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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I warmly welcome the opportunity to be present at this debate. Indeed, I have learnt a great deal about the problems this EU programme faces from listening to your Lordships. It was a particular pleasure to hear the wonderfully informative maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock. I look forward to being present for at least some of the next 35 years. I am sure he will be contributing to many debates.

Above all, I welcome this debate because like the Select Committee and almost all noble Lords who have spoken I am deeply disturbed by the declining capacity for language learning in this country. As the Committee says in its report, we are already falling seriously behind in language learning capacity. That will surely seriously limit British ability to take a full part in and benefit from these EU programmes.

It has much wider implications for the employability and cultural awareness of the coming generation of our countrymen and women. Fundamentally, as the committee says, it,

not just in the EU but around the world.

I know that under the National Languages Strategy the Government plan to offer language learning to all primary school children by 2010. Indeed, I congratulate the Government on the fact that the percentage of schools already doing that has almost doubled in two years. But, at the same time, it is surely madness no longer to make it compulsory beyond the age of 14. I believe that that will be seen as a serious mistake.

I applaud the first stage of that programme, although heaven knows how long it will take to implement it or where the language teachers will come from. Certainly it must be right to start young, when children's ability to absorb, or mop up, a new language is at its height. I can only say that that approach certainly worked for our three children, who all started their education at the Lycée Franc"ais de Londres at the age of four. Having been brought up during the war, my own foreign language ability was, and alas remains, pretty inadequate but, as I had a multilingual father, I was determined that our children should do
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better. Now that they are grown up, it has been hugely to their advantage in every way to be fluent in one, and in two cases, two foreign languages.

So, quite apart from the detail of the undoubtedly valuable European programmes contained in the report, I warmly welcome the Select Committee's emphatic recommendation that the Government should,

There is a drastic need for urgent action. As I have mentioned previously when language learning for young children has been discussed in your Lordships' House, surely a pilot could be set up using children's favourite cartoons in a foreign language. It could involve volunteer foreign language speakers and teachers' assistants—whoever is right for the job—operating under trained teacher guidance. Most DVDs are already offered with the option of being played in one of several languages. So this kind of approach is technically possible and surely must be worth experimenting with.

I have a second, more specific, point to make before I sit down, and it relates to the position of older or part-time students. The Select Committee rightly doubts,

and it urges,

In particular, it urges the Commission to,

such as our own Open University. Incidentally, I hope that our Government will find a way to ensure that the OU, which is of invaluable help to older, disabled and housebound students, is able to maintain its high international reputation. As your Lordships know, the fear is that it will lose valuable staff as a result of what many regard as an inequitable distribution of government funds and student allowances resulting from the otherwise very necessary and brave decision on top-up fees.

So I hope that the Minister can specifically assure us that the case to make more innovative use of ICT and suitable distance-learning packages is being pressed upon the Commission. We may be falling behind in language learning—indeed, we are—but we have been blazing the trail of quality distance-learning ever since the OU was started by the Wilson government. So let us be sure that we exploit that achievement to the full and, at the same time, take seriously the need for urgent action to remedy one of our gravest national faults: the temptation to believe that we need not bother with foreign languages because the rest of the world will learn English. That is no longer the case, even if it ever was so.

6.14 pm

Lord Giddens: My Lords, let me first get in line to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, on his maiden speech. I note that he took some time after
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coming in to give it, and he chose to do so in a relatively low-profile debate, from which I deduce he is an inexperienced public speaker. In those circumstances, he performed amazingly well. It is marvellous to have him here.

I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and her colleagues, on the report. I am broadly supportive, as other noble Lords have been, at the report's findings. It is broadly supportive of the Commission's proposals, and the Government's response shows that they are broadly supportive of both. Having said that, I am not sure that it would be my most favourite bedtime reading.

I am a strong, almost fanatical supporter of the European Union, but it tends to breed a somewhat dry language, compared with the noble aspirations for which it stands. The term "life-long learning" trips quite pleasingly off the tongue; it has a nice alliterative sense. Why is it so important now, in particular, and what does it mean? I shall spend two to three minutes discussing the issues.

