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Lord Steinberg: My Lords, I know that it is tradition to thank all Members and staff for their help in my making the transition from commoner to the peerageI do so with relish. It is remarkable to me how quickly I am recognised by the ever-vigilant police and ushers on arrival. It is an absolute delight to have received so many welcomes and good wishes from fellow Peers. Not being able to speak until now has been akin to a dog straining at the leash.
Perhaps I may tell noble Lords something about myself. I was born in Belfast into a Jewish middle-class family. When I grew up and started to understand things, I became interested in politics. Who in Northern Ireland is not? I joined the Ulster Unionist Party; when I emigrated to Manchester, I became a member of the Conservative Party, something that I cherish and promote. Along the way, I became a bookmaker and an ardent Zionist. Therefore, noble Lords can well imagine the heavy burden that I have had to bear.
I am at present non-executive chairman of Stanley Leisure plc, a company that I founded nearly 50 years ago. When I received my peerage, the most common question that I was asked was how did I feel. I answered in the words of Bob Hope, the great American comedian, when he was presented with a gold medal by John F Kennedy for his work with American troops. He said:
Some noble Lords may have anticipated that I would use my maiden speech to talk on the Gambling Bill. That is not so, except for one pointed comment. I am not a Christian, but when we all talk about declining family values, how on Earth there is a clause in the Bill proposing horse racing on Christmas Day
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and Good Friday is completely beyond me. I can assure your Lordships that when the Bill comes to the House of Lords, I shall talk against that clause, which is all that I shall say on the Gambling Bill.
Education in Northern Ireland has always seemed to me to be of a very high standard. Indeed, it must be the case because there are now three "old boys" from the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, commonly known as "Inst", who are Members of this House. There are the noble Lords, Lord Carswell and Lord Laird, and myself. I have not come across the noble Lord, Lord Carswell, yet in the House, but when I was in the second form in school, he was my head boy. So I hope when I bump into him, he will not give me lines.
Gambling affairs obviously interest me, particularly as my company, Stanley Leisure, employs more than 7,000 people and operates more than 600 sites. I must confess a degree of worry about the economy. Customer care and service have deteriorated recently, which does not help our economy. We keep talking about red tape, but as long ago as the 1800s Disraeli said:
I am worried about the manufacturing business. Whether I am right or not, newspaper reports suggest that the Royal Navy will build two massive new aircraft carriers. It would be wonderful if the order for at least one of them came to shipyards in Britain, which have been suffering dramatically in recent years. When I was a boy in Belfast, Harland and Wolff employed 30,000 people. It now struggles to employ 1,000 people. In Northern Ireland gangsterism has replaced terrorism.
I am sure that it is an economic matter when we look at the problems surrounding pensions. It is very sad that people who have worked all their lives find that their pension is under threat. It is something that we must work to put right as soon as possible.
I have been a long-term transport user for many years. Coming to and from this House, I generally travel by train. Sometimes, I do not travel very quickly because there are leaves on the line. On other occasions, there are different excuses. In this country, our railway service is poor and the prices are high. Although I know that strenuous efforts have been made to try to improve it, it is still bad. I am not clever enough to be able to give reasons for that, but surely we all deserve a better service at a reasonable price. Travelling by aeroplane also presents a problemprobably because the amount of traffic in our skies is seriously high. We must do all that we can to ensure that with safety comes punctuality.
Turning to cultural affairs, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I say something about political correctness, which is a cultural matter. That is a problem which causes a great deal of pain. Perhaps I
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may, by way of a light interlude, describe something for your Lordships. Next year, we will be celebrating, I hope, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Let us imagine the following scenario. "Order the signal, Hardy", says Nelson. "Aye, aye sir". "Hold on, that's not what I dictated to the signal officer. What's the meaning of this?". "Sorry sir?". "England expects every person to do his duty, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious persuasion or disability. What gobbledegook is this?". "Admiralty policy, I'm afraid, sir. We're an equal opportunities employer now. We had the devil's own job getting 'England' past the censors, lest we be considered racist". "Gadzooks, Hardy, hand me my pipe and tobacco". "Sorry sir, all naval vessels have been designated smoke-free working environments". "In that case, break open the rum ration. Let us splice the mainbrace to steel the men before battle". "The rum ration has been abolished Admiral. It's part of the Government's policy on binge drinking". "Good Heavens, Hardy, I suppose we'd better get on with it. Full speed ahead". "I think you'll find that there's a four knot speed limit in this stretch of water". "Damn it. We are on the eve of the greatest sea battle in history. We must advance with all dispatch. Report from the crow's nest". "That won't be possible, sir". "What?". "Health and safety have closed the crow's nest. There is no harness. And they said that the rope ladder doesn't meet regulations. They won't let anybody up there until a proper scaffolding can be erected".
