying to get answers to questions about how national taxation is being spent in Scotland, Wales and London. Even given the ingenuity of my noble friend Lord Peyton and the omnipotent and always courteous noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, we still do not succeed.

Those who may be seduced by the idea of regional government because they believe it will bring more money to their area are very naive indeed. The first call on funds will have to pay for buildings to accommodate officers and members of the authority, the bureaucracy, staffing and members' costs and, if Wales is anything to go by, the growth of many quangos—even before one penny is spent in their area. The Government, of course, will argue that the buildings and offices are already there in the regions. That is what we thought with Scotland, Wales and London which, between them, have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on accommodation and member services.

We are all aware of the Deputy Prime Minister's agenda—bigger, costlier institutions, more distant from the people and strengthened central control. Regional government will inevitably threaten the future of county councils and that will be fiercely resisted. When the Minister comes to reply, it will also be helpful if he can confirm that the future of the lieutenancy and the office of High Sheriff is secure. I ask that because there are rumours that they too are threatened. Therefore, reassurance from the Minister of their future would be welcome.

One issue that is being lost with this piecemeal approach to reform of government is the integrity and coherence of the United Kingdom. Already we hear siren voices from Scotland calling for more powers and separate representation in the European Union. Wales is also looking enviously at the powers enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. No doubt London will follow suit in due course. Also, if and when, one or more regions is formed, what will provide coherent government for England? Surely, just as the whole of Scotland and Wales voted in a referendum, why cannot the whole of England?

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If the Government genuinely believed in local communities they would be reducing the size of national government and resisting the constant urge to intervene in local government. Instead, such interference has soared under Labour. Anything that further undermines the integrity and coherence of the United Kingdom will not have our support.

An issue that will inevitably be discussed when the Bill comes before the House is a threshold for the referenda. We have witnessed what happened in Wales and London and now we have the experience of electing town mayors. For example, in Bedford, a mere 18 per cent out of an electorate of 96,000 turned out for the referendum. The turnout for the actual election, with eight candidates, was only 25 per cent. The winning candidate polled 9,500—less than 10 per cent of the electorate. That is hardly the settled will of the people. Therefore, is it any wonder that one town voted for a man in a monkey suit? If the Government succeed in getting their way with this reform, we must fight for a meaningful voting threshold below which there will be no case for change.

We agree that the planning system is in need of reform and should be streamlined. Therefore, much of the planning Bill will be welcome. However, a point that has been discussed many times in this House, particularly by my noble friend Lord Renton, is that people's confidence in the planning process will be damaged if their voice cannot be heard in a meaningful way. As the Government's proposals stand, local communities will be stripped of their involvement in the local planning decisions. The county council's role in the planning process will be abolished and the new regional authorities will have the power to ride roughshod over local councils and local people.

Reference was made in the gracious Speech to a Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny to improve the standard of housing and the standards of management of private rented accommodation by landlords. Housing is a very complex issue and therefore the pre-scrutiny process is well advised. We all wish to see better housing and more people in accommodation of a good standard. However, we do not want a repeat of what happened to care homes for the elderly. The changes brought in by government, however well intentioned, had the effect of closing down hundreds of much-needed homes for the elderly.

The balance has to be to legislate in such a way that the range of rented accommodation is increases; that people are prepared to consider homes for rent; and that the rules regarding standards are practical, affordable and fair to the landlord and the tenant. I ask Ministers not to start from the premise that all landlords are crooks, for the majority of them are not. While safeguards are important, such an attitude will destroy the sector.

It is almost impossible to know where to start on the issue of education. Although there was no specific Bill mentioned in the gracious Speech, we shall no doubt see many pieces of secondary legislation which will be spawned by the recent Education Bill.

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The gracious Speech included the words:

    "Raising educational standards remains my Government's main priority for Britain's future prosperity. Secondary school reform will continue to promote opportunity and choice through greater diversity for parents and pupils. University reform proposals will be published to improve access and build on excellence".

These are fine words with which it is not easy to take issue. However, let us look at the state of education after almost six years of Labour government. Teacher recruitment and retention is in crisis. Morale among teachers is low. Too few teachers are applying for key posts in our schools. Teacher vacancies have doubled in recent years. Schools are trawling around the world to fill vacancies in their schools. Record numbers of teachers are leaving the profession early and many are citing not pay as the reason for leaving but workload, bureaucracy and meddling government interference. Far too many temporary teachers are employed, which creates insecurity for children. Too many teachers are teaching subjects for which they are not trained. Of the 20,000 extra teachers the Government claim to have recruited since 1997, 5,600 are unqualified, 2,800 are trainees and 2,520 posts remain vacant.

