§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Wednesday last by the Lord Archer of Sandwell—namely, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
§ "Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".
§ The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)
My Lords, in the general election, the electorate re-endorsed this Government's mandate in unambiguous terms. That mandate came with some clear messages—above all, clear and definite instructions to improve public services. We must act on those instructions urgently. The measures taken by this Government to deliver a strong and stable economy provide the platform for delivery. The importance of preserving that platform informs all our policies.
The urgency of the delivery message is underlined by the significant drop in turn-out between the 1997 and 2001 elections. The low turn-out in deprived areas speaks of a section of our community losing hope and losing their belief that the political system will deliver for them. The low turn-out underlines the message that delivery is an urgent matter.
The parent, the pupil, the relative, the patient and the victim of crime must all get better service. The service is for them, not for the providers. Standards must go up. That is a task for which we shall be held to account by the electorate.
Reform is hard work. It needs consistency and a willingness to explain and drive through the necessary changes. It requires constant focus. Above all, it requires leadership. It is the Government's obligation to provide that leadership, to identify the priorities and deliver them. The gracious Speech is the first major opportunity in this Parliament to do so.
Before the 1997 election, the priority for an incoming Labour Government was education. That remains our priority. Over the past four years, the Government have already delivered real improvements, including fewer primary pupils in classes of more than 30, a big improvement in literacy 225 and numeracy for 11 year-olds and more teachers in schools than in any year since 1984. We now have the highest educational standards ever achieved in our primary schools. Our priority is to bring about a similar revolution in secondary schools.
The education Bill is an integral part of our commitment, with the emphasis on creating a more diverse system. We have many good secondary schools and many excellent teachers, but standards in our secondary schools are not what they should be. Not enough progress is being made at key stage 3—ages 11 to 14—and in some cases pupils are falling back. That is not acceptable.
To transform standards, the Bill will promote diversity by expanding the city academy programme, bringing more faith schools into the maintained sector and creating a new designation of advanced specialist schools. It will also introduce fixed-term standards contracts to enable private, voluntary and faith organisations to support the management of schools. It will tailor educational provision more closely to individual talents and aspirations so that high-quality options, including vocational provision, are available. The Bill will increase freedom to innovate, particularly in schools that are well led and managed, and reduce the constraints on head teachers and governors. It will refine accountability at school and local education authority level, for example by building on the success of intervention in under-performing local education authorities.
We are focusing on what works, not on artificial distinctions between public and private sectors. Where the private sector has expertise that can help schools improve, we have a responsibility to use it. Some may not take readily to our agenda for change, but the organisation of services—and education is no exception—has to be focused on the user, not the provider.
None of that can be achieved without the hard work of teachers. We see our reforms as a partnership. That is why we have committed ourselves to a programme of teacher recruitment. By 2006, we will employ an extra 10,000 teachers. Teacher numbers are now rising to their highest level since 1984. Through recruitment and the greater freedoms that our legislative programme will bring, we aim to arrest the decline in our secondary school standards.
Transport is another area in which we must deliver. We have set out our 10-year plan and we remain committed to delivering it. However, there are also immediate priorities, prime among which is greater rail safety. Last week the Health and Safety Commission published the first part of Lord Cullen's public inquiry report into the Ladbroke Grove train crash. The Secretary of State has asked the Health and Safety Commission to ensure that the recommendations are acted on and to report to him within six months. The Government will legislate where necessary to implement the report and will publish a wide-ranging safety Bill that will cover rail safety.
We have already taken steps to improve rail safety, including the installation of train protection systems across the network by the end of 2003 and the removal 226 of all slam-door trains by the end of 2004. The safety Bill will continue that work. It will cover transport and the workplace. We aim for a 10 per cent cut in deaths and major injuries at work by 2010 and will make transport operators and employers more responsible for the safety of workers and the travelling public. The Bill will also cover travel by rail, air and sea and on the roads.
We shall introduce a travel concessions eligibility Bill to equalise at 60 the age at which men and women become entitled to travel concessions. That will benefit a further 1 million men.
The new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs aims to help achieve our vision of a living, working countryside with a fair deal on services and jobs and a diverse and successful economy within a protected and enhanced environment. The new department is formed against the background of the continuing foot and mouth disease outbreak, with its devastating effect on farming communities and the wider rural economy. We will ease restrictions on the movement of livestock where we can, but the greatest help that we can give is to defeat the outbreak.
Foot and mouth disease has had a wide impact on the rural economy, including tourism and other non-farm businesses, even in areas with few cases. That issue has been central to the Rural Task Force remit. However, we also need to help affected businesses by deferring tax, by rate relief and by extending credit. The Government are also directly supporting businesses via regional development agencies and by fast-tracking rural regeneration measures.
The Government are committed to ensuring that people in rural areas have a fair deal in relation to the services and jobs that they need, a diverse and successful economy and a protected and enhanced environment. The rural White Paper published last November set out the Government's vision. Ensuring the successful implementation of the measures and commitments made in the White Paper represents a major focus for the whole Government and particularly for the new department.
The vision set out in that rural White Paper includes: helping people in rural areas to have access to key services close at hand, either in villages or nearby market towns, served by good quality public transport; modernising services in rural areas and using new technology to widen access; helping people in rural areas who are marginalised or on low incomes to gain greater access to affordable homes, as well as tackling the causes of social exclusion in the countryside; supporting farmers and rural businesses in exploiting new opportunities, and making the countryside an economic as well as an environmental asset with a particular focus on market towns; making local government in the countryside more responsive to local people and their needs; giving more power to local communities and to parishes so that they can provide services directly and are accepted as the voice of their community; and maintaining strong protection for the countryside.
227 Our policies for successful cities will target development on brownfield sites, provide stronger safeguards for its wildlife and open up access to all. Ensuring that central government is more attuned to rural issues will ensure that all major government policies are assessed for their impact on rural people when they are drawn up.
Next year the European Commission will table proposals for common agricultural policy reform. We shall push for a shift away from direct payment towards measures beneficial to the rural economy and the environment. EU enlargement should add momentum to the drive for reform.
Last year the Countryside and Rights of Way Act gave greater access to open country and registered common land, with proper protection for the rights of owners. During the coming year, we shall propose various regulations required to implement fully the rights of way provisions. The economic impact of the closure of the rights of way network has demonstrated clearly the importance to the countryside of recreation. In their manifesto the Government made a commitment to give the other place an early opportunity to express their view on fox hunting. It is too soon to say how and when the matter will come before your Lordships' House.
We face the continuing challenge of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions have already been cut significantly. They fell by approximately 14.5 per cent between 1990 and 1999. The Government continue to play a leading role in international negotiations and believe that a deal is possible at the resumed negotiations in Bonn in July. Our climate change programme will cut our emissions by 23 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010—significantly beyond our Kyoto target.
By bringing these subject areas together at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we hope to deliver real improvement in our environment, in our countryside and in our rural communities.
Housing is another area where delivery is a priority. We now have a coherent and comprehensive housing policy—the first for 23 years. The aim is to deliver a decent home for everyone. We are far from meeting that goal. We have committed ourselves to eradicating the inadequate standards of housing stock in the social sector by 2010, with a one-third reduction in inadequate social housing by 2004. The spending review last year provided enough resources to meet that one-third target. We must now deliver.
Members of this House will know all too well the consequences of failing to address poor housing. There is a clear link between deprivation, social exclusion and the riots that have scarred Bradford, Oldham and, most recently, Burnley. Poor estates are the breeding ground for the politics of extremism.
Homelessness also impacts directly upon the life chances of those affected. People in the front line of homelessness must have all the powers that they need to tackle it. Therefore, we are reintroducing the 228 homelessness part of the Homes Bill from the previous Session. That Bill will increase the power of local authorities to deal with people who become homeless. It will also widen the net of those people who have priority needs when they are homeless.
We also wish to improve the lot of leaseholders. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill will reform radically the leasehold system. For the first time, leaseholders of flats will be able to take over the management of their block without first having to prove fault on the part of the manager or pay any premium. It will become easier for leaseholders to exercise their existing right to buy the freehold of their homes.
We also intend to modernise the land registration process, which is currently complex and outdated. The Land Registration Bill is the outcome of several years' work by the Law Commission and Her Majesty's Land Registry. It will replace the Land Registration Act 1925. The new Bill will allow the Land Registry to move from a largely paper-based system to an all-electronic one. It will establish a more accurate register which will give buyers fuller information about rights and responsibilities. It will improve the security of property rights and will provide better protection for the owners of registered land against the claims of squatters.
Leadership requires the identification of priorities for this Session. One will be to boost the role of women in public life. Although 51 per cent of the United Kingdom population are women, only one in five MPs at Westminster and one in four councillors in England is a woman. In order to help towards a more equal society, we shall bring forward legislation to allow political parties greater freedom in the selection of candidates for public office.
This parliamentary Session is about ensuring delivery, about making the public services work for the people who use them, about raising standards, and about doing so urgently. The gracious Speech lays down a programme for delivery around which we can all unite.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to the Dispatch Box in his new guise as the Minister with responsibility for housing and planning and in his old guise as the Minister responsible for the Dome, about which he may be relieved to know that I plan to say nothing at all today.
I also place on record a warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, who has been appointed as a Minister with responsibility for education and skills. To date, the contributions of the noble Baroness in this House have been very impressive, and I know that she holds an abiding interest in education. I and my noble friends congratulate her most warmly.
229 I mean no personal criticism of the noble Baroness when I comment that the government business managers have not reflected the Government's priority of "education, education, education" by the absence of a Front-Bench spokesman on education—a subject about which the gracious Speech had much to say. However, they have fielded a Minister for agriculture and rural affairs, about which the gracious Speech had precious little to say.
Once again, it is a privilege to be involved in the debates on the gracious Speech. The quality of debate and the expertise and knowledge which are brought to bear by Members of this House continue to be impressive. Certainly, looking down today's list of speakers from all sides of the House, this debate will be no exception. My only concern—I express it not for the first time—is that with the amalgam of subjects that are to be covered within the normal time constraints which operate by convention in this House, it is not possible to do justice to the many relevant topics of interest under those headings. However, we shall give it our best shot.
My noble friend Lady Byford and other noble friends will address issues relating to the environment, local and regional government, farming and rural affairs. My noble friend Lady Byford will also, as time allows, respond to some of the points raised in the debate. For the past four years my noble friend has worked tirelessly and with great expertise from these Benches in support of food, agriculture and rural communities. We look forward to hearing from her later today.
Environmental issues range much wider than pollution and areas of special scientific interest. Indeed, some of us are perplexed by the departmental changes as they relate to the environment. For example, what exactly is the role for the Deputy Prime Minister, the pugilistic Mr Prescott, on global warming and climate change issues? Will he be supported by officials and a secretariat in addition to those in the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Will the Minister explain why the environment is the responsibility of that department and why it was removed from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions? Does the Minister agree that planning and housing and even policy for the regions are closely linked with environmental issues? However, no Minister from that department appears to have any responsibility for those issues. There is considerable confusion about who, and which department, is responsible for what. We look forward to clarification on that issue in the Minister's reply.
It is a depressing fact—I am not the only person who heard Labour Party members make this claim—that calculations were made before the election by the Labour Party to determine whether the rural vote was essential to a Labour victory. The conclusion was that it was not. It came as no surprise that there was little comfort for farming and rural communities in the gracious Speech. The countryside was in crisis before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. During the preceding couple of years, agricultural incomes had 230 fallen to unprecedented levels. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease was therefore the last straw. It has driven many in the agricultural industry to a state of despair. For some, the situation has been so grave that they have been driven to suicide. The Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis has been a contributory factor.
The tourist industry has been severely affected by the foot and mouth epidemic. That was not helped by the fact that Ministers placed the blame or the press. The sight of our Prime Minister wandering about the countryside in canary yellow protective clothing for photo shoots went a long way towards letting the world know that the countryside was not safe.
As we speak, the crisis in the countryside deepens. Against that background, the only government response in the gracious Speech was the introduction of another Bill to ban hunting. Apart from raising questions about the Government's priorities—they propose to devote yet more parliamentary time to such a Bill—the message to a significant minority of people who are concerned with country sports is that they and their interests are dispensable. So much for the protection of minorities and the freedom of the individual. Countryfolk be on your guard: it is hunting today and shooting tomorrow.
As I have said, the foot and mouth crisis has been devastating for livestock farming communities. The Government's handling of the crisis left much to be desired. There has been widespread confusion about the supply and/or lack of information and data about foot and mouth from the department. Nothing less than a full, independent and public—preferably judicial—inquiry is urgently called for. We on these Benches call on the Government to act without delay. After all, when the Government were in opposition they were hardly reticent about calling for such inquiries. My right honourable friend the former Prime Minister, John Major, readily agreed to set up independent inquiries into BSE and the supply of arms to Iraq. When there were concerns about standards in public life, independent bodies were established and the Conservative Party lived with the consequences. It is true that we paid the price. Why cannot the Government take the same honourable path and introduce an independent inquiry without delay?
I have more comforting words for the Government on their education policies. I welcome the Government's rejection of egalitarian policies in favour of introducing more choice, diversity and selection into the system. I also welcome the greater participation of third parties, including the private sector, in the establishment of new schools and the running of failing schools. The announcement that there are to be many more Church and faith schools will also be widely supported.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The Government would therefore expect me to support the planned expansion of specialist schools and city technology colleges, which are now called city academies. City technology colleges were established by the previous Conservative government against 231 implacable opposition from the Labour Party. Such were the lengths to which the Labour Party would go, at national as well as local level, that local authority schools were forbidden to co-operate with or play sport against city technology colleges.
On a visit that I made to Teesside as a Minister responsible for education, and following a visit to a local authority secondary school, I was told that I could not be given a lift by a local authority officer to Macmillan City Technology College because of its policy of non-co-operation. How things have changed. Specialist schools and academies are to flourish within a state and privately funded sector. For that courageous change of heart, we rejoice.
The extension of vocational options for less academic students, which builds on the vocational qualifications that were introduced by the previous Conservative government, is also welcome. I agree with the comment on the Government's proposals made by Professor Anthony O'Hear, that bête noire of the Labour Party, who wrote in the Daily Mail yesterday:For the sake of all our academic and non-academic children the Government is to be congratulated on its common sense".Providing more professional freedom and autonomy to schools, which involves building on the grant-maintained model, also appears to be a promising proposition. If that proposal is genuine, it would receive our support.
My welcome for all of those policies is nevertheless tempered by my concern about the way in which they will be delivered—or even if they will be delivered—in such a way that matches the Government's rhetoric. There are serious and urgent problems that need to be tackled without delay. For example, what is to be done about children who have been out of school for many months because of a shortage of school places? What is to be done about the teacher shortage crisis which is causing great anxiety among heads, governors and parents? What is to be done about the number of temporary supply teachers who are employed in our schools and about the fact that far too many teachers are teaching subjects for which they were not trained? I know that many heads and teachers, some of whom I met only this week, despair of hearing Ministers saying, yet again, that there is no crisis.
What is to be done about the unprecedented levels of funding that are being held back by the Department for Education and Skills to pay for massive increases in central and agency staffing and for a plethora of ill-thought-through initiatives which the department appears to announce on a weekly basis? All those considerations dissipate funding to local authorities and the core funding of schools is in turn reduced. Whatever the Government claim to be spending on education, the reality at school level—that is the real world—is very different. My noble friend Lady Byford will give a detailed example of the Government's unfair funding of education.
232 Many schools and sixth-form students are in despair about the way in which AS-levels have been introduced and their juxtaposition with other 16-plus qualifications. Only today, and without any consultation, the Government announced a graduate ceremonial exodus from secondary schools. Whatever does that mean?
It is not therefore surprising to witness schools such as the Oratory, which is attended by the Prime Minister's children, planning to ignore the Government's advice on AS-levels. Increasing numbers of schools are turning to the international and technological baccalaureate.
To return to the proposed reforms for education, to which I have extended a welcome, I warn the Government that if they are serious about reducing bureaucracy, about involving the private and voluntary sectors and about freeing up professional heads and teachers to do what they do best, much of the straitjacket of the School Standards and Framework Act will need to be repealed. The Government's appetite for bureaucratic central control and intervention will have to be curbed. Unless that is done in conjunction with their new agenda for change, the proposal will not receive our support. Organisation and development plans, organisation committees and adjudicators, and intervention by learning and skills councils should have no place whatsoever if schools are to be truly and professionally free and accountable to parents through the inspectorate.
I wish to pose some questions to the Minister. I do not expect answers to them today but I hope that he will be good enough to write to me after this debate. The Government have already experimented through education action zones with private sector involvement. Could we have a full evaluation of private sector investment and the degree to which it has been of benefit to children? There continues to be concern about a response to the Bett report on conditions of service and salary levels in higher education. Will the Government accept that the predominant source of funding for higher education is from the Treasury and therefore any capacity to accept the recommendations of the report is a matter for the Government; and, if so, what action is being taken?
In the proposed expanded role of further education colleges in the education of 14 to 16 year-olds, can the Government give an assurance that further education colleges will be adequately funded and equipped for the purpose and that the parent schools will not be disadvantaged financially?
Responsibility for the disabled appears to be fragmented across government departments—the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions. As an aside, I must say that that is a state socialist title if ever there was one. And yet no Minister in any department appears to have responsibility for the disabled. Why is it that the Government are so reluctant to appoint a Minister with responsibility for co-ordinating services for people with disabilities?
233 Is it not true that the announcement on extending vocational options for 14 year-olds was not only made months ago but was legislated for in the School Standards and Framework Act? If that is true, why was there a specific mention of it in the gracious Speech? Is any involvement of the private sector in the Government's new plans to be accepted only on a nonprofit-making basis? Will the new city academies enjoy at least the same freedom and autonomy as the city technology colleges, if not more? And what further legislation is required to introduce them? Will they be dependent upon local authority approval before being established?
The Government were paid a handsome compliment by the electorate on 7th June, and on that we warmly congratulate them. The people took the Government at their word and expectations are running very high. Among the many other pledges, Mr Blair personally promised on behalf of the Government that if re-elected, public services would be of world class; that funding problems in the public services would be addressed; that staffing levels in education, health, the police and other public services would rise to record levels; that further and higher education, with government support, would expand; that public and private partnerships would be the answer to improving health and education services. And finally he said, "Judge us on our results". I repeat that expectations are running very high.
The Government may just pause for a moment to reflect on what appeared to be a landslide victory and consider its underlying fragility. The Government were returned to office with the lowest percentage vote of all their predecessors. Even more disturbingly, over 40 per cent of the electorate did not vote at all and the disquiet within the Labour Party inside and outside Parliament is simmering away below the surface.
The people are watching and waiting with great anticipation and expectation. We on these Benches will continue to champion the cause of all people, including those in our rural communities. We can promise support for many of the education reforms but we shall be vigilant and will not be taken for granted if we find that the devil is, as is so often the case, in the detail or in the omission.
On past record, the quality of legislation and the government's contempt for the democratic process throughout the last Parliament was disturbing and I hope will not be repeated. One thing I am certain about is that the quality and diligence of scrutiny from all Benches within this House will serve Parliament and the people well. I regard it a privilege to play my part.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his introduction to this wide-ranging debate and congratulate him on his appointment.
Looking, as he did, for the thread through today's subjects, I, too, concentrated on the fact that the election focused on the delivery of public services and that, since then, attention has turned to the low turnout at the election. In my mind, those are clearly linked 234 because if people believe, as so often they tell us on the doorstep, that politicians are all the same and that "They do not listen to us", then electors will not use the ballot box to talk to us.
The modernisation of the democratic process is not something to be boxed away under the label "constitutional affairs". It is something that I am sure we shall all keep well to the forefront of our minds.
The Liberal Democrats entitled their manifesto Freedom Justice Honesty. Freedom is another side of the coin to the delivery of public services: freedom because the more effective are the services for the consumer—or, as I would prefer to call him, the citizen—the freer is that individual. There is then a debate to be had about whether a prescribed model (prescribed by the Treasury—although note what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said) is likely to deliver better services than a variety of models appropriate to a variety of circumstances. We shall return to the debate about PFIs and PPPs and, no doubt, other acronyms, but I shall say that it is probably not the case that one model fits all and flailing around for a quick and superficially attractive option is not useful.
The cost of public services is not to be measured only in pounds and pence. There is often an environmental cost. I am disappointed that that appears to feature so little in the Government's thinking. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer will speak further on that and the new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But on the question of structure, I simply add that it is perhaps a pity that a way seems not to have been found to continue to work at the structured link between the environment and transport for more than four years, because they are so closely intertwined.
The new department for which the Minister speaks has "local government" in its title and we welcome the recognition of the importance of local government, even though it was not a subject for the gracious Speech, or, at any rate, not directly. One of the indirect references—education—will be dealt with at greater length by my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford. I simply say that we must not lose sight of the need to support our local education authorities, which are part of local government, and their role in improving individual schools in the context of their widely differing communities—communities which local authorities know best.
An issue which, at local level, very much affects the delivery of public services—not within the department, although I raise it today—is in relation to what is perhaps a detail, but a very costly detail; namely, the unfunded pension schemes in the police and fire services. I have heard that the issue has come to the top of the in-tray of the new Secretary of State and if the noble Lord responding can give us any assurances that that is a subject which will be tackled, that would be much welcomed.
Although there is to be no local government legislation, at least that we know of, we shall see a White Paper on local government finance. I hope, 235 although I doubt, that it will propose more freedom for local authorities to raise their own revenue. That is an issue also for the regional agenda.
From these Benches, we much look forward to progressing devolution and not just to Scotland and Wales, to which, according to the Queen's Speech, the Government maintain their commitment. That is not a code which I have been able to decipher.
We have heard about the Deputy Prime Minister's role in taking forward devolution to the regions, but the fact is that the issue now seems to have been split between the Cabinet Office, the new Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the DTI, and for those of us outside, it looks as though the DTI is winning the argument.
But regionalism is about far more than the regional development agencies, important as regeneration is. I hope that the Minister can explain to your Lordships today how all that will work and, indeed, when we can expect a White Paper on regional government.
I mentioned local government finance, and, of course, the issue of borrowing to fund capital investment is an issue for local authorities, as it is to fund public services generally. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw will speak about transport and I know will today make some very acerbic comments and constructive suggestions about our railway services. Today time is too short to debate the replication of the fragmentation of our railways in London Underground, on which the Government appear to be set. They have not begun to win the argument in the minds of Londoners.
Perhaps the Minister can put my mind to rest in relation to another issue by telling me that it is purely rumour-mongering. In the past few days, there have been reports about the Government's proposals for extra runway capacity at London's airports. I recall that four years ago, at the start of the previous Parliament, there was a general acceptance of the need for an overall airport/aviation policy, but that there was a difficulty in dealing with that until there had been a decision on terminal 5. I hope that the Government will accept that we need an overall policy and that they will not be diverted into dealing with runway capacity in isolation as it is a major issue.
T5 was perhaps one of the most difficult examples of the planning system serving us rather badly in relation to large infrastructure projects. In the past few days I have noted that a statement has come from the Treasury, no less, about the planning system, indicating that,There is potential to make planning decisions speedier, to reduce the uncertainty and risk … and to introduce greater flexibility and diversity".That is an interesting statement. I do not want to condemn it from the start, but it is not immediately obvious to me how greater flexibility and less uncertainty lie easily together.
236 I believe that regional strategies for sustainable development, fully tested in public debate and formal examination, can be an excellent basis for the planning framework. That subject was not in the gracious Speech, but it was raised by the Chancellor and it would be helpful to noble Lords on these Benches to hear what the Government have in mind.
Local government is the context for concessionary fares on which we shall soon be presented with a Bill. We welcome such a Bill, although it is a pity that the Government have had to be pushed into equalising the arrangements by the European Court. I hope that the Bill will provide an opportunity to review the existing concessionary fares arrangements, how well they are or are not working, the detail about the boundaries between the schemes and the bureaucracy that appears to have been engendered.
On the last day of the previous Parliament I said to my noble friend Lady Maddock—who will speak later on housing and homelessness—that the first line of my speech today would be on homelessness. In fact it is almost the last, but it is no less important for that. I have never understood why the Government, who were critical of Conservative policy, did not proceed early in the previous Parliament to deal with the issues in the Homes Bill which fell at the end of that Parliament. I welcome what the Minister has said today about reintroducing such provisions.
The problems are not diminishing and it is appropriate to put them on the record. In the first quarter of this year local authorities have accepted over 30,000 as being unintentionally homeless and in priority need, which is a 10 per cent increase on the corresponding quarter last year. The total number of households in temporary accommodation now exceeds 75,000, which means 75,000 families. That is a rise of more than 16 per cent on the same quarter last year. Almost 11,000 households are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That figure is up by 24 per cent, almost a quarter on the same quarter last year.
Tackling homelessness and providing decent housing—I realise that I am repeating the terminology used by the Minister—are fundamental to the freedom of the individual and to the provision of public services. London is facing a jobs' crisis, and it is not alone. It cannot accommodate the people who are needed to make the city function.
In the past couple of days I have received letters from Londoners asking me, as a member of the Greater London Authority, what I can suggest to help them. One correspondent said:
Another correspondent writes about having purchased through a shared ownership scheme a 50 per cent share in a house in 199 She now asks 237 whether there are any options for moving on. She says that their home is now "just too small" because they have two small children.
- "I am a public sector worker and have had unending problems with finding somewhere to live.
- "I am stuck living in a room…moving after 6 months again and again, and not being able to develop my life for this reason…
- "The Government is not going to give me a huge pay rise so I am never going to be able to afford my own flat…
- "Can you assist me in any way sorting this mess out?"I earn £19,000 working full time…my partner…looks after the children during the day and earns £8,500 working part-time. We have 50% share of a £130,000 home",and she says that it is simply the legislation of shared ownership that stops the housing association helping people in their situation. She continues:We are ordinary people earning an ordinary wage, but simply unable to own an ordinary home".How does the Minister suggest that I respond to that?
My final point is about freedom, equality, local government and education. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, must be extremely sad that the abolition of Section 28, which he espoused with such passion, is not in the Government's programme. Noble Lords on these Benches want to know when we shall see that subject raised again.
It is often said that taxes are the price of a civilised society and how we support that society is a mark of our determination to be civilised. When the Government show that they have the political will to achieve real—I stress the word "real"—and sustainable improvement in public services noble Lords on these Benches will help them achieve the means.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, it is with great sadness that I rise to take part in the debate on the gracious Speech as now that Her Majesty's Government have said they intend to proceed with stage two of the reform of your Lordships' House I fear that for me it will probably be my last opportunity to take part in such a debate. It has been a very great privilege to sit and vote in your Lordships' House and to serve over the years on several of its committees. I have to say that I shall greatly miss my parliamentary life, my parliamentary friends and the truly wonderful, helpful and friendly staff throughout the Palace of Westminster.
I must, as always, declare an interest as someone who tries to farm, albeit on the verge of bankruptcy due to the dire crisis in British agriculture, and being president of the British Association of Bio Fuels.
I too heartily congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on his challenging new role at the recently created DEFRA. He has the power, the chance and the opportunity to change the face and fortune of British agriculture for ever and I wish him well. He knows that I and many others of your Lordships will keep him up against the ropes only because many of us feel passionately about the environment and the countryside.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said on Wednesday:We on these Benches are a little disturbed by the failure of the gracious Speech to say anything very concrete about the plight of rural Britain … Rural Britain has been through a terrible period, one which has brought many families to the edge of despair and to the experience of great need. It would have been better if the Government had chosen to try to find ways to heal some of the wounds that the rural areas have sustained. Given the Prime 238 Minister's performance in the area of foot and mouth, I do not doubt the Government's sincere intention to do so. However, if may say so, it is a little insensitive that the gracious Speech has nothing to say on this front".—[Official Report. 20/6/01: col. 20.]I am afraid that I think her words were far too polite. It was a gross insult to the rural population that agriculture once again got no mention. I do not understand the complete lack of sensitivity which meant that the only reference to anything remotely connected to the environment was the idiotic idea, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, to reintroduce a Bill to ban hunting with dogs. It is worth reminding your Lordships that another place voted for an outright ban in almost the same numbers as your Lordships voted not to have an outright: ban. There must be a lesson to be learnt here. Despite the apathetic turn-out at the election, most people believe that politicians should not be discussing the welfare of foxes. Only last week, I nearly ran over a fox looking wonderfully fit and healthy with a limp baby rabbit in his mouth. This nicely illustrated that famous slogan, "Hunting is natural, even foxes do it".
I dread to think how many times in the last Parliament the words, "Farming is in the worst depression in living memory", were spoken. I alone am guilty of six such utterances. Talking to a well known and respected agricultural journalist after the gracious Speech, I said, "I can't believe that agriculture was not mentioned". His reply was, "I can't believe you were surprised. This Government does not care". I believe that Her Majesty's Government must show that they do care by bringing forward measures at once to secure the future of British agriculture. One thing that is essential to life and health is good food, and it comes from our farms.
Our farmers produce two-thirds of all food consumed by their town brethren. Furthermore, our food is produced to standards which are commonly not met abroad. I refer particularly to organic food imports, most of which probably would not meet the standards set for UK production but which are nevertheless sold here as organic to the unsuspecting public. Little of the pig meat imported is likely to meet our welfare standards and there is no doubt that the dreaded foot and mouth tragedy was imported to our land which had been free of this terrible disease for more than 30 years.