I am not in favour of political correctness. I loved playing conkers when I was at school. So I occasionally got my knuckles rapped, and also by the teacher. It did not do me any harm. My brother is currently in hospital. I was amazed to learn that he cannot have a soft-boiled egg for breakfast. Apparently, only hard-boiled eggs are served because of salmonella.
The yobbish culture is destroying our towns, villages and cities. We must start to protect the victim and not the criminal. Elderly people are frightened to go for a walkone of their greatest pleasures. I am also against the compensation culture, where lawyers chase ambulances and where minor accidents often end up in court with so-called "victims" claiming thousands of pounds.
Perhaps I may tell noble Lords what I favour and support. First and foremost, I support freedom. I believe that every citizen of this great country has a contract with the government saying, "If you'll allow me my freedom, I'll behave like a model citizen". I believe that our culture should allow us to make choices, not to be told what to do. I believe in respect for each other and not doing things which will aggravate our neighbours. I believe in the law, and I believe that those who break the law should be punished. I believe in the great traditions of our land, and I believe in our great history being taught in schools, and being proud of our heritage.
When my grandparents came to this country, they did not receive state aid and yet they became loyal subjects. I am a proud Jew, but I am also equally a proud British subject, and that is something we should instil in all our citizens.
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So, in conclusion, I hope that noble Lords will understand me somewhat better, and in future will listen to my arguments and suggestions. Noble Lords do not always have to agree with methat would be too much to expect.
Finally, I hope that, in my time in the House, we see true and genuine peace in Northern Ireland and in Israel. I shall do my best to see that both of these dreams happen. People on every side of these conflicts suffer. Let us hope for peace, not only in these two troubled spots, but peace throughout the world, and may it be soon.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, it is my privilege to pay tribute to the interesting and entertaining speech of the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg, who I see is a fellow resident of the beautiful county of Cheshire. The noble Lord has been in the gambling business all his working life and knows a good bet when he sees one. Your Lordships might therefore find encouraging the fact that he has bet on joining this House at a time when we are threatened with redundancy.
The noble Lord is very well known for the energy and generosity of his charity work, and in business he has shown enormous dynamism and shrewd judgment which I am sure will be brought to bear on our deliberations in this Chamber. However, noble Lords may not know that he is also a cricket lover, and he has chosen to play on a new wicket here. I therefore wish him many sunny days, straight bowling and plenty of boundaries during his new career in your Lordships' House.
I too have a new job. My noble friend Lord McNally has reshuffled his Front Bench, so I am to share the education brief with my noble friend Lady Sharp as spokesman on schools and early years, and shadow Minister for Children. It is in that context, since the children brief is so broad and cross-cutting, that I intend today to make a brief canter around the course of the issues relating to children in the gracious Speech.
Because transport is one of the suggested topics for today, I start with the School Transport Bill. While we support the principle that local authorities are usually in the best position to know what works best in their area, this Bill is worrying because it will take away the entitlement to free school transport for hundreds of thousands of children, and presents the danger of doing the very opposite of what it seeks to do; that is, to reduce congestion and pollution of the environment that is caused in many areas by what is known as the school run.
While we are very supportive of the provision of good quality bus-based school transport and praise the "safe routes to school" initiatives for walking and cycling, we oppose the introduction of charges for school transport. It is a stealth tax on working families. We are concerned that parents of large families, or those who live a long way from school, will choose to use their cars for the school run instead of paying for bus services.
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The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who will be dealing with the Bill in this House, generously gave us a meeting last week. I asked him how the 20 pilot schemes were to be evaluated and whether saving money would be one of the criteria. The Minister responded with a firm denial. I hope that I will be able to give him an opportunity to repeat that from the Dispatch Box in the very near future. There are only three valid criteria for these pilot schemes: equality of access to the school of the parents' choice, wherever the child lives; ensuring that poorer families do not lose out on access to the best schools; and genuine protection of the environment.
