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House of Lords

Thursday, 26 March 2009.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Royal Assent

11.05 am

The following Act was given Royal Assent:

Corporation Tax Act.

Local Government: Markets


Asked By Lord Lee of Trafford

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the Government recognise the valuable contribution that markets can make to local choice and the vitality of town centres. They complement high street shopping and add to diversity. Our policy remains that local authorities should seek to retain and enhance existing markets or to reintroduce or create new ones and invest in their improvement.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Wellington Market Company plc, which operates 25 markets in the sector, with around 2,000 markets nationally and a combined national turnover of probably £4 billion per year. We received our royal charter in 1244; I was not chairman then, but sometimes it does feel like it.

While the British public love markets, too many local authorities, sadly, do not always share that appreciation. Unfortunately, too many local authorities have failed to invest in their markets over the years, both in financial terms and in terms of quality of personnel. Will the Minister encourage local authorities—some very successful markets are operated by local authorities—to joint venture or similar with the private sector to develop more successful markets?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, the British people do love markets and they love them for very good reasons. They are part of our heritage and part of the character of what makes our towns really successful and our communities inclusive. We are all in favour of markets. Local authorities also want to cherish and support them. Our planning policy statement 6 makes it absolutely clear that local authorities should seek to retain and enhance markets, as I have said, and to create new ones wherever possible. They should be

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part of a very clear vision of what the local authority is offering to the community. The idea of joint venture is a very good one.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I begin, on behalf of the whole House, by congratulating the Lord Speaker on her birthday today.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it is a birthday that I share but, sadly, 24 years on.

Recognising the revolution on the high street and in marketing, there is a real need for the Government to have a strategy to ensure that newcomers to the business—very often one-man or small businesses—receive adequate training and guidance. The supermarkets, department stores and large institutions are capable of providing assistance, guidance, training and skills but, all too often, the small, one-man business struggles in the environment of today. Can the Minister assure us that that need is on the radar of the department?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I congratulate both the Lord Speaker and my noble friend on their birthdays today. Clearly, it is a big day for birthdays in the House of Lords.

My noble friend is absolutely right. Certainly, markets are under threat from supermarkets and internet shopping, and people are shopping in different ways. I do not think that that is a particularly good thing, because it is so isolated, and markets offer a real social opportunity, particularly for older people. He is also right that markets can do more to train and encourage new stallholders. There is 75 per cent occupancy in the 1,150 retail markets in the UK. I am sure that there is a lot more that we can do. A Select Committee is looking at this, and I am sure it will take up this opportunity.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I am doing the City of Westminster Bill, which deals with street trading. I declare that as an interest. It is very important that we retain street markets and street traders and that we differentiate between street markets and vast covered markets, which suit some areas but not all. Does the Minister agree that street trading markets are very much a part of the London scene and should be retained?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. There is a role for covered markets, which have long histories, as do our street markets. They serve different purposes, different specialist communities and different ethnic communities. There is definitely a place for both.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, although what my noble friend said about markets may be correct in principle, the Question refers to giving advice to,

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Does my noble friend agree that such advice from central government would be daft in principle and that, when we advocate decentralisation of power, we should really let local authorities decide what is best for local people and not give them that sort of daft advice?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I did not address that part of the Question because I do not agree that they are alternatives, for the very reason given by the noble Lord. In planning policy statement 6, our policy on town centres is to encourage the vitality of town centres in all their different ways. Through guidance and so on, we help with town-centre management, but of course it is up to local authorities to decide how best to serve their local communities in their town centres.

Lord Cotter: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the positive statements made and the encouragement given to markets. Clearly, they are very important. In this day and age, they provide staple products, such as fruit and vegetables, at competitive prices. They also provide diversity: ethnic communities are able to sell their products. Notwithstanding what has been said about local areas, there is a concern that some councils, within London and elsewhere, see tidiness as important. Can the Government ensure that they do all they can to give publicity to the real importance of markets in providing diversity, encouraging tourism and so on? They attract people of all sorts.