Food is fundamental to our well-being and our very existence. A nation neglects to feed itself at its peril. "Don't criticise farmers with your mouth full" was a slogan often seen in car windows and as we are all living longer with the opportunity of the most varied diet ever, our food cannot be that bad.
Critics of British agriculture say that it is just another industry like coal. That is to show a foolish misunderstanding of the real world. It simply is not true, and it must not be forgotten that fanners were encouraged to grow more, were given grants to drain the wetlands and were told to borrow the shortfall, which is why UK farm borrowing is now at a staggering £7.8 billion.
239 Coal is just one form of energy. There are others such as gas, nuclear power and of course bio power—bio fuels—to which, as your Lordships would expect, I shall return in a moment. There is, however, no alternative to food. It is produced by a host of small businesses using their own capital. Currently, many are doing so under enormous difficulties. My plea is that DEFRA loads no more red tape on to those who grow our food; that it cuts out much of the present interference; and that it works for a climate where producers get a fair return for fair production against fair competition.
Ministers are hamstrung by the demands of the Brussels bureaucracy. The FMD outbreak showed just how dangerous this is. When the first outbreak was discovered, how did the former Minister react? He trotted off to Brussels to ask what he was allowed to do. What he should have done immediately was to listen to the world experts on the disease, who just happen to be British and available in London. He should also have reached for the Northumberland report, an excellent textbook on how to cope, prepared after the last outbreak.
My plea is that DEFRA officials, who surely must recall that they are our servants and not our masters, will quickly learn to consult with those having real knowledge of the countryside and farming. I look to them to remotivate local advisory panels and to develop policies capable of maintaining and improving the flow of good food from our farms to our meal tables. Downing Street and DEFRA might at least consider whether it would be in the national interest to withdraw from the common agricultural policy altogether and substitute policies more in line with the real needs of this United Kingdom.
Not all our farmland is now needed for food, thanks to increased productivity and changing tastes. Fuel from our fields is now a real possibility. In his Budget, the Chancellor went some way to recognising this, but, sadly, he did not go far enough. This may have been because of what I can describe only as appallingly outdated briefings from, I believe, one case officer in the old DETR and bias from the old MAFF.
Biodiesel and bio ethanol cut greenhouse gases substantially. They also substantially cut tailpipe emissions, whatever a civil servant may wish to think. When oilseeds are grown as an alternative to surplus wheat, emissions from the farming operations are actually cut. Biofuels are also biodegradable, recycle carbon and are safe and easy to use without engine modification. They are also the only transport fuels available with any degree of sustainability.
Her Majesty's Government are rightly committed to cutting greenhouse gases and here is such a logical way to do it. I do not understand why they do not grasp the opportunity. At least 5 per cent of our road transport fuel could come from our own farmland within five years. What good news this would be for the environment and for rural regeneration. All that is needed is to give these biofuels the same tax treatment already given to the gas fuels, LPG and CNG; in other 240 words, a duty rate of around 5p per litre. Biofuels are far better on environmental grounds than fossil fuels and on balance are also better than the gas fuels. And we must not forget that North Sea oil will not last for ever. I was horrified to read in the newspapers that there is more talk about nuclear fuels.
The capital and the know-how is ready and waiting to start large-scale production given duty parity with gas.
Sugar beet was introduced as a new crop here in the 1920s, another time of terrible rural depression. The crop did much to improve farmers' ability to feed our nation. Introducing biofuels now, through tax equality with gas that I advocate, would do much to refuel the nation as well as furnish farmers with a new and most useful function as fuel producers.
Will DEFRA please support biofuels for road transport and clearly indicate this support to the Chancellor? If not, will the department please give sound scientific reasons for any lack of support of this proposal, but, please, not less than accurate opinions which the other place had to put up with when this matter was last debated on 24th April?
In conclusion, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, knows how I feel about biofuels. Surely it must make sense to grow fuel for vehicles which are environmentally friendly, especially with farming being in such dire straits. All my spring oilseed rape goes from Scotland to Austria and Germany and is converted into road fuel. I often ask why. I beg, with all my heart, for this new Government to take on board the environmental aspects of what I have said today. Whereas Turnip Townsend was a household name in the 1740s, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, could be known as "Biofuels Whitty". That would indeed give this nation a wonderful name for a truly great politician.
Something must be done and it makes such agricultural, environmental and financial sense. Farming is in crisis and here is a way out. I urge Her Majesty's Government to seize it, and to do so now before it is too late.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Blackburn
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate on the gracious Speech and I commend the Government for the high priority they intend to give in this Session to reform of secondary education, with their commitment to diversity of provision. As chairman of the Church of England Board of Education, it gives me great pleasure to say that. I should also like to add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, and to say how much we look forward to working with her.
I must apologise to the House that, owing to a longstanding commitment in my diocese very early tomorrow morning, I may not be in my place when the debate ends.
241 Clearly, truancy statistics, violence against teachers and the number of disillusioned young people, prove, if proof were necessary, that secondary education in our country needs attention, fresh ideas and new initiatives. Clearly, the Churches and the other faith communities wish to play a part in that process. In the past there have been occasions when those responsible in the Church of England for matters of education policy, have found themselves sitting, as we may say, in a rather uncomfortable pew. Thirty years ago, when I was director of education for the diocese of Durham, a significant group within the Labour Party promoted the abolition of Church schools altogether. Happily, the policy was never pursued to conclusion. I am reminded of the remarks made in this House last week by the Leader of the House, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, about sinners turning to repentance.
Ninety-five years ago the then Liberal government espoused a policy to withdraw public funds from Church schools. People came by train in their thousands from the north-west of England to resist that. But resistance to that policy in this House defeated it and the matter was not raised again.
So, although threatened with extinction at the beginning of the 20th century, at the beginning of the 21st century Church schools are a significant part of the maintained system of education in England and Wales. To the surprise and I suppose the discomfort of some, their popularity with parents is growing and the Churches simply cannot meet all the demands made on them for places. As your Lordships know, one-third of all schools in England and Wales are Church schools. That is a significant proportion. Church of England schools make up one-quarter of all primary schools in England with 750,000 pupils.
They are not without their critics. Church of England schools are described by some as divisive and as serving a single-faith community, to use the modern parlance. We do not see them as serving a narrow or sectarian purpose. They are simply not intended for one-faith community among many. Indeed, I could talk today about many Church of England schools in east Lancashire where I serve, that are the one and only meeting point for the different ethnic minority groups within the local community. That is a sad reflection on society, but it illustrates an important contribution that Church schools can make to mutual understanding and respect in those communities. In my growing experience parents from other faith communities fee] secure in Church schools because they know that religious faith there is respected and the name of God honoured.
In such communities this puts very great pressure on admissions to Anglican secondary schools. Only one-twentieth of all secondary schools are Church of England, serving only about 150,000 pupils. Many of those schools now have to turn away large numbers of potential pupils. In the past five years the average number of applicants per 100 places for Church of England secondary schools has risen from about 140 to 160. I am told that there is a school not vey far from here which had 700 applications for 130 places. I can 242 tell your Lordships that each year I receive letters from sad and sometimes quite angry parents who cannot get their children admitted to Church of England schools, and that in a diocese where such schools number above average. It is little wonder that in practice some of our secondary schools can serve only the local Anglican community. That means that the traditional goal of a Christian education being offered for all in the community, of Christian faith, of another faith or of no faith, simply cannot be realised without the creation of more places in Church of England secondary schools.
As your Lordships will know, the place and nature of Church of England secondary schools and proposals for their future development have been the main theme of a review recently undertaken under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, whom I am happy to see in his place. I want to thank him publicly for the report he and his working party have produced. He approached the task with his characteristic energy, great skill and enthusiasm. The report was published about 10 days ago. It says much about the character of a Church school, how it can be true to itself and thus better serve the community. The report reminds the Churches of their traditional commitment to encourage young people and others to regard teaching as a vocation, but more than that, as a profession of vital importance for the future of our society. The report challenges the Church with the target of creating 100 more secondary schools within the next eight years. That is some target, but I am reliably informed that negotiations are already in hand for about 20, and not for schools in the leafy suburbs but in the heart of some of our more deprived urban communities in cities and towns.
So it is that I warmly welcome the Government's stated intention to promote diversity with higher standards, particularly in secondary schools. A more diverse system will allow for more specialist schools, more Church schools and schools for particular faith communities in this country. In this the Government are doing no more than responding to clear parental demand.
The gracious Speech also suggests that a more diverse system will serve to promote higher standards. I would not claim for a moment that all Church of England high schools achieve higher standards than community schools. That would be arrant nonsense. But repeated statistics show that Church schools often do very well. At their best they provide an education which has clear and coherent values based on the Christian gospel, where children and young people are respected and valued for themselves, and in which their spiritual and moral development can go hand in hand with achieving the highest possible educational standards. Motivation, which often conies from a diversity of opportunity, must be important and is one of the reasons for the things which are achieved in Church schools.
There is surely a connection between common purpose in any organisation and successful outcomes. I am surprised that that is not more readily accepted even by our critics. Church schools often have the 243 advantage of a strong community rooted locally in the Church, as well as supportive parents who feel a strong link with that particular school.
I should like to make two other points. I look forward to hearing more of the Government's proposals about fixed term contracts under which an external private or voluntary sector sponsor might take the responsibility for a weak or so-called failing school. I am also interested in how that option might help a successful school work with a private or voluntary sector partner. The Church of England might see itself as such a voluntary sector provider. It has been just that since the National Society was founded in 1811 to establish schools in England and Wales.
But our recent experience would suggest that we should not underestimate—nor should the Government—the high levels of commitment required by staff, governors and local community to change the character of a school, especially where it is facing multiple challenges. We shall look carefully at the instruments for change that the Government are willing to allow a voluntary sector sponsor to wield.
Finally, the gracious Speech promised that an education Bill would give greater freedom for successful head teachers and governors. I shall be very interested to know what that means in practice, not just because we are concerned to safeguard the religious character of Church schools, but also because we recognise, as I have said repeatedly in your Lordships' House, that there are many successful teachers and governors in schools that do not appear to be judged among the most successful schools by tables. No one should doubt the importance of higher standards and I certainly do not. The Government deserve recognition for the improvement in standards achieved in many primary schools during the past four years. But in that the primary gratitude is owed to the head teachers and teachers of the schools encouraged by the Government.
Higher and higher levels of prescription do not of themselves promote higher standards; they may serve the opposite purpose. Teachers deserve to have much expected of them by society, but at the same time they deserve freedom as respected professionals in their own field to develop the highest achievements of those they teach. Motivation will play a significant part in that. My hope is that any new legislation will ensure that all of that is achieved.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I am very glad to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. I live close to him in his diocese and greatly admire the work that he has done. He can rely on my support in his endeavours if he believes that that may be helpful.
I shall also deal with matters that I believe are very important to our locality. When I heard the gracious Speech I was mightily relieved that the Government appeared to have abandoned their preposterous plan 244 to break up England into regions. That relief was short-lived. On Thursday, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor repeated the threat in the 1997 manifesto that in certain circumstances provision would be made for directly elected regional government. And the Leader of the House told us the same day that in due course there would be a White Paper. I read with great care the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol on 21st June; I remain surprised that five Church of England bishops have involved themselves in this matter. Perhaps unbeknown to me the Synod has slipped through the following addendum to the Creed:I believe in the Balkanisation of England, another layer or two of local government, a multiplication of councillors and a Europe of the regions".I have been told nothing about it.
Seriously, I believe that the bishops seek to counter political disenchantment among the electorate as evidenced by the low turn-out at the last election. Their efforts and the support for regional government voiced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, do not appear to be well directed when one looks at the regions about which we speak. They are almost entirely artificial creations invented for the purposes of the regional development agencies Act, with one part often sharing no common problems with another, and, with the possible exception of the North East, reflecting no community of interest or regional loyalty. What is the community of interest between the people of Cornwall and the citizens of Bath? Is it seriously said that the farmers of the Solway share a common regional loyalty with the people of Merseyside? Quite plainly, they do not.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol talked about bringing decision-making closer to the people. For the most part, when power is devolved, not to existing local authorities but to regional bodies, it will not mean giving power to local people but taking it from them. For most of England it will not bring government closer to the people but precisely the reverse. I certainly do not want decisions about northeast Lancashire taken in Merseyside or Manchester. Undoubtedly, what will happen, and is beginning to happen, is that as the regional bodies, which, incidentally, are already setting up separate offices in Brussels, look more and more to Brussels for direction and funding, so our Parliament at Westminster will be sidelined and our national government downgraded. Far from countering public disenchantment with the political process, we shall have added to it and done our best to destroy the simple and transparent system of democratic accountability, until recently proudly acclaimed, whereby the man in the street is linked by his councillor or MP direct to government, local or national, which he knows is responsible for the decisions that affect his life. I commend to the House some words of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth:Fragmenting power, far from empowering the people, leaves them uncertain as to whom to hold responsible for public policy".245 I have just one question for the Minister who is to reply; it is of the utmost importance to the people of my locality. Labour's manifesto for the recent general election stated:In 1997 we said that provision should be made for directly elected regional government to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it and"—I emphasise—where predominantly unitary local government is established".The right reverend Prelate will support me when I say that in the North West there are 24 non-unitary and 18 unitary authorities. Can the Government assure me that the North West is not a region,where predominantly unitary local government is established",and, therefore, is not threatened with regional government? If the Minister can give me that assurance I shall go away tonight a reasonably happy man.
I have already said it is most important that the man in the street should know who is responsible for the decisions that affect him and whom to approach about them and that there should be a straightforward system of accountability. Since the 1970s Parliament and government have surrendered the right to decide in all kinds of areas what is best for our own people, often in regard to matters which do not have the slightest bearing on our relations with other countries and/or the requirements of a single market. I give one glaring example. Within days of the last general election the Government, because of their folly in accepting the social chapter, were forced to agree a measure which months before they told us they opposed in principle, not least because it made a mockery of the doctrine of subsidiarity. The measure to which I refer forces companies which operate only in this country, not internationally, to set up a system of compulsory consultation with worker representatives on every aspect of their activities and future plans, in effect forcing on us the continental system of works councils, the full absurdity of which I saw some years ago. In, I believe, 1981, with the Department of Employment, I visited the works council for the Paris transport undertaking. I discovered that not a single member of that council had ever done a day's work for the undertaking; every one had been parachuted in from outside by the union. Is that the kind of system we want forced upon us in this country? That is a fairly typical example of how, bit by bit, our ability to govern ourselves and our local and national democracy has been eroded.
Step after step has been taken on the basis that in isolation each of them is insufficiently grave to make too much of a fuss about and imperil our wish to be good members of the club or to be treated as a sticking point. And down the slippery slope we have slithered. At the moment, the issue of the euro is supposed to have been kicked into touch. When we come back to consider it we should not simply assess the possible economic benefit but bear in mind the slippery slope to which I have referred. Abandoning the pound and embracing the euro would mean surrendering control of the levers of economic power necessary to run a 246 currency. It would be another major reduction in our ability to control our own affairs, bringing us that much nearer the complete economic, military and political integration which it now appears. from files newly released at the Public Record Office, a defeatist Foreign Office, which never foresaw the Thatcher revolution, set as its aim long ago before we even joined the Common Market.
Those who say that they want us to embrace the single currency but are not in favour of a European government should answer a simple question. If they are in favour of this giant step towards a European government—which they say they do not want—what step would they consider a step too far? We are entitled to an answer. It is time to say what is the sticking point. There is a lot to be said for it being something that everyone can understand, such as the pound. It is our currency and something that has always been a symbol of nationhood.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Lord Bradshaw
My Lords, I must first declare my membership, until the end of this week, of the Strategic Rail Authority and the Commission for Integrated Transport. What I say is not necessarily, or indeed probably, their policy. I am speaking on my own behalf.
I welcome what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said in his introduction about the attention that the Government intend to give to transport safety. We on these Benches shall be looking for a comprehensive Bill on transport safety which expects the same standards to apply both to the railways and road transport. We still await the measures that were promised when 44-tonne lorries were introduced and a proper review of safety in road haulage. I remind the House that far more people are killed and injured in accidents involving heavy lorries than in railway accidents. I also caution against taking a lead from various self-interested parties, such as the Health and Safety Executive, which is more concerned with defending its awful record and building up its organisation even further. It employs far more people than the old Railway Inspectorate did. The report of Lord Cullen's inquiry shows that the Health and Safety Executive believes that it has insufficient resources and is overwhelmed with work. We shall be looking for proposals that will improve safety and which do not simply feed a largely ineffective bureaucracy.
The rush to embrace new systems of railway safety such as advanced train protection should have in mind the fact that no system that can be bought meets the standards of advanced train protection. To set an early date for its implementation before the system is available is making a rod to beat people with.
It was reported in the media last week that the new Secretary of State had ruled out big changes in the structure of the railway. However, he and the Government are seeking speedy delivery of better services. From my background as a professional railwayman, and as a result of recent conversations 247 with many others in the industry, I can tell the Secretary of State that he will not experience better services. He will be very fortunate if there is any overall improvement by the next election. Things may indeed get worse.
Railway privatisation was postulated on a number of false premises; first, that there was scope for efficiency gains of up to 20 per cent in the industry; secondly, that legally binding contracts between parties would reduce costs and improve services; and, thirdly, that many competing operators would emerge under open access agreements, which in their turn would require a strong, independent regulator both to force Railtrack to behave efficiently and to see fair play between the competing parties.
The efficiency gains were largely not available. Under strict government controls, British Rail was both lean and hungry and had not enjoyed the monopoly that enabled other nationalised utilities to raise prices and employ administrators and larger work forces than were necessary. The availability of a cheap new energy source—natural gas—and rapid advances in technology underpinned the improving performance in the energy and telecommunications industries. The only real success of railway privatisation has been the opening of rolling stock procurement to a competitive leasing market, which is a course of action that British Rail had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the former Conservative government to allow. However, the success began and largely ended there. Although many more people are using the railways than in the early 1990s, this expansion has largely arisen from a prolonged period of economic growth and increasing congestion on the roads. Some train operating companies, including the freight operators, have invested and improved the service that they offer users, but unless structural changes are made in the industry, the potential benefits of a modern railway will not be widely available in Britain.
The structure of our railways is fragmented and confrontational. It lacks the fundamental cooperation necessary to upgrade infrastructure and introduce new rolling stock in a timely and economical manner. We also lack the trained engineers to carry out the work. For example, the signal engineering industry has lost 850 engineers—one third of its personnel—in the past three years. That is a direct consequence of Railtrack cutting back on investment plans to boost short-term profits. That is a reckless, shortsighted and totally wrong decision. It will in consequence be incredibly difficult to meet tight time-scales to improve rail safety and upgrade the track.
At the heart of the problem is Railtrack, the owner of the infrastructure assets. It has neither the financial muscle nor the engineering competence equal to the task. Its procurement policies are unlikely to encourage others to share that burden. Railtrack seeks both to avoid risks and cushion itself with huge contingency allowances. If Railtrack is not equal to the task, we on these Benches firmly believe that the custody of the national infrastructure assets should be transferred on a long lease to the public interest. We 248 believe that, ideally, the new franchises, none of which has been finally signed, should be redrawn and consolidated so that the principal operator becomes responsible for the operation, management and renewal of the infrastructure. We believe that only by bringing those responsible for the infrastructure within the same tent as those running the trains will efficient delivery be ensured.
There are problems with that approach. It would be impossible to transfer the existing infrastructure, with all its faults, or the costs of meeting new safety requirements to the train operators. An indemnity against those costs would have to be defined and provided. There also remains the issue of protecting the rights of secondary users, including freight operators.
The Strategic Rail Authority may have made some mistakes. These probably include not having been prescriptive at the outset about the vision of the railway that it sought to buy. It should return to that task and put more emphasis on the case for a new trunk railway between London, the Midlands and the North. That would stop the impossible task of trying to accommodate a mixture of very high speed passenger trains, local commuter and regional services and the increasingly exacting demands of logistics companies on the present narrow and restricted main lines. In defence of the SRA, in its short life it has had to live with the impact of the regulatory review of Railtrack's track access prices and the consequences of the Hatfield accident when attention has been focused elsewhere.
I urge the Government to ensure that the upcoming strategy document really is a blueprint of the kind of railway that is needed to meet expectations.
However we view the future of the railway, it is quite obvious that a large part of the finance will have to come from the public purse. Because the cost of capital is such a vital ingredient of the eventual cost, it is important that public money is directed to those parts of projects which entail the greatest risk.
In managing this finance it is clear to many of us that one public agency—the Strategic Rail Authority—should be the public procurer and set the terms and conditions attaching to new, more inclusive franchises. There is no separate role for an independent Rail Regulator. If the SRA sets the terms on which franchises are let and is the sponsor on behalf of government of investment in new infrastructure, why should it defer automatically to another public sector person, the Rail Regulator, on matters of risk allocation, hand-over terms and enforcement? We are talking largely about public procurement of public services. There is a need to license operators and to fix track access charges, but those roles could better be encompassed by an economic regulator and a safety regulator accommodated within the Strategic Rail Authority, as they are within the Civil Aviation Authority. We would commend that model to the Government.
The penalty regime within the railway, where the value of delays to trains is soon set to rise substantially, is an expensive, divisive and largely ineffective way of 249 enhancing performance. It absorbs a lot of energy and resources. In a more vertically integrated railway, and one which is increasingly replacing its old and unreliable rolling stock, it requires very concentrated effort to deal with the endemic weaknesses and delays caused by a failing infrastructure. The performance regime makes arranging the necessary interruptions to normal service while work is undertaken very expensive. It adds to costs and often prolongs the time needed to execute the work.
So in the spirit of constructive opposition, we make two appeals to the Government. First, the forthcoming re-issue of the objectives, instructions and guidance, both to the Rail Regulator and the Strategic Rail Authority, presents an opportunity to set out the Government's intentions prior to any necessary legislation. The Government should move as quickly as possible to subsume the necessary powers of the Rail Regulator within the Strategic Rail Authority. Secondly, the Government should accept that Railtrack in its present state cannot be a large-scale source of finance for the development of the railway. Press reports last week said that the banks would support a £3 billion bond issue by Railtrack but linked that to a number of conditions. Those were that a review of the structure of the railway is ruled out by the new Secretary of State and that the Rail Regulator uses his powers to maintain at least a single A credit rating. In short, the banks are saying that they will put up the money if there is a government guarantee that Railtrack will not be allowed to default. Any such undertakings given without a fundamental review of structure would be a misuse of public funds and would be hotly contested on these Benches.
In any case, the company does not have the basic engineering competence to maintain and improve the network. We urge the Government to negotiate for a transfer of its infrastructure assets on a long leasehold to the Strategic Rail Authority with the intention of bringing together the train operators and infrastructure contractors into a close relationship within each franchise. Where freight companies are the preponderant user, they should have the same option. To make this change acceptable to Railtrack without renationalisation, Railtrack should be offered a role as a property company, always ensuring that train operation and the needs of rail users are of paramount importance and providing as now that a proportion of profits from property activities continues to be covenanted back to the railway.
I know of only a tiny proportion of professional railway people who believe that a safe, efficient and affordable railway can be provided unless the responsibility for the track and trains is brought together under one vertically integrated leadership. This fundamental issue must be tackled quickly by an incoming government intent on delivery. That can be achieved relatively easily if the Government make it clear to Railtrack that there is an honourable, profitable future for the business as a property company, leaving open also the opportunity to it of investing in future railway development. The SRA should become the focus of more comprehensive 250 franchises for the regulation of the industry and the channel of public funds. Development of the network should be through the medium of special purpose investment companies with public and private partners, including the train operators, and should be brought together by the SRA.
The condition of our railways is very serious. The present privatised companies set up under the 1993 Act will not deliver and the problems will grow to haunt the Government. The Bill promised in the gracious Speech to deal with railway safety must extend to embrace other structural alterations. There will be wholehearted co-operation from these Benches in developing proposals to achieve those ends.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Plumb
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his opening statement. I should have liked to have heard a little more about agriculture and the environment. However, we look forward to the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I congratulate him on his appointment and I promise to play my part in keeping him extremely busy over the next few months. I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who has done a tremendous job over the past few months, particularly on foot and mouth disease. I know that there are many in the country who recognise and respect the efforts that she put in. Those efforts are appreciated by all of us.
Like my noble friend Lord Palmer and other noble Lords, I was disappointed and concerned that there was no reference in the gracious Speech to the enormous problems in rural areas. Nevertheless, to link together education, the environment and agriculture is appropriate—education because people need to understand a little more about rural affairs and certainly about the food that they consume. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—the new DEFRA—is said by some to mean deaf to rural areas. I sincerely hope that that will not be the case. I say clearly to the Minister that one letter is missing from DEFRA. I do not mind whether it is A or F—A for agriculture or F for farming. It is disappointing for all of us that that is not included in this extremely important area.
I hope that the noble Lord can give an assurance that agriculture will maintain or improve its place in the pecking order as it did with MAFF, that he will concentrate on trying to restore order out of chaos following the devastation caused by foot and mouth disease and following a disastrous two years in farming. There was a 63 per cent fall in farm incomes over the life of the previous Parliament and 51,000 people have left the land over the past two years. Many of the farms they have left will not be restocked. The people will not return.
The talk now is not so much about agriculture but about its role under DEFRA. Eradicating foot and mouth disease is an obvious priority, but stopping it coming in again should be an even greater priority for the Government and for the House. We now realise that a cheap food policy is extremely expensive to the taxpayer.
251 The other aims to which I shall refer are: promoting sustainable and diverse farming and food industries; promoting a better environment; creating a thriving rural economy; maintaining the diversity and abundance of the wildlife resources in the countryside; and creating a countryside for all to enjoy. We do not need to remind ourselves that the stewardship of the countryside is in the hands of those who make their living from it. They can help the Minister to achieve his aims if they are given the right resources and encouragement, as well as the correct policies for fair competition.
When the Minister has succeeded in those five aims, I note that his responsibilities also range from fox hunting to climate change. The Minister can leave the matter of fox hunting to this House. We shall resolve it for him. Climate change might take a little longer. Those responsibilities are followed by water management, to coastal defence, which are huge issues. But I hope that the role of animals in food production will not be forgotten under the weight of all those responsibilities. It is an important role in order to ensure that the consumer can enjoy high quality food from—the Minister himself said this the other day—"plough to platter".
Many questions will need to be debated. I shall touch briefly on them. Why cannot British agriculture be competitive at world prices? In this country we bear a huge bureaucratic burden that is designed to ensure the high standards of production to which we have grown accustomed. I hope that the Minister will accept that we can compete only so long as we do not have to compete with substandard imports and burdensome red tape.
Is the food produced in the United Kingdom safe? Food scares have been all too frequent: BSE, swine fever, E. coli, salmonella, foot and mouth disease and so forth. Furthermore, it is regularly reported that our fields are drenched with a cocktail of poisonous chemicals. That sits oddly alongside the fact that the average age in this country continues to climb. Her Majesty sends out more centenary greetings year by year. I never give any credit to the medical profession for that; it is due to the good quality food that our people consume.
It is also odd to note that the amateur gardener can go to any garden centre, buy the same chemicals and then use them having undergone none of the rigorous training or met the strict controls rightly imposed on farmers. That seems to be extremely strange. It ignores completely the fact that we have a competent Food Standards Agency which monitors food safety and security.
Why not turn to organic production? There is a growing interest and incentive for organic production which I applaud. However, a niche market depends on getting a price premium which is already reducing. The Food Standards Agency has stated clearly that there is no basis for the claims of safety or health benefits over traditionally produced food.
252 That leads us to the next question: what role is there for science and biotechnology? The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, quite rightly has hammered this point home over many months when we have debated agriculture in this House. I hope that the Minister will support the need for further trials and investigations to be undertaken in the wake of BSE and the public concerns about genetic modification. To put a virtual stop on the work of developing biotechnology via a moratorium would be totally illogical and a folly. It would ignore the great potential that exists to improve human health and the environment, as well as developing products such as bio-fuels. The illogicality of the arguments against further development, in particular against research into genetic modification, is illustrated by the fact that insulin used to treat diabetes has been genetically modified for many years, as has the production of rennet for making cheese. So the research must continue.
Finally, I turn to the common agricultural policy and the World Trade Organisation. I could spend the next hour or two talking about these issues, but I shall point out only that the WTO has become as important as the CAP. It has become important as we move towards the wider world in terms of our market and globalisation. There cannot be a single policy or one simple answer that would suit the geography, climate and environment of the United Kingdom, let alone the rest of Europe. The hills and uplands, the areas of outstanding natural or manmade beauty cannot continue to be farmed under present market prices without support. There are good reasons to contemplate changes in support mechanisms as we turn towards more land-based rather than production-based support, including environmental care and biodiversity.
Environmental care does not just happen, it has to be paid for. Agriculture is and should be about more than simply producing food, but it faces a major handicap by having to compete with the substandard and low-cost imports that I mentioned earlier. I am certainly not opposed to making trade arrangements and reaching agreements, so long as they are fair and competitive. I hope that the Minister will accept the responsibility for using the mechanism to achieve parity in the currency market once our exports have been restored to a more normal pattern.
I hope that the Minister will support our collective aim; namely, to improve the position of British agriculture in Europe and to put the industry at the forefront of a civilised and acceptable progress. I believe that the potential is great and I hope that, before too long, the Minister will consider holding a full debate on these issues and on the policies that concern us for the future.
§ 5.7 p.m.