A survey has shown that 80 per cent of teachers believe that behaviour in our schools is getting worse. According to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, assaults on teachers have risen fourfold. Standards in primary schools have not reached the Government's targets. In fact, they have been virtually unchanged for three years. Added to that, there is now concern about the way in which the 11 year-old tests are administered.

Truancy remains a real problem for schools. I have lost count of the press releases from the Department for Education and Skills with headlines such as, "Ministers to crack down on truants", or, "Ministers to get tough with parents who fail to send their children to school".

Stephen Clarke, a director of Truancy Call, has estimated that 50,000 children play truant each school day. That has now been confirmed by the Minister. However, much more seriously, Mike Tomlinson, as head of Ofsted, said that up to 10,000 are effectively lost to the system. What are the Government doing to find them? I hope that those of us who listened to the gracious Speech will be forgiven for feeling somewhat cynical when we hear the words,

    "My Government . . . will also bring forward proposals to tackle problems of truancy".

Since the Government came to office in 1997, initiative after initiative has been tried, including fast track prosecutions; parenting orders; fines of up to 2,500 and imprisonment; police patrolling schools; taking away child benefit; and tens of millions of pounds have been spent. And yet, truancy levels are as high as ever and now we are to expect yet more proposals. I wonder whether it has occurred to Ministers that there may be a link between disaffection and the lack of high quality vocational education both pre-16 and post-16.

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Then there is the A-level and AS-level debacle. Thousands of students had a very unsettled time and to make matters worse, while the issue was being reviewed, without any hard evidence and in order to deflect criticism from Ministers, Sir William Stubbs was sacked. That in itself created even more panic than was necessary. Then we had the failure of the ILA scheme due to poor oversight and leadership from the department and the continuing problem of criminal record checks which is disrupting the ability of schools to employ staff and to use volunteers.

The aims of the Government for choice, diversity, greater autonomy, more power to heads, governors and parents, and less bureaucracy and interference by government are music to our ears and if they were to be achieved, they would have our enthusiastic support. I have just one small question en passant. If Ministers really trust schools, why is a place reserved on governing bodies of academies for a DfES official?

Finally, there is the future of higher education. Margaret Hodge, the higher education Minister, said to an audience in a room in this House only about three weeks ago that the report of the review would be published this month. We now hear that it is delayed. On coming into office in 1997, the Government reneged on a promise to students that tuition fees would not be introduced. However, not only were they introduced within months of taking office, but maintenance grants were abolished at the same time and against the advice of the Dearing report recommendations. Now we have a manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees, with the Prime Minister confirming this at Question Time in another place. At the same time, Ministers are appearing on radio and television telling students that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that they are actively considering top-up fees.

There is no doubt that there are problems with the funding of higher education. It is true that under the previous Conservative Government entry into higher education expanded from one in eight young people to one in three and that the unit funding per student was reduced. That was one of the reasons why the Dearing committee was set up in 1996 with, I might say, all-party support. However, the present system and the present problem are of the Government's own making, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said earlier today.

The Government have been in office for more than five and a half years and in that time they have set a target of 50 per cent of young people to enter university without any thought of how it shall be funded. The Betts report on higher education salaries has gathered dust for years. And the introduction of post-code entry into university is social engineering at its most patronising. Money has been tagged for the universities which admit students from non-traditional backgrounds. Such interference with academic freedom would have my late noble friend Lord Beloff spinning in his grave.

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The key to enter university has to be to improve the education of young people in order for them to qualify for entry on merit. Secondly, it must be to support the many excellent schemes which are working to persuade school children to think positively about education, both in further and higher education, post-16. And instead of shoe-horning students whose qualifications barely, if at all, merit it into a university place, one answer is to make greater provision of high quality vocational education. That is where the weakness in the system lies and it is those skills that the country needs badly.

A recently produced report by CIVITAS found that students who enter university with poor qualifications are seven times more likely to drop out. Nothing can be more dispiriting than spending a year or two amassing a debt and leaving because it was the wrong decision to attend university in the first place. No one is pretending that the solutions to the way forward for our universities are easy, but much time has been wasted by this Government and time is running out.

