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House of Lords

Thursday, 15 November 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Truro.

Higher Education

Lord Dearing: asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, the recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which we have commissioned on this issue shows that August-born children perform less well in schools than those born later in the school year. We are examining its recommendations and will report back shortly.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s assurance on that. In considering the further research proposed by the institute, would he consider the desirability of adding whether social class has any bearing? While further research is taking place, would he see advantage in informing primary schools of the extent of the difference, particularly at key stage 1, where there is only as much as a 50 per cent chance of achieving the required level.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an excellent point, which is that we need this research to be well understood by professionals in schools. The publication of this report and the significant media debate to which it has given rise are ensuring that teachers become increasingly well aware of the issues raised. It is the Government’s intention to put out to schools materials which make these issues clear so that those people who are best placed to make the difference—head teachers and teachers—school by school are in a position to do so.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, giving local authorities more flexibility over when to admit children could be one solution to addressing these inequalities, yet when we rang the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it seemed to have no idea of how many schools have multiple intakes. It went on to say that this is not the sort of information that it has or keeps track of and it even went so far as to say that it would not know how to procure it. Does the Minister agree that this is exactly the sort of information that the department should be aware of if it is to make meaningful comparisons and address this problem?

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Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am certainly prepared to look at this issue further, and indeed we are doing so. However, as the noble Baroness said, this would involve a whole new data-collection exercise, and it is the responsibility of local authorities to engage with their schools on issues such as the start date for children. It is not that there is no public authority with a direct responsibility; there is—local education authorities have this responsibility at the moment. I shall look at whether there is any value in gathering more data at the central level but I am very mindful—not least because of the noble Baroness’s strictures—that new red-tape burdens will be resented by those on whom we place them.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in the 1930s, the qualifying age for entry to secondary education was based on the age of a child over the 12 months from 1 September. When, 74 years ago, I entered a grammar school in Durham county, because my birthday was in September, I was effectively almost 12 months older than my classmates with birthdays in August, and I believe that that conferred a significant educational advantage. Is it not time that the Government reconsidered the standard age for entry into primary and secondary education?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am glad to have such a good account of the success that the noble Lord has achieved at every stage in his life hereafter. When we last debated this issue, it became apparent that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, who is sitting next to him, had the misfortune to have been born early, which makes his achievement in life all the more remarkable. Policy prescription in this area is genuinely difficult. If, for example, we allow children to be admitted later, then we simply have another group of students who become the youngest in their class. So I entreat those engaging in the debate to recognise that, while there is an issue, there is, in this area as in so many others that we have to address, not an instant answer that cures all ills.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this anomaly reinforces the case for universities to offer degrees on a more flexible system of modular courses with credit accumulation, which enables students to choose their own pace of study?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we are keen to ensure that, which is why universities increasingly modularise their courses. It is also why, at the school level, we are currently conducting a pilot of testing children at the stage when their teachers believe they are ready to be tested, rather than at the fixed dates currently set for the standard assessment tests which children sit at the ages of seven, 11 and 14. That pilot is ongoing and could lead to changes that ensure that children sit tests when they are ready rather than at fixed times, and that would extend the principle set out by the noble Lord further down into the school system.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, to go back to the start of educational life and the clear problem that the Question poses, and accepting that there is a big responsibility on local authorities, will the Minister

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do his best to encourage local authorities perhaps to run special pre-school classes for such children, particularly bearing in mind what my noble friend Lord Dearing said about the social classes—the ones who might be more likely to fail later on?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point, which is particularly pertinent now that pre-school education is nearly universal in the country. The issue of how to ensure that children who are young for their classes prosper needs to be addressed in nursery and pre-nursery education, not just when children start formal schooling at the age of five.