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, as I said, it is in our planning policy statement. When we come forward with a revised planning policy statement, which will bring together many of these issues, I shall ensure that the prominence of markets is once again demonstrated. I think the Select Committee report, which will be put forward in the House of Commons, will also draw attention to the many benefits of markets.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, in any advice that the Government give to local authorities—I appreciate that this should be a local decision—I ask that they do not forget the importance of farmers’ markets and their ability to sell the best of British products, particularly now when we are considering food security as well.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, rural and urban farmers’ markets are one of the great successes of recent years, particularly in the way in which they address some of the urban food deserts that we have by providing fresh, affordable food and ensuring that it is locally sourced. That is good news. We have 800 farmers’ markets and the number is growing all the time.

Lord Bilston: My Lords, my noble friend has already acknowledged the very important role played by markets in our towns and cities throughout Britain. In autumn of this year, the All-Party Group on Markets will launch the first ever national markets framework document, incorporating the markets’ knowledge-based databank. That will be invaluable to Government and

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to local councils in making policy decisions on markets for many years ahead. Will my noble friend agree to meet the group and all the partners who are working to complete this very important document to talk about the document when it is published in the autumn?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, I will.

Further Education: Capital Investment


11.15 am

Asked By Baroness Sharp of Guildford

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: 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 a member of the corporation of Guildford College.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Lord Young of Norwood Green): My Lords, this Government have invested more than £2 billion in modernising FE facilities since 1997 and will spend a further £2.3 billion in the current spending review period. Nearly 400 colleges in England have been modernised, and the programme has delivered real improvements to learners and communities. Sir Andrew Foster will complete his review shortly and will make his recommendations to the department. Of the 253 colleges that have been given final approval, there will be no delay to these projects.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but can he explain how it is that neither his department nor the DCSF, which are jointly responsible for the LSC, was aware that the LSC was encouraging and sanctioning a capital spending programme that was three to four times the amount of funds available? Is he aware of the problems that this potential overspend has caused to the colleges that are at the moment in the queue, some of which have projects half-completed? Is he confident that the LSC, even under its new acting chief executive, is capable of sorting out the mess that it has created?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, can we give a complete answer at this point in time? No. I suppose that Donald Rumsfeld summed it up when he said that there were “unknown unknowns”. This was certainly the case. We were not aware of the extent of encouragement that undoubtedly was given by the LSC. That is why, in the circumstances, Mark Haysom, the chief executive, acknowledged his accountability and resigned. Do we believe that the new chief executive will be able to do the job? Yes, we do. He comes with a good pedigree, so to speak, and the right sort of

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experience. The full extent of why officials in my department were not fully advised of what was going on will be revealed when Sir Andrew Foster gives the department his report. We hope to have it in the next few days.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that further education colleges, such as the wonderful Working Men’s College in Camden, which I once had the honour of chairing, fulfil a vital regeneration role in their neighbourhoods? Can he give an assurance that projects such as that for the Working Men’s College that have received approval in principle, have started and are now half way through a two-stage project, all with the agreement of the Learning and Skills Council, will get priority over projects that have yet to start and have not even had approval yet?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her question. I have a strange feeling that I attended that college just a year or two ago. I cannot give her an assurance now that the projects will go ahead because the new chief executive will review the situation on a case-by-case basis. I know that some concern was expressed because this is one of the smaller colleges. I can give her an assurance that each project, regardless of size, will be assessed equally against the same criteria.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I did not notice in the Minister’s initial Answer his acknowledging that there is a problem at all. How many colleges will have committed money that will be lost as a result of this fiasco and how much money in total?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I had to keep my Answer brief. Of course we recognise that there is a problem; that is why we appointed Sir Andrew Foster. I would just ask for perhaps a little bit of, shall we say, humility. When we inherited the further education college situation in 1997, the National Audit Office told us that FE college buildings were,

Since then, we have spent £2 billion improving and modernising 400 college facilities. I ask you to recognise that situation. There are 79 colleges that have received their first stage of approval in principle, which would probably amount to about £2.7 billion in funding to proceed, and a further 65 requiring a further £3 billion in government funding. It is evident that not all these projects will be affordable in the short term and priorities will have to be set. That is why we have called for the independent report by Sir Andrew Foster.