The strength of this House is the seriousness with which it carries out its function of scrutiny and revision. One of its pleasures is the unfailing courtesy between Members on all Benches and especially between the Front Benches on all sides of the House. The programme before the House will be testing, for the devil, as we know, is always in the detail. I look forward to the rest of this debate and I wish my noble friends Lady Byford and Lady Hanham, who have the prime responsibility for seeing through the seven Bills under discussion today, every success, for they shall have my full support.

3.49 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her wide-ranging and clear speech on the various issues covered in today's debate. A strange conglomeration of issues are pulled together: regional and local government; environment; agriculture; and education. I shall not emulate the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, by trying to cover all the issues. Some of my noble friends will speak on other issues, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will guide the two Bills on regional and local government through this House when they come to be considered.

I shall concentrate on education. It has some common ground with the other issues; for example, local government finance is very important, particularly given that under the local government funding review the Standards Fund is to be amalgamated into the local government grant. Likewise, issues such as the closure of village schools in rural areas can strike at the heart of agricultural communities. I shall dwell not on cross-cutting themes but on mainstream educational issues, particularly the two raised in the gracious Speech.

The gracious Speech contains only one paragraph, of 42 words, about education. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, mentioned, it did not promise legislation. That is welcome after so many years of education Bill

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after education Bill adding to the complexity of the bureaucracy. This year we will not have one. First, it promises the continuation of reforms to the secondary sector,

    "to promote opportunity and choice through greater diversity".

Secondly, it promises the publication of reform proposals for the universities,

    "to improve access and build on excellence".

We have already had a skirmish about universities on these Benches today. Next week we shall devote an entire afternoon to debating developments in this sector. Therefore, I shall point out only that the two aims set out in the gracious Speech—to improve access and to build on excellence—are not necessarily compatible unless the Government are prepared to put their own share of resources into the pot and not just to expect students to fork out money.

I am glad that Ministers have finally admitted that the universities are in crisis. For many a long year, they were not prepared to admit that. Little funding has gone into the universities other than into the science budget. If I have one bone to pick with the Minister about her reply to me earlier, it is that in quoting the billions of pounds poured into the university sector she mixes the research budget with the teaching one. She knows well that the unit of funding per student has decreased over the past few years and remained static. We are concerned about that. At 4,500 per student, most universities now subsidise students. Unless that unit of funding is raised, there will be difficulties in universities. This crisis confronts universities today. I add one word of warning: no magic formula will provide the answer to the universities' problems, which are very complex. It will take time and commitment on all sides to restore trust and to bring changes necessary to the system if it is again to become a jewel in this country's crown.

I shall concentrate most of my remarks on the other aspect of education policy mentioned in the gracious Speech, namely secondary education and reforms to promote opportunity and choice through greater diversity. We do not deny the achievements that the Minister outlined when talking about education. We thoroughly welcome the developments in the foundation stage and the commitment to early childhood education. We accept that we have seen considerable improvements in achievement at key stages 1 and 2, even though in some respects they seem to have stalled recently. We accept that over 50 per cent of students now achieve grades A to C at GCSE. We should not forget that this year's results at A2-level, the new second phase of A-levels, were so good that some people did not believe them to be true. There hangs a tale that is not necessarily to the Government's credit.

As the gracious Speech made clear, this Government see offering more choice and diversity in the secondary sector as the way forward. They are accelerating the conversion of what they call "one size fits all" comprehensive schools into specialist schools, each picking up one of what is now a very wide range of possible specialisms and half a million pounds along

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the way. In this so-called post-comprehensive era, we now have a wide range of different institutions at secondary level, including community schools, foundation schools, voluntary-aided schools, city technology colleges and the new city academies. All have different specialisms, different governance arrangements, funding schemes and admissions arrangements. Diversity certainly exists, and choice in the cities is enormous—too wide, sometimes, for parents to comprehend. As always, middle-class parents learn quickly where the best deal can be found. Outside cities, in urban areas, the choice is more limited. In rural areas, choice is non-existent. If your local secondary school happens to be a sports college, that is your lot.

The Minister knows well that on these Benches we share little of her enthusiasm for the diversity of institutions. We do not see education as a market-place with schools competing against each other, and with different offerings to meet different tastes. That is partly because the market does not work other than in a city environment—it is questionable whether it works well there—but mainly because we see schools as a community resource. They are part of a network of educational establishments serving their local community and, ideally, funded by, and accountable to, that local community. As a part of a network, their relationships with one another should be co-operative, not competitive. In that respect we are far from the market-driven model of new Labour thinking.

