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House of Lords

Tuesday, 27 November 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.


Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I spoke to the noble Baroness this morning, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing her a speedy recovery from her recent accident. It is proof that, even from her hospital bed, she is on the job and doing her work in your Lordships’ House. The Answer is that detailed allocations still have to be finalised. The expectation is that funding for Defra’s ongoing programme of support for bee health will be at around the same level as previously. In the event of the need to respond to new serious threats, there are contingency arrangements in place for additional funding to be made available.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind good wishes for the noble Baroness. Given the vital importance of pollination by bees to British crop production, and taking account of the threat of the further spread of viruses and instances of colony collapse in other countries, will the Minister acknowledge the vital importance of increased funding for bee health research so that world-class facilities at Rothampsted can continue? Indeed, instead of sustaining the cuts that have occurred in the past three years and the loss of two key staff who have left in the past 12 months, surely the present £200,000 is inadequate for the importance of this work.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I said in answer to a similar Question in July, Defra has not cut any work to Rothampsted; the contract finished. Our bee health research funding has remained roughly the same—£200,000—for several years. The funding for the bee health unit has also remained almost exactly the same for the past five years. We do not deny that bee health is at risk. Frankly, if nothing is done about it, the honey-bee population could be wiped out in 10 years. There is no question about that. In terms of the worth to the horticultural industry, our best estimate is that the bee population contributes something like £165 million extra in yields. We are still waiting for a

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worked-up research plan for this from Rothampsted and its partner, Warwick Horticulture Research International. If we are to move on this issue, we will also require some partnership funding from industry. I will be meeting the beekeepers next month, but there is that requirement; Defra cannot do this alone.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should not underestimate the importance of bees to our own well-being? I think it was Albert Einstein who calculated that if we lost our bee population, we would have no food within four years because bees are responsible for pollinating so many of our food plants.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Countess is quite right to raise the issue. I understand that, because of plant research, the need for bees to pollinate is not as vital as it was when Albert Einstein said that, although it is vital. They do make a dramatic difference to crop yield when they are used as they are. Their health is important. There are only a few commercial users of bees for pollination, although there are 44,000 beekeepers, not all of whom follow the rules and the advice given by Defra. That is one reason why we have illness and disease among bees in the first place.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, as this is an international problem and concerns many more countries than just our own, are we co-ordinating our research with any other countries and is there a general world attempt to deal with this problem?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not know about a world attempt. We are awaiting the arrival of the small hive beetle from Europe—in other words, we are aware that more diseases are on the way. Therefore, we have contingency plans. As I have said, we are in touch regularly with our counterparts in the United States about colony collapse disorder. We have no firm evidence that it has occurred in this country, but it is a matter of discussion between scientists internationally.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, what is the Minister’s department doing to encourage domestic beekeeping, particularly in urban areas? He has made reference already to the large number of beekeepers and said that some of them may not be as well informed as they should be.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, one of the problems is not knowing where the beekeepers are because there is no requirement to register. I know that the industry will say that that is because Defra deregulated them some years ago. If we want to keep a serious bee population for crop and yield protection, we may have to go back to regulating the industry and some people would not meet the requirements of regulation for disease control. People keeping the odd hive in the back garden may be the root cause of the problem because they do not always follow the advice. There are 44,000 beekeepers and the bee health unit based in York spends more than £1.5 million on giving them advice for the public good. If they all followed it, we would