Lord Haskel: My Lords—

Baroness Verma: My Lords—

Lord Cotter: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have not yet heard from the Liberal Democrats.

26 Mar 2009 : Column 760

Lord Cotter: My Lords, given that many colleges’ rebuilding programmes have planning permission and are ready to go, thereby creating jobs and apprentice places in the construction industry, how far do the Government propose to use them as a means of combating the recession? Has the department had any discussions on that point with the Treasury?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, yes we have. We want to use that programme to pull some of the colleges forward but, given where we are at this point, we have to assess each college on a case-by-case basis. However, the point that you make is valid.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, can the Minister tell us the state of the colleges in 1979? To come up to date, how much of the £609 million of the LSC capital budget for 2009-10 will now be spent on capital projects?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: No, my Lords, I cannot tell you about 1979. I would have thought that you would be more concerned about the state in which you left the colleges in 1997—I say “you” collectively rather than individually. After the NAO report said that they were in a dire state, for you to somehow suggest—

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I apologise. For the noble Baroness to somehow suggest that what we have done has not been a fantastic improvement surprises me. Yes, we intend to go ahead with the capital programme but, as I said, we need to review each project on a case-by-case basis.

English Language


11.22 am

Asked By Lord Smith of Clifton

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, English is a statutory subject at all key stages within the national curriculum, and it is a requirement that pupils are introduced to the main features of spoken and written standard English, including punctuation, spelling, language structure and grammar. The Government are committed to improving standards of literacy, and this includes an emphasis on pupils’ understanding and use of the English language.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, the one measure that the Minister did not mention, which I hoped he would, was trying to prevent the pollution of the English language by Ministers’ increasing reliance on the use of weasel words and euphemisms to obfuscate reality. For example, “extraordinary rendition” might

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be applied to the talents of Callas and Pavarotti, but when it is used to disguise the torture of alleged suspects in foreign climes with the connivance of the British security services, it is quite another thing. Similarly, “quantitative easing” might be the reason for putting a gusset in a fat man’s trousers, but it should not be used to obscure the fact that money is being printed without the necessary assets to back it up. Does the Minister not think that something should be done about that, and will he urge his colleagues not to use such weasel words and euphemisms? I do not expect an answer now, but I would love one in writing—as long as it is in plain English.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the concept of extraordinary rendition was not invented by this Government. The noble Lord will have to accept the fact that English changes over time. Fresh phrases come into use, and quantitative easing is a very clear expression of what is being developed in providing additional resources for the economy.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the integrity of the English language would be enhanced if Latin were restored to the school curriculum? I declare an interest as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Classics.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, none of us doubts that a Latin background helps with grammar, but that is asking for the return of bygone days, when about 6 to 8 per cent of schoolchildren learnt Latin, to tackle a problem that, we all recognise, affects every one of our citizens. The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that all our citizens are literate as far as possible.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, does the Minister think that introducing Solomon instruction in the use of such websites as Twitter into the primary curriculum would help to safeguard the English language?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course education needs to be relevant to contemporary circumstances, and it is recognised that young people use new technology and devices. As I emphasised in the original Answer, however, the Government are committed to improving standard English in our schools, and we can establish that there has been considerable improvement in the past decade.

Lord Quirk: Even so, my Lords, there is surely scope for further improvement. I wonder whether the Minister saw the recent Charlemagne column in the Economist, which points out that school-leavers in Germany and other continental countries have a better command of spoken and written English than many of their counterparts in this country. Is it not time that the Government reflected on the fact that, given that so few of our schoolchildren learn a foreign language, we ought to concentrate on ensuring that they handle better the only language that they know?

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