§ Lord Donaldson of Lymington
My Lords, I wish to make a short contribution to our debate today on the subject of the environment and the pollution of the marine environment caused by shipping and offshore installations. Noble Lords may remember that in February 1996 the vessel the "Sea Empress" sought to 253 take the overland route into Milford Haven harbour. It was an unfortunate decision which caused a great deal of pollution. That degree of pollution was much enhanced by the fact that the ship shuttled in a basin just off Milford Haven for no less than six days, resting on a rock whenever she became tired.
That situation became the subject of a marine accident investigation board report which was highly critical of the way in which the operation had been conducted. Following that report, I was asked to head a review team whose essential terms of reference included the following:To consider and advise, as appropriate, how the National Contingency Plan for Marine Pollution from Shipping and Offshore Installations should properly reflect the balance of public interest in the conduct of marine salvage operations in which there is a risk of marine pollution and where the use of intervention powers"—those are, of course, governmental intervention powers—may be appropriate.To provide specific advice on the adequacy, or otherwise, of the intervention powers currently available to the Secretary of State".In March 1999 we produced a report which contained some 26 recommendations, all but one of which were either expressly or implicitly accepted by the Government. The core recommendation, from which all else stemmed, was that where the country is faced with a major pollution incident it must be viewed in the same way as a military or naval battle. No battle was ever won by a committee. The previous practice on such occasions had been to form a committee and seek to reach a consensus. In the case of Milford Haven, that took six days.
The man whose office we suggested should take charge of such an operation needed to be served by a skilled staff. Beyond that, he needed to be given freedom of action. We made it quite clear that he must be free of all ministerial and other interference; that he was to be on his own as long as the operation was in progress. The only power of Ministers while it was in progress should be either to sack him or back him. I confess that I was somewhat surprised to find that that recommendation was unconditionally accepted. There has been at least one subsequent incident where the Civil Service persuaded the Minister not even to go and look in case it was thought that he had some responsibility.
That scheme has now been in operation for approximately 18 months; it is working extremely well. Two or three major incidents and quite a number of minor or potential incidents have been headed off. But—and this is the point—none of the changes and the setting up of the whole new scheme involved statutory assistance.
I turn now to my excuse for joining the debate. There remain two problems which can be solved only by primary legislation. They are small problems in compass but they are of considerable importance. The first is that the man or woman in control needs to be able to direct riparian owners of wharves, jetties and piers to allow a damaged ship to moor to them. There 254 has been at least one case. A damaged ship off the Isle of Wight wanted to get into the approaches to Southampton harbour, I think to moor—I hope I do not defame anyone unjustly—at the Fawley refinery. But Fawley said, "Not in our back yard", and was entitled to do so. That kind of situation cannot be allowed to continue.
The second, much more wide-ranging, problem is that we were asked to consider what we should do about offshore installations. The only real powers to deal with a situation are contained in the Merchant Shipping Act, and they do not allow for being used where there is a problem with an offshore installation unless a ship has run into it. Even then it would be necessary that the ship was the producer of the pollution rather than the offshore installation.
We have made it clear—and the Government have agreed—that there ought to be one supremo to control these operations, whether they involve a ship, a ship and an offshore installation or an offshore installation alone. Just to complicate matters, a few offshore installations are in fact ships in the sense that they float and are merely moored to the ocean floor. One man ought to control operations. He will of course require very different skilled advice according to whether or not an offshore installation is involved. The DTI has considerable powers for dealing with that aspect, but they are not sufficient. Those powers are, of course, concerned with the technical and safety aspects of running installations.
The change which is required is a very simple, very short one: it is to provide that in the Act "ship" includes offshore installations. Thereafter the whole thing works perfectly all right. I might have expected that one or other of the departments would have produced a one clause Bill. I do not criticise them at all; that is not the way in which Parliament works. Departments get slots from a legislative committee, and some departments get one only once every three years, or something of that kind. Certainly the transport department has not got a slot for this year and I am not sure whether the DTI has either. So, unless someone else does something, we shall have to wait until the 2002–03 Session.
That is not good enough. I therefore propose—this is my real reason for getting to my feet today—to seek the leave of this House, I hope before the Summer Recess, to introduce a one clause Bill to deal with both these matters. I have not added up the number of words involved, but it is certainly well under 100. I hope that the Bill will pass through this House without a problem. But there will be a problem in the other place. Although it has a purely public interest purpose, it will be a Private Member's Bill, and those Members of the other place who have managed to get a place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills will not want to take up a Bill such as this; it will have no kudos, no glamour, no attraction whatever for them. I hope—and this is my plea—that after the Bill passes through this House, as I have no doubt it will, the Government will take a deep breath when it gets to the other place and allocate five minutes for it to pass through that House.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Lord Faulkner of Worcester
My Lords, I hope that it will not upset my noble friends on the Front Bench too much if I begin by offering a little sympathy for the view expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, at the beginning of her speech about the range of subjects we are being asked to debate today. Education, environment and agriculture cover an extraordinarily wide range. They seem to have little in common, other than the fact that each word begins with a vowel. While I have no doubt about the versatility of my noble friend Lord Whitty and his ability to field every ball that comes his way, I think we might perhaps do better in future to have a succession of individual debates covering each subject. Perhaps that is something that the usual channels may wish to consider for another year.
I shall speak about transport. In doing so, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who spoke on the subject a few moments ago, and I precede my noble friend Lord Berkeley, who I know intends to return to the issue.
I welcome the two announcements contained in the gracious Speech which are relevant here and which were referred to by my noble and learned friend in his opening speech. The first is the commitment to publish legislation to take forward the recommendations of the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Cullen, into rail safety. I shall say more about that in a moment. It is good news. I had not heard before, but it will also be a part of wider legislation covering safety in the work place.
The second announcement is the Government's decision to make the age entitlement for concessionary travel the same for men and women at the age of 60. That will be something for me to look forward to in five years time.
It was surprising that transport did not feature more prominently in the general election campaign. The Conservative Party, as I recall, spent a day portraying itself as the "motorist's friend", promising a 6p a litre reduction in petrol duty and an increase in speed limits on motorways.
There was some discussion about the building of roads through our countryside, but I think that the general view now is that building roads everywhere will not work as a solution to transport problems. If we carry on building roads and do nothing else, the congestion will just keep growing. One academic has worked out that we would have to build a road from London to Edinburgh 250 lanes wide to cater for all the traffic if present trends continue.
So the priority for the next four years will not be to build more roads, or to make the cost of motoring cheaper, or to sit back and allow the proportion and volume of freight travelling by road to grow greater and greater. When it comes to road building, the days of "predict and provide" are over and will never return.
For a start, we need to make road safety a greater priority. We have some of the safest roads in Europe, but that still means more than 3,000 people killed on 256 them every year. We also have one of the highest levels of child road casualties; 13 children are killed or injured on our roads every day. Everything has to be done to ensure that the new targets to cut the death toll are met. We must press on with encouraging local councils to set up safe routes to schools for children.
As speeding is such a major cause of accidents, the police must have the powers and funds to set up more speed cameras, and councils the powers and the money to cut speed limits on dangerous roads.
I believe that the Government's approach on these matters is in accord with the public mood. People accept that our transport system cannot be only car or lorry-based. But they expect that if people are to be persuaded to leave their cars at home and to take public transport, those rail, bus, underground and, increasingly, tramway systems have to be of a standard that makes their usage a pleasant, safe and affordable alternative. Progress in many of these areas over the past four years has been good, and I particularly welcome the growth of the light rail and tramway systems in a number of our conurbations. But the same is not true of our railways. I desperately wish that it were. When this Government came to power in 1997, they inherited a fragmented, divided railway, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said earlier.
The Public Accounts Committee in another place, chaired by Conservative Party leadership candidate, David Davis, concluded in August last year:Railtrack's licence at privatisation contained serious shortcomings because of haste in privatising Railtrack and. as a result, passengers have seen poorer track quality, weak contracts between Railtrack and train operators, and possibly unjustified performance bonuses to Railtrack. We are concerned that this haste contributed to serious deficiencies in the subsequent regulatory regime".That report came out just two months before the Hatfield crash, and well before the recent announcements from Railtrack of a huge dividend for shareholders, and Mr Gerald Corbett's not ungenerous pay-off arrangements which were concluded the other day.
Scarcely has a day passed since the Hatfield crash when there has not been some critical press comment in relation to Railtrack's performance. The pieces that appeared last week following the publication of Lord Cullen's report on the Ladbroke Grove crash give a flavour of the degree of public concern that exists in regard to rail safety and the management of the privatised railway.
Let us take, for example, the Guardian leader last Wednesday:It has become difficult to see how the earning of high dividends for shareholders is compatible with providing a safe, efficient railway free of dependence on public funds.British Rail, so often the butt of comedians' jokes, was far from perfect. It, too, suffered serious rail accidents and had to battle on, deprived of the necessary investment to run a successful railway as they do in France.But at least there was a culture of public service which has been undermined by the dash-for-profit mentality of its new owners who have found, as have other privatised utilities, that cutting experienced staff can be a false economy".257 My worry is that in relation to transport policy the Government may find themselves "derailed" during the lifetime of this Parliament for reasons that are not of their making. For example, I urge my noble friends to read the "Informed Sources" column in the July issue of Modern Railways, written by one of the most respected and authoritative commentators in this area, Roger Ford. He points out that the cost per mile of railway upgrade and modernisation projects has risen by between 2.4 and three times since Railtrack took over from British Rail. He says that the cost of the Euston to Manchester and Great Northern schemes of 1966 and 1976 worked out at £4.9 million per route mile, at the year 2000 price levels. Heathrow Express cost £5.6 million per mile in 1993. The West Coast main line, as let by BR in 1996, was calculated at £6 million per mile.
Now, Railtrack is finding that the West Coast upgrade is costing it £15.75 million per mile—almost the same price as the French railways paid to build an entirely new TGV line into Marseilles, involving the most sophisticated and expensive engineering works. There are other examples: the resignalling project at Leeds—which was the subject of a short debate in this House before the election—was launched at a cost of £100 million. It was approved by Railtrack at £150 million and actually cost £240 million—a factor of 2.4 times on the original BR estimate.
The truth is that the privatised railway is much more complicated to run and to manage. The contractual relationships mean that each part has to make a profit, operators have to be compensated for disruption to services, the gangs spend less time in possession of track, and have to work to new safety rules. All these have inflated the cost per mile by a factor of three. So, according to Mr Ford, the railway investment assumptions in the 10-year transport plan should be divided by two if you are an optimist, and by three if you are a pessimist or a realist.
I am also concerned about what is happening on the rail freight side. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Berkeley will have more to say on this subject later. I have been talking to Consignia, which most of us have known until recently as the Post Office. It is still the railway's largest single freight customer. And so it should be: the overnight delivery of mail by rail should be quicker than by road; it should be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than by air. But Consignia is being pressed by its regulator for improved quality of service and lower prices. It is now a government-owned plc and is required to operate at a profit.
Over the past year, Consignia has suffered appalling delays as a result of the Hatfield accident and its aftermath, which have led to increased costs and lost business. Last week, it announced a total review of its entire road, rail and air networks. The company assures me that it has art open mind—but it has certainly thrown down a challenge to the railway. If the railway cannot respond with a guarantee of faster, more reliable services at competitive prices, the traffic will switch to road and to air.
258 So my concern is that, although many good things are happening in the field of transport—the one-third growth in passengers over the past six years and the 40 per cent growth in freight are good examples—there are many worries and uncertainties.
The Government have done their best to put the industry back together again with the Strategic Rail Authority and have introduced tougher regulation to protect the passenger. As the railway industry is now a private/public sector partnership, an independent economic regulator is essential in order to get private money flowing into the railways.
It is not sensible to do what some commentators and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, have proposed; namely, to merge the Rail Regulator with the SRA. That is because we must protect and promote investment; and that requires the independent economic regulator to act as referee in these public/private partnerships. Tough and effective regulation provides the best chance of putting right the weaknesses in the system, and the regulator is increasing the accountability of Railtrack as regards the public interest. He must be allowed to press on with that.
At a conference being held today, the train operators are asking for a stronger lead from the Strategic Rail Authority, and they are talking about amalgamating companies into larger regional units, vertically integrated, so that they are responsible for their own track and signalling. If those of your Lordships with long memories think that that sounds like the recreation of the big four regional companies that were set up in 1923 and existed until the time of post-war nationalisation, you would not be far wrong.
The backlog of investment—particularly serious during the privatisation process and in the years before that—coupled with the growth in demand, have produced a set of problems which will take time to resolve. It will be years rather than months before they are resolved.
We cannot afford another collective nervous breakdown—that was Sir Alastair Morton's phrase of the sort that paralysed the railway after Hatfield. My worry is that the fragmentation of the industry will make it so much harder to deliver the improvements on time and on budget. If the targets are missed, or if some other disaster strikes the railway, I fear that the public's patience will run out, and they will challenge the industry's structure and ownership.
I know that Ministers have no desire to add burdens of ownership and control of the railways to the responsibilities that they already have as guardians of the public interest. But I am afraid that if we have not made a substantial difference by the time this Parliament ends, we shall all be held to account by the voters, regardless of who owns the industry.
§ 5.29 p.m.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in his place. There is much that the Government have to answer for at the end of the debate. I am pleased also to see the noble 259 Baroness, Lady Byford, in her place. The noble Baroness has done much to fly the flag of agriculture in the past year or so in this House.
I want to concentrate on the future. But, first, the Government must face criticism of their handling of matters in the past four years, and particularly in the past four months. The present recession in farming is the worst in living memory—and that was before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Farmers are calling for, and expect, a lead. Yet there was no mention of agriculture and the environment in the gracious Speech. Everyone in the farming industry I have met in the past week has been appalled at that situation. Farmers were totally omitted from the gracious Speech, except as regards the continuing confrontation over hunting. Farmers have been left to pick up the pieces after the passing of the countryside Act. We expect an even more draconian Scottish land reform Bill to be introduced.
Ministers have declined to say that there will be a full public inquiry into foot and mouth disease. However, farmers and others will demand one. We want to know how it started, why it spread so rapidly and why the Government were so slow to react. I declare my interest as a farmer who had all his fit sheep slaughtered in April. Some 600,000 more livestock were slaughtered in Dumfries and Galloway. The Government must not and should not hide behind the statement that they must wait until foot and mouth disease is eradicated before they conduct a public inquiry. They were happy to hold an inquiry into BSE when it was prevalent in this country, as indeed it still is.
I refer to an extremely important issue in connection with imports. On 5th March I asked a supplementary question about meat imports from countries outside the European Union where foot and mouth disease is endemic. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, replied on behalf of the Department of Health. It took many phone calls to get a reply to my letter of 6th March in which I complained about his Answer. I finally received a reply to that letter on 6th June, the day before the general election. The gist of the letter, which I have before me, is that imported meat is subject to strict controls and that meat is imported only from countries with health and hygiene standards that are on a par with our own. Further, meat is imported only from named meat plants. The letter referred to countries, or parts of countries, from which meat had recently been banned, such as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Swaziland and Uruguay. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that the Government have followed up all the instances of endemic disease in foreign countries with regard to banning imports into this country.
Who has checked imported meat and issued veterinary certificates? Is that the responsibility of the Department of Health, local authorities or Customs and Excise? Who is responsible for those procedures? I do not think that the Government have the matter adequately covered at the present time. Indeed, they seem to accept that the present outbreak was caused by 260 imported meat. How did that meat enter the country if the Government insist that all the necessary controls were in place?
The Minister in the Scottish Parliament responsible for agriculture will comment today on the future of farming. I hope that he and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have some good news. Farming must be profitable. If it is not, how can farmers promote the environment and the habitat that we all want to see in the countryside? How can the rural economy prosper if nearly all farmers are making a loss? That applies to tourism and all the ancillary industries attached to agriculture.
Academics and Ministers keep saying that the CAP will be reformed. However, it is absolutely clear that a reform of the CAP will result in farmers receiving less from it. It is said that farmers should diversify, but diversification schemes need to be profitable and they require an injection of capital and expertise. All those factors are lacking in farming today.
The president of the Scottish National Farmers' Union, Jim Walker, has done a magnificent job throughout the foot and mouth crisis. I attended a meeting at which he spoke in Dumfries a fortnight ago. He gave an extremely gloomy forecast of the future of the sheep sector. The Government are not helping at the present time. Cuts have been imposed in the less favoured area payments. They have decreased from a figure of 90 per cent to 50 per cent to nil. That is not a good situation for hill farmers.
New rules have been introduced as regards the beef special premium and the 90-head total. That constitutes another cut in income. The modulation of stocking density also constitutes a problem for farmers. A rule has been introduced with regard to keeping heifers on a farm which also constitutes a handicap. The sheep annual premium is down this year to £8.7. That is pathetic and the farmers' union has said so. The Government are talking about a 20-day standstill for any livestock being brought onto a farm. That is absolutely ludicrous. One cannot believe that any civil servant or Minister understands what they are doing with regard to a 20-day standstill. Farming will cease to exist if that measure is introduced. Of course we need to be careful as regards bringing stock on to farms but a standstill would make the position impossible.
Do the Government realise that in six to eight weeks' time the hill lamb sales would have started? Those are absolutely vital to hill farming. At the moment, rightly, there are no livestock movements, no auction marts and no market. What will happen to the tens of thousands of hill lambs throughout the United Kingdom? Have the Government a plan or advice? Can they help us? There is a deathly silence from the ministries.
Does the Minister realise that last year Scotland exported £228 million worth of sheepmeat from both live and dead stock? That has all stopped. Where will farmers earn that money this year? Those exports are just not possible at the present time. But if some help is not given to farming the whole of the hill landscape 261 will deteriorate. We want information. Every farmer is asking why we cannot get information out of the Government. The worst thing of all is the lack of genuine information. When can we start to restock? Why does the situation appear to change almost every day with every fresh telephone call one makes? Why does no one answer the telephone? I have tried to get a response on umpteen occasions but I speak to an answering machine and no one ever rings back.
When will blood testing be carried out, or is it the Government's policy to carry out blood testing? Can we be given an authoritative statement on tax on compensation? The accountants are waiting for such a statement. In any case "compensation" is not the right word to use because it is not a case of compensation. I refer to what the Government paid us when our stock were compulsorily slaughtered. The money paid is not adequate compensation for lost income over the years to come.
I hope that the Minister is getting the message. I was glad to note that the Secretary of State travelled as far as Yorkshire yesterday and may have learned something from the farming community there. The rural recovery at the moment is non-existent. Farming and tourism are at a standstill. The Government talk about the importance of the environment. I refer to the environment almost in brackets as it does not form an important part of my speech. I am concerned at comments that we must beautify the countryside, and yet the Government are hell bent on allowing more windfarrns, telecommunications masts and pylons to be constructed. I am aware that those plans were slightly modified in March, but that is an extremely small step in the direction of trying to prevent the proliferation of these dreadful eyesores on almost every hilltop between my home in the Borders and Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Government have adopted a pathetic attitude towards those obstructions in the countryside.
It is important now to have a speedy recovery and for the Government to give a lead and some help. What we and the farmers want to hear is how the Government will help this essential industry both for the sake of the whole rural economy and the countryside which we all love and wish to see improved. I believe that the Government should address the situation in far greater depth than their comments in the gracious Speech provide. I hope that tonight the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will start to give us some helpful advice.
§ 5.39 p.m.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, when he referred to the difficulties of having a debate on such disparate subjects as education, environment and agriculture. On the same occasion last year a number of noble Lords emphasised the point. From these Benches my noble friend Lady Sharp and I were quite vigorous on the subject. We asked the usual channels to do something about it. I do not know how long it 262 takes the usual channels to listen to the grass roots. Now that they have 18 months before this occasion arises again perhaps they may do something.
I was glad to note the re-affirmation in the gracious Speech that the Government regard,tackling climate change and making a reality of sustainable developmenta priority. I also welcome the announcement yesterday that there is to be a wide-ranging energy review in which the climate change issue is bound to be a major consideration. This is a subject on which I spoke in the equivalent debate last year. I come back to it again because I remain concerned that the Government will not achieve their climate change objectives unless there are major policy changes.
Let me start with the objectives. The Government have committed themselves to reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent compared with 1990 by the year 2010. An essential part of that is to increase the amount of electricity generated by renewable sources to 10 per cent by that date, with a similar objective for combined heat and power.
In its substantial report issued in June last year, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution expressed doubts about whether the Government's objectives for 2010 could be achieved without further action being taken and was particularly concerned about the position after 2010 when it considered that as a minimum a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions should be achieved by 2050 in view of the increasing problems arising from climate change. I must say that I share the concern of the Royal Commission on both counts.
The trouble is that in the shorter term. in the period up to 2010, the Government have, as a result of a number of measures, made the achievement of the specific targets for renewables and CHF' much more difficult. Instead of the 10 per cent objective by 2010 the present trends seem to indicate that we would be lucky to achieve half that figure by that date.
Let me deal with some of the obstacles. While energy produced from renewables escapes the climate change levy, this is only partly true in the case of CHP. These schemes, which produce both heat and electricity and therefore achieve much greater efficiency in the conversion of primary energy than electricity-only schemes such as power stations, are tailored to meet customers' heat requirements. At certain times they produce more electricity than those customers require. They must therefore export the electricity to the grid. When that happens it attracts the levy. The effect of this unreal distinction is that many CHP schemes have now been put on hold.
A more serious impediment affecting both renewables and CHP schemes arises from the introduction on 27th March of the New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA). Under the balancing mechanism of those arrangements a substantial penalty is levied on electricity generators which cannot precisely estimate how much they are likely to supply to their customers and to cover those supplies by contract. Any shortfall or oversupply bears a 263 substantial financial penalty. But by their very nature these schemes cannot precisely forecast how much electricity they will produce. The most telling example applies to wind farms, which cannot make forecasts because they cannot tell in advance what will be the effect of the wind. A number of suggestions have been made about how this difficulty might be overcome but so far Ofgem, the regulatory body, has not agreed to make any change. However, it has been asked by the Government to conduct a review into the first two months of the impact of the balancing mechanism of NETA on smaller generators such as renewables and CHP. In addition, an independent inquiry has been launched in which a number of Peers, including myself, will be involved.
A related issue is the development of embedded generation. This is small-scale generation which links into the local electricity network rather than the national grid. There is an increasing trend towards smaller-scale electricity generation which has many environmental and economic advantages, especially when based on combined heat and power systems. The ultimate form of embedded generation is microgeneration which can take generation down to the scale required for domestic premises. Much work is being done on this—and here I declare an interest. Because I believe that this is an important future trend contributing to the more efficient use of energy, I have recently taken the initiative of forming a company under the name of Micropower which is supported by five of the largest groups interested in this sector. In taking this initiative I believe that I am responding to the challenge posed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about innovation and the formation of new small companies. For microgeneration to succeed a suitable regulatory framework is needed and recommendations for that were made in the recent embedded generation report. I understand that the Government will shortly consider this report in depth.
The problems associated with meeting the climate change targets in the year up to 2010 are overshadowed by the difficulties likely to arise after that date. There will then be the withdrawal of further nuclear plant, and their replacement is a matter which requires urgent consideration. This will no doubt be a priority in the newly announced energy review. In this situation it is obvious that renewables and CHP should be further developed and there could also be a role for my old industry, the coal industry, so long as clean coal technology is successfully developed. It is important that agreement should be reached very quickly on the construction of a clean coal technology demonstration plant of the capacity of about 400 or 500 megawatts. Such a plant would require three years to build and could then be used to demonstrate the contribution that this technology could make in the period after 2010.
The Government have announced that one of their key objectives in this Parliament will be the delivery of policy objectives, especially in education, health, law and order and transport. There is a strong case for adding the environment to this list. The technology for 264 reducing carbon emissions, which is the main issue within the environmental sector, is well proven. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred earlier to the contribution which could be made by biofuel. New technologies such as microgeneration are being vigorously developed. What is needed is a regulatory and fiscal framework which will encourage such developments and not hinder them. I hope that the new energy review will deal with this issue.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Bradford
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate not as an expert in any of the subjects under discussion but as a general practitioner, a pastor, whose diocese contains what the press call the Settle rectangle where foot and mouth disease has been rampant; and a diocese which takes education very seriously indeed.
Perhaps I may first comment on education. We are grateful for the encouragement given to Church schools. We are also extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, for his report. I look forward to hearing him when he next speaks.
I join my Church brother, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, in saying that it is a fiction to project Church of England schools as sectarian. The diocese of Bradford has 60 primary schools, a number of which have more than 90 per cent Muslim pupils. None of our schools is sectarian. They are community schools in which we encourage young people of all backgrounds and of all faiths and none to come together and learn in an environment that is motivated by Christian principles and Christian practice.
The problem is greater with senior schools. The diocese of Bradford—unnoticed, as usual—has led the Church of England by creating two new senior schools in the past couple of years, Immanuel Community College and Bradford Cathedral Community College. One of the problems in Bradford is that when there is violence, it is almost always between teenagers and youngsters with different racial backgrounds who have little or no contact in their normal daily life.
Our problem is to try to get schools at a senior level in which youngsters of all races can continue to meet, get to know each other and, hopefully, build up some trust. That is very difficult. I should welcome comment from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on whether the Government will take the problem seriously. Nobody wants contrived ways of making schools have a certain mix, but parents of older children tend to vote with their feet. Whether we like it or not, in many schools the pupils come almost exclusively from one background. I read recently that someone in London had suggested setting up schools that were entirely for black people. I hope that that idea will be thrown out. We need the reverse. That kind of sectarianism—if I can call it that—is very damaging.
There have been many criticisms flying around—and I am sure that there are more to come—on issues relating to agriculture, rural life and foot and mouth. I shall pay tribute to some of the good things that I have observed in our part of North Yorkshire. The 265 mutual support given by farmers to each other has been astonishing and very moving. As someone who earns his living as a pastor, I am full of admiration for the way in which they have cared for each other. I am most impressed by the help that the Farm Crisis Network has given to farmers in great distress. The latest figures that I have for the ARC fund at Stoneleigh show that more than £6.15 million has been contributed by Church people throughout the country towards the relief of those in need. I also pay tribute to the outstanding care given by two of my clergy when a young man committed suicide because he thought that he was responsible for the spread of foot and mouth in his area. He left behind a partner and two children.
All the clergy in the parishes have given outstanding care. Unlike people in national office, they live, work and share the lives of people day in, day out, come rain or shine. I have been proud of the clergy in the diocese and the standard of pastoral care that they have offered, although I have to admit that one of them took it slightly too far. A young incumbent, spotting a farmer's wife in some distress trying to round up some sheep, vaulted a five-bar gate to help her, only to discover that he had entered a field that had been declared contaminated and he could no longer visit any other farms in the area. The age of chivalry is not dead, but sometimes valour exceeds discretion.
I have spoken to 80 farmers by telephone and written to another 220-odd. That is the number in the diocese of Bradford. Most of them have spoken very kindly of many of the people who have been carrying out the culling. It must be an awful job. They have spoken very appreciatively of the sensitivity, care and compassion shown by most, if not all, of those involved. They have also spoken very warmly of the Army. I pay public tribute to the soldiers, who are doing a very difficult job for which they were not trained—and doing it with distinction. Among all this, there is something very good.
The presiding member of the Mother's Union in the diocese of Bradford—an organisation that is not mentioned often in your Lordships' House—is a farmer's wife who is involved in practical farming. On behalf of the Mother's Union, she has been in contact with every affected family in the diocese with prayer cards and support. That local activity shows the tremendous support of local people for all those who are suffering so badly.
Many people I have spoken to would echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, about a lack of sensitivity. Whether or not Her Majesty's Government have been insensitive and uncaring—perhaps I am not in a position to judge—that is the perception. Almost all those whom I have spoken to have said that all the straws in the wind point in that direction. It has been noted several times this afternoon that there is no mention of agriculture in the gracious Speech. That is just another example of that attitude. The lack of interest from all political parties before the election was so stunning that we sent out a press release to point out the fact. The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the BBC picked it up.
266 I appreciate that there are many things on people's minds before a general election, but to show no interest in a place such as North Yorkshire during that time was unfortunate. The Secretary of State's visit yesterday was very welcome. I hope that she and others will come regularly, but I am reminded of the Prime Minister's visit to Yorkshire to encourage tourism. He went to York, which is a very fine city and I very much like going there, but the people of Settle and Skipton were not impressed. If he had gone to Skipton on market day I could have promised him a very interesting time. He would certainly have made an impact. I still hope that he might come and do that.
Mr Brown came to Settle before the election, when the issue was still his responsibility. He spoke to MAFF officials and I think that he spoke to the Army, but I do not think that he spoke to more than one or two people in the farming and rural community.
That is noticed and taken on board. Unfair or not, the perception is that agriculture and the people involved in it are expendable and do not matter. In such an environment, accusation and counter-accusation fly all over the place. There are suggestions that it is all a mafia-type plot from Brussels or that the Government intend to get rid of all farmers. I do not believe that for a moment, but it shows that this is not an academic problem or a question of figures on pieces of paper. We are talking about people and their whole lives. Many of them had pedigree herds built up over generations. Dairy farmers have told me that there is no longer anything to get up for in the morning. Their lives have been completely changed.
Whether we like it or not, the rural community is being changed. The issue affects all of us. We are not just talking about jobs. The whole nature of the community is being changed. I am surprised that that has not been noted. In 1971, I was the vicar of a country parish in Northumberland next to Ashington, which was a huge mining town. During the miner's dispute, I saw families split in two, with father and son not speaking to each other, and people chopping down telegraph poles to have something to burn. The issue was about more than jobs—it was the disintegration of a community.