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all be a lot better off. I do not blame them for this. The varroa mite is a serious problem that has arisen in the past 10 to 15 years.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, when the Minister answered my Question on 19 July, he said that Defra was preparing a bee health strategy and that there would be a consultation. Presumably, such a strategy would ask and devise answers to questions such as those that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has just asked. Where is that strategy and when will we expect the consultation?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the strategy is still being developed in co-operation with the stakeholders. I cannot give a date, but it will not be too far away and I hope that it will be early next year.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, what is the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review for Defra? If reports are to be believed, does the Minister agree that it means a further decline in services, job losses and less support for agriculture?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I appreciate why the question has been asked. It is too early to say. Ministers are still discussing the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review and you cannot believe everything you read in the papers, but a lot of it was true.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the desire to help and protect bees has been going on for a long while. Is the Minister aware that when I once had the privilege of being an ornament in the ministry of agriculture, only one agriculture Bill went through in that Session? It was the then Bees Bill and the Government were defeated on an amendment by Lord Hives. That Bill was to protect bees. Will the noble Lord do everything he can to make sure that they continue to be protected?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Earl is right. This is a serious issue. The research programme alluded to by the noble Lord on behalf of the noble Baroness is an important aspect of this. Finding a biopesticide to deal with the mite would be very helpful to the bee. The varroa mite has become almost immune to chemicals. Its capacity to change and mutate to overcome them is causing serious problems. If we do not do anything, the chances are that in 10 years’ time we will not have any honey-bees.

Schools: Testing

2.43 pm

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, tests have and will continue to have a place in raising standards in primary schools. Tests provide an objective means of assessing pupils on a consistent basis, providing information on standards nationally, improving accountability and helping to inform parents and teachers how individual pupils are progressing. Through our Making Good Progress pilots, we are looking at how tests can better support a personalised approach to learning.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that the Cambridge review involves 70 researchers across many universities and is the biggest review of primary education for 40 years. Is he aware that some of the findings from the review indicate that the result of testing has been to narrow the curriculum, stifle creativity and increase stress levels among primary school children? Will the department not at least take note of its major recommendations, which are that national testing is best done through a sampling process and that the testing of individual children should be used by teachers as a diagnostic tool forming part of their personalised curriculum?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right to say that testing should also take place at school level, as of course it does. There are only two national tests in primary schools: SATs at the end of key stage 1 and at the end of key stage 2. We do not believe that that is an unduly onerous burden on schools. In fact, the evidence shows that parents largely support the tests because they give them information that they find valuable. On the Cambridge study to which the noble Baroness referred, the paper that got the attention two weeks ago on this issue concluded:

That is a conclusion that we endorse.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, four in 10 children leave primary school unable to read. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that we pick this up before a child reaches the age of seven? Would not a simple diagnostic test to do this be the best way forward?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, that is precisely the test that we have at the end of key stage 1 at the moment. Since 1997, the proportion in our primary schools reaching the standard expected in reading by the age of 11 has risen by 17 percentage points, which is an appreciable improvement.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, will the Minister consider whether a possibly unintended consequence of the present emphasis on SATs and league tables is that schools may tend to concentrate on pupils who are near the borderline to the detriment of those who are underperforming and form part of our scandalously long tail? Will he also consider whether greater

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prominence should be given to value added as the true measure of schools’ achievement and accountability in respect of all children?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, it is precisely to seek to meet the concerns expressed by the noble Lord that we are taking forward the Making Good Progress pilots, which introduce single-level tests in primary schools. Children are entered for them when they are ready for them rather than, as they do at the moment, taking the single key stage 1 and key stage 2 tests at the ages of seven and 11. These tests are being piloted in 460 primary schools and the project is taking place over the next two years. We will, of course, carefully evaluate the results.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, this Question is about widening and deepening, which these Benches fully and strongly support. Can the Minister reassure us that in the widening and deepening of the curriculum in the personalised direction, the moral and the spiritual will not be overlooked?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, perhaps I may say how glad we are to see the right reverend Prelate back in his place this afternoon. I agree entirely with him that the spiritual dimension is very important to our primary schools, as is the wider curriculum beyond the basics, which we also prize in our primary schools. That is why, for example, we announced last week a programme of more than £300 million over the next three years for boosting the teaching of music in our schools, with particular emphasis on instrumental tuition and singing in our primary schools.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that nothing should take place in our primary schools that is not in the best interests of the child? If so, can he tell us in whose interest is all this testing being done, the Government’s or the children’s?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I agree with the first proposition. It is self-evidently true that children who learn to read get a better deal out of education than those who do not. That is the sole purpose of the testing that we have in our schools.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while the regime of tests may produce these positive results, it also damages the education of children? I draw his attention to the book by Mr Warwick Mansell, Education by Numbers, published this August, which documents the damage done and how widespread it is. Would the Minister endorse a move towards more formative and less summative assessment?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I do not accept that being tested damages the education of children. Testing has always taken place in schools. The issue that is being debated in the profession is whether there is a role for national tests in addition to those tests that every good teacher carries out in school on a regular basis. That is the nature of the discussion. I have yet to meet