We also expect an education Bill. This is expected to include provisions for state-funded independent schools in the interests of more choice. It will provide no choice for children in rural areas where there is only one school within reach. As the Government have failed to meet all their targets at GCSE and key stage 3 this year, their first priority should be to address the serious issues raised by Mike Tomlinson in his report into the fundamental changes required to secondary education. The Government's choice agenda is really selection and fees by the back door, and increased testing and targets do nothing but add to teachers' workload and increase stress on children. We want to see reduced class sizes, improved teacher training and career development, and reform of the curriculum, particularly that between ages 14 and 19 to allow all pupils to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life.
The Bill is also expected to reduce the role of local education authorities to strategic partners. We are opposed to that because we see LEAs as crucial in managing things such as the new wrap-around care initiatives in schools, so that services are organised and accountable.
On streamlining schools inspections, finally the Government are admitting that endless inspections do not improve standards, but we do not need superficial cost-cutting measures. We need a fundamental change in the way Ofsted operates. Schools must be trusted with the responsibility for maintaining standards. The point of inspections should be to audit school improvement and offer constructive advice, not to increase stress on teachers and students and take valuable time away from teaching. I am very concerned about any inspections that do not include the observation of a lesson.
During the passage of the Children Act 2004, the Government insisted that inspection would be a lever to ensure that schools participated in the wider local children's agenda. Therefore it is essential that any streamlined inspection scheme should inspect against the five outcomes identified in Every Child Matters and that schools are not only inspected against academic performance, but also on how they contribute to child safeguarding, welfare and development as a whole.
Throughout the passage of the Children Act 2004, my noble friend Lady Sharp and others raised concerns about the lack of specific inclusion of schools within the frameworks and duties established to improve children's well-being. This new Bill focuses on
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further autonomy for schools. I hope that it will translate clearly from LEAs to schools the duties put on them by the Children Act 2004.
However, there are measures in the expected Bill which we welcome, including additional financial support for 16 to 19 year-olds engaged in training and education, and the expansion of the Teacher Training Agency.
We understand that draft legislation is to be published to safeguard the welfare of children in circumstances of parental separation and inter-country adoption. We give this a cautious welcome. We on these Benches believe in the principle of equality of parenting responsibilities where it is safe to do so, but consider that the needs of the child should come first in all circumstances. This may mean that it is not always in the child's interest to split access equally between both parents if the stability and security of the child's home and school life might be compromised. Each case should be assessed individually, preferably with a team of professionals who are familiar with the details of the family's case and background. We also very much welcome the Government's proposals to introduce more mediation between parents to overcome disputes and to avoid conflict, so minimising any negative impact on children.
We also welcome the expected Disability Discrimination Bill, with its proposals to extend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to public bodies, and to introduce a new duty on those bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. One of the most critical issues is which public bodies are to be included. The recent consultation document, Delivering Equality for Disabled People, suggests that bodies will be specified in regulations. We welcome the proposal to extend the Disability Discrimination Act to criminal justice system functions but are very concerned at the suggestion that schools may be treated differently. Schools are singularly the most important public sector agency that impacts upon children's lives and have a critical role in promoting disability equality.
The new duty to promote equality should incorporate the five outcomes for improving the well being of children set out in the Children Act 2004 and must set out clearly the inclusion of all public bodies in its provisions, including schools.
We also expect an equality Bill. These Benches are very supportive of the proposal to create a single body to tackle discrimination and disadvantage for all and, in particular, the decision to include human rights in the remit of the new body. In fact this has been Liberal Democrat policy for many years. My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood will say more about this later in the debate.
This is an opportunity to place age equality on an equal footing with other equality issues and to deliver a fairer deal to children and young people. Given the weak powers of the new Children's Commissioner on the matter of children's rights, it is crucial that standing up for the rights of children is central to the work of the new commission. It is important for the new commission to monitor and advise on children's rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
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There are two measures which I should like to have seen included in the gracious Speech. One is the scrapping of student top-up fees and tuition fees. The Government broke their promise on top-up fees. The Liberal Democrats would have removed unfair tuition fees for university education in England, building on our achievements in Scotland which have already had a significant effect. This should ensure that no one is deterred from the chance of a university education because of fear of debt.
I should also like to have seen included a measure to ensure that, at least while they are at school, children have a healthy, balanced diet. It is unfortunate that most of the products that come out of vending machines in schools are high in sugar, high in fat and low in nutrition. I should very much like to see action to change that.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham made an excellent maiden speech. Like him, I am encouraged by the Government's support for the voluntary sector. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many children's organisations within the voluntary sector which do so much good work.
We have before us a legislative programme which will have a great effect on the lives of children in this country. I shall work energetically and constructively with the Government and spokesmen from all other Benches to improve the Bills before us in the interests of those children.
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