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House of Lords

Monday, 23 March 2009.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Bradford

2.36 pm

David Charles, Lord Bishop of Bradford, was introduced and took the oath, supported by the Bishop of Manchester and the Bishop of Chester.

Schools: Performance Tables


2.40 pm

Asked By Lord Lucas

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): My Lords, the post-16 contextual value-added calculations are derived from a statistical model containing a number of factors known to impact on pupils’ post-16 outcomes. I recognise that excluding IGCSE results from the CVA calculations could potentially bias the results of independent schools in either direction. We have commissioned an internal analysis of this issue. I will be happy to provide noble Lords with a fuller reply when that analysis is complete.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Is it not the case that the Government could simply ask the exam boards for the IGCSE results and incorporate them into the tables? There would then be no chance whatever of bias. Is it not much more important that the tables provide parents with the information that they need to help them choose schools than to keep the Government’s amour propre clean concerning a little dispute about what an exam is called?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, as the noble Lord is well aware, when the most recent statistics were prepared, only a few students were taking IGCSEs. We can reassure noble Lords that as regards the most current information, there is little likelihood of an impact. However, IGCSEs have not been submitted for accreditation to Ofqual. Therefore, until such a time as Ofqual has accredited those examinations and they are approved for use in maintained schools, we would not be in a position to collect those statistics.

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Lord Richard: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, unless one is an expert in this particular field, her Answer is totally incomprehensible? She has promised us a further answer. Can we have it in English?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, yes. I will do my very best.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, notwithstanding the anomaly that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has highlighted, are the Government still committed to value added rather than bald results and league tables as a much better way of holding schools to account? Does Ofqual intend to sort this anomaly out?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, we are committed to value added. In fact, I took the trouble to have a look at the technical guide to the post-16 contextual value added 2008 model.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, it takes a few hours to read, but I assure that noble Baroness that it is comprehensive.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is often destructive to use one and the same method for holding pupils to account by their exam marks as well as institutions; that is, schools? There is substantial evidence, such as in Warwick Mansell’s Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing, of the damage done to education by using these exam results for school accountability. Can she suggest a better way to do it?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to what I am sure is some important research, which I will be happy to look at. The point about contextual value added is that it is not just taking the bald, bare exam results. It is taking into account progress that pupils make as a result of the efforts of their particular institution.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, will the Minister look at how independent boarding schools are performing compared with state day schools in terms of outcomes for looked-after children? Her noble friend Lord Adonis initiated a programme of encouragement to allow appropriate young people in care to join independent boarding schools. How is that progressing?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I can inform the House that that work is progressing. I should be very happy to write to the noble Earl with an update, but there have been placements of looked-after children, and, as I understand it, the programme is progressing reasonably well.

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Vehicles: Tax and Duty


2.45 pm

Asked By Lord James of Blackheath

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, fuel duty and vehicle excise duty apply to all vehicles, both private and commercial, while commercial vehicles already enjoy a range of tax and duty benefits. VED rates for heavy goods vehicles have been frozen since 2000, and heavy goods vehicles that meet European air quality standards are eligible for reduced VED rates through reduced pollution certificates. Business expenditure on vehicles may be tax deductible against company profits, subject to corporation tax rules.

Lord James of Blackheath: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. In view of the imminent European emissions regulation 6, is it not time that the Government considered extending to HGVs and light goods vehicles the requirement on vehicle manufacturers of private cars with regard to their CO2 emissions and possibly extending it further to cover NOx?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the European requirement comes into force in October this year, but we have already had in place over the past year an incentive to the industry to produce commercial vehicles with lower emissions.

Lord Newby: My Lords, given the importance that the Government attach to making the UK a greener-vehicle manufacturing hub, can the Minister take another look at whether the current range of incentives might be strengthened?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course the Government look at the question of improving our performance on reducing pollution, but the noble Lord will recognise the vehicle excise duty incentives for reducing the emissions of cars and commercial vehicles. The greenest cars of all, which are not powered by carbon fuels, do not pay excise duty.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, nearly two months ago the Government announced to a great fanfare a multibillion pound package for the motor industry focusing on lower carbon initiatives. How much money has so far been paid to the motor industry?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, this is an ongoing programme, as the noble Baroness will appreciate.