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a teacher who delivers good results in their school who does not make testing part—but only one part, of course—of the way in which they seek to ensure that children are making proper progress.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, it is very good news that more instrumental teaching is taking place in primary schools, but that teaching will be completely wasted unless those children who make progress receive individual lessons on their instruments when they get to secondary school. Does the Minister agree that that is just as important as giving them all instrumental training in the first place?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, but, of course, the big issue that we face in our primary schools is that too few pupils have had the opportunity to start learning an instrument in the first place. This has been a long-standing concern, which is why we are expanding the funding as significantly as we can so that more pupils get the chance to start learning a musical instrument. They often start in groups, but if they are going to progress beyond that they will need individual tuition in their instruments thereafter.


2.51 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, the sacrifice made by those killed on operations is remembered in many ways, including by name on the magnificent new Armed Forces memorial in Staffordshire. Events of commemoration are generally held to mark the end of an operation and to remember those who have lost their lives or been injured. We will consider how best to mark the end of operations in Iraq at the time.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reminder of the memorial in Staffordshire. But 20 March will be the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which is longer than the First World War. First, is it not time for the Government to consider the final phase of withdrawal by that date? Secondly, should not a commemoration be linked to 20 March and to those now in Iraq being brought home? The bereaved and wounded also should be remembered in a ceremony of commemoration—not celebration—on 20 March.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is clearly right that we should remember and commemorate on all occasions those who have given their lives and our sympathies are always with their families and, indeed,

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with those who have been injured in activities. As to withdrawal and the end of operations, the Prime Minister set out the situation very clearly in a Statement in another place on 8 October and our policy has not changed. We have constantly said that UK forces will stay in Iraq until we have provided the opportunities that are required to give the Iraqi security forces the necessary confidence and ability to take over their responsibilities. We have announced our intention to reduce troop levels, dependent on conditions, by spring 2008. There are two separate matters: the drawing to a conclusion of the operations there, which has to be done in an orderly way for the benefit of the people of Iraq; and the later responsibility that we all have of remembering those people who have made sacrifices during this campaign.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there is a strong feeling in this country that we should do more than remember those who have died fighting for us? We should do more to honour soldiers who serve this country so devotedly—perhaps as the Americans do, but which we fail to do. Will she consider that?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, recently we have seen the opening in Staffordshire of the significant national memorial to all those who have been killed on duty or as a result of terrorist action. It is right that we should do all that we can. Everyone in the House will be pleased that at remembrance services this year the turnout was very good and the involvement of young people was very high, which is only right. We have said recently that we are looking at how we might mark further homecomings and support those who are returning. We have a responsibility to make sure that the nation as a whole appreciates the work of the Armed Forces.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I think every one of us would want to remember the lives lost in the Iraq war, whether it has been three, four or five years. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has mentioned five years, and in his second question asked if we should not be withdrawing our troops on the fifth anniversary. What do the Government think would happen in Iraq if we withdrew before we fulfilled our responsibilities?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend makes a significant point. We will withdraw troops on the plans that have been proposed, subject to conditions on the ground. We have made progress. British troops have now handed over security responsibility in three of the provinces in southern Iraq and there are plans to hand over the fourth next month. However, everything we do in southern Iraq and elsewhere must be based not only on ensuring that the country is as secure as possible but on providing the economic stimulus that we are working towards in Basra, in line with the handover next month. It would be wrong to set arbitrary dates and leave the country high and dry.

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