The reverse side of the coin of achievement is failure. Fifty per cent of students may achieve five A-C grades at GCSE, but 50 percent fail to reach that standard. Ten per cent of students—60,000 a year—still leave school each year with no qualifications, largely illiterate and innumerate. They become part of what is known as the NEET group—not in employment or education or training. These numbers have not changed over the past 10 years. Each year, 60,000 pupils, many aged 13 or 14, drop out of school. Once they have dropped out, they are the core of our anti-social behaviour problems.

My noble friend Lady Walmsley will talk at greater length about the issues that create and perpetuate the NEET group of young people. I add one thought: this Government came to power on the back of two powerful slogans that we got to know very well: "education, education, education" and "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". The gracious Speech reflects very well the first half of the second slogan. We are confronted by a raft of legislation that will be very tough on crime. But they are neglecting completely the joined-up thinking that links education and being tough on the causes of crime. Fining the parents of truants or locking them up in jail will in the long run do nothing to lessen the problems of vandalism or hooliganism. It may make them worse.

I return to the issues of diversity and choice. The leader of my party in another place, in response to the gracious Speech, remarked that for our party it was no longer a question of whether policy was left or right, but, rather, whether it was liberal or illiberal. The

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essence of a liberal education policy is that it is child-centred. We believe that each child, each pupil, each student, and each young person has the right to be treated as an individual, developing at his or her own pace, with different skills and aptitudes, and motivated by different phenomena; and, of course, coming from different backgrounds with different needs and requirements. Schools have to accommodate those differences. Where needs are greater, we know that we have to provide more support and help and, indeed, that the earlier such support is provided, the more effective it will be in helping a child overcome any disadvantages.

However, are we taking enough cognisance of the other innate differences in children? Is there not a danger that in imposing a curriculum that is increasingly dictated by a series of age-related standard aptitude tests we are imposing a "one-size-fits-all" education on our children? Maths and English now dominate the primary school curriculum, but what has happened to the history and geography, art and music, drama and sport, that they used to do? Are we not in danger of losing the spark and the creativity that used to be such a mark of the upper classes of our primary schools? And in our secondary schools, is not the drive to achieve the academic A to C grades in GCSE and to go on to take academic A-levels putting those whose skills lie in learning by doing at a disadvantage compared to those who are good at learning by rote? Is there not a danger that here, too, we are stifling the more creative parts of the curriculum in our drive to promote basic literacy and numeracy? Does this not ignore the fact that there are many children who learn only when they are motivated? Are we really confident that this top-down, test-oriented, one-size-fits-all, illiberal curriculum is the best way of motivating and teaching our children?

The Government now pour scorn, if I may put it this way, on the "bog standard" "one-size-fits-all" comprehensive school. Yet the ideal, for which many on their Benches once fought, was, and is, precisely the opposite. It is for secondary schools to recognise and provide for the diversity of abilities, aptitudes, talents and rates of development among their pupils. The best, and there are many such schools—indeed, many of us have visited them—achieve these ideals and offer outstanding opportunities to those who attend. I do not deny that this is not always the case and that there are others, particularly in our poorer metropolitan areas that struggle, often overwhelmed by the poverty of their surroundings. We should not forget that 90 per cent of schools in special measures are located in low-income areas. Does it ever occur to the Government that the problem lies not in the lack of diversity among the institutions on offer, but in the inappropriateness of the regime that they are trying to impose?

Noble Lords on these Benches welcome many of the achievements of this Government in the education sector—the extra resources that are now finally finding their way into our classrooms; the recognition of the professional status of teachers; and the provision of more adult hands to help in the classroom. We continue to warn of the problems of recruitment and

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retention because, despite the rhetoric, the shortages are still there. There is a grave danger that in a subject as important as maths the supply of teachers may dry up completely.

We reject completely the top-down nature of the Government's interventions. Liberal Democrat education policies seek to treat the child as an individual, not just as a statistic. We reject the prescriptive, authoritarian policies of this new Labour Government that have resulted in directive after directive landing on teachers' desks, thus piling on the bureaucracy, undermining their professional status, and leaving the individual child as little more than a test result—a statistic—in the growing flood of performance indicators. As I have said previously to this Minister, Gosplan, with all its plans and performance indicators, killed innovation and creativity in the Soviet production system. This new Labour Government is in grave danger of doing exactly the same with our education system.

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