We need to have an assurance from Her Majesty's Government—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will give this—that there is a realisation that we are talking about whole communities and their future. I appeal to the noble Lord to say that he will offer hope—I emphasise the word "hope".
I cannot for the life of me understand why there cannot be an independent inquiry. It may involve legal issues; it may take a long time. But the people to whom I have been talking say that, if there is no inquiry, there must be a cover-up. I do not make that deduction, but one can understand why people do. We must have people in government who are prepared to put up their hands and say, "We made a mistake"; farmers must be prepared to say that bad practices and bad farming took place and that we must get rid of them. In other words, we must have honesty, all the cards must be put on the table, and we must resolve together to place things on a much better footing.
267 At this point, I put in a particular plea for the Church. Alas, I am aware that when the Secretary of State went to Yorkshire yesterday she did not meet anyone from the Church. The clergy and the laity of the Church have been at the very heart of this matter, day in and day out, offering the type of pastoral care and support that other people cannot. We have the Craven Trust, which was formed in my house and has one of my archdeacons at its heart. It raises money for rural projects. The Dales Recovery Appeal has now been formed. It has £1 million for those who will not be compensated, such as people who run rural bed and breakfast accommodation and village shops.
I wonder whether Her Majesty's Government will forgive a little piece of impertinence if I say that, in addition to whatever else they provide, perhaps they will match pound for pound the money raised by the Dales Recovery Appeal. I do not see any animation, so perhaps I am a man who lives constantly in the world of hope.
I end with one word. The future is absolutely crucial. Farmer after farmer and shopkeeper after shopkeeper say, "We do not know what is happening; we do not know where we are going. Nobody will tell us. Please will you come often to these places that are affected? Please will you give people a vision of what you are aiming for after you have consulted them?"
I reflect on the word "minister". I am a minister—a minister of the Church—and therefore I am a servant. As a Bishop, the first thing that one must do is listen. I hope very much that those who share the title "Minister" will also listen, produce a vision for the future and give our people some hope.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Lord Dearing
My Lords, two right reverend Prelates have referred to a recent report in which I had a hand. One of them encouraged me to say more about it. Having listened to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn summarise the contents of 98 closely-typed pages in as many words, I shall hold my peace and congratulate the House on having received such a brilliant summary in so few words.
I shall simply add one or two points—one perhaps to the Church. In its manifesto the Labour Party says that it would like more Church schools where the local people want them. The noble Baroness, Lady Blotch, said this afternoon on behalf of her party that she would welcome more Church schools. I recall from consultation that the Liberal-Democrat Party has good will towards Church schools. More and more parents are saying that they would like to be able to send their children to a Church school. I hope that the Church will welcome this opening of the doors from society to more Church schools.
Having said that, I want to summarise what, for me, is the proper position of the Church in relation to schools. I quote the words of Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. I do so in order to demonstrate that the Church does not seek to be exclusive but inclusive. He said that Church schools 268 should nourish those of the faith, encourage those of other faiths and challenge those of no faith. That is an inclusive approach.
I move on to one or two other issues. The Government said through the gracious Speech that they propose to engage in educational reform through an education Bill. They propose to promote diversity and improve standards, especially in secondary schools. I believe that we all welcome that intention warmly. I certainly do. However, there is always some risk. If one aims to improve standards through setting a target in terms of the number or percentage of pupils who reach level "x", those who have no chance of reaching level "x" may not receive the attention that they need because the school is so committed to responding to the request expressed on behalf of society through those targets.
I have spoken before about the scandal that exists in our land whereby, in the words of the Moser report, one-fifth of our adults cannot find a plumber in Yellow Pages because they cannot read well enough. In terms of numeracy, the report states that the problem is even greater. I hope very much that, in improving standards, the Government show the commitment to those young people that they do to raising standards as a whole. Indeed, an even greater commitment is required because we are in danger of producing a fragmented society in which a large number of people cannot participate effectively. The danger is that people will say, "No, we are not players", and an anti-culture to society will come about which will be highly dangerous to us all.
In April the Government published a consultative document on funding community action. If I added up the numbers correctly—probably I did not but the result is near enough—they are envisaging spending £340 million over a period of three years in order to promote community action. I saw with gladness that the document was not the work of only one department; it was the work of several departments coming together. Good, I thought. I also thought to myself that we shall never solve the problem of that 20 per cent of the population if we see it entirely as an educational problem.
Of course, the teachers can and will do more, but we shall never crack the problem unless we see it also as a social problem whose solution requires the active involvement of local communities at grass roots level—that is, neighbours. When the consultation period is completed, I hope very much that, given the difficulty of getting through to people who are not good readers and who do not listen very much to the statements of Ministers, the Government will promote the opportunity with the vigour with which "Sid" was used to promote the sale of British Gas.
We need to promote the idea to Sid and to Mary Jane—ordinary, disadvantaged people—on a great scale in order to persuade them to become involved in action at a local level and to view, in particular, the school as a centre of community. I have referred previously to the success that the country of Cumbria is having with community renewal and in bringing 269 communities back together through education and through the use of information technology in schools. I believe that 70 or 80 such initiatives are now in existence. Other communities have their own initiatives. These are community initiatives and I believe that they provide a vehicle through which we can reach 'parents.
Perhaps I may say that £70 million is identified for the relief of child poverty. Who knows better the signals of child poverty than the class teacher in a primary school? I remember a head teacher who always looked to see whether the children's feet were dry, whether they had decent shoes and whether they had eaten breakfast. Teachers know such things and, through schools, we can sponsor community action with that funding. That is my first request to the Government: promote us to "Sid" so that we may see the schools as centres of community action opportunity.
In her speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to a development that I had not heard of. I have since read about it as best I can in a few brief moments. It involved the Government's announcement today of a new award. The relevant passage in the announcement, which is headed, "Editors Notes", stated:The new award would recognise a package of qualifications achieved by young people by the time they reach 19 which would demonstrate both breadth and depth".I want to pick up that point. As much as 45 years ago, the Crowther committee commented on the peculiarity of education in England and Wales, in contradistinction to the rest of Western Europe and North America. It stated that after the age of 16 we focused on two or three subjects to the exclusion of breadth. Years later that point was picked up by the Schools Council and the Higginson committee. Lord Walton's National Commission on Education picked it up, and the wretched Dearing report, which was produced for the previous government, urged that one but not the only route to be encouraged involved marrying depth of study with breadth. I am obviously cheered by the proposal. We should never try to compress a child's aspirations to the one mould that we think is right. Young people are immense in their diversity. We need to encourage depth with breadth because admissions tutors and universities are looking only for depth in their subject. For goodness' sake, let us also encourage those who have a clear vision of where they want to be and the talent to go for it.
Finally, and perhaps with some impertinence, I want to put two points to the Government. Much needs to be done in secondary education but one will make most progress by choosing those few things that matter and by staying with them, rather than by pursuing a plethora of brilliant initiatives that are obviously right. For goodness' sake, schools are little places, and in that regard we should concentrate.
Finally, I wish the new Secretary of State and her team, which includes the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, great success in their task. Their success will be the success of us all.
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Lord Wade of Chorlton
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a small farmer and property owner, as chairman of a company that is involved with regeneration in the rural and urban economy, as a director of a major food company and as the president of the Combined Heat and Power Association. I have nothing to do with education whatsoever but that did not stop me from enjoying the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing.
For many years I was in the cheesemaking business. One of the fascinating things about making cheese is that all cheeses start from one ingredient—milk. With the addition of a little bacteria and some rennet, one can create every known cheese, although there is also the added ingredient of the skill of the cheesemaker. There is one great enemy in cheesemaking; we call it a bacteriophage. It is an anti-phage that builds up in the dairy after a long period of cheesemaking and kills the bacteria that one needs.
The rural farming economy also involves a simple process: one simply needs land and the skill of the farmer. We have suffered tremendously from a bacteriophage; namely, government interference, regulation and, above all, the CAP. All of my life, that has been the bacteriophage in the farming industry.
The CAP involves a process that is based on production. People are paid for production. If we pay people for production, they will produce—that is exactly what they will do. If we paid one side of this House more than the other, I know where every Member would sit. However, we do not appear to understand that simple fact. While we pay people for production, we ask from them the opposite—we ask for environmental care, for special processes and for high systems of care for one's production and we ask them to look after the consumer and to comply with regulations. That process has got to stop.
I have at various periods and for many years sat on Sub-Committee D of this House's European Union Committee. That sub-committee is responsible for agriculture, food and farming. Whenever we have investigated the matter, we have always come to the conclusion and written in our reports that the CAP is faulty and should not continue. However, it has done so year on year.
I suggest a different approach that supports and encourages what I shall call a middle way in farming. It involves a less intensive system of farming. We could encourage that by stopping paying for production and by starting to pay for the products that people really want; namely, quality of food, consistency of quality, certainty about the system of production and the supply of environmental products, which have already been referred to. We should pay people for realising those aims. If they do not want to produce them—if they prefer to use the standard system, which involves accepting market prices, and if they are highly efficient at doing so—we should, by all means, let the associated system prevail. However, unless we change our whole system, we shall slowly destroy or work against the interests of the consumer and those of the 271 farmer, which will cost increasing amounts of money. As has already been said, everybody would be worse off as a result of the tremendous amount of money that has been pumped into agriculture.
We need to scrap the existing system completely and start again. We need to place agriculture on a different footing. The UK should not say, by way of excuse, "That is not our decision; we have to bring all the countries in Europe together". Of course we have to do that before something finally happens, but we should produce our own policy, which should be based on a changing approach, and we should consistently market it in Europe and to our own consumers and agricultural industry. It is only when we create a whole new concept for our approach—it should be based strongly on academic knowledge, sound science and proper research—that we will win the argument. Increasing numbers of people throughout Europe are consumer driven and are pressing for such changes. We must avoid changing to a policy that is based not on sound science and academic research but on prejudice and emotion. Many of the policies to which the Government now listen have no sound basis in science. We must put those views out of our minds.
I do not accept that the organic system is a long-term approach. It is far too limiting and it is not financially sustainable—prices are already starting to fall in the marketplace and those with major investments in that area could run into difficulties. At the same time, I must say that I admire enormously those marketing people who can sell an inferior product at twice the price of similar products. If they can do that, good luck to them! However, organic farming is not a sustainable system and it is certainly not an alternative to our current approach, which is highly intensive and which is encouraged by our present financial system.
I welcome the fact that the new department will examine rural affairs as a whole. I have for some time felt that that is the right way forward. I strongly believe that we must examine the driving of the rural economy as a whole. As was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, all the indications are that the agricultural aspect of our rural economy is now in serious decline, and clearly the situation will steadily worsen. Our share of GDP is of the order of 1 per cent. The situation is becoming ridiculous—I read the other day that the sandwich industry in this country now involves as much money as the agricultural industry. Quite clearly, our role in the economy of the country is diminishing quickly and the numbers employed in it are falling fast. And the indications are that that will continue. But the importance of everything that is taking place in the rural economy in terms of its economic value is quite another matter. I hope that the new department will encourage that to a much greater degree.
What we must do, and what I hope the Minister's department will do, is to give much more support for alternative economic activities in our rural areas. Above all, that means a review of planning laws and, in my view, greenbelt policy. The system of planning 272 laws in this country is the most appalling that anyone could ever possibly imagine. A system whereby so few people can stop something which will benefit so many people seems to me completely contrary to democracy. I thought that democracy was for the benefit of the majority. But that is not so in the planning system, where one person can cause problems and delays and holds back extremely important economic developments. I object to a system which requires that each proposal should have an environmental review but not an economic review.
When the noble and learned Lord opened the debate, he emphasised the economic role that the department now intends to play. That role cannot be played if every time you want to push something forward, there is another set of rules which holds you back from developing it. As other noble Lords have said, there have been hints in the press that the Government are going to look at the planning system. I do not agree at all with the present greenbelt policy which is, again, an elitist policy and is of no benefit either to the urban or rural areas. It moves into rural areas those activities which should be taking place on the edge of towns. It is natural for towns to grow and towns should grow. There are all the benefits of town life and the resources that exist within it for those who are going to live there. Those benefits should not be pushed out into isolated rural areas. That is no use to the people and no use to the area either.
The other issue that I want to emphasise is how the Government have reduced the research finance in the agricultural and horticultural industries. That is quite a serious matter which will have to be addressed if the Government wish to achieve their objectives. There is need for greater research, using new, efficient technology in agriculture, into biotechnology, genomics and the development of a second generation of transgenic crops. It is the next generation of those crops and developments which, over the next five or 10 years, will bring real benefits to consumers in both food quality and variety. It would be a very great mistake if the Government do not drive forward those issues in a very strong way.
We must understand that structural change will be inevitable. I cannot see how we can continue to see the small farms which currently exist. There will have to be changes. Uneconomic farms cannot be maintained. Looking into the future, one can see that some farms will be hobby farms, owned by people who want to be in the farming industry and who have resources from outside that industry. We shall probably see more open areas with non-farming activities taking place with access in those areas. I hope that there will be more rural park areas and certainly more forestry.
We shall end up with other areas throughout the country of highly efficient farming carried out on a very large scale. That will be necessary if we are to compete on a price basis with imported products. Those farms will obviously grow as the impact of enlargement makes great competition for our own industry. And as has already been mentioned by my 273 noble friend Lord Plumb, the impact of the World Trade Organisation trade talks will impose many more problems on British agriculture as it operates today.
The Minister who opened the debate had an answer to virtually everybody's questions. That particular noble and learned Lord generally does. But investigation shows that in practice, those answers are not all feasible; that they work against one another. You cannot suit every economic opportunity while also embracing every environmental opportunity which holds back growth. The Government have to make a choice. In developing our rural economy, there will be winners and losers, The Government need to understand very clearly which way they really want to go. Do they want to drive forward an effective and viable rural economy, as they said they do, or do they want to put conservation, environmental matters and regulation at the heart of their policies? As the right reverend Prelate said, people want to know. People can plan and run businesses if they know the environment in which they are operating.
I conclude by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for referring, as he did, to combined heat and power and the energy situation and I endorse the comments that he made. I want to emphasise the point about microtechnology, which is now available in the combined heat and power industry. That means that within 10 years we can have, if we want it and if the right price can be obtained, virtually a CHP unit in a house which will drive the electricity, heat and even chilling facilities. It will be possible to make electricity available from your own house unit into the grid and an income can be obtained from that. That can happen if the system allows it and there is the right encouragement to make those things happen. That will be an enormous breakthrough and it will be possible to produce energy far more efficiently in terms of price than we do at present. That will make a tremendous contribution not only to the climate change situation but also to the wealth of the country as a result of a much more efficient system. I hope that the Government will listen to all the advice that they have been given today and take some action on it.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ Lord Dahrendorf
My Lords, this debate provides a welcome opportunity to go beyond Second Reading debates on specific legislation and to scrutinise the philosophy underlying government policy.
The noble Lord, Lord Wade of Chorlton, started by saying, I think, that he knows nothing about education but a great deal about farming. I know nothing about farming but, like other Lords, I am impressed by his plea for a new look at agriculture and the rural communities.
But my subject is education and I am essentially speaking about what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, described as the first of his major points. The Government's story, as I understand it, is that in their first term they have concentrated on improvements in primary education, and they have done so with some success. Therefore, now, in their second term, 274 secondary education can have pride of place. I shudder to think how many parliamentary terms will be needed until we get to education for the elderly, but that is not my point.
My point is rather that underlying that plan is a notion that every child should have an opportunity to advance through primary and secondary stages to a tertiary stage. The underlying idea is one of an educational career: progression along a wide avenue which leads for as many as possible to university degrees. The catchword is meritocracy. When the Prime Minister talked to journalists outside No. 10 after his re-election, he spoke of his dream of a society that is meritocratic. In an earlier speech he said:Opening up the economy and society to merit and talent is the radical second term agenda".The terminology has since been taken up by a number of people, including the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, who seems to be against meritocracy, and the editorialist of The Times, who seems to be in favour of meritocracy.
I pondered those statements and then proceeded to reread the book published 43 years ago by a social scientist in his prime, who is now a distinguished Member of this House, although unfortunately not in his place this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, Michael Young at the time. The book is called The Rise of the Meritocracy. It is a splendid work of the imagination. It describes, in 1958, British social history from the imagined perspective of 2034. In the words of Michael Young, it traces the decline of the hereditary or aristocratic principle, its replacement by age and experience, or the gerontocratic principle, and then general insistence on merit, defined as measured intelligence plus effort. That is the meritocratic principle. It sounds like a blueprint for the various stages of reform of the House of Lords.
For a while such meritocracy is universally accepted. After all, who would quarrel with merit in that sense? However, Michael Young's Utopia is of the Huxley/Orwell variety and not that of Thomas More or William Morris. It is a nightmare. Young wrote:Under the new dispensation the division between the classes has been sharper than it used to be under the old, the status of the upper classes higher and that of the lower classes lower".He said that the historical waste of talent has at last been overcome; efficiency has now been squared with justice and order with humanity, which means,nothing less than a new stage in the ascent of man".Except, of course, there are those who do not make it to the top. Michael Young said:Men after all are notable not for the equality but for the inequality of their endowment".He said that that means,More and more was demanded of the skilled men, less and less of the unskilled, and finally there was no need for unskilled men at all".So what do the meritocrats do about the unskilled who are no longer needed? In Young's Utopia some form a kind of "Pioneer Corps", as he called it. Their IQ may 275 be low but they have muscles and are thus able to do the remaining manual work. However, that still leaves many behind. Young said:about a third of all adults were unemployable in the ordinary economy".For them a forgotten type of work was rediscovered, personal service. A large Home Help Corps enlisted many of them to complete the almost platonic order of estates: meritocrats, pioneers and home helpers.
It would be tempting to follow Young's further predictions up to the eventual revolution. For example with the aid of rapid advances in what in 1958 Young called "biophysics", a Eugenics Institute was created to make intelligence hereditary and thus turn meritocracy into a new aristocracy, with large numbers permanently excluded—a job for your Lordships' stem cell committee!
I leave the fantasy world of the noble Lord and turn to reality, although that is not in all respects dissimilar. The meritocratic project underlying the Government's education policy has a number of serious flaws. Merit defined as measured intelligence plus effort is bound to lead to elaborate processes of assessment that come to dominate what should be the nurturing experience of education.
In that sense, meritocracy creates a social hierarchy that must seem inescapable, especially for those who fail to make it to the top. It creates exclusion rather than a remedy for it. By insisting on the one wide avenue to success, meritocracy runs into the dilemmas of the "social limits to growth". The fact that Britain leads the OECD league table of university graduates, with 36 per cent in 1999, should be a source of self-doubt rather than self-congratulation. What was until quite recently the best university system in Europe has been dissipated. It has produced a single-minded pursuit of academic degrees which leaves many behind, while putting others on the wrong track. It is no accident that in a meritocratic order of that kind many talents come to be seen as being of lower standing. Thus vocational training lags behind most others in Europe.
As a liberal, I want access and opportunities for all. If there has to be meritocracy, in the words of Mr Philip Collins in a recent article in Prospect on the subject, let it be based on a "high social floor", including good general education. But beyond that, what is needed above all is diversity. Perhaps there are the beginnings of such diversity, at least at the secondary level, in the legislation announced in the gracious Speech. More generally, there is not just one regal progression to educational success, let alone to a fulfilling life. Alternative routes at all stages of life are far more important than the straight path to a degree. Those in the Government who are responsible should perhaps take their noble colleague's book with them on their well-deserved summer holiday and return with a better idea than meritocracy.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to 276 follow the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. He said he did not know much about agriculture but he certainly knows much about education. I was running up a hill, trying to keep apace with what he said. I do not intend this to be an aggressive comment, but it is a great pity that on subjects such as education, the environment and agriculture only two Labour Back-Benchers are in attendance.
I congratulate the party opposite—particularly those who are present—on having won the last election. Some of us would have wished it otherwise, but the fact is that they achieved a cracking result from their point of view. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on his new responsibilities, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House who made a gracious remark when he said that he would be the servant of the House. He was right to say that and I hope that in the future we shall not have to remind him of that fact.
The only sad point is that the Government appear to be determined to get rid of the hereditary Peers, in relation to which I declare an interest. The Government appear to regard hereditary Peers as objectionable objects. We are very agreeable people when you get to know us. Fly-swatting appears to be a sport enjoyed by the Government.
I remind your Lordships of the gracious and courteous salutation that the Roman gladiators used to give before they were sent into the gladiatorial contest, which was a fight to the death. They said:Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutamus".I am sure that all noble Lords will have no difficulty in translating that. But in case your Lordships have forgotten some of the Latin education that you absorbed when at school, it means:Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you".We do not intend to die just yet.
I want to concentrate on agriculture and the countryside. I declare an interest in that agriculture and the countryside have always been part of my life. Over the past four years agriculture has been through the most calamitous period ever. Agricultural depressions have happened before, but on top of a depression we have had BSE, swine fever and now foot and mouth disease.
When such problems occur, those in charge must pick up the parcel, as it were, and run with it. The Government had to do so on those occasions. From time to time, we had running commentaries from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I pay great tribute to her for what she did not only in this House but in MAFF and for the countryside as a whole. She used to give us hideous figures relating to what had happened.
In April, she told us that there were 1,481 confirmed cases; more than 2 million animals had been slaughtered; and a further 475,000 had been slaughtered under the welfare slaughter scheme. I congratulate civil servants on finding the most bizarre names. If one were to be slaughtered, one would not regard it as a welfare objective! She also told us that there was a disposal backlog of 85,000 animals.
277 The trouble is that one tends to get punch drunk on such figures and merely absorb them. But they are staggering and behind them lies a state of total misery and grief for those who owned the animals and live in the countryside. The noble Baroness told us that the scientific advice was to reduce the time between reporting the disease and slaughter to 24 hours. We are almost into July, but on 13th March the Minister said,We have it under control".That was premature and inaccurate. Of course, the figures have become worse.
I believe that we went wrong at the beginning with the length of time between reporting the likelihood of the disease and disposal of the animals. The vets had to inspect them; samples had to be taken; the samples had to be analysed; and the result had to be reported to the farmer. Then one had to get people in to carry out the valuations, other people to slaughter the animals and more people to remove the carcasses. All that took time and meanwhile the animals were spewing out the disease.
As regards burning the carcasses, it took 16 sleepers and a quarter of a tonne of coal per sheep. I cannot understand that but apparently it was the case. And of course the carcinogens and the disease were wafted up into the air by the warm draught of the bonfire. Then we witnessed the unbelievable sight of young men careering around fields on motorbikes trying to kill terrified sheep with a rifle. I wonder whether the Government believe that that is a right and acceptable way for them or their agents to act.
Then we heard the astonishing story of the white calf called Phoenix who, when it was supposed to be dead, clambered out alive from under a pile of its dead friends. They tried to kill it a second time but that did not work either. Then the press weighed in and the outcry was so great that the Government decided to change the rules so that the animal could live. We had all those rules and all that expenditure to rid ourselves of foot and mouth and one pretty calf made the Prime Minister stand the rules on their head. I say "the Prime Minister" because when the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Brown, went into MAFF the next morning he did not know that the animal had been reprieved.
The hard fact is that if all those animals had to die in order to curtail foot and mouth, that animal should have died too. If it was all right to allow that calf to live, the others which were killed should have been allowed to live. If it was all right to allow one pretty calf to live, why was not the goat which used to live like a member of the family and sit on the hearth in front of the living room fire allowed to live too? No, he was killed.
Stacks of questions of that nature and non sequiturs must be answered. Some animals were slaughtered because the inspector got the grid reference wrong. Animals were slaughtered 100 miles from where the slaughterman was supposed to be. They are devastating thoughts and they were devastating mistakes.
278 Then we had the decision not to change to vaccination. That is a technical and complicated problem. I was pleased that the Government did not do so because when I had the privilege of being in MAFF some 20 years ago I was persuaded that the slaughter/compensation policy was correct. There is an outbreak only once in 20 years and during that period it is cheaper than vaccinating. It keeps the nation's stock free of foot and mouth while vaccine lasts only for eight months. There are a number of different strains of the disease and if one vaccinates for one and another appears the vaccination is wasted.
In those days, those on the Continent were using vaccination while we were using the slaughter policy. Curiously, those on the Continent changed to using the slaughter policy while we were considering changing to a vaccination policy. At the time, I thought it was like saying to a soldier in the middle of a battle, "Run back home and get a different gun". You cannot do that; you must stay with the policy. I believe that that is right.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford made an impressive intervention in a debate on 4th April. He said:The pictures of the mass slaughter of animals have been extremely distressing for a range of people who in no way could be regarded as cranky or sentimental about animals".He was right. He asked:Is there no alternative?…Animals, according to the creation story in the Book of Genesis, are there in part for the benefit of human beings. But they are also valuable in themselves, reflecting some aspect of the divine glory".—[Official Report, 4/4/01; col. 846.]The right reverend Prelate made some fairly profound remarks and I have frequently wondered how right we are to go around killing animals and to do so on and on, even if it is for the wholly meritorious reason of keeping the disease under control. It was right not to change in the middle of the battle, but the whole question of slaughter should now be considered. As the right reverend Prelate asked: is there really no alternative?
The fashionable expression "naming and shaming" is used today. I hate it because I believe that most people do their best in life. There is something horribly sanctimonious about people who say, "We must find out who the wretched person is who has done this. We will point the finger at him and throw him out to the public as the person who has made all the mistakes". I believe that that is wrong. Most people do their best in life and Ministers and others who are landed with such problems do their best. But we must learn from our experiences and mistakes.
I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford when they said that they hoped the Government would set up a public inquiry. I do too. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will take the matter most seriously and to heart. A Select Committee inquiry will not do. Everyone, including Ministers at the time, must be able to give their views and their experiences. A public inquiry would permit that but a Select Committee inquiry would not. The Government set up an inquiry 279 into BSE and this is a much bigger problem. After all, it has affected the whole countryside, not just the farmers, as well as towns people and people from overseas who wanted to come here on holiday and had to cancel. I repeat, it is not merely a question of trying to find someone to blame but of trying to learn from the past in order that our actions and reactions in the future may be better.
I, too, am amazed that the only thing Her Majesty's Government could think of putting in the Queen's Speech relating to agriculture and the countryside was the resurrection of the spectre of a ban on hunting. I could not have thought of a more insensitive act at such a sensitive time. That is yet another reason why everyone feels that Her Majesty's Government do not understand the countryside and do not care about it. That contrasts with what the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, the Queen's bodyguard, said yesterday. He said,We want to spread prosperity more widely. This is an opportunity to improve the lives of people in the country".I hope that that applies to the countryside, too.
What have the Government done to show their dedication to agriculture and the countryside? They have disbanded the Ministry of Agriculture; they have vaporised it. All the Ministers have gone. The last Minister has been demoted to the Minister of Works. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has gone as have Miss Joyce Quin, Mr Spellar and Mr Meacher, who headed the Department of the Environment task force. All the Ministers have gone. As a final blow, Her Majesty's Government have ensured that the new department does not even contain the word "agriculture" in its title. One cannot be much more demeaning and humiliating than that. On top of that, there is no Minister responsible for food and farming in another place. The only Minister is the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is very competent and charming. I am sure that his expertise will flow to another place, too. But the fact is that there is no Minister in another place for agriculture or food.
I hope that someone will take a grip and realise that agriculture and all that goes with it is the backbone of the countryside, whether the interests are wildlife, tourism, food production or ancillary employment. They all depend for success on thriving agriculture. It is not good enough to say that the CAP needs reform. We all know that. My noble friend Lord Wade referred to it. I liked his proposals about that policy. We all know that it has to be reformed, but that is long term because we have to persuade 15 other members to agree, which they will not because they have too much to lose.
Meanwhile, life has to go on. Agriculture and the countryside want to feel that they have a Government which cares. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford said, they need hope. They do. When estate agents value a property they take into account what is called "hope value". The countryside needs hope and the hope value also. I hope that the noble 280 Lord, Lord Whitty, will be able show that the Government can give that and that he can also give that commitment.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I too welcome the opportunity to participate in this somewhat strange debate where the subject matter oscillates between transport, energy, agriculture and education. I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, on her promotion to the ministerial Benches. I look forward a great deal to working with her and perhaps also sparring with her over the coming months.
From these Benches we welcome very much the main themes that have dominated the gracious Speech—the securing of improvements in the delivery and quality of public services in this country. From the Liberal Democrat point of view it is an issue that we have been stressing for at least two elections. We suspect that the Government may not find it so easy to achieve increases in the quality of services without also increasing public expenditure fairly substantially and perhaps also taxation.
When the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister she emphasised very much the maxim "You can't get something for nothing". I believe that the great danger with emphasising private provision alongside public provision is that there is sometimes the belief that by providing finance privately one does not have to incur public expenditure as the other side of the equation and it kids the general public into thinking that one can actually get something for nothing.
One looks, for example, at the funding of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and the public finance initiative at a cost of £300 million straight but £900 million when funded through the private finance initiative over 30 years. In the long run such an initiative may well cost a great deal more. In the short run there is a gain because it is not part of the public sector borrowing requirement, but in the long run we may well pay more in terms of taxes, interest and profit margins.