Noble Lords: Oh!

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, she will recognise that the industry takes time to adjust to a stimulus of this kind, but the direction of travel is quite straight forward—it is low-pollutant travel. Industry will benefit, as will the private car owner, from reducing the pollutants which their engines emit. The level of vehicle excise duty is an important stimulus towards that.

Lord Broers: My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that the lowest-emitting carbon-fuel-consuming cars are of course those with diesel engines. Their emissions are even lower than those with hybrid systems. Are the government schemes for the taxation and pricing of diesel fuels appropriate?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the issues of the differential between petrol and diesel have a substantial history, and the differential is marked. However, the noble Lord will appreciate the extent to which the Government have put emphasis on low-pollutant vehicles. VED is the easiest signal to send because it is paid once a year or at six-monthly intervals and is a gross figure. We are signalling that we expect vehicles with low emissions to be purchased. We are also encouraging manufacturers; it is not as though manufacturers are not aware of worldwide pressure to investigate those technologies that produce fewer pollutants.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Broers, has said, which was news to me, is there not some mechanism that would reduce taxation on diesel fuel, which would encourage more people to buy diesel cars, instead of petrol cars?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is easy to employ the concept that taxation should be reduced. However, there is a cost involved in the reduction of taxation. It is a reduction in revenue, which means that expenditure would have to be cut elsewhere. I am always interested in the Opposition’s proposals that we should cut revenue because I never get any suggestions of where they would cut expenditure.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, will the Minister congratulate those local authorities that have in mind the need to reduce emissions when they design their car parking policies, such as policies for residents’ parking and on-street parking in controlled parking zones? This makes it less expensive for lower-emitting cars to park. My borough of Richmond has been at the forefront of this.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course we welcome anything that local authorities can contribute. There is no doubt that a whole range of strategies can be deployed to encourage the use of low-pollutant cars. The message of the benefit of low-pollutant cars is probably widespread in the community. We need consumers to act accordingly.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I revert to the Minister’s penultimate and ante-penultimate answers. Allowing for the fact that the Irish have a certain flexibility because of the Kyoto Protocol, they

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had no difficulty in taxing unleaded petrol higher than diesel. Why would the same freedom not be available to us?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it reflects taxation strategy over many years. The Irish economy is often quoted as an exemplar for the British economy. On almost every occasion that it is quoted, I look at the facts and the comparison does not stand up. It is a vastly different economy with vastly different issues of motor transport—in the numbers of vehicles—from those of an advanced economy such as the United Kingdom. The issues facing Ireland and Britain are vastly different.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, given that transport is by far the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions, and the urgency for this country to reduce CO2 emissions, is it not illogical for the Government not to give some stimulus to the use of diesel, when diesel cars are now the lowest emitters?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is not that we do not give commercial industry any incentives to reduce pollutants. I have indicated the advantage that we have already given in grants to industry for the purchase of commercial vehicles that are lower emitters. We will emphasise that from October when the European directive becomes mandatory. We are concerned to ensure that, as far as possible, transport plays its part in lowering emissions. That is not as easy as the suggestion that one has merely to reduce the tax take on diesel.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, have the Government considered a scheme similar to that which, I understand, operates in some European countries, whereby cars that have high emissions can be traded in for scrap if the owners replace them with cars with low emissions? The scheme involves a €2,000 offset against the new car, which is financed by government, thereby helping both with the problem of emissions and the car industry?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are looking at that very carefully because it has merits if it is done well. One of the first countries to employ this strategy was France, but it is running into very heavy deficits and its Government are incurring much higher costs in developing the scheme. Therefore, it is not surprising that our Government are taking care to evaluate the effectiveness of the scheme before it is fully deployed.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, I am sure the Minister would not wish inadvertently to mislead the House but, when he says that the higher taxation on diesel goes back many years, is he aware that when I was Chancellor the tax on diesel was less than the tax on petrol, and at that time we had a budget surplus, not the horrifying and rapidly growing deficit that we have at present?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, how could I possibly spoil the fun? The noble Lord may refer to days gone past but he has to go back only one year to see that the decline in the cost of diesel fuel over the

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past year far surpasses anything that people have put forward in terms of a cut in fuel taxes simply because of the decline in world oil prices. Therefore, we have to put this debate not only into the noble Lord’s historical perspective but into the more recent and relevant perspective.