Housing: Victorian Terraces

11.11 am

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the Government have issued no instructions or guidance of this nature. The housing market renewal programme involves a limited amount of demolition in some areas where the housing market has collapsed, but this is part of a wider range of measures with the greater emphasis on refurbishment. Decisions on the amount of any demolition required in any of the places covered by the programmes are for the local authorities concerned.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am speaking about the pathfinder scheme. A report in the Sunday Times on 9 September said that councils were,

The article says that the documents were slipped out in the Recess in replies to Written Questions, and that councils were forced either to,

It also points out that:

If there really is a specified programme, is that not some guidance from the Government?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am sorry to say that the newspaper report is wrong. The funding agreements, to which the noble Baroness is referring, are the normal funding arrangements that have governed the pathfinder programmes. The targets are set by each local pathfinder; the Government obviously give some guidance, but in no sense impose

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anything on local authorities, which know their areas very well. Each of the nine pathfinders is very different—some have low levels of demolition—but in each case it is for the local authority to decide.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I declare an interest as a councillor actively involved in the pathfinder project in my area and as a member of the Whitefield Regeneration Partnership. These pathfinder projects are now in year four of what was promised as a 15-year programme when it was first announced. I agree with the noble Baroness to the extent that there is too much top-down micromanagement of these projects. However, is it not the case that where people who live in the intervention areas, in particular, have been given firm promises of a transformation not just of the housing market but of their neighbourhoods, what is required from the Government is a firm commitment that the programme will continue for 15 years and will not simply be turned off when there is a new political fad?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, no one will know better than the noble Lord what a challenge it has been to turn around some of those low-demand areas. He knows that from his own area. It is gratifying that so much progress has been made; not just 40,000 refurbishments against 10,000 demolitions, but a funding programme of £1 billion over the next few years. That funding will continue the regeneration which, as the noble Lord knows, is not just about housing but about environmental improvements, bringing new jobs and skills into these areas, and generally making them desirable places to live where people are proud to bring up their children.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, do the Government recognise the great virtue of Victorian terraced housing in this country? It is extremely attractive. Enlightened councils, such as the one for Battersea, where I live, have made many Victorian terraces into conservation areas. There was a tendency under the former Deputy Prime Minister to take a broom and sweep them away. The buildings which have been put in their place are often, I am afraid, of extremely indifferent quality. Victorian terraced housing can be the kernel of really good urban housing. Do the Government recognise that, and will they try to encourage its conservation?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord says. There are absolutely beautiful Victorian terraces. Many of the demolitions—as I say, there have only been 10,000—have been nothing to do with Victorian terraced houses, but post-war flats. They have also been the sorts of terraces in which local people have said in overwhelming numbers that they do not want to live: they were unfit “two-up, two-downs”, unlettable properties. Over the years, we have become much more concerned about heritage. English Heritage is working closely with pathfinders to ensure that they make proper assessments, so that what is built has character and culture, as well as some memory of the past.

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Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in view of the enlightened remark by my noble friend, can she confirm that local authorities have an obligation to consider the design of the whole community when they review these plans?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, yes. We have found that the pathfinder programmes often start with neighbourhood renewal, improving public and living spaces as well as the houses. Indeed, the recent NAO report found that the pathfinder programmes were committed to good quality design of new houses, many working with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, it is quite pleasing to listen to the noble Baroness explaining this programme, but it is equally clear there is real concern among the affected communities about the possibility of a discontinuity in the schemes because particular criteria are not being met. Is there not at least a case for reviewing the information which the Government give out about these programmes, so that the communities concerned better understand the ground they stand on? There might also be a case for reviewing the criteria to ensure that they do not impose the sort of rigidities implied by the questions put to the Minister this morning.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, how nice it is to see the noble Lord back in his place after a long absence. He raises an important point about community engagement. One of the features of these programmes as they have developed is that community engagement strategies have become so much better; a lot of innovative programmes have involved working, not just street by street, but closely with households, house by house. People in these areas are well aware of what is planned, and have the hope arising from that. The business plans are currently being reviewed for the next three years. The noble Lord is absolutely right that we will have to keep those under review.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, I had some responsibility many years ago for the urban programme. There was an imaginative scheme called “enveloping”. It recognised a problem with terraced housing: you may be willing to maintain your house, but if your neighbours cannot repair their roofs, the situation rapidly becomes uninhabitable. It was an imaginative scheme in which the whole street would be done up with government support, recognising that it was cost-effective. Do the Government continue to support that scheme and increase the funds available for it?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am not aware of that scheme, but there are other schemes which have the same impact. In the “Homestead” scheme, for example—I think it is in north Staffordshire, but I am not sure; I will write to the noble Lord—people are given money to do up their own homes rather than move. That is proving very successful. Refurbishment is often absolutely the best way forward, particularly