I believe that concentration on the public sector borrowing requirement is a shibboleth and has led to failure over a long period of time to make a distinction in the public sector accounts between current and capital expenditure. That in itself has led to a disastrous rundown and neglect of our public sector infrastructure, not only of schools and hospitals but of the transport service and general public utilities. Our Victorian forebears knew that investment was worth while, that it lasted a long time and was worth making.
We now have to make good that lack of investment. I believe that the public sector has to take its share in making good that lack of investment. We should not kid ourselves that by bringing in the private sector as partners we can get something for nothing. We cannot. We shall either have to pay for it in terms of higher taxation now or in the future.
281 I wish to devote most of my speech to education. Here the emphasis of the gracious Speech was on secondary education and extending its diversity in order to improve its standards; to extend the range of city academies and specialist schools; to allow for more faith-based schools and more fixed-term contracting out of educational services to the private sector.
The challenges to education in this country are considerable. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, stressed the high illiteracy figures that we face. One-fifth, which is 20 per cent of the population in this country, cannot, he said, read well enough to be able to look up plumbers in the Yellow Pages. As Estelle Morris, the new Secretary of State for Education, said last week, it is a frightening statistic. The OECD figures which were published only a short time ago exposed the United Kingdom as being near the bottom of the literacy league. However, it also showed that Britain was near the bottom of the spending league. It may be that the two are tied together.
The Government announced considerable increases in spending on education in their two spending reviews. Nevertheless, I believe that it is an indictment of their first term that, taking the four years as a whole, spending on education as a proportion of GDP at 4.6 per cent is lower than spending on education as a proportion of GDP during the five years of the Major administration between 1992 and 1997, when it was 5 per cent. It is a great indictment that a Government should come to the country in 1997 preaching "education, education, education" and putting it at the top of their prorities list only to end up during their first term spending on it a lower proportion of GDP. I am delighted that at long last some of that money is coming through and we are seeing it in some of our schools. But it has been far too slow. It has led to a serious crisis in recruitment. All the targets set by the Government for achievement both in primary and secondary education depend on there being teachers to meet those targets. If we cannot find them we shall not be able to meet those targets.
As regards secondary education, the main emphasis is on specialisation. As my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf indicated, as Liberal Democrats, by and large, the concept of diversity is one which we enjoy and endorse. However, we are somewhat weary of the concept of specialisation. A specialist school brings with it £500,000 in terms of extra funding over the first four years of specialist status. Only 46 per cent of schools are to enjoy that status. What about the other 54 per cent? What happens to them? Will they not enjoy specialist status? Liberal Democrats believe in diversity and pursuing specialisms in many senses, but at the same time every school, not just some, should be special.
Much has been made of the turn-round of a school in Guildford which I know fairly well. That school was called King's Manor but is now known as King's College. What happened there illustrates that resources and being made to feel special count for a great deal. It is too early to say how successful has been the experiment; the school opened in its new guise only 282 last September and still has only 450 pupils, whereas its maximum will be about 900. The school benefited last year from county council and the Government combined spending well over £3 million and the fact that at the moment pupil/teacher ratios are extremely low and staffing is generous. It is clear, however, that the pupils of that school have benefited from the extra resources lavished upon them. They feel special, have responded to it and are far better motivated than before.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn in his excellent speech said that Church schools provided a clear and coherent value system. That has been developed as a result of the change from King's Manor to King's College. The new owners have given a clear and coherent value system to that school and the children feel special and have had much in the way of resources lavished upon them. Their expectations and those of their parents, which are so important, have been raised. Expectations are high but the pupils have begun to achieve them, which is extremely encouraging. The motivation is there and aspirations are rising, but that situation results from resources and leadership. One wants those two important qualities, which do not necessarily require privatisation—both can come through the public sector—to turn round the school.
Our other reservation about specialisation is that it comes much too early. The danger of specialising at 11 is that one must select at that age. I do not believe that at the age of 11 children know what they want to do. The week before last I benefited from a brief visit to Holland to look at secondary education in that country. The Dutch also have a great diversity of secondary schools. It was interesting to hear about that diversity and visit two of the schools. What came across to me was that for a long time Holland had had a clear and coherent stream of vocational education alongside academic education. That is something which many of the northern European countries—Germany and Scandinavia—have. Selection is not made at 11 but effectively at 14, when I believe a child knows its own capacities much better than at 11. At 14 a child with its parents and teachers selects the stream that it wants to go into, whether it be a high academic or higher or lower technical stream. I believe that if we are to select, it is far better to do it at 14 rather than 11. I am very wary of returning to something that is akin to the 11-plus.
I conclude by making one or two points about what I believe was omitted from the education agenda in the gracious Speech. I was extremely surprised that there was no mention in the gracious Speech of the teacher crisis, but my noble friend Lady Walmsley will, I believe, talk about that later. Above all, there was, surprisingly, no mention of either further or higher education. I believe that it is those sectors which present us with some of our trickiest problems today. The biggest problem is undoubtedly funding. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to the failure to fund the Bett report and the problem of academic salaries. We currently face a major crisis in recruitment and retention among teachers in secondary schools, but unless something is done about academic salaries 283 very quickly there will be an even bigger crisis in recruitment and retention in the universities. I hope that the Government have some plans to meet the funding requirements in this sector.
It is also somewhat perplexing that at a time when they aim to expand the numbers from the lower social classes entering higher education, the Government simultaneously pursue a policy which my honourable friend in another place, Mr Phil Willis, described as an abomination. I refer to students' tuition fees, the abolition of the maintenance grant system and the introduction of student loans. This system puts off precisely those students whom one tries to entice into the higher education system. I know that they do not have to pay fees and that some limited grants are available. Nevertheless, the perception of what they have to face puts off precisely those students. We on these Benches do not understand why the Government persist in pursuing that policy at the present time and advocate the adoption of the Cubie solution in Scotland.
Another problem that the Government must confront is the increasing blurring of the boundaries between further, higher and Internet education. At a time when one can undertake university courses via the Internet one must rapidly think how to merge or mix and match courses between the different sectors. I do not believe that the Government have faced up to that at all. Learn Direct is doing some valuable work, but we are far from having an accredited unit system which covers the whole of the higher and further education sector. We need to look at that and think about it.
The issues on which I have spoken—specialisation and what it means and the need for every school to be special, to develop a clear and coherent stream of vocational education and training, properly to fund our further and higher education sectors and to face up to the merging of those sectors—create many new challenges for the Government. The gracious Speech touches on only a very small part of that agenda, but I hope that during this Parliament the Government will face up to those challenges.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on the gracious Speech and in particular to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. It reminds me of a time some years ago when we were both examiners in economics at the LSE and the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, was the director. I agree with a good deal of the observations of the noble Baroness, but I believe that our politics have slightly diverged since then.
I shall confine my relatively brief remarks to the subject of education. In so doing I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, on being made Minister in this field and wish her every success in carrying out her responsibilities.
Opening the debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, reminded us that the Government, in introducing another major education Bill in the first 284 year of the new Parliament, were making secondary education a major priority. The objectives set by the Government are very clear: first, to achieve higher standards, by which I take it they want to see pupils doing well in tests, for example GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications; and, secondly, to increase the diversity of schools so that different schools can provide education for the differing needs of individual pupils. The means by which they have chosen to do that are new opportunities for school sponsorship, more options for tackling failing schools and greater freedom for successful heads, deputy heads and governors in the running of their schools. Clearly, in all this there is to be a greater role for the private and voluntary sectors.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that the problems of secondary education cannot be solved without resources, and I believe that that is very clear in relation to teachers' pay. But the fact that the Government come forward with a major education Bill is a recognition that the present system has failed, not simply because it is short of money. One complaint constantly made is that the present system is far too bureaucratic. Local education authorities have become far too involved in detailed decisions relating to individual schools. Inspections are a nightmare and there has been excessive intervention by the Department for Education and Employment. In the Government's Green Paper, which was issued in February, I counted no fewer than 51 new initiatives, many of which involved plans and targets, extending once again the tentacles of government into every school and classroom. The bureaucracy extends not only to management but also to the curriculum and teaching, for which I regret to say this side of the House bears some responsibility.
The present national curriculum restricts far too much the teacher's professional judgment as to what should be taught and how teachers should perform in the classroom. I remember when the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was Secretary of State for Education, the Prime Minister said to me many times, "Brian, you and I don't know how to handle a classroom and what to do there, so we should not be prescriptive in legislation." I am only sorry that the legislation which emerged did not really have that stamped all over it.
The result of the bureaucracy is not simply a waste of money and resources. Far worse, it leads to inadequate standards of performance and low teacher morale. Heads and deputy heads find themselves ticking boxes, filling in forms and carrying out what is frankly clerical work. The over-prescriptiveness of the curriculum means that creativity is stifled in the classroom and the specialist judgment which teachers have learnt in their careers on matters such as the curriculum, exclusion of pupils and AS levels is being constantly undermined.
I welcome an education Bill which says that it will cut bureaucracy, give greater freedom to heads and governors and involve the private and voluntary sectors in the way ahead. It is to the Government's credit that they want to build a system that recognises our voluntary heritage, rather than having a national 285 system in which central and local government have exclusive responsibility for education. They could have chosen that route.
I welcome the Government's reforms, but I have two comments to make. The first, which I hope will be proved wrong, is to express a certain reservation, if not scepticism, about some of the proposals. We shall have deregulation and greater freedom, but in the past four years the Government did not exactly bring an axe to bureaucracy. Over the years, they have curtailed the freedoms of grant-maintained schools, which were set up specifically to give heads, teachers and governing bodies greater freedoms. They have increased the powers of the local education authorities enormously and have strengthened the reach of the former Department for Education and Employment in the sheer number and volume of the circulars that have come from it. Not one of those 51 initiatives in the Green Paper reduced the administrative burdens of teachers. In fact, they added to them.
Already I notice in the press release on the gracious Speech from the new Department for Education and Skills that no fewer than four initiatives are mentioned, although the Government have been in office for only 12 days. The growth in bureaucracy is no accident. It is not as if somehow the Government intended to achieve higher standards, and suddenly an enormous amount of bureaucracy which they had not expected emerged. I believe that it has been at the heart of their policy for the past four years.
The Green Paper, which was published in February, contained a philosophy and a policy which said that school standards could be best raised by the Department for Education and Employment and the local education authorities taking more initiatives, giving greater direction to individual schools and having more responsibilities. The increase in plans, circulars, consultations and inspections was all part of a top down, centralised and interventionist policy to raise standards. The White Paper makes it clear that the Government think that they have achieved that in primary schools. They now tell us in the Green Paper that they will do the same in secondary schools.
Does the Government's emphasis on greater freedom mean that they have experienced some major conversion—a kind of Damascene event—to a wholly new approach to education that is much freer, less interventionist, less bureaucratic and less controlled? Or does the new rhetoric of freedom and deregulation apply only to a small number of what are obviously successful schools, while the rest of the secondary system is subject to as many directives and interventions as in the past? I sincerely hope that it is the former, but I fear it is the latter. I fear that the Prime Minister has said to himself, I have to have set targets and be seen to have clearly met them in four years' time before I can go back to the electorate". The experience of the past four years suggests that the only way in which to do that is to have a dirigiste system. I am prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and hope that a generous interpretation is the right one, but I have my concerns.
286 The most difficult fact for the Government to accept is that greater freedom for schools, heads, deputy heads, leaders of years, and so on, means less power for LEAs and the Department for Education and Skills. We cannot reduce bureaucracy in our education system and give greater freedom to schools without simultaneously reducing the powers of government—local and central—to plan, consult, examine and inspect. That is a zero-sum game. More power to schools means less power to the Government. If the Government are serious in wanting to give greater freedom to schools, why not embark on the route of giving heads and governors the freedom to employ staff? Why not give them the freedom to set teachers' salaries? Why not give them the freedom to manage their own budgets? Why not give them the freedom to draw up their own admissions policy and implement it? Why not give them the freedom to set their own daily, weekly and term timetables? Why not give them the freedom to set their own standards of discipline, with the ultimate sanction of expelling students? If the Government were to seize the opportunity and the rhetoric of freeing schools became a reality, I believe that teachers, who are a major concern for any government involved in education reform, would not be dismayed by yet another education Bill. They would welcome such a Bill because it would lighten their load and allow them to devote more time to the profession that they thought they were going into when they became teachers.
My other comment is to welcome the Government's proposals to increase the diversity of schools, thereby extending choice for parents and pupils. I am not as depressed as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about the issue of diversity. Ever since the experiment with CTCs, which is now 15 or 16 years old, plus what we have seen in America in various magnet schools, charter schools, and so on, I think that there is much evidence to say that diversity produces a certain culture and ethos in a school, which produces better results. The private sector can play an important role in providing support services for education, which would in no way undermine the nature of secondary schools. However, I need to be convinced that a private company, especially one which was quoted on the Stock Exchange and running publicly funded schools for a profit, would be a desirable innovation. Would there be too great a temptation just to teach for results, so that schools became a little like A-level crammers? What kind of ethos would schools like that have? What kind of communities would schools which might have their equity quoted on the Stock Exchange create in which the character of children was to be developed? What financial pressures might such a school suffer if government funding failed to keep pace with the costs of employing staff, such as is happening at present in private nursing homes, where, as a result, the stock of nursing homes is falling? Then, if that were the case, how would schools run for profit by companies respond to their profits being squeezed?
I need no convincing of the importance that private sector companies play in the market economy, but we need to be careful before proceeding down this route 287 when it comes to the education of our children. That is why the voluntary sector has a critically important part to play. In that connection, I should like to echo the words of the two right reverend Prelates who spoke in support of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in producing a report for the Archbishop's Council. It is an outstanding piece of work. The noble Lord's proposal that the Church of England should consider increasing the number of secondary places by the equivalent of 100 schools over the next seven or eight years responds to the demand that is there. But there is more to it than that.
Part of the reason why parents of all faiths and of no faith like sending their children to such schools is the emphasis they place on educational attainment. They want their children to do well. They want them to succeed academically and vocationally. More than that, such schools—I speak from the experience of all of my children having gone to the parish Church of England primary school—place great emphasis on the development of the whole person, including providing, which is very prudent in this day and age, a reasoned basis for values and moral standards. Most Anglican schools aim to be inclusive in their admissions policy. In his outstanding speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford gave many wonderful examples of how the Anglican ethos of education is different from the Catholic or evangelical ethos. It is inclusive and not exclusive. The right reverend Prelate described how the schools are reaching out to the Muslim community and are attempting to create a community of reconciliation. I ask myself whether the Archbishop's Council and the Synod of the Church of England have enough courage—as we have heard, nothing comes free, and the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, do not come free either—to take up the noble Lord's proposals. Let us hope that they do.
At the end of the day, we may spend a great deal of time debating the structures of secondary education. Structures matter and the debate is important. But of even greater importance ultimately is the need to attract teachers who see their profession—namely, the development and instruction of children—as a vocation which is respected by society. It is for this reason that the Government must be supported and encouraged in their steps to increase diversity and give greater freedom to schools. Apart from anything else, that is a wonderful way of reaching out to the teaching profession, telling it how much we value what it is doing and attracting teachers today to educate our grandchildren tomorrow.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Hereford
My Lords, I want to speak briefly about one subject which was mentioned in the gracious Speech and one which was not and stay on the twin tracks of the environment and agriculture—another leap from one subject to another in this debate which requires great intellectual agility. The temptation to change the points and go along the parallel track of railway policy is a sore one which I 288 find difficult to resist. I am grateful for the passion and expertise brought to that subject by the noble Lords, Lord Bradshaw and Lord Faulkner. If it comes to choosing between them about the fate of the Rail Regulator, I think I am with the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. As for the idea of bringing back the big four railway companies of 1923, I say "amen" to that.
I give a very warm welcome to the Government's commitment to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which was set out so clearly in the gracious Speech, to tackling climate change and to making sustainable development a priority. It is good news indeed. Kyoto itself was, of course, only a beginning and it is essential that longer term planning continues and much more ambitious targets are set for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the United States of America for the moment will not join in this process and enter into a similar commitment, the European nations must press on, setting a good example and making a significant contribution to the limitation of climate change.
We need to take to heart the advice of the Royal Commission published last year to put in place a programme which takes account of the legitimate needs and aspirations of the developing countries and works on the principle of contraction and convergence of greenhouse gas emissions. Contraction of emissions in the developed world would come about through clean power generation, through significant reductions in energy use, especially in car use and also in aircraft use—the taxing of poisonously polluting aircraft fuel, which for some unaccountable reason is free of taxation at the moment—much more sophisticated transport technology, infinitely more efficient energy saving housing, changed lifestyles and also bio-fuels. Why not bio-fuel from Lord bio-fuel Whitty? We hope that the Minister will support that policy. We need that contraction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from the developing countries and we need convergence between the energy-extravagant developed world and the energy-poor two-thirds world.
In particular, I long to see an intelligent and open debate initiated by the Government about the complex interaction and right relationship between three vital issues which all bear on one another: first, the need to protect creation; secondly, the need to address desperate issues of poverty and social injustice in the world; and, thirdly, as a corollary of that second concern, the need for appropriate and sustainable development. Will the Minister, whom we welcome most warmly in his new guise despite the enormous breadth and complexity of the issues with which he will have to deal, undertake to help this public debate forward in a well-informed and genuinely open way? This is a debate which is philosophical, ethical and technical, but it is a debate with which the public need to be encouraged to become engaged. Ecological good sense, social justice and sustainable development can—indeed, must—go hand in hand if the planet is to survive let alone enjoy increasing peace and happiness.
I add three brief further points about the environment. First, can we offer an initiative in giving help, advice and appropriate technology to those two 289 vast and rapidly developing countries, India and China, where coal remains the main source of energy? The generating technology is in many places extremely dirty and its contribution to climate change is severely threatening. We have the technology. Can we urge it on those countries that their generating capacity may be made less damaging to the environment? Secondly, will the Minister give the House assurances that his new department, with its vast and unwieldy title and brief, will see environmental issues in a properly broad context? It was significant that six of the most important environmental agencies joined together to sign a letter sent to The Times during the election campaign to ask that responsibility for the natural environment should remain with the old DETR so that planning and transport implications would remain paramount and so that there would be no danger that environmental concerns would be seen as exclusively rural, or natural history or farm-related matters. Their voices were ignored in the reorganisation. The point they made remains important.
Lastly, noble Lords may like to know that the Bishops of the Church of England—all 110 of us—earlier this month devoted our annual in-service training for this year to an environmental seminar. We heard some excellent and extremely well-informed presentations which we hope and believe will lead to a sustained programme of environmental action in every diocese.
Perhaps I may now turn to the matter of agriculture. There was surprise and disappointment that last year's gracious Speech contained no reference to farming and offered no policies to help to solve the crisis which has overtaken the industry over the past three or four years. I think it is fair to say that there was disbelief that this most recent gracious Speech, following on from the devastating impact of foot and mouth disease, had nothing to say about rural affairs and the future of farming; nothing about short-term relief measures and, even more important, nothing about a long-term strategy. I understand the point that the gracious Speech is concerned with primary legislation. However, the final page of the speech contains many references to matters of general concern and aspiration. The point has been made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that we need a public inquiry into what has gone wrong. That, at least, could have been announced in the gracious Speech.
In terms of the immensely destructive and deeply tragic impact of foot and mouth disease, I want to echo what was said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford about his experience in Yorkshire and to pay tribute to the courage and the calmness of many farmers and their families through this terrible time; to the skill and the sensitivity with which many vets, slaughtermen and soldiers carried out their gruesome and unwelcome tasks; and to those within MAFF who worked immensely long hours to cope with an overwhelmingly difficult crisis. In particular I wish also to express my heartfelt thanks to the local clergy and congregations of our parish churches, especially to the agricultural chaplains and the rural stress counsellors who responded magnificently with a 290 ministry of care and prayer. The Church of England has reason to be proud of what was done in many places in times of great need and distress.
Of course there were horror stories as well: muddle, incompetence, insensitivity and brutality. This whole saga has sadly revealed some very poor farmers who have given an otherwise honourable industry an undeservedly bad name in a few places. But what matters now is the future.
The rural White Paper published last November spoke bravely of the main task of farming as still being to produce the food that we eat. At the time it was not clear, and since then it has become increasingly unclear, how that desirable objective is to be achieved, how that aspiration is to be delivered: granted the impact of globalisation; granted the power of the World Trade Organisation; granted the likely need, if the European Union expands eastwards, to reduce significantly CAP support for western European farmers; granted the prospect of further transfers of resources from product subsidies to agri-environmental and rural development schemes. Granted all that, how is it going to be achieved? That is what we long to know and need to know.
Even before the foot and mouth outbreak, the transition from, for example, headage to area payments for hill farmers was looking very roblematical—environmentally excellent, but economically unsustainable at the present rates of payment. The export trade is vital if livestock farmers are to survive and it must be restarted as soon as possible. Only by doing that will family farms still exist in the hills, and only by doing that will the landscape be properly and environmentally managed. Short-term measures may need to include specific shepherding projects to reintroduce hefted sheep into the Lakes and even on the Long Mynd in my own diocese in Shropshire. Targeted relief is required to enable farmers to survive long enough to become reestablished. Some will need to leave the industry and a retirement scheme, long awaited and very badly needed, would be of great assistance.
We urgently need intelligent, imaginative, well-trained and versatile young farmers to come into the industry, young people who understand the demands of the market and the constraints of ecological concern; and, of course, the farming industry must get its own act together and speak with one voice, as well as practise the highest standards of food safety and animal welfare. Farmers must show that they can and will respond to the wishes of consumers and that they will co-operate with one another, something which in the past they have not done as much as they should. They must show that they themselves care as much about the countryside in which they work as anyone else in the community. But they need a level playing field, they need from the Government the enforcement of rigorous standards of control over food imports and an unambiguous labelling of food and its country of origin.
291 I do not share the gloomy feelings expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about our new ministerial team. I hope the best for the new Secretary of State in another place. Recently she said that:This new department will adopt a truly joined-up approach to all aspects of our environment, to ensure a high quality of life, vibrant and sustainable rural communities and a food chain that works together to meet the changing demands of consumers".It sounds good; so did the Rural White Paper. We wait for the Government to deliver these desirable objectives.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Baroness Massey of Darwen
My Lords, I do not envy the Minister his task of responding to the variety of issues that have been raised in today's debate, versatile though he is. I am going to add to his problems by speaking about sport in schools. I have no twin tracks, but I shall talk about level playing fields.
I have not wandered into the wrong debate by mistake, although I could be excused for doing so, because I want to relate sport in schools to the issue of raising standards in schools, a topic covered in the gracious Speech and one which will occupy much time over the coming months. I realise that sport and physical activity also relate to health and to the development of good citizenship, such as crime reduction and less drug abuse. Sport encourages respect for the self and others, teamwork and application, all of which are valuable aspects of education. But today I shall talk about standards in schools and how we need to ensure an entitlement to physical activity for young people. It matters not what kind of school they attend.
I am very concerned to keep sport for young people on the social and political agenda. I know that a number of noble Lords share that view, and that we have lost a champion with the sad death of Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge.
The intentions in the Government's plan for sport, published earlier this year, are admirable. As emphasised in the plan, sport is valuable for its own sake as well as being a tool for health, social and educational well-being. Sport is also about principles and values. It is good that government departments are acting in a collaborative way and that the public service agreements set for departments include a target of raising the average time spent in schools on sport and physical activity for 15 to 16 year-olds by next year. However, how this will be done presents a major challenge to schools and communities, in particular in the inner cities.
Before further discussing this challenge, I shall talk about the link between physical activity and standards in schools. Recent research from the University of Exeter indicates, as have other studies, that pupils who lead healthy lifestyles do better academically. It was found, in a survey of 1,400 children of secondary school age, that those who undertook physical activity three or four times a week did better on examination scores. One theory has it that active youngsters get 292 more oxygen into their brains more often than their sedentary counterparts and that their brains were better able to take on and retain information. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for us all. Such studies should certainly make us think about what is going on in schools for children today, and I shall touch on that later.
To be optimistic, there is a clear recognition on the part of sports bodies and the Government that sport is important for everyone and that participation in physical activity of some kind must be encouraged in young people. Initiatives such as the Healthy School Standard and Sportsmark Gold are encouraging fitness and sporting ability. Local co-ordinators for sport, the UK Sports Institute and, in particular, an extra £750 million for school and community sports are encouraging developments. Many sports bodies have also agreed to plough back at least 5 per cent of their income to the development of sport in communities.
But there are problems which need addressing. Even with increased funding for sport, the UK is way down the European spending list. Norway spends £12 per head; Finland, Germany, Italy and France between £5 and £9 per head. The UK will spend £2 per head, most of that on adults, not children.
There is a lack of curriculum time for sport. Pupils doing A-levels in state schools do not have to do sport at all. It is intended that there should be an entitlement of two hours physical activity a week for all children. Figures from Sport England show that only one-third of children in school receive that at present. An article in the British Journal of Physical Education indicates that for 11 to 16 year-olds in schools, PE is the only regular exercise that they have.
Sport has to be in the curriculum for young people to guarantee access to physical activity of some kind and development of talent. Girls, and a current obsession with body image, require, I believe, special initiatives to encourage exercise. Yes, some young people will go to clubs outside school, but some have family commitments outside school; some parents cannot afford to pay for travel and fees for sport. Yet, while in school, children sit an average of 75 external tests designed to assess academic ability. Maybe they would fare better if they did a regular 75 minutes of physical activity.
A Times reader recently quoted a Russian proverb which states:You do not fatten a pig by constantly weighing it".That is the only reference I shall make to agriculture today. We do not want fat children. It is already a serious problem and another reason for physical activity. What we do want, surely, are children who have the opportunity for a rounded education, and that should include the opportunity to do sport.
In the mock elections held recently in the primary school where I am a governor, all of the 10—yes, 10—political parties had better resourcing for PE as a key item in their manifestos. Children think that sport is important.
293 Of course we want to raise standards in schools, but raising standards is not a one dimensional process. It is complex. It is related to young people's self-esteem and a sense of connectedness to systems. I agree with much—no, all—of what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said. Certainly participation in sport and its link with skills, inclusiveness and academic achievement cannot be ignored.
In French schools, every Wednesday is devoted to sport. Children and young people are offered a wide variety of activities in order that they might find a sport they are interested in pursuing and maintaining. Academic standards of French children do not seem to have suffered. Community sports facilities in France are superb and well tended. I know a school in the north of England where school pupils are not allowed to use the local sports field for health and safety reasons.
The Central Council for Physical Recreation has recently issued its manifesto, Active Britain. This has several strands, including education. It calls for adequate resources and time for initial teacher training in physical education and sport, with particular emphasis on primary schools; it calls for club-school links and lifelong learning; it calls for continued vigilance about preserving playing fields and green spaces; it calls for adequate funding as being,fundamental to the success of a total sports policy".It finally quotes Nelson Mandela, who said:Sport has the power to change the world, the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else can".Tony Blair has talked about sport being,a key to the liberation of our young people's potential".Indeed it is, and it can have a fundamental impact on schools. The commitment by the Government to promote greater opportunities for sport is very welcome. I know that initiatives are in place, but I worry about the place of sport in the curriculum; I worry about how we will fulfil and monitor targets set, such as those for 15 and 16 year-olds; I worry about funding and resourcing for sport and access for all young people, irrespective of financial status; and I worry about the lack of specialist teachers for PE in primary schools.
In future deliberations about education, health and social affairs, I hope that we will be vigilant about the place of sport in schools and the community. Access is key; resourcing is key. Sport is key to the function of society. Sport in schools is a foundation for that society and for young people, individually and collectively, to participate in it. Will the Minister assure me that sport will not fall off the agenda in schools?
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, we all have great sympathy with the noble Baroness and support what she has said about the standard of sport in schools.
As vice-president of the Countryside Alliance, I should like to add to what my noble friends Lord Plumb and Lord Ferrers have said about the noble 294 Baroness, Lady Hayman. She really understood about foot and mouth disease. She was helpful and she was approachable. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will follow in her steps.
It will be very difficult. The Government have created an integrated department for rural issues. They have a rare opportunity to show that they plan to do something for the countryside rather than to do something to it. The Government could regain the trust and respect of the countryside.
It is not only because of foot and mouth disease that the agricultural industry has suffered its worst year since 1930. If we look at the fields today, it is quite obvious that the harvest will be extremely bad. Because of the wet winter, it will be some 30 per cent less than last year. Land which would normally be laid out to grass will go into set aside, and the result will be an overshooting of the basic area of set aside for which we get paid. The result of that will be a penalty. We need to negotiate with the European Union that that penalty should not be inflicted at the moment.
Leicestershire and Northamptonshire are no longer infected areas. We need further modification to the schemes for the movement of livestock. At the moment there are three schemes. There are schemes for occupational movement of under 0.5 kilometres and for local movement of 5 kilometres as the crow flies. Under those two schemes, the Government pay the veterinary bills. Under the third scheme— for long distance—the veterinary bills are not paid. Why is there a difference between those three schemes? Surely under all three schemes the veterinary bills should be paid. In non-infected areas—which now include Leicestershire and Northamptonshire—why cannot trading standards officers rather than vets issue the certificates for animals going for slaughter?
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mentioned the very serious situation we will face going into the autumn: we will have an over supply of livestock coming onto the market because of our inability to export. An enormous number of animals, particularly small lambs, used to be exported but that possibility will not be available to us. We will also have another major problem with the cull ewes coming in from the hills. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the use of the private storage aid scheme which is part of the EU sheep regime. This would help to smooth out the marketing problems, particularly in relation to the young lambs that are coming forward.
I wonder whether anyone has considered the position as regards venison. What will happen in relation to farmed venison and the normal cull venison that will come forward during the autumn. It was pointed out in today's edition of the Daily Telegraph that for the past two months Holland has been free of foot and mouth. Why has not the same happened in Scotland'? We are very lucky; in Scotland almost a month has passed without a further case of foot and mouth. Surely in a month's time the venison market ought to be freed from restrictions. After all, Scotland is now another part of the world; it is not the same as England—unfortunately! A lifting of restrictions would also greatly help with the export of small lambs.
295 I conclude by asking the noble Lord whether he will look into the setting up of a proper inquiry—like the Northumberland inquiry—to establish the origin of the foot and mouth epidemic. I also put in a special plea for the proper control of imports into this country.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, we have heard a detailed and expert speech from the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, on the present state of the farming industry. I propose to go a little further into the background, not having suffered from, and therefore not having had the opportunities that the noble Lord has had to learn from, the effects of the present situation.
First, as most of us are making our first speeches after the general election, perhaps I may say how nice it is to be back with all my colleagues—most of them feeling that they have done rather well out of the election. The Conservatives may not be feeling that quite so much as some of the others, but they have all the adrenaline of having to do something about it in the course of the next two or three months. They will no doubt be reasonably happy after that.
The Green Party, which I am still the only person to represent at Westminster—although not, of course, in the European Parliament or in the Scottish Parliament—did rather well in the election. No one may have noticed it very much, but we doubled our vote up and down the country. We saved 10 deposits where previously we had not saved one at a general election. To save a deposit in this kind of voting system is very much the same as to ensure that one could have elected representatives in a reformed electoral system. I also point out to those who did not notice it that in one constituency we beat the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. That is a first, but it will not be a last.
I am about to address the position of agriculture—although as has been said time and again, the gracious Speech said nothing at all about the agricultural industry or rural society. What I am about to say is what I personally believe. It is also what the Green Party believes and it is very much in this instance what the Small and Family Farms Alliance believes, as indicated in a paper that is being produced by its indomitable and hard-working vice-chairman, Pippa Woods.
The dictum has gone forth that farmers should be paid to look after the countryside rather than to produce food. Many arguments are set out as to why this is desirable. No explanation has yet been given as to what it actually means in practice on the farm. The right reverend Prelate made a comment along those lines.
Farmers would like answers to some of the basic questions that arise from this policy. Among them are these. By what means will the countryside be cared for? Is it to be cultivated and grazed; or have conservationists invented a new way of maintaining an attractive landscape full of biodiversity? What size of 296 farm, and how many working farmers does the nation need or want? Is the nation happy to eat mainly imported food?
The historical way of caring for land has been to farm it. Some 6 per cent is afforested. It has been cultivated to produce crops which are consumed either directly by people or grazed by animals which, in turn, feed humans. This activity has produced the traditional variety of colour and texture in fields which is an attractive and unique feature of many parts of Britain. It has also, until comparatively recent times, produced plenty of biodiversity.
Unfortunately, food production has never been very profitable, except during wars. Most foods can be produced more cheaply in some other part of the world, and the availability of cheap imported food has always held down the prices that farmers receive for their home grown produce.
The poor financial return from farming has led to a steady outflow of people from the land. Smaller farms have been amalgamated into larger ones. The process is nothing new, but it has accelerated alarmingly recently as profitability has fallen to zero and below. More foreign food has become available, and food retailing has become concentrated in a few large supermarket chains which are able to drive hard bargains with individual farmers.
Many farmers have given up; indeed, a number have committed suicide. But the more determined have been doing their best to survive on the very small margins that remain. Some have expanded greatly and thoroughly embraced modern technology, substituting machinery, chemicals and IT for human labour. Even this does not always ensure profitability and even those with the largest farms have been happy to receive the subsidies which have been vital to keep those with average sized farms solvent.
The first reaction to reduced profitability is to intensify and to try to produce more—the "perverse supply response" now recognised by the RSPB. But eventually there is a quitting point when farmers can no longer cope as prices fall steadily. If farmers can no longer afford to produce food, how are they to manage the land to produce the desired environment?
While there is no obvious demarcation line between those who have large and small farms, the great disparity between those who count their acres and animals by the thousand and what used to be the average farmer with 100 to 200 acres greatly complicates policy-making.
The average size of farm influences many things in the locality. Smaller farms are more likely to keep stock and have smaller fields, making for a more interesting landscape with greater biodiversity. They are also likely to have smaller incomes and thus an incentive to provide B&B for tourists. Ten farms of 200 acres will employ more labour and are likely to provide more trade for local businesses of all kinds than one 2,000-acre enterprise.
At the time of the last CAP reform there was serious talk of progressively reducing the rate of subsidy for production over a certain level. This was called 297 modulation, but is a totally different concept from MAFF's reduction of all payments by 4½ per cent—sometimes called modulation or "recycling"—most of the money being put to activities other than food production. In the event, it was decided that, whatever the obvious and ethical advantages of such a policy, it would be,detrimental to UK Agriculture PLC".If farmers are to be rewarded solely, or even mainly, for conservation of the countryside, the issue will have to be faced: how many farmers should there be, and what should be their level of reward? If there are to be no food-related subsidies, and if the WTO forces us to accept whatever food anyone cares to send us, it must be faced that food production will not be a profitable activity and will be largely abandoned. A two-tier market could well evolve with ordinary, imported food for the masses (including schools, the services and hospitals) and high-quality, home produced food for the fastidious. The fastidious will also, of course, have to be reasonably well off as the price differential between food produced abroad by giant international corporations without regulations and that produced at home to our high standards will probably be considerable.
Economists are not concerned about food security; there is plenty of food available world-wide, they say. Ordinary citizens are not so sure. It occurs to us that many things could happen to interrupt supplies from overseas, such as war, climatic disasters or pestilence. We have had plenty of opportunity to see what might happen in the latter case. People also worry about methods of production. The WTO is already trying to force us to accept hormone treated meat and milk. Some countries pay their workers very poor wages and do not recognise environmental restraints; others have little regard for animal welfare.
Economists may be happy to eat food produced in ways that are illegal in Britain, or perhaps they have faith that the proposed European food authority will somehow ensure that only high-quality food is imported. Most ordinary people would prefer to rely on British regulations to control the way their food is produced. But will they be able to afford home produced food if its producers receive no subsidy? How many consumers will be able to resist the temptation to buy the imported product with a much lower price tag?
Clearly the present regime is totally daft. The WTO ensures that imported food bought at the "world market price" keeps our farmgate prices below the fair cost of production. Government (British and European Union together) step in with a CAP regime which provides just enough subsidy to keep farming just alive; traders and retailers are sufficiently well organised to ensure that they receive by far the largest share of the money consumers pay for food. And the countryside is not being universally well cared for—farmers have no spare time or money for that work.
Everyone wants the CAP reformed, but it is the WTO which will govern farming. Should we not reform that first? Until 1995 farming was not much 298 controlled by GATT rules. Then came the WTO and its Agreement on Agriculture and also the resolution to tighten the rules progressively. This is called liberalising trade. Do we really need this Agreement on Agriculture? It is supposed to be beneficial to developing countries, is it not? However, they tend to be getting poorer, not richer.
Surely the effects of the AOA should be properly researched before it is made more comprehensive, which is the goal of many powerful members of the WTO. There is much world-wide disquiet about the current negotiations, the details of which are very hard to discover. We need to know much more about what is going on. If farmers could earn a proper price for the food they produce, they would be much better able to care for the countryside in the process.
One or two speakers have commented that there was nothing in the Queen's Speech, or in the previous Queen's Speech, about agriculture. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was one of them. It is not in the slightest surprising that that is the case. Nothing serious can be done for agriculture—except alleviating minor difficulties—short of a major move away from free trade, or at least a total modification of what the World Trade Organisation is doing. Until there is that total volte-face on the part of the Government there will be no hope for British agriculture or the British countryside. It is time that the Government realised that.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the sole member of the Green Party in either House of Parliament. Many of the points I wished to raise have been mentioned by the noble Lord.
I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on his new appointment. I do not think that any of us are under any illusions as to the magnitude of the task in front of him, but I have no doubt that the noble Lord will do everything he can to aid and abet his new department.
I want to resist the temptation to say too much about foot and mouth disease. However, I shall make two brief points. First, I subscribe entirely to the points made by my noble friend Lord Kimball. We simply must have a public inquiry into the disaster. We had the Northumberland report after the 1967 outbreak. There is no doubt that this wretched business will come back to haunt us. Next time I hope and pray that we have learnt lessons and that the government of the day are in a position to act speedily to avoid all the disasters which my noble friend Lord Monro so rightly mentioned.
Before I leave the subject of foot and mouth disease I wish to raise a further point with the Minister. There appears to be a marked difference in the way that various councils deal with claims for rate relief under the hardship scheme. I have seen two forms, one from an area to the east of the Pennines and one from an area to the west. They are very different in presentation. One is helpful; the other is almost a hindrance, certainly over-complicated and 299 demanding. I urge the Minister to consider the matter. After all, the whole purpose of the scheme is to help people in the disastrous situation in which they find themselves through no fault of their own. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he considers the many points that have been and will be raised in this debate.
Foot and mouth disease has undoubtedly brought into focus many aspects of the way in which we farm and manage the countryside. I have no doubt that one of the casualties of the crisis has been the Ministry of Agriculture itself. I declare an interest as an owner of land in the north of England. As such I very much welcome the new department in principle. Indeed, I have long been an advocate of such a move. It always appeared to me quite illogical not to unite food production, forestry and rural enterprise in general with the well-being of the land and its wildlife under one ministry.
There is, of course, inevitable speculation as to whether in reality MAFF has conquered the environment or the environment has conquered MAFF. I hope that we are witnessing the coming together of two cultures on even terms with an equal weighting to both.
My noble friend Lady Blatch asked—she was absolutely right to do so—who was the environment secretary. Mr Prescott appears to have retained responsibility for international negotiations on climate change. But, like my noble friend, I find it odd that the civil servants responsible for monitoring atmospheric pollution and any other barometers of change are within the new department. Perhaps the Minister will explain how that will work in practice.
I believe that my noble friend also mentioned my next point about planning. I fail to understand why planning, which is such a dominant card in the rural pack, as my noble friend Lord Wade pointed out, remains with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I should have thought that that was likely to lead to disjointed government.
However, these important issues apart, what I hope for under the new department is a more streamlined and committed approach to countryside matters, less red tape, less bureaucracy, with responsibility for augmenting policy in fewer hands, but most of all a greater understanding of the needs and aspirations of those who live and work in rural England. Dare I ask the Minister whether he forecasts that the new department will result in savings, both in administration and money? If so, will the money that is saved be put back into the countryside to be invested in proper, constructive rural schemes?
There is much talk on the back of this most recent agricultural crisis about a switch from agricultural production to environmental schemes. I welcome that in principle. There can be little doubt now that since 1947 the agricultural policies have been distinctly unhelpful to the rural environment. There is a growing realisation that the enormous amounts of cash available through the CAP—I accept that they may 300 decline in real terms over the years—must be redirected. That switch is important for two reasons. First, it deals with the basic principle of sustainable land management, and, secondly, it would command respect from the taxpayer which the present system clearly does not.
Most thinking people acknowledge that farmers are best placed to manage the countryside. The question is—the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, posed it—what can realistically be expected of them. Farmers must receive a proper return; otherwise they will go—and, heaven's above, too many have gone already. One has to admire the resolute commitment of many farmers to staying on the land. We have seen many examples during the present foot and mouth crisis.
Looking to the future, and putting the present crisis to one side for a moment, how many farmers could survive without support given the inevitable move towards freer markets and globalisation? It would appear that not too many could compete in the low cost bulk commodities markets. But there will surely be those who will succeed by establishing specialist goods and better marketing. It is, therefore, incumbent on government and supermarkets to give them every possible support. That includes ensuring that food produced in this country is not undermined by imports which do not adhere to our own internal standards and seeing that products are not labelled as "Cornish" or "Lancastrian" when in fact they come from Botswana or Greece. That is certainly occurring at present.
Diversification is often regarded as the panacea to solve the crisis in agriculture. While I accept that all efforts must be welcomed and encouraged, some recent figures indicate that at present on-farm diversification represents only 6 per cent of total income assessed for tax.
Another alarming statistic is that 36 per cent of total income assessed for tax comes from investments and pensions. Clearly, with the present crisis in agriculture, that is unsustainable. The trend that one can extrapolate from that is that in the short to medium term we are likely to see many more farmers coming out of farming.
However, several things are essential if this new culture (if I may so call it) is to work. First, environmental payments must truly reflect the farmers' efforts and should not be based on profits foregone, as happens at present. That clearly is a joke because there are no profits. Also—it is an important issue—this country must not develop an anti-farming culture. Good farming and environmental management should go hand in glove and riding on the back of both a successful rural tourist industry. Goodness me, how that has manifested itself during this wretched foot and mouth crisis.
Environmental schemes available to farmers must embrace an element of choice. Farmers must be given the chance to manage—and management means making decisions. I attended an English Nature conference and received its conclusions recently. I draw to your Lordships' attention two of them. First, we need more initiatives such as the Bowland 301 and Bodmin initiatives, with more local discretion which involves farmers in local policy development. Secondly—I believe that this is fundamental—we require simple schemes defined by goals not regulations.
I know that there is a view in the country among perhaps the majority of conservationists that the private sector cannot deliver on environmental objectives. Given the right conditions, I believe that it can and will and in many cases is doing so. However, despite the plethora of site designations from the UK Government and Europe along with extensive bureaucracy to back them up—never mind the enormous investment of funds—many wildlife species are still in decline in Great Britain. A graph produced in a recent Countryside Agency publication clearly demonstrated this. It is interesting that the decline since the 1981 Act was particularly pronounced. That indicates to me that designations are not the simple answer for dealing with the environmental issues in our countryside. I think that at times some conservationists and large charities which own increasing amounts of land should look more closely at their own activities and successes before being too critical of others. The only way forward is through partnership built on mutual experience and first-class research—a point made by my noble friend Lord Wade. Research, I believe, has been too often compromised.
However, there remains one outstanding puzzle which needs to be resolved before these much-heralded changes can come into force. I understand that member states can spend up to 20 per cent of the direct payments from the CAP on rural development initiatives; in other words, a re-direction of resources away from agricultural support and into other countryside activities. To date the Government have committed £1.6 billion to the rural development budget between 2000 and 2006. Of that, £1 billion is earmarked specifically for agri-environment schemes. Approximately 7 per cent of public expenditure is allocated to agricultural support. Seven per cent is not very much. Therefore, even if the Government were to increase expenditure on agri-environment schemes to the maximum 20 per cent, that would not lead to the change of emphasis and culture that everyone appears to want, including the Government.
I refer again to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. We come back to this fundamental question. When shall we see a proper reform of the common agricultural policy? Without that, this new culture, this new ideal, will simply not happen.
We have a new ministry, new hope, new expectations. The gracious Speech contained nothing with regard to rural legislation. I am rather pleased about that. We have enough rules and regulations in the countryside and want a few less. However, hunting has raised its ugly head. For country people, frankly, this is another affront. But I shall not dwell on that. I wish the new ministry well. I wish our new Minister well. I conclude by quoting Michael Sissons 302 in A Countryside For All—a book that I believe is compulsory reading for anyone interested in rural matters. He referred to,a wholehearted commitment to promoting all manifestations of a thriving modern rural economy to take its place beside the new realities of agriculture".I hope that that is what we shall see.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I have enjoyed the debate. I have enjoyed many good speeches on education; and some outstanding speeches on my subject, agriculture, from the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, with his great expertise, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, spoke with peculiar passion because he is, I believe, the only Peer present who is directly affected by having his stock destroyed.
Funnily enough, I shall start—if the Minister will listen to me—by talking about butterflies. I received a marvellous publication recently on The State of Britain's Butterflies. It shows the species in decline and those, happily, that are actively expanding. I greatly enjoyed reading it, until I came to page 13, where, in large print, it says:Major reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is needed to reverse the decline of common as well as rarer species. Farm support should be conditional on the maintenance of existing wildlife and landscape features, and agri-environment schemes must be expanded to encourage suitable management and restoration of habitats throughout the countryside".Those are admirable sentiments, but I hope and trust that the Government are not basing their attitude to agriculture on the advice that they receive from various environmental bodies, because those views do not reflect the true state of affairs in the countryside. One million people are still employed in agriculture and related industries. Without agriculture, there would not be any related industries. British agriculture still produces 66 per cent of the food that the British public consume. Although, like manufacturing, agriculture is declining as a share of the country's total production, it is still very important. No valid policy on improving the environment or the preservation of species can fail to take into account the needs of agriculture. We cannot simply say that agriculture must alter to preserve butterflies or to placate certain environmental bodies. Of course we must preserve butterflies, but we have to consider the people who farm the land.
The Government are aware of the simple fact that farms are getting bigger. Groups of two or three farmers are joining together to farm anything up to 1,000 acres without employing any people, using contractors and bigger machines. Most of them will survive, provided they have a fair and proper playing field. They cannot compete with farming industries abroad that have no health or food quality regulations. That is the first point with which the Government have to deal. With the expansion of the European Union, competition will be strong and the conditions need to be fair.
303 The second development, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, illustrated, is that a large proportion of the income on many smaller farms comes from outside employment. Many people are now part-time farmers. That is very good if they like the land and do well, but they need help if they are to survive.
The third development in farming is specialisation. Many farmers are doing tremendous work on healthy systems of production, particularly in soft fruit in my own area of Angus. Those specialists need to be able to market their produce fairly. Although the Government were quick to condemn Milk Marque as a monopolistic body, they do not seem to be quite so keen to control the other monopolistic bodies that buy the produce. That has to be dealt with and money has to be provided for the research and expansion needed.
The final development is that farmers are retiring. Many of them cannot afford to retire. Many European countries have generous schemes for retiring. The Government are considering the issue.
I shall not go into any more detail. The most important factor for the environment is the farming population of this country. The Government should consider the issue that way and should take the advice that they get from a host of uninvolved environmental bodies with practical common sense.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. He and I have served for a long time on Sub-Committee D of the European Union Select Committee, which deals with agriculture and the environment. Sadly, he has just been rotated off the committee. I hope that that is temporary, because we desperately need his help.
Most of the last four speeches have dealt with agriculture and the environment and I shall follow them, but I shall say a few words first about education, which is the other strand of our debate. Thirteen or 14 years ago, I was the chairman of a city technology college. It gives me great pleasure to be able to congratulate the Government on supporting greater diversity and higher standards in secondary schools. It is a great credit to them that they have recognised that their initial antagonism towards specialist schools—certainly towards the city technology colleges in their early days—was misplaced and that they are prepared to learn so much from them.
Some specialist schools have been spectacularly successful. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, referred to their contribution in making children feel special and developing qualities of leadership. She also talked about resources, which is always a contentious issue and a key factor in any school, not just specialist schools. All schools must be appropriately and adequately resourced.
The great lesson which is now being drawn on with the expansion of specialist schools is the freedom that the heads of the schools have to develop their own curriculum, employ staff and set salary levels and 304 management structures. I remember the hostility from the local authority and from neighbouring schools in the early days. My goodness, we have moved a long way. That is very encouraging. I was delighted that the headmaster whom I helped to appoint 11 or 12 years ago received well deserved recognition in last week's honours list. He then wrote a personal letter to every child in the school. No wonder those children feel special.
Coming back to agriculture and the environment, I very much welcome the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have always hoped that agriculture and the environment could find a place in the same department. I recognise that, however the cake is cut, there will always be some inconsistencies. Others have dealt with that. However, at a time when—this has been stressed so often that I need not repeat it—agriculture clearly could not be in a worse position, either in the United Kingdom or, indeed, in much of Europe, the opportunity to coordinate what could possibly be described as a potential agricultural revolution for Europe is one which we should all welcome.
We should also recognise that we now have the Food Standards Agency, which has been in existence for over a year. I believe that it got off to a very solid start. It demonstrated to people that there is an ability to recognise what practices in the food chain lead to concern and what practices in agriculture are capable of improvement. I believe that it already gives to consumers a greater feeling that a detached agency does indeed inform government departments about the standards of food. That is a very important precedent.
Sub-Committee D has, to my certain knowledge, for 12 or 15 years ever more shrilly proposed radical reforms of the common agricultural policy, as, indeed, have successive administrations. We know that the government of the day in this country invariably have been in a minority in the relevant Council of Ministers. However, again, that is changing and provides us with another opportunity.
It is a sad fact that the spread of BSE into European countries has caused a sea change in feeling among some countries which staunchly supported a common agricultural policy through thick or thin. Again, I believe that there will now be an opportunity in the agricultural council to think the unthinkable in terms of how the common agricultural policy could deliver not only agricultural support, which clearly is required, but also benefits to all the other stakeholders.
Although we have talked about the matter for many years, the question remains as to whether we have yet identified the mechanisms for involving all the rural stakeholders. Do we even know what we mean by "rural stakeholders"? Who will ensure that not only do farmers such as myself talk to neighbours as to how we propose to run the farms but that a dialogue will inform priorities in our parishes and regions and, indeed, help to form part of the payment structure for which ultimately we shall be rewarded? As a farmer 305 and landowner, if I am to continue to attract public funds, which I hope I shall, I must recognise to whom ultimately I am accountable. Of course, ultimately I am accountable to the wider consumer—to the taxpayer.
But, above all, I believe that it is perfectly legitimate for the issues of landscape, biodiversity, wildlife and habitat enhancement—all those matters and many others—to be issues in which those who visit the countryside or live near by but work elsewhere feel that they have a legitimate stake—at least to make their point of view known. Whether the economics of it, which clearly they would not expect to be able to control fully, will allow it is something that clearly would have to be considered further.
However, there must at least be a better system than the current one is perceived to be for allowing wider local participation in the farming systems. If farmers recognise that they should work with the local community, meet the legitimate and sensible aspirations and try to explain rather better what they believe is sustainable in agricultural terms, I believe that we shall have an agenda which we can pursue with far less conflict, far less hot air and far less simplistic views which tend to concentrate on intensive agriculture versus organic or the sins of the multiple food chains.
All those debates are sterile and unhelpful in progressing the agenda. We shall continue to have multiples selling our food whether we like it or not. I have no particular objection to multiples as such. We shall continue to have organic farming alongside more conventional farming systems for the simple reason that organic farming systems will never feed the country, let alone the world.
Therefore, we should recognise what the strengths of the different strands are. When we can organise sensible, rational and constructive discussions about stakeholder forums and the like, I believe that it will be done with possibly the new department acting as something of a facilitator.
The old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food owned and, I believe, still does own a number of farms which were often intended to help to promote the transfer of research advice. They were held in high regard. However, their remit is changing rapidly. I suspect that when and if the future of some of those farms is considered—I know that some consideration is being given to them at present—the opportunity should be taken to use them as test sites to determine what people believe they mean by soil quality. As a farmer, I believe that I know what I mean, but it may not always meet the requirements of flooding or soil biodiversity.
I turn to stock management systems. Why do people believe that some are ethically superior to others? There are, indeed, very good reasons why some are more desirable than others, and there may well be good reasons why we have a very different regime in relation to some of these matters from our colleagues in Europe. Again, those issues must be understood by all parties. We must understand the contribution that 306 farming can and does make to the rural community and the contribution that it should make, as perhaps it does not at the moment.
With regard to landscape appearance, it is very easy to discuss people's aspirations; it is slightly harder to pay in results on it. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, referred to butterflies. I am delighted to report that I am a member of Butterfly Conservation, which I believe helped to produce that publication with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which I used to chair. There again, I believe that it would be perfectly possible to put out indicators on farms as to what habitats were desirable in order to see whether some of the species which are declining—by no means all are; in fact, some are increasing—can be encouraged by favourable farming systems.
I would welcome that degree of involvement. I find that when I have a farm open day, which I do every year, I have more than 8,000 visitors. Usually they cannot understand why I am not an organic farmer, but we do not have fisticuffs about it. It demonstrates to me that there is a great appetite for further information.
Certainly when the gracious Speech refers to the reality of sustainable development being a priority of the Government, I take that as a reference to agriculture as well as to climate change. Agriculture can and should be the green industry. It can and should be able to help other industries to recycle some of their waste products. It can certainly do much to reduce its own impacts, which very often are a form of leakages into soil, air and water. I believe that it can certainly demonstrate precisely what sustainable development is all about. I suspect that it is for that reason that agriculture does, after all, receive a mention in the gracious Speech.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, I rise with some apprehension, given the previous speaker's opening comments about my noble friend Lord Mackie, because I am to be his replacement on Sub-Committee D.
I want to return to an issue raised by the new Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, earlier in the debate and also by my noble friend Lady Hamwee—that is, housing. I am used to being a minority in this House in speaking on housing issues. However, I appear to be in a minority of one this evening. I also want to touch on the subject of energy efficiency, particularly in relation to housing. That issue was raised by other noble Lords earlier this evening during discussions on sustainability and the environment.
The gracious Speech made virtually no reference to housing, although it did refer to the reintroduction of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill. I was involved with others Members on these Benches in the passage of that Bill during the previous Session of Parliament. We gave our support to the introduction of commonhold and to the greater opportunities for leasehold tenants to manage their houses. However, in 307 the previous Session we also considered that the Government were mistaken to believe that that Bill would result in commonhold being taken up widely. We were particularly concerned that commonhold was not to be compulsory and that, if leasehold tenants wanted to convert to commonhold, everyone in their block would have to agree to it. That may mean that one or two small blocks of flats would revert to commonhold. However, leasehold will not disappear gradually; it will take much longer than the Government anticipate.
My noble friend Lord Goodhart, who is not here today, made some good proposals during the Bill's passage through this House and I hope that the Government will examine them carefully. He proposed that only 80 per cent of leasehold tenants need be in agreement in a block. That would mean much re-working of the Bill, but if the Government really want commonhold to become common, they should look carefully at that suggestion.
As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, the Homelessness Bill will be introduced in the other place next week. It will be based on the Homes Bill, which was introduced during the previous Session. We welcome the new Bill and in particular the fact that it will contain a new section dealing with decisions about the suitability of accommodation that is offered to homeless people. Liberal Democrats in another place raised that matter. Other noble Lords will join me in welcoming the fact that Part 1 of the Homes Bill is nowhere to be seen in the new Bill. That part was widely condemned around the House and we on these Benches welcome its removal.
The speed with which the Homelessness Bill was introduced, despite the fact that it was not in the gracious Speech, is in stark contrast with the slowness with which the Homes Bill was introduced during the previous Session, despite promises that were made in another place to undo the worst parts of the Housing Act 1996. At that time I heard the previous Minister responsible for housing, who was then in opposition, promise that that would be a priority should the Labour Party come into government. That was also a priority in its manifesto. Does the speed with which the Homelessness Bill has been introduced mean that we can expect further speedy action on the housing front from the Government and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who is the new Minister responsible for housing? I welcomed his opening comments, which were about giving a priority to delivery, and I was particularly pleased to see him return to his place shortly before I started my speech.
We want more resources to be made available to provide suitable and affordable accommodation. My noble friend Lady Hamwee highlighted the real problems that are experienced in that regard, especially in London. She also referred briefly—I shall do so in more detail—to the problems of families who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a long time. That is a scandal and I hope that there will be rapid action in that regard.
308 The slowness of action in the previous Parliament, particularly in relation to homelessness and affordable housing, played a part in the recent rise in the number of homeless people presenting themselves to councils and in the disturbing rise in the number of families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My noble friend mentioned this earlier but it is worth repeating the fact that in the first quarter of this year there was a 10 per cent increase in unintentionally homeless people in priority need. There was also a rise of more than 16 per cent in the number of households in temporary accommodation and a rise of 24 per cent in the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Shelter, the Association of London Government and the National Housing Federation joined forces to campaign for action on bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They propose that an overall national target should be set to reduce the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and that there should be individual targets for local authorities. They want local plans that outline the way in which those targets will be achieved to be developed. They call for immediate action to increase the supply of high-quality temporary accommodation and therefore reduce the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation through the leasing and managing of private sector properties by social housing landlords. They believe that spending between £250 million and £300 million over two years could provide enough homes for 10,000 households. That would be much more cost-effective than the current approach, which uses bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I understand that the Government now recognise the need for targets to speed up cuts in the number of families who are in such accommodation. I hope that we shall hear more on that from the Minister when he winds up.
There is another matter about which I want to hear more from the Government; namely, the provision of assistance to housing associations and local authorities so that they can bring empty homes back into use. I declare an interest in this regard because I am a patron of the Empty Homes Agency. Homelessness is rising but there are still 760,000 empty homes across England. I am sure that the new Minister responsible for housing is aware of the latest campaign by the Empty Homes Agency. It is called—this is appropriate for Wimbledon week—"The ball's in your court". It urges the Government to give local authorities the power to charge 100 per cent council tax on long-term empty properties. Ashley Horsey, who is the chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, urges this Labour Government, now that they have been re-elected, to reflect on the matter, to move in the proposed direction and to consult.
Each year, the Empty Homes Agency issues awards to local authorities, registered social landlords and others for best practice in bringing empty properties back into use. There is plenty of scope for the Government to work with the Empty Homes Agency and to help to disseminate information about I successful schemes and best practice.
309 I shall give one example of a scheme that won an award this year. In view of the number of noble Lords who have spoken about the need for regeneration and sustainability in the countryside, I have chosen to discuss Herefordshire county council, which was the winner of the best rural scheme. That county council came into being as a unitary authority in 1998 and immediately adopted an official empty property strategy. It appointed a dedicated officer to implement it. During the past three years, the council's empty property strategy has evolved from a blank sheet of paper into an initiative that impacts across directorates and regularly provides the authority with good news stories. By using a combination of grants, leasing schemes, advice and enforcement action, the empty property strategy was responsible for bringing 54 empty properties back into use during 2000–01. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. Some years ago, my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, who will wind up for the Liberal Democrats, was the leader of Somerset council, which also won an award for its empty property strategy.
In delivering results, the Government often seem to remove responsibilities from local government and move them to other bodies; they do not leave the democratically elected bodies to deliver for their communities. We all know that there are local authorities that do not perform in the best way, but we on these Benches do not believe that that is an excuse for undermining the democratic process. We should spread best practice to those who are elected in local authorities and to those who help them deliver.
I turn to another promise that the Government made, about houses in multiple occupation. That promise was made some time ago and it is another commitment that we hoped would have been realised during the previous Session. Towards the end of the last Parliament—in fact, in the last week of the previous Parliament—some Members of another place presented the Houses in Multiple Occupation (Registration Scheme) Bill. That would require local authorities to set up licensing schemes for houses in multiple occupation.
I and others believe that such a scheme should also contain energy efficiency requirements as a condition of registration because that would be an extremely effective way of tackling fuel poverty in the private rented sector where over 40 per cent of tenants are living in fuel poverty. I believe that any scheme which did not include energy efficiency would condemn millions of people to live in cold homes for many more years.
Virtually all the demands for a licensing scheme have focused on issues such as fire safety, means of escape, provision of facilities, dilapidated conditions, good management practice and so on. But very little attention has been focused on energy efficiency.
I do not believe that the Government are hostile in that area. Indeed, there was a discussion paper from the DETR about management standards for HMOs. In it Ministers said that they believe—and this was probably their excuse for not having the licensing of 310 HMOs in the last Session—that it now makes sense to link HMO licensing with other measures aimed at improving the quality of housing generally. They now intend to legislate at the same time with a new approach to assessing the physical condition of all dwellings.
Licensing would reduce health risks. We know that. The health risks of cold homes have been well documented. The scale of fuel poverty in Britain today has been well documented. I believe that including energy efficiency standards in an HMO licensing scheme would greatly assist the Government in dealing with fuel poverty in the most difficult sector; that is, houses in multiple occupation.
I also have another interest in this matter because in 1995 I was the sponsor in another place of the Home Energy Conservation Act. That Act gave local authorities the duty to improve energy efficiency in their areas by 30 per cent by 2010, and that based on 1995 levels. I believe that a licensing scheme which included energy efficiency requirements would help local authorities to achieve the 30 per cent improvement set by the Home Energy Conservation Act, because there is no doubt that they are finding it quite difficult at the moment.
In the gracious Speech, the Government—and other noble Lords have mentioned this—reiterated their commitment to the Kyoto protocol and to sustainability. But what concerns many of us is that, particularly in the area of energy and energy efficiency, the new arrangement of departments is quite difficult across some of those areas. It may be advantageous to look at all the rural issues together, but I believe that it will be more difficult to deal with energy and energy efficiency.
Also, although those were very good words in the gracious Speech with which we can all agree, there is very little in the legislative timetable to hack it up. I believe that if the Government could move swiftly to a licensing of HMOs with energy efficiency measures, that would give a little bit more credibility to those words.
There is much more that I should like to say on energy efficiency and the poor repair of many of our homes in Britain today. Time is against me. But the new Government have four or more years in this parliamentary Session and I sincerely hope chat their priorities in the area of homes and decent housing are made a reality as soon as possible.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, first, I add my congratulations to all three Ministers on the Government Front Bench on their new responsibilities. In particular, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, on her promotion which is so well deserved. I look forward to crossing verbal swords with her in your Lordships' House on many occasions in the future, if not this evening.
I should like to address my remarks to the part of the gracious Speech that related to education and, in particular, comment on teacher recruitment and 311 retention and the involvement of the private sector in education. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, may remember that I frequently questioned her predecessor about the number of teaching vacancies in our schools. She may also remember that the answer I invariably received was that there were 10,000 more teachers in our schools now than when Labour came to power. Of course there are. There are more children in school now than there were then and we, of course, accept that the Government have reduced class sizes for 5 to 7 year-olds by a small amount, so a number of extra posts have been created. Naturally, therefore, there are more teachers.
However, there are also more vacancies in particular in our secondary schools. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will not quote me overall figures since the appalling problems in secondary schools are masked by the increase in the establishment in primary schools.
The facts speak for themselves. The vacancy rate in secondary schools has trebled under Labour, doubled since last year and is at the worst level for over a decade. Even in primary schools the vacancy rate has doubled under Labour and is the worst level for a decade. Vacancies for maths teachers have increased five-fold since 1997 and are now at the worst level for 15 years. The recruitment campaign referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in introducing this debate will need to be vigorous indeed.
In reply, I wonder whether the Minister will answer a question which I have asked before in this House but to which I did not receive a satisfactory answer. When will the Government get a true picture of what is going on by conducting a proper curriculum and staffing survey? Only by doing so will they find out not only how many jobs are vacant, but also how many secondary classes in shortage subjects are being taught by teachers not qualified in that subject. Putting any old body up in front of a class will not produce the increase in standards that we should all like to see. Only a massive effort to recruit more good quality graduates into the profession, especially in shortage subjects, will do that.
The problem is critical. Every day we fall further behind our European partners in standards of education. The OECD report referred to by my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford showed that there are 7 million Britons unable to read, write or add up to the level they need to communicate in the world of business. School leavers in the UK are in 13th place for literacy in a league table of 18 OECD countries. The author of the report, Andreas Schleicher, concluded that:If we don't get it right at the beginning of a person's education we can't fix it later on".Although we get lots of students to degree level, we in Britain neglect and underfund our schools compared with the OECD average. Only four countries—Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden—have strong all-round performances and it is no coincidence 312 that it is those countries which spend most on education, in particular in the early years, and where child poverty is almost unknown.
So what is putting people off coming into teaching? First, there is a lot of competition for good quality graduates. Management training schemes, the professions and the City all offer well-paid training programmes for talented young people. The Government will not attract the pick of the bunch unless they accept that a training salary, such as the Liberal Democrats have been proposing for a long time, is the only way forward.
Added to that is the need to make the profession more attractive. The burden of bureaucracy is heavy and is driving good experienced teachers out of the profession and discouraging new recruits from coming in. A total of 1,459 consultation papers, regulations, guidance notes, requests for statistical information and letters from Ministers were sent to local education authorities in the four years 1997 to 2000 inclusive. In the last year of that period, 152 of those were sent to schools. I know that the Government are addressing that but there is a very long way to go.
And that is not all. The number of new initiatives makes you dizzy. At least 24 new DfEE initiatives have been implemented since this Government came to power. It is no wonder that Harry Judge, the Dean of Education at Oxford, welcoming a group of American educationists to Britain recently, was moved to say:Welcome to our educational laboratory. You may conclude it is run by mad scientists and that you have seen it before it explodes".The unfortunate sixth-form students currently taking the first AS levels, and their long-suffering parents, may well consider themselves to be the latest guinea pigs in that laboratory!
From these Benches we welcome the announcement that there will be a review of these ill-conceived examinations, but I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House anything about the terms of reference of the review. Will it simply look at the introduction of the AS examinations in isolation, or will it reconsider the desirable objective of how to broaden the sixth-form curriculum without putting undue stress on our much-examined students?
I turn to the proposals for further involvement of the private sector in our education system. I cannot understand the apparent belief that good quality management can be found only in the private sector. Anybody who has ever tried to get a courier company to deliver a parcel at a time that suits the customer, to arrange for a plumber to visit in the next three weeks or to buy a computer that works properly first time without the need for several components to be replaced will feel as jaundiced as I do about the private sector.
There is no reason why the quality of service and of management in the public sector cannot be every bit as good as the best of the private sector, given comparable resources. There is nothing wrong with private companies per se, but they all have to make 313 profits for their shareholders. I am as suspicious as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and other noble Lords who have spoken about the profit issue in relation to education.
From where will the profit come? Nord Anglia does not run schools for the love of it. That company makes a healthy profit. What does the Minister believe is an appropriate level of profit for a company running a school? As 80 per cent of a school's budget is spent on staffing, one would assume that cutbacks would have to be made in staffing—as in the charter schools in the United States—in order to provide dividends for shareholders.
We must not allow our secondary schools to become the Railtrack of the education system. Those successful schools that the Government propose to hand over to private companies will be little different from private schools, supported by public money. That money should go directly towards the education of our children and not to shareholders.
Under the Government's new proposals we are promised that four out of 10 schools will become specialist schools, each supported by an additional £0.5 million over a four year period. That is a chicken and egg situation if ever I heard one. But where is the empirical evidence that such specialist schools will constitute an improvement? A recent study by Cardiff University's school of social sciences states:The specialist schools programme is seen as a key way of transforming the 'bog standard"'—an unfortunate phrase—comprehensive education system. However, there is little evidence that such a programme can make such an impact. In particular, it is shown, schools that have control of their own admission arrangements will benefit the most and lead to the creation of a two-tier education system".Will the Minister and his colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills examine the available research and accept that policy should be evidence-based, rather titan simply adopted for political reasons? There is a danger that the Government's proposals will dismantle our education system brick by brick and return us to the selection and segregation that failed so many children of my generation prior to the advent of the comprehensive system. If some comprehensives are failing, please do not condemn the whole system to the scrap heap. Fund it properly; attract and keep good teachers; support and encourage them; call for a moratorium on so-called initiatives; and then judge whether the system serves our needs or not. No government have done that. I recommend that as an appropriate course of action to the new Minister. That really would be a novelty.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Salisbury
My Lords, in view of the hour, I shall not repeat many of the points to which my brother Prelates have referred about the life that we are witnessing in the countryside at the moment. I simply want to add my voice to theirs. In yesterday's 314 debate on the gracious Speech I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, referred to two economies: first, to the economy,in which consumers are prosperous, house prices are still just about rising and retail spending is up".He continued:However, in the other economy, the manufacturing economy, things are very different".—[Official Report, 2516/01; col. 169.]Where was the reference to the economy that concerns many of us who live and speak for rural parts of England? Where was the reference to the agricultural economy?
I shall not be the only Peer to echo the comments made at the opening of the debate on the gracious Speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, in which she expressed regret at the missed opportunity to say something in affirmation of those who work in and for the countryside. The only reference at all in the gracious Speech to rural matters was to hunting.
I recognise that the Government may not yet be ready with a programme of legislation based on the White Paper on the countryside. But some signals that they knew that there were matters to be addressed would have gone some way to acknowledge that a large part of the rural population is smarting from the effects, both direct and indirect, of foot and mouth disease, and that many involved in the rural economy do not see any sustainable future there.
Worse than that, there were few signals that the Government have taken on board how alienated many in the countryside feel from the life of what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, called the first economy. Deep divisions and suspicions, however ill-founded—we often know that they are—must not be allowed to take root. While I applaud the appointment of a Minister to "umbrella" all such matters, I hope that the Government will act to halt the perceived divide into two nations, the urban and the rural. Over the past few weeks we have seen the consequences of a perceived divide on the streets of towns in Lancashire. None of us wishes to see further polarisation if that can be avoided. It will not take much to listen to what is being said. I hope that there will be some signals that the Government are able to do that.
The gracious Speech links tackling climate change with making a reality of sustainable development. Not only within the United Kingdom is there a need to reduce poverty and bridge the widening gap between the rich and the poor. As well as being enmeshed in a global economic market, we are also facing challenges to the environment that will profoundly affect our future. What kind of sustainable development will secure a future on this planet? What kind of sustainable development are we willing to pay for now so that there may be any kind of a future? What do we understand to be the purpose of life; of plant life as it relates to animal life and of animal life in relation to human life?
All the talk about tackling climate change and making a reality of sustainable development is predicated on the assumption that we not only know 315 how life—all the inter-related organisms which inhabit the earth—works, but also that we have grasped what life is for. A global scientific culture comes ever more closer to finding out how the earth works, but the post-scientific culture also needs an answer to the question, "What is life for?".
Our difficulty, I suggest, is that we pluck an answer to that question out of the air when we are considering a particular piece of legislation. That, after all, is how this House does its business; we consider the details of legislation. But where is the opportunity to collate all these implicit definitions? We work with a set of definitions about the purpose of life when considering the desirability of GM crops. Is it the same definition when we look at stem cell research? And do we use the same criteria when we debate human rights or a global effort to reduce poverty? And perhaps even more tellingly, do we allow ourselves to keep in mind a definition of what human life is for when we debate global economics?
In a period where people are increasingly suspicious of identifying with wider concerns, when the word "we" is more and more being replaced with the word "I", what are the steps that this House might take to secure common ground on which to build? I listened to speeches by the noble Lords in today's debate and so many have beneath them an implicit definition of the nature of human life which is not made explicit. If we were able to make that explicit, would we be further on in our efforts not only in terms of global economy but also in terms of an education policy which delivered for the children and for the adults too in our country?
We on these Benches have no exclusive rights to provide answers to the question of what human life is for, but whatever is being discussed we shall have this in our minds. I know that a general debate on the question of how the relationship between plant life and animal life, and animal life and human life, could be bland and unresolved. But if we do not attempt it here, what will win the day? Probably short-term economic expediency designed to give as many individuals as possible what each wants for himself or herself now. That is no way to build society and no way to build community.
The future of agriculture in this country raises in a local particular way the wider and more global questions which can be answered only in relation to our understanding of what all life is for and not just how it works. How we derive an "ought" from an "is" in a shrinking world, threatened by a population explosion and climatic change of the kind that is coming, is an essential question that we should answer.
§ 9.11 p.m.
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer on his appointment to a wide-ranging brief. I am sure that we will have many discussions on transport and I welcome ideas which have been put forward about streamlining the planning procedure. I believe that he may be responsible for them. Secondly, I want to take this 316 opportunity to thank my noble friend Lord Whitty who over many years in the previous Parliament listened and responded to discussions on transport. I thank him for his unfailing courtesy and assistance in moving forward various matters of debate.
Today I want to concentrate on the railways from the freight angle. I declare an interest as chairman of a freight group. I welcome the Government's commitment to delivery on transport, which my noble friend stated in his opening remarks. I welcome the commitment to a wide-ranging review of safety regulation after the Cullen report. It will cover road, rail, air and sea. The review is long overdue, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said in a most interesting and thoughtful presentation.
In the past four or five years, rail freight has grown about 40 per cent and passenger traffic has grown significantly too. I believe that the competition which is now in the industry has given customers improved service. They like it and they are coming back. So of course I welcome the 10-year plan, which was announced almost this time last year, of an 80 per cent growth in rate and £4 billion of government money. And the industry welcomes the regulator's review of freight charges. If the Government are able to provide a little extra funding that should lead to an additional 50 per cent reduction in charges and it should enable rail freight to compete with road. However, that was mitigated by £700 million a year given to the truckers after their spot of bother in Whitehall last autumn. This is very exciting, but it is all predicated on a rail network which works and operates reliably day in and day out. Sadly, as several noble Lords have said, it does not at the moment.
The job of Railtrack is to manage, renew and maintain the infrastructure. It is paid by the operators to do just that. It has not and Hatfield was the result. It was not a freak. In my view it happened because Railtrack had failed to maintain the network over five or six years. It had failed to monitor the track condition and even complained that there was more traffic damaging the track. Railtrack forgot to say that it was to receive more revenue for the traffic that was damaging the track from which it could pay for extra maintenance.
It is sad to say that the company is submerged in bureaucracy with the fear of risk permeating decisions at all levels. That is exacerbated by a lack of understanding of the risk because so many of the engineers and technical staff have left in the past four or five years. In summary, it is all about a failure of management.
There are two matters which I would like to discuss quite briefly. They are safety and costs. We received the Cullen report last week. I am not going to go into it in any detail, but I shall quote one line from it. It states,There was a lamentable failure on the part of Railtrack to respond to recommendations of inquiries into two serious incidents".That is pretty clear, is it not?
The structure of safety approval is equally bad and is a serious constraint on growth. Noble Lords will have heard over the years of the thousands of 317 passenger coaches sitting in sidings around the country because they have not received approval to run on the track. The same thing has happened with freight wagons. There are 300 of them in Slovakia of the same type which have been in use for 15 years. But permission has been refused to use these new ones because seven of them have derailed in 15 years. According to independent reports, they have been derailed because of the bad track, but they have still been refused permission by Railtrack to run on the bad track because they might be derailed again.
There is not a track specification and no one is monitoring the quality. We just hope for the best. One of the pieces of Railtrack's equipment to improve the track is made by a company called Plasser in Austria. It is called a tamper. It vibrates the ballast. Special windscreens have had to be installed because those allowed in Austria are not good enough. A British inspector costing; £500 a day is employed inspecting the welding in Austria because German standards are not good enough for the British. That seems slightly odd to me. There has to be a horn on the train so one can hear when it is coming. It is not good enough to test it once a month to make sure it works, because it has to be dismounted and put into a laboratory so it can be tested to the exact number of decibels. I do not see the roadfreight competitors having to do that with their lorry horns. But that is the situation that we have reached.
European-approved wagons that come here at the moment are only allowed to operate if they have continental loads to or from this country. So if they operate between Bristol and Birmingham with a UK load, they are operating illegally. The whole system appears to be designed so that Railtrack's risk is as low as possible with whatever costs to others.
I turn now to costs. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer very clearly outlined Railtrack's costs as being two to three times those which British Rail used to estimate. He is right. It is not the fault of contractors but that of management. It is the management which is wrong.
The new high-speed track laying equipment on the west coast line has one to one-and-a-half hours of productive work in an eight-hour shift. We have to ask why. I believe that the Passenger Upgrade 2 should be cancelled, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, and be replaced by a high-speed line and leave the main west coast line to be a modern equivalent mixed railway as originally built.
The Settle to Carlisle line was closed for two months in the past two years in order to relay the sleepers and the track by hand. Even a press release was put out saying how clever they had been. In the 21st century we should be using machines like every other European country. The track and signalling quality are getting worse and costing more.
What can be done? We have to ask whether we need Railtrack at all. I have estimated roughly that between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of its revenue comes from the taxpayer. In a speech today the Rail Regulator is reported to have said that Railtrack is receiving 318 £3.7 billion this year from the taxpayer and it has asked for £2 billion more. That is £5.7 billion in a year. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, its costs are two to three times higher than when the railways were state owned and any funds raised privately incur higher interest rates. I question how any government can argue that that is good value for taxpayers' money. The regulator has also said today that the Government's allocation to rail of £29 billion under the 10-year plan will not be enough to deliver it. He is quite right, since I suspect that that figure was based on BR-type figures.
What can the Government do? There are different options. They can double the money and continue to pour funds into Railtrack's operations; they can maintain the funding level and watch traffic growth wither away as the network becomes less and less reliable; or they can change the structure. I do not support the idea of vertical integration proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. I cannot see how one train operator can manage the infrastructure fairly in allowing others onto it. I would worry about that in that 16 train operators use the West Coast Main Line. The best operator on that line for time- keeping is that responsible for running the EWS post office trains; they are better than all the passenger trains.
Maintenance and renewal contractors could operate the track and signalling and maintain it in zones under perhaps 20-year franchises let by the SRA. I believe that the train operators could he part of those consortia provided the powers were allocated fairly If one had, say, a 20-year franchise the infrastructure would be maintained to defined standards. That would be a major step forward. It would allow those consortia to invest in the most up-to-date high output equipment. They would have a duty to operate safely in accordance with independent standards which, thank goodness, come from the European Commission-sponsored interoperability directive. If we do not start to double-guess everything here, that should mean reduced costs for everybody.
But where does Railtrack come into this? In a sensible world the taxpayers' contribution through the SRA could go straight to the consortia. In any event, the SRA must become strategically involved and be creative and proactive, which we hope to see soon. Of course it will not need the Rail Regulator in its present form.
Some analysts have suggested that Railtrack's assets, particularly land, would just about balance the company's debt and mean that the compensation, if any, would be very small. On the Rail Regulator's figures, the Government's contribution this year is about equal to its market capitalisation, which is food for thought. But Railtrack is a publicly-quoted company and its costs are two or three times higher than those of BR. I believe that it has failed in its duty to operate a reliable infrastructure and, therefore, I question why it should be compensated at all.
To conclude, the Government are committed to delivery, which I certainly welcome. They are also committed to restructuring safety, which I also 319 welcome. I urge them to go a little further and investigate a wider restructuring which could save them money and enable the very welcome funding of the 10-year plan to deliver real value for money for the taxpayer and freight and passenger customers.
§ 9.23 p.m.
§ Lord Cavendish of Furness
My Lords, after that authoritative speech from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I am pleased that I have chosen a topic other than trains on which to speak. I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene in the debate on the gracious Speech to say something about agriculture and the countryside. I have spoken on this subject in the past and, as before, I declare an interest as chairman of a group of Cumbria-based family companies concerned with land ownership, farming, forestry, construction, mineral extraction, tourism and national hunt racing. I have a personal stake in those companies. To a greater or lesser extent, all of those businesses have felt the impact of foot and mouth disease, and this year some of them will experience unprecedented losses. I do not look for sympathy. Others have been far worse hit and much more personally affected and I make no special pleading. Business involves risk, and risk I am happy to take. Even mistakes and misjudgments by government are risks which wise investors factor into their business projections, but that is very different from saying that they should not be held to account for their actions.
As so many other noble Lords have said, but it bears repetition, there must be a broad, thorough and independent public inquiry into the foot and mouth crisis. Everyone knows that it has to go further than the scientific review flagged in the Labour Party manifesto.
I do not quarrel with the spirit of the Government-supporting newspaper The Times when it said before the general election that such an inquiry should concentrate on answers for tomorrow rather than scapegoats for yesterday. Since the general election has intervened, there will be no rolling of ministerial heads. No one need be unbearably distressed by that. If, as has been our experience in Cumbria, sure and swift political action could have contained the foot and mouth disaster, any inquiry which failed to address that aspect would not only be worthless but would fail utterly to establish the basis of a coherent policy for the future. As my noble friend Lord Peel said, there will be another outbreak of foot and mouth disease one day.
The Prime Minister took personal responsibility for the crisis. No one asked him to do so, but it is the view of country people that it was his limp-wristed leadership that turned crisis into catastrophe. If Ministers now cravenly run away from a full inquiry, it will only serve to confirm that view.
I highlight my own experiences only to point out how widely the crisis has been felt and the extent to which economic activity has declined as a consequence of foot and mouth disease, especially in the non-agricultural sector. I also wish to emphasise the 320 difficulties that we must anticipate in restoring a healthy level of investment. Foot and mouth disease has been devastating in its effects, which have not been confined to agriculture. May I have the Minister's categorical assurance that there will be an independent public inquiry into the foot and mouth disease outbreak and that its scope will include the role of Ministers and their handling of the crisis?
I further ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to tell the House how membership of the EU has impacted on the way in which his Government have conducted the FMD outbreak. If, as many commentators hold, the Government have lacked room for manoeuvre and the necessary powers to deal with the crisis are no longer in the Government's hands but have moved to Brussels, what better moment for the Minister to come clean so that we can debate the future with a clear understanding of how things are rather than how we would like them to be?
In Labour's manifesto, under the heading, "Rural Britain", the impact of foot and mouth disease is certainly acknowledged. But in the gracious Speech, as has been said many times, there is no mention of rural Britain or the disaster that has overtaken agriculture and the rural economy. The Labour manifesto says:Labour is committed to support our countryside and the people who live and work in it".On that commitment, the gracious Speech is entirely silent. The manifesto continues:But British agriculture will only thrive in the longer term through a further radical reorientation of the Common Agricultural Policy away from distorting Europe-wide production subsidies towards more national responsibility for domestic farming, environmental and rural development priorities".The gracious Speech contains not a single sentence about CAP reform. One should perhaps be grateful for the very brief reference made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in his opening remarks.
Conversely, on hunting with dogs, the manifesto had nothing to say, whereas the gracious Speech gives further encouragement to the abolitionists. Do Ministers not see how muddled and unpleasant are the values of a government who on the one hand posture about animal welfare and persecute hunting people, while on the other hand they slaughter, probably needlessly, three million healthy animals, often in circumstances of considerable cruelty? The Queen's Speech sends to country people, not a message of indifference, but a message of all too familiar hostility. It was received as that; it will be remembered as that; and it will be responded to as that.
It is a long time since any government showed themselves to have a great instinct for the countryside. It is no more than a fact of life that people who derive their livelihood from the countryside have for generations been under-represented in Parliament. Through no fault of its members, the official class is hardly a repository of country wisdom either. Overwhelmingly they are office people who live in towns. Unsurprisingly perhaps, one does not remember the MAFF official as being part of the weave and warp of rural life.
321 Finally, there is a raft of quangos, agencies and pressure groups. Collectively, the inhabitants of those organisations are known as experts.
The often self-styled experts in Britain have acquired a status wholly out of proportion to their value. As the paucity of experience in both the political class and the media becomes increasingly apparent, so in proportion grows the influence of the expert and the ability of experts to manipulate their political clients. A vacuum of understanding must not allow those experts to dictate the future of the countryside. Never has it been more important for the Government to develop a genuine dialogue with men and women who know and understand through experience what takes place in the countryside and indeed what the countryside might be capable of offering. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, made a similar point.
It seems to me that this bleak interval in the long history of British agriculture could be turned to advantage. It is my firm belief that we can have a prosperous farming sector, not reliant on subsidy and much more gentle in terms of environmental considerations. Farmers who want to chase subsidies are now very much in a minority. Farmers want to farm.
The wider rural economy is in many ways a more complex issue. In the case of my home county, Cumbria, there has been, I feel, a history of under-investment. When the Government come to examine the longer term effects of foot and mouth disease, I hope they will think strategically in terms of the county and not the region. The larger centres of population that lie at the heart of regional thinking have no real interest in the countryside. Why on earth should they? That point was made very eloquently by my noble friend Lord Waddington. Those who are most affected by this reverse should be most closely involved in the recovery. They will include numerous towns and villages that certainly are affected and whose economies were already fragile.
Of course I want rural areas to benefit from whatever grants and aids are available from government. However—I do not know whether I shall be thanked for saying this—I cannot see that the key to rural regeneration is asking the taxpayer to meet all the bills. We in the countryside have not been having a happy time and the Government do not appear to like us much. But we should remember that the taxpayer has not had that much of a good deal either, a point made by my noble friend Lord Peel and others.
What the Government can do, and should do with some urgency, is remove the obstacles—there are many of them—to our managing our own recovery. By listening, they should encourage the many groups that are forming in rural areas. My noble friend Lord Selborne made that point. Many of those groups are bringing forward radical ideas for transforming their rural economies in ways that will strike a chord throughout Britain. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, gave a wonderful example of what one might do. By hacking at the dreadful undergrowth of pestilential regulation in a way that no government have seriously 322 attempted, we could be free to reverse the anaemic investment record that has dogged enduring prosperity. The Government should honour their manifesto pledge to do something about the common agricultural policy. If the Government, having gone so far and at such cost to ingratiate themselves to the cause of deeper European integration, then lack the will or authority to reform root and branch the ruinous, wasteful, corrupt and fraudulent CAP, then indeed the outlook is bleak.
This much is plain. Without CAP reform, there is no acceptable future for British farming. Some say that that is what the Government want. But, remember, without farming there will be no countryside. Too late, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will find that he has not only destroyed agriculture but he has even betrayed his rambling friends.
A happier vision beckons—a countryside in which the farmer is reunited with his or her market place, having been forcibly removed from it over generations, where the farmer works for and gets greater value added at the farm gate. It would seem logical for groups or local entrepreneurs to set up marketing organisations, as is already happening. There will be an increase in the practice of product branding and there will be an emphasis on quality. Organic farming will have a growing part to play, whether or not it is organic. Farming in the future will probably have to be less intensive.
That really does seem to be a goal worth striving for. It should not need, even in the medium term, significant levels of public funding. But it will need a conscious unravelling of that huge volume of official interference and second-guessing which I know from personal experience are not features of life elsewhere among our competitors and which increasingly crucify enterprise.
I believe that, in reality, in the countryside we need to experience the pain that follows life's reversals. It is simply unrealistic to suppose otherwise. Furthermore, through that pain we learn from our mistakes and enjoy the fulfilling experience of recovery through our own efforts. It unites us and we learn to appreciate the kindness of those who lend sympathy, support and help, as they have done in the countryside.
Therefore, in closing, my message to the Government is this: remove the impediments to recovery and country people will do the rest. For a start, is it too much to ask that, through their words and through their actions, Ministers should show themselves, at this defining moment, to be our friends and not our implacable foes?
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, first, I should like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury for his thoughtful speech. Noble Lords have been patient and I shall try not to detain the House any longer than I need. I wish to spend perhaps 15 seconds on the subject of agriculture, which I had not intended to address, before I move on to discuss one particular aspect of education.
323 In agriculture, I would simply say this: any government which base their policy for agriculture on the assumption that never again will this country urgently need the food which it can produce are foolishly and irresponsibly ignoring the lessons of history.
I shall turn to education. I welcome the Government's commitment to improving educational outcomes in schools. They have already achieved much in primary schools and they are committed to taking that achievement forward into secondary schools. However, the point I wish to make is this: good teaching and good schools are not enough. The third leg of the stool, the other essential, is confident and motivated children.
In their recent publication, Tomorrow's Future: Building a Strategy for Children and Young People, the Government state that:Every young person deserves the best possible start in life and the opportunity to achieve to their full potential. Our job across Government is to do all we can to make this possible".A page or two later they go on to say that:Educational reform represents the cornerstone of the Government's policies for helping vulnerable children".If these government plans for equality of opportunity in education are to be successful, they must include steps to ensure that not only the lucky ones, but all children, are confident enough and motivated enough to succeed in school. My noble friend Lord Dearing made some interesting comments on this issue.
Schools themselves can help. For example, they can reduce bullying, they can help by creating an inclusive ethos and by adapting the curriculum to the needs and abilities of their pupils. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, noted how pupils respond to being made to feel special and worthwhile. But, for two reasons, schools alone cannot give a child the confidence and motivation it needs. First, for the first four crucial years of a child's life, schools have no influence on him. Secondly, even when a child becomes a full-time pupil, he spends roughly only 27 per cent of his waking hours in school. By far the most important influence in a young child's life is the family in which he grows up.
To be confident, a child needs to know that he is loved by his parents. The love of two parents is better than the love of one parent. The love of an extended family is a bonus. For a child to be motivated to learn in school, he needs to see that those he respects and loves think that learning in school is important—that they want him to succeed in school. Perhaps these words will sound like platitudes to noble Lords, but they are platitudes which today are all too often ignored.
The Government have recognised the following in their excellent document:Functional families are of fundamental importance to educational achievement".They go on to say that they are,committed to support parents so that they can better support their children".324 Furthermore,Children do best when they grow up in a stable, loving family".Therefore I ask the question: why do we have a tax and benefits system which sends such a very different message?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer says that he believes in targeting help for children, but what he seems to ignore is that, very often, the best way to help children is to support functional families; to support those parents who are prepared to make a long-term commitment to their child, a commitment to give him the encouragement, love and care that he needs in order to develop his full potential. The current tax and benefits system does nothing to support those family structures which are most likely to give a child what he needs.
Today, as many of your Lordships know, it is politically correct to imply that family structures do not matter. The catchphrase is that relationships in the family are more important than family structures. Indeed, relationships are extremely important, but it is far easier to sustain good relationships between the three essential partners—the mother, the father and the child—if they are living together in harmony under the same roof.
The role of the family is particularly important for the first four years of a child's life. The Government have recognised this and they have introduced the Sure Start programme. Assuming that the pilot schemes for Sure Start are successful—and I believe that the results are already encouraging—will the Government be prepared to deploy the necessary resources in terms of money and people to ensure a rapid spread of the Sure Start principle right across the country so that all children can benefit from it?
Beyond the Sure Start programme there are other things which the Government could do. First, possibly, they could give more support to family carers. The most committed and available support for parents with young children is likely to come from close relatives and the extended family. Will the Government take steps to make it easier for committed relatives to support young parents?—for example, by making it easier for grandparents and, indeed, separated fathers to find rent controlled accommodation near to where their families live.
Another issue which concerns me very much at the present time is the role of fathers in our society. The father has been marginalised in the past few decades. Today fathers are regarded in some circles as a kind of optional extra, and yet recent research shows that the role of fathers is very important for the emotional, social and educational development of children, especially boys. A father's interest can be a powerful influence on a boy's commitment to work at school. Will the Government take action—I hesitate to say this—to stop social workers and the judiciary from under-estimating the importance of a father's role in the life of his child? Will they take action to define more clearly what our society believes to be the responsibilities of fathers, and then make sure that this is part of the curriculum for citizenship education in schools?
325 It is particularly hard for parents who have had themselves a negative experience of school to motivate their child to enjoy school and to want to learn. Schools have a role here. They could do much more to forge links with such parents and to understand the needs of the communities which they serve. Schools should be at the very heart of the community, again a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. Indeed, there are those who argue that the key to high standards in schools lies more in developing powerful partnerships between schools and community than it does in simply asking teachers and schools to do more.
The sociologist Robert Putnam told a gathering at the White House last year that,the statistical evidence is that the best prediction of performance of a community's school is the social capital in that community—this is much more important than class size".Perhaps the real challenge in this country today is to rebuild communities, and that, I suspect, can only be done from the grass roots up.
I have been speaking so far mainly about young children. I want, just for a moment, to turn briefly to the 13 to 19 year-olds, to the contribution to successful educational outcomes which can be made by youth provision in all its forms—statutory and voluntary, sport, culture and adventure.
Following the onset of puberty, it is natural for a child to want to experiment with life outside the family and outside the school. All teenagers need somewhere to go and something to do outside the home which will help them to enlarge their experience and to develop self-confidence in a safe environment. Every child needs somewhere to make friends, and somewhere to succeed at something. Young people who are deprived of such opportunities will gravitate towards the gang down at the end of the street, and that leads to trouble.
Finally, I ask a structural question. Should not the Department for Education, rather than the Home Office, be responsible for family policy? Indeed should not the Department for Education be responsible for the delivery of effective and available youth provision? I urge the Government to accept that the improvements in education that we all want to see will not be realised by better classroom teaching alone. They will depend also on children who are motivated and confident, who can communicate and who have basic social skills, children who believe that for them education is worth while because they can succeed.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt of Chesterton
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about schools and community. I was chairman of governors for a comprehensive school. I am pleased to associate myself also with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about some comprehensives being very good indeed.
I commend my colleagues in the Government for the intentions expressed in the Queen's Speech to continue their work to improve the national and global environment and for their stated plans regarding the 326 reorganisation of government. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Whitty on his new environmental responsibilities.
I should also like to ask some questions about critical environmental issues facing the Government, particularly issues on which the Government are working, some of which have not been publicly announced. The philosophical and ethical imperative on our generation to bequeath a reasonable environment to our successors was well expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury.
The Freedom of Information Act is now on the statute book. So I hope that we can look forward to more public consultation in regard to policy development and the pre-legislative work of government and Parliament. The remarks of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal were encouraging.
It should be noted that the Government can contribute to the welfare of the environment in the UK and in the world by co-ordinating, guiding and, where appropriate, supporting public and private non-governmental organisations just as much as by legislating. But this growing facilitation role requires that national and local government should be as clear as possible about their objectives; they should be transparent in their dealings with parliaments, councils and outside organisations.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, spoke powerfully about how the farming community can contribute. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, rightly cautioned that governments should be more than simply facilitators; that is not why they are elected.
The immediate environmental issue facing tens of thousands of British households is the danger of flood and the likelihood of steeply rising insurance costs following the recent changes announced by the Association of British Insurers. It is essential that all the responsible departments and agencies ensure that the practical and insurance arrangements are in place for next winter and thereafter and that they are well publicised.
The other watery threat to our environment comes from the rising sea level, exacerbated by global warming. This House debated the question in June last year, but there is still no clear policy as regards different coastal areas and how they will: be affected. The Minister indicated that in a classic British way each coastal area would be examined on a case-by-case basis—which I understand is effectively a cost-benefit analysis. By contrast, the Government of the Netherlands have an overarching policy of coastal defence which is reasonably transparent. As the debate demonstrated, coastal communities in the UK have good reason to be concerned about the present situation. It will require high-level government leadership to ensure that the issue is handled sensitively and that all the available scientific and engineering resources are deployed to best effect.
Indications were given last year at the Labour Party Conference—I am not sure whether I am allowed to 327 mention that—that the Government would develop an initiative and legislation on ocean policy generally which would also include fisheries, resources and pollution. That is long overdue and will be very welcome to the many UK organisations in this field which could help the Government in their programmes on the environment and international development. But this requires some more open indication of the Government's future plans. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea which works with several governments and international agencies on the ocean environment around Africa and in the Arctic.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, reaffirmed this afternoon, dealing with global change is one of the priorities of the Government. As the New York Times reported on 10th June, the UK is leading the world, both in climate research and prediction and in international action. In their commitment to sustainable development the Government need to focus on energy conservation, on new sources of power and on reducing pollution. As several government departments will have to deal with these matters, firm arrangements for ministerial leadership and openness will be needed to ensure effective co-ordination, as other noble Lords have commented. The Government should be able to learn something from the United States Government, who have a national oceanic and atmospheric administration that unifies important environmental policies and operational decisions.
In the previous Parliament our government successfully co-ordinated, with a refreshing degree of transparency, the complex issues of food, agriculture and health in the cross-departmental Food Standards Agency. This provides a template for a new approach to co-ordination within DEFRA and beyond on the policies for climate and the environment, especially rivers, coasts and oceans. Such a level of co-ordination should enable the UK to play a strong role in Europe and strengthen Europe's role in working for the world's environmental goals.
As for power and pollution, currently the industrial economies of the world are growing and releasing ever more greenhouse gases. Research indicates that this endangers the whole equilibrium of the world's atmosphere, oceans and biosphere; for example, the great rainforests, as we saw so vividly on a recent "Equinox" television programme. These dangers may well dwarf the much smaller risks associated with nuclear power. Therefore I welcome the Government's announcement that they will study future energy supplies and include consideration of nuclear as well as other practical options for meeting all the world's power needs. This seems to be the view of President Bush and therefore provides an aspect of environmental technology on which the United States and Europe can collaborate effectively, unlike others where collaboration is rather more difficult. This energy study should also seriously consider "green" 328 power supplies, including biofuels, as advocated powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and wind power.
I hope that the Government will continue to push forward the more politically challenging environmental policy of tackling air quality and greenhouse gas emissions in our urban areas which led to political difficulties last year. It is essential that the Government should explain which ministry will campaign on these issues and take the lead in coordination now that responsibility for transport is in a separate department to that of the environment. We have great environmental challenges before us. I am confident that our energetic and reforming government will be able to meet them provided they use all the talents that can help them.
§ 9.53 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, my name was unfortunately left off the List of Speakers, which is why I am now speaking in the gap. I should first declare an interest in that my wife has a hill farm in mid-Wales with a small herd of pedigree Welsh Blacks, which mercifully still survive although foot and mouth swirls around us.
Like the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Kimball, I wish to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who was invariably helpful and forthcoming on agricultural and fisheries matters. I must begin by expressing my astonishment that there was no mention of rural Britain in the Queen's Speech, although the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, suggested ingeniously that there might have been an indirect reference. I wholly agree with what my noble friend Lord Palmer and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford said about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, made the point last week. She thought it would have been better if the Government had chosen to try to heal some of the wounds the rural areas had sustained. I very much agree. Far from seeking to heal wounds, the only reference to country matters in the Queen's Speech is that there will be a free vote on the future of what is called hunting with dogs.
I am struck by the insensitivity of the Government, who taken as a whole are thoroughly urban in outlook and support. They appear to take only a sporadic interest in the appalling crisis which has affected huge swathes of our countryside. I suppose the explanation must lie in the maps published in the newspapers after the election. Despite Labour's landslide victory, I saw that most of England was, to my surprise, still coloured blue. Only the insets showing the cities—London, Glasgow and the rest—showed where voter power really lay.
However, the election is over. Labour has triumphed. It seems to me that it would be wise for it now to address the concerns of all our people, not least the struggling people in rural areas—not only farmers but those involved in every type of small business.
I live in mid-Wales. My wife and I have just been to a public meeting attended by 600 farmers and their wives. It was called in order for them to meet Carwyn 329 Jones, the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs. He did not turn up, for which in my book he got no marks. However, at least we had the man from the Assembly who deals with foot and mouth and the chief veterinary officer for Wales. It was a first effort to talk to and listen to farmers in our part of the world. It was very much needed, as the absence of good communication had led to wild rumours, widely believed, that there was to be a mass cull of all livestock in mid-Wales as soon as the election was over. Country people feel forgotten. Two quiet, gentle people, wives of farmers, have said to us separately, "They hate us". It is worrying that people should feel like that.
In Powys, where we live, there have been just under 100 cases. We were clear for a month and thought that we could perhaps slowly get back to normal. But, no: we have had another case on the edge of the Brecon Beacons so we are back to square one.
I want to ask the Minister whether there is to be a proper inquiry, which is badly needed, and, if so, when. It was all very well for the Government to have a major inquiry into BSE, where what was wrong happened when the Conservatives were in power. The Government need an inquiry now on the foot and mouth crisis when they were in charge. In any event, we need urgently to tackle the source, or sources, of the infection. First and foremost, there is the question of imports of meat, on which I fully agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said. Can the Minister tell us when we shall insist that the EU takes action to put an end to imports of meat from countries which have foot and mouth disease and to personal imports of bush meat and other meat? Countries like the United States and Australia are far tougher about that sort of thing. It is worrying that we are so easygoing and continue to allow substandard meat to be brought in.
Then there is the question of vaccination. I listened with care to the report on the BBC this morning, and to Margaret Beckett's understandably cautious remarks. I believe that in the long run vaccination may be the answer. Dr Ruth Watkins, a distinguished retired virologist, told our meeting in Wales that vaccination could be cheap and nearly 100 per cent effective, removing the need for slaughter. But, of course, it needs to be Europe-wide; otherwise no exports will be possible unless all the vaccinated animals are slaughtered in due course—as has, I think, happened in Holland.
We need better information for the public: what is going on and why. And we need to tell the truth. There has been widespread distrust of the details given, or not given, by MAFF and the belief that it has been politically influenced. This terrible plague, coming on top of BSE, swine fever and bovine tuberculosis, has had a shattering effect on the British livestock industry—a great industry of which we should be proud, producing some of the finest animals in the world.
The Minister told us last week that by 21st June, 4.5 million animals had been slaughtered. In Wales there is enormous concern about what will happen when the September sheep sales normally take place.
330 Large numbers of sheep and lambs will need to be disposed of, as the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, pointed out. But there is unlikely to be a lifting of export restrictions by then. That, like so much else, depends on the EU, which now takes all the main decisions on our agriculture. Will sales be permitted this autumn? A major crisis for sheep breeders is not fair off. At our meeting the chief veterinary officer said that,the whole cycle of the sheep industry is incumbent on finding a solution"."I hear you loud", he told the farmers.
After this catastrophe, new policies for agriculture will be needed. Farmers in Wales and elsewhere are now, unhappily, deeply suspicious of the Government and think that present Ministers will be glad to be shot of them. Some ministerial comments are not reassuring. It is essential that the Government should be open, sympathetic and constructive. There are great problems. Most people agree that there have been far too many sheep—a direct result of subsidies paid by numbers. Farmers in Wales have very low incomes. The only way for them to make a modest living is by keeping large numbers of sheep and sending them away on tack in the winter. The system may need to be changed, but not in a way that does further damage to hill farmers.
I fear that many farmers who have lost all their stock will decide to abandon farming. If too many do so, the effect on the countryside and the landscape will be devastating, with much of it reverting to conifer plantations, scrub or waste land, along with the onset of suburbanisation. The countryside will have little attraction to tourists and ramblers.
Sorting all that out is the responsibility of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There is no mention of agriculture in the title, but, although MAFF has lost its name, it appears to have made an effective reverse take-over. I understand that the permanent secretary of MAFF has become the permanent secretary of the new department. One MAFF official is reported to have said, "We expected to get some steak, but we have got the whole cow". That is worrying, because it was MAFF that made the mistakes. Many people will be concerned if it dominates the new department at the expense of those concerned with the environment.
The environment was hardly mentioned during the election campaign, but it matters to all of us and it would be tragic if the reorganisation resulted in a downgrading of environmental responsibilities. There is an urgent need to tackle the deterioration of much of the rural heritage. We all know that common birds such as skylarks, song thrushes and lapwings have declined dramatically. So have butterflies, wild flowers and the fish in our rivers. Schemes such as the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, Tir Gofal and the Countryside Stewardship scheme do something to help, but they need to be expanded and to have more money put into them. We must ensure that the planning system is not emasculated, as some reports have suggested that it may be, and we must correct some of the excesses of intensive farming 331 I hope that Margaret Beckett, the new Secretary of State, can persuade her colleagues to give those issues a higher priority and put the whole weight of the Government behind efforts to restore the damage that has been done.
It is sad that responsibility for agriculture has passed from our hands to the EU and that other members cling to the discredited CAP, which has been responsible for so much of the damage. Despite that, I believe that we can secure improvements—indeed, we must do so if we are to have the attractive, productive countryside that all our people deserve.
§ 10.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, I warmly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to his new portfolio. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, to their new portfolios. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for all the hard work that she did. Having heard some of the remarks that have been made this evening, I am conscious that personal tributes do not always sit well with hard comments about the department. However, she was very open with us in reporting to the House about what was going on. That was a terrific example of ministerial responsibility carried out well.
Several noble Lords mentioned the comments of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, who spoke last week of our disappointment that the gracious Speech did not contain more about rural areas, given the current crisis. However, although the crisis is much deeper than it was at the time of the last Queen's Speech debate, this debate has been much more positive in tone than that one was. Those who have sat through both debates will agree that the tone has been helpfully more positive this time. Perhaps that is because we hope that the new department, with its widened responsibilities, should herald a new way of looking at the assets that this country is lucky enough to have and that, finally, the Government will start to make more sustainable use of them for all of us.
We have considerable assets in our land and climate—we have sun, wind and rain in the right combination. It is time to move away from squandering them to using them wisely. I hope that as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, takes on this new portfolio, he will be a strong advocate of such a change. I hope that he will move well away from the caretaker role which I believe successive governments have adopted in that they have simply allowed the squandering of those assets to continue decade after decade.
I believe that my noble friend Lord Ezra made an extremely powerful speech about the environment and about the ways in which energy use in this country needs to be radically altered. He called on the Government to introduce different policies to back up their ratification—which we welcome—of the Kyoto treaty. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, 332 Lord Hunt of Chesterton, refer to how we are seen in America as leading the way. However, I believe that my noble friend Lord Ezra is absolutely right to call for the appropriate changes of policy to back that up.
It would be a tragedy if the energy review were to be a green light to the nuclear industry simply because of the lack of effort in the area of renewables. Other noble Lords have mentioned wind and solar power. As did others, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned biofuel. And, of course, there is wave power. However, the fact is that at present the Government are making absolutely minimal effort to progress renewable energy sources.
It is very difficult to obtain funding. I have personal experience of that at a local level where I am involved with a sustainable trust for construction. The RDAs do not see it as their role to fund projects such as ours, which concerns constructing more sustainable community buildings and houses and helping the private sector to do so. The RDAs do not see it as their job; it is not within their DTI remit. The DETR tells us that we are a little exceptional and that we do not fit into its pot of money either. I hope that the Government will be able to develop a more flexible attitude so that piloting energy-saving schemes and projects such as the one that I have just mentioned will not have such a difficult time in the future.
The case for international energy use was well put, too, by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. There is still an international case for the destruction of smaller farming enterprises. Many noble Lords have spoken about that this evening. We are not alone in Britain in having seen a decline in the smaller family farm. I believe that we all read in the newspapers recently about the difficulties experienced by coffee farmers in Latin America and on the cocoa plantations of West Africa.
When the Minister, Margaret Beckett, talks, as she has, of wanting her department to promote sustainable and diverse farming and food industries that work together to meet the needs of the consumer, I believe that she has laid down the right challenge for her department. It is one that we must continue to see in the international context. We lead the way in calling for CAP reform and, indeed, in calling for the WTO to understand that environmental and social issues can no longer be ignored in favour of a purely trade agenda.
I believe that the Government have a difficult task because diversity does not suit central government. However, it does suit people, wildlife and communities. I hope that this Government understand that the challenge is to make the system work for diversity and not against it. Therefore, on these Benches we look forward to hearing from the Minister about how his department will rise to the challenge.
This evening many noble Lords have spoken about the future of farming. I believe that it would be completely iniquitous if we did not want to be a nation that could feed itself. I say that not so much because of the lessons of history but because I believe that that is the sustainable way forward. That takes us back to the matter of not squandering our assets.
333 There is plenty of support among British people for buying British produce. It is often hard for them to find such produce or to see it clearly among other produce. Although the NFU's "little red tractor" scheme has gone some way towards remedying that, it seems to have stalled somewhat. It is incumbent on the Government to give much more support to clear labelling schemes—that should not be left to interest groups, worthy though they may be.
There has been a lack of support for local marketing and shops. The Government depend on the Countryside Agency through campaigns such as the "eat the view" campaign. We need initiatives that link the landscape with food consumption. That was a worthy campaign but I have not seen any reports of its results. I hope that the foot and mouth crisis will not be used as an excuse for the lack of action in that regard and that the Countryside Agency will continue to work apace.
There must be proper help for small farmers who want to diversify and add value to their produce. The Government talked about a vertical food chain. I disagree with those noble Lords who said that the regions had no part to play; they do. For example, in the west country, which I know about, we need regional processing plants and a regional approach to our dairy and meat industry. That industry is importantly different from one in, for instance, East Anglia or the north east of England. A regional approach could add a great deal to such local initiatives and it might encourage sector-by-sector produce initiatives.
I agree with those noble Lords who said that we must clamp down on imports and be much more scrupulous at our ports about what is imported. Our farmers also deserve a level playing field. The Government must promote more seriously British produce to British institutions. I am still horrified about how difficult it is for the Army to buy mostly British meat. It places an emphasis on cheapness rather than on the need to support local agriculture, although it often trains over the land in question. It should buy British meat.
The Minister will be aware that I campaigned for some time to secure support for local authorities to buy local produce for school catering services. I understand that the EU laid down certain rules about that. It is a good example of British goldplating going over the top. We enforce the provisions differently from France or Italy, for example, and the problem has to stop.
Noble Lords have discussed the need to reduce the red tape that is imposed on the food sector and on farmers. There is increasing regulation but that has led not to safer food but to other scares. Small producers, processors and abattoirs are driven out of the market, and farming has naturally become more intensive—chickens need vast quantities of antibiotics and cows are on hormones so that their milk production remains high. There has been general agreement this evening about the need to move away from that regime and towards one that is more extensive.
334 Much red tape is imposed in relation to the landscape. I was recently given a very helpful leaflet produced by the Mendip Hills area of outstanding natural beauty. It outlined details of 16 different landscape scheme improvement grants. Farmers would be helped through the maze if the Government considered a one-farm plan and a one-stop shop. That would ensure that all land-based support for environmental schemes for farmers came through one gateway and that they would not have to apply for 16 different schemes. Those 16 grants related to landscape improvement alone. This is a very important matter—we have made life far too difficult for farmers. Environmental support must be simplified; that would ensure that farmers spent the rest of their time farming, not filling in forms.
Noble Lords also discussed wildlife. In the previous Session, SSSIs received more protection through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, but the Government must not think that that is the end of the story.
Sites of special scientific interest are islands in a sea of often destructive practices. Noble Lords have mentioned butterflies this evening, which are one example of wildlife which needs corridors and islands connected together which begin to form a land mass; otherwise, they simply do not have enough space to spread out and breed.
I saw an interesting example recently, of which the Minister may be aware, near Up Cerne in Dorset. The headlands of the wheat areas are beginning to be connected together. It was encouraging to see, last weekend, how the flowers, butterflies and skylarks have spread out so much in the past three years since I last walked in that area.
Many noble Lords who are politically motivated may have shared my experience when canvassing and may have noticed the proliferation of slug pellets and bedding plants. That is quite a worrying aspect as regards biodiversity and it is a serious point. Song thrushes are in rapid decline and I have never seen so many slug pellets as I saw in May and June.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned marine issues. The Government promised a review of marine nature conservation and a report to be published this year. During the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and I asked that that should be followed up by appropriate action. Indeed, in the life time of this Parliament, we should hope to see appropriate legislation in that regard and I hope that that will be brought forward in due course.
The foot and mouth crisis has taught us many lessons, not least about how tourism and agriculture are linked together, as are small businesses and tourism in this country. The Government have already made concessions to small businesses; for example, rate relief and late payment of VAT. But in areas which are really crisis ridden, small businesses are still struggling. They need interest-free loans. They have no cash flow. And in many cases, the crunch is yet to come because it will come in the winter and spring. While I 335 support the call of other noble Lords for a full public inquiry into the crisis, in those areas which have been particularly hard hit, it is a matter of keeping the businesses going for the next year. Although the public inquiry is important, on these Benches we realise that survival of those businesses is critical.
As they enter this new Parliament, the Government need to listen to a wider range of voices, not only those of the larger land-owning interests. During the last Parliament, the Government spoke very volubly of the rural sounding board and that has gone rather quiet. Many noble Lords have mentioned the various groups which they represent; for example, the Small and Family Farms Alliance. Where is their voice heard? Where is that rural sounding board?
My noble friends Lady Sharp and Lady Walmsley covered very capably issues in relation to education. And the technical knowledge of railways of my noble friend Lord Bradshaw is second to none.
We are pleased to see the proposed introduction of travel concessions. When we are discussing that legislation, I ask that we should not forget young people who often have far less income than pensioners. We are pleased that 1 million men will profit from those measures but that still leaves 16 to 20 year-olds in a completely iniquitous position unless some sort of concessions are made available to them.
We have had a very interesting debate this evening. I want to return to the comments made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee about low voter turn-out. The environment, food and education are issues which are extremely important to voters. Voters are desperate to see successful measures in relation to those issues. I believe that in many cases, the low turn-out is due to the fact that many people are cynical and believe that nothing much will happen and nothing much will change. That is a message which we heard on the doorsteps. The Government really need to act quickly and strongly in order to redress that cynicism. They must begin to deliver on matters relating to the countryside, the environment and education.
§ 10.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, we have had a full and varied debate this afternoon. Criticism of the depths of the disaster still raging in the countryside has been expressed by many noble Lords. The failure of the Government's handling of that crisis has not lessened.
We welcome the new departments and their new roles. Much is expected of them. On these Benches we welcome the proposed changes to schools. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke briefly of sport in schools. Perhaps in Wimbledon fortnight I can mention that for 10 years I taught tennis in a school so I was particularly interested in her comments about the role that sport plays within schools in giving confidence to pupils who go on to achievements outside sport.
I begin by reminding the House of my registered interests, particularly the farming business in Suffolk. I also record that recently I became a patron of the 336 Rural Stress Network to which the right reverend Prelate and many others have referred. That organisation and many others carry out great work for our farming communities. Times are still difficult and the aid that they give to farmers is greatly appreciated.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for all the work that she has done in this House in relation to agriculture over the past two years. She undertook her responsibilities with great diligence and was at the helm through some difficult financial times for farming. We thank her for her stewardship.
As other noble Lords have said, the gracious Speech made no mention of a Bill in relation to agriculture. Perhaps we should be grateful for that as farmers are increasingly weighed down by form-filling and regulation. That said, the onset of foot and mouth disease was probably caused by imported infected meat and I am a little surprised that the Government's programme for the next 16 months does not contain a review of the existing legislation on import controls, nor no new legislation to control imports organised through the Internet.
A worrying point is the formation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which has no mention of agriculture or farming within its brief. Even more concerning, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers said earlier, no Minister in the House of Commons is directly responsible for the subject. This House is the winner in that it has the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, as the Minister responsible, but that is not the same as having a Minister in the Commons with such a responsibility.
The message to the farming community is not a good one. It suggests that the Government have written off that community and do not care about the rural demise, and especially the demise of our farmers. I notice in the brief that the Minister deals with grants to environmental agencies. Will that include the payment of grants towards the environment and countryside agencies directly?
Farming should not be written off or lost. What has happened to the rural White Paper that was launched in September last year? Nearly a year has passed and we have still not had a debate on it in this House. Perhaps the Minister can inform the House of the number of recommendations in that White Paper upon which action has already been taken. Does he agree that the matter should have been debated in this House? Will he make a commitment that such a debate will be held?
Is the Minister also aware that the National Association of Local Councils and the various regional and area associations are warning their parish councils of the need to increase their subscriptions. That increase, which is put at about 50 per cent over five years, is related to coping with the effects of the rural White Paper, but as yet we have not discussed it.
In his opening remarks the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to the importance of local input. What is expected of our parishes and what support will the Government give to them? Are they 337 unimportant; have they been downgraded; or, in the decision to remove environmental issues from planning and transport, has there simply been a lack of joined-up government?
Previously the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was a Minister at the D ETR so he will understand only too well the need to balance the protection of the environment in relation to planning, housing and business development with the needs of those who live there.
One of the difficulties to be faced by farmers in the future will be that of diversification; the obtaining of planning permission to convert their buildings and to improve income generation for themselves and other members of their families. During the past few weeks, I have heard stories of the time it takes to process farmers' applications for such grants. Will the Minister do something about that?
In the previous parliamentary Session we had numerous Statements and debates on agriculture and rural areas. We spoke of the demise of rural post offices—some two a week are closing—without effective government action to stop the leaching. The Government have still not concluded the way ahead for such post offices.
Concern has also been expressed about the closure of some county courts in rural areas. Not only is there a problem for those attending the courts, but defendants and witnesses, and families and friends have added transport costs, and sometimes costs of overnight accommodation. As ever, it puts more pressure on those living in rural areas.
The provision of housing, and in particular affordable housing, is key to sustainable rural policy. The Government produced figures for new build which were rejected by many councils as being unwise and unsustainable. We have pressed for the inclusion of suitable housing as the number of single-person households continues to rise. My noble friend Lord Wade referred to that and other noble Lords mentioned the problem of homelessness.
Equally important, and in rural areas crucial