Housing: Home Information Packs


2.56 pm

Asked By Lord Dixon-Smith

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as I own a small number of farm cottages.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the current problems facing the housing market were caused not by HIPs but by the global economic downturn. Independent research undertaken by Europe Economics found no evidence of any impact by HIPs on transactions or prices.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, for a decade the Government flooded society with regulations on the assumption that the good times would continue, and HIPs are of course a classic. Seventy-four per cent of the people who buy houses—these are the Government’s figures—take no notice of home information packs in their purchase deal and it is an inhibiting factor from the point of view of the vendor. However, the real question that I wish to ask is as follows. There are a number of factors in secondary legislation brought in by this Government which cumulatively are making it more difficult for the general economy to recover. Will the Minister ask her colleagues in government to commit themselves to a general review of secondary legislation so that any inhibiting factors which are discovered—I am sure that there are plenty of others—might be removed?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will know that we are committed to an ambitious agenda of regulatory reform, cutting down unnecessary costs and improving the cost-effectiveness of new regulation. We have to do that while keeping essential protections for employees and employers. Abandoning the forthcoming changes on HIPs, which are intended to consolidate the regulations and provide industry with certainty and stability, would not help that process. I am delighted to say that, despite the current difficulties facing the housing market, a recent survey of 16,000 transactions by a leading estate agent, Connells, showed that, where a HIP was available, exchanges were completed on average six days quicker.

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Lord Dubs: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am trying to sell a house. I can give the address to anyone who wants it. I bought a HIP last year and I have to buy another one. I simply say to my noble friend that of course it makes no difference to the housing market and of course on some occasions HIPs are useful but there are times when a HIP is simply an additional price that one has to pay to sell a house.

Baroness Andrews: As I indicated, my Lords, we have seen some definite benefits from HIPs in terms of speed. The regulations we introduced in December will require sellers to provide a property information questionnaire that will include simple, basic information on matters such as electrical safety which one often does not remember to ask about when looking at a house. On the specific problems, I am happy to act as an estate agent for my noble friend. I can tell him that HIPs are valid for as long as the house stays on the market but that if it is removed, a new HIP will have to be done after 12 months. Even if the sale falls through after a year the seller can go back on the market with the original HIP as long as the marketing starts again within 28 days. So it effectively has a shelf life of a year.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I am sure the Minister will remember whether she took part in our debates in drawing up the legislation on HIPs. It was said then that HIPs might be very good in a rising market but not very good in a falling market where people were having difficulty in selling. Unfortunately HIPs have not helped anyone and people are generally in disfavour of them because they feel that they are of no benefit. What can be done to reduce the extra burden placed on those wishing to sell now? It is all very well to have a HIP but, as has been said, they last for only a certain time. On the other hand, if it is more than three months old, it will rarely be accepted by a building society, bank or another solicitor and they will require it to be updated. What can be done about that? HIPs are not effective if they are not effective for the duration.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, as I said, they have a shelf life of a year. I agree with the noble Baroness that people need to see the HIPs. One of the things that has not succeeded is that estate agents have not been ensuring that the buyers, or the sellers, see the HIP. We have changed the regulations and removed the concession on first-day marketing so that from 6 April people will need to have a HIP when they put their house on the market. That will help the buyer and the seller to know that the HIP is in place and what it delivers. We should also remember that well over 2 million energy performance certificates have been issued through HIPs, all of which can save on costs. We have also seen a drop in the cost of searches of between £30 and £120. So, there are definite benefits to HIPs.

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