When considering the context of the emergence of the notion of life-long learning, it reflects three big changes happening in our society and economy. First, many have already spoken about the knowledge-based economy, but it should be called a knowledge and service economy. It is important to stress that, because the idea has many critics. Many have tried to rubbish the notion, but it refers to some of the most profound changes happening in our economy.

A generation ago over 40 per cent of the labour force in Britain worked in manufacturing, but that proportion is now down to 15 per cent by some calculations. I have even seen a recent one putting it at as low as 12 per cent. Once upon a time 40 per cent of the population worked in agriculture and, in a certain sense, manufacturing is tracking that. It means that well over 80 per cent of the population have to work in jobs that demand either quite high-level symbolic or personal skills. It is a radical transformation in our society.

Secondly, there is the impact of technological change. We did not know until recently the pace of such change, but now we can measure it. One of the best ways of doing that is to look at the level of job destruction—not just in manufacturing but in service jobs, which is now 10 per cent above what it was 15 years ago. That means that the workforce must be prepared and able to countenance change, and to live with it.

Thirdly, there is demographic change, which has already been referred to by noble Lords. It is not just about an ageing society but the low birth rate. One of the major problems for Europe is the low birth rate. When considering pensions in relation to that combination, the conclusion is that we cannot solve the pensions issue by increasing contributions. It can be solved only by having a higher proportion of older people in the workforce. In some European countries, there are virtually zero people—especially men—above the age of 55 in the workforce. The proportion in this country is also very low.
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I suggest that those three categories give us a way to define life-long learning and to look at its Europeanisation. Life-long learning is not just a continuous process; it is more of a staccato sort of process.

In relation to the knowledge economy, which was the first issue I mentioned, we have to start learning earlier. Life-long learning means learning not just to the end of one's life but learning from the beginning of one's life. Reference was made to language learning. We know that very young children can learn languages, and we also know that they can learn a lot more than originally thought at age two and three.

It also means pushing learning upwards, which is the prime feature behind the need for the expansion of our universities. I completely endorse the Government's wish to expand universities to cover 50 per cent of the population. In the kind of society towards which we are moving it is crucial for both citizenship and economic purposes.

Secondly, because of the high level of job replacement there must be training and retraining. Here we need the kind of collaboration between state and private employers that has been mentioned. But we also need more opportunities for middle-aged and older people to gain access to colleges and universities, but across Europe we are not doing that very well.

Finally, we need to break down what you might call the "retirement ghetto". Ageing is a problem across Europe but it is also an opportunity. Life-long learning can become a reality if we pay greater attention to what happens in the later years of life. We must do so because of its consequences for, among other things, the pensions problem.

I am surprised that there is so little in the committee's report and the Commission's proposals about this crucial third stage of life-long learning. Other noble Lords have referred to this issue, but why should the Grundtvig programme be so extraordinarily and desperately the poor relation of the other two? Even calling it the "Grundtvig" programme seems to condemn it to obscurity. I am supposed to be a scholar, but I have never heard of Grundtvig. I see from the report that Grundtvig was an 18th Century Danish cleric and writer, but what does that mean? When compared with Erasmus and Leonardo, no one knows about Grundtvig.

The report brings out quite well the insufficiencies of the Grundtvig programme, to which other noble Lords have referred. The report should have been stronger on this issue. As other noble Lords have said, the report states that only 3 per cent of the new budget is devoted to the programme and that that,

It seems fairly shocking at second sight too. The Leonardo programme is not very well geared up to older learners and the support they need. We must Europeanise these matters more effectively.

The House of Lords report concludes that Grundtvig is,

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The committee was not convinced. It is right not to be, but it should have made its conclusions much stronger.

This is not a day for humour given the outrage in London, but we must all push on. I was trying to end my intervention with a joke on life-long learning but such jokes are hard to come across. Instead, I shall offer your Lordships a limerick which pokes fun at me, at education and at university teachers. I do not know whether I am allowed to tell limericks in the House of Lords but I can assure noble Lords that this one is not salacious. It reads:

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