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when it means keeping the community together, but we need larger homes so that larger families can move into these areas and stay there.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I hope the Minister will allow me to say that enveloping is alive and well and is now called “group repair”.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I think that that adequately answers my point.

Health: Obesity

11.20 am

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the Foresight group examined how to develop a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years. It used robust evidence from the biological and social sciences to map the complex interactions between factors driving obesity. At present, evidence of the effect of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on obesity in humans is sparse, so this was not considered by the report. The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment keeps research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals under review and will consider any significant developments in the area of human health.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware that bisphenol A is ubiquitous? It is in all our plastic containers, in dental coatings and even in babies’ bottles, from which it will leach into the baby’s milk if the bottle is heated in the microwave. In view of the fact that research scientists working with animals have found that levels as much as 5,000 times below what is accepted as a safe level affect the foetus, will the Department of Health consider commissioning an epidemiological study of pregnant mothers—taking blood tests from them and then studying the babies after they are born—to see whether there is any relationship between bisphenol A and obesity in children?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I thank the noble Countess for her interest in this chemical. While I am not in a position to make any commitments today, I will, of course, take back the suggestion made by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, to the Foresight group and to the department. I am aware of the frequency of bisphenol A in various products. This area is taken very seriously by the relevant government departments and all new research is monitored and reviewed as appropriate.

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Baroness Verma: My Lords, having conceded that the public health threat posed by obesity in the United Kingdom is,

why have the Government halved lottery funding for community sport and decided to push back their target to halt the rise in childhood obesity from 2010 to 2020?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I cannot agree with the position the noble Baroness puts for the Government. The new ambition is not a watering down of the 2010 target; indeed, it goes further. Whereas the 2010 target was to halt the rise in childhood obesity, the new ambition not only aims to reduce the prevalence of obesity in children but also the prevalence of overweight to 2000 levels by 2020. The Government’s response to the report has been a very proper cross-cutting response.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the report also mentioned that obesity in children was possibly caused by lack of exercise and the lack of opportunity through daylight saving not being applied? I raised this matter with her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Darzi. He has written to me to say that headmasters and headmistresses have agreed with that factor but that some other factor, which he did not specify, is the reason why daylight saving is not looked at more seriously by the Government?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, on using every opportunity that he can to ensure that he presses us on the issue of daylight hours. I will take back to the department his question about the debate held on 17 October, his intervention and the response that he had from my noble friend Lord Darzi.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, the noble Baroness did not answer my noble friend’s question about why the Government have halved—halved—the National Lottery commitment to community sport.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I will of course write to both noble Baronesses. I do not have briefing on the National Lottery in front of me, but spending on tackling obesity has been very substantial over the past 10 years. On healthy schools, £100 million a year has been spent to get food standards up in schools. On high-quality physical education, 86 per cent of children now have two hours per week of high-quality physical education, as opposed to only 50 per cent of children in 2004. A great deal of funding has been going to tackle obesity.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, what is the department's response to the Foresight recommendation that private industry—in particular, the food industry—should be involved in longitudinal research into basic biological factors in our bodies and the impact of the built environment on diet and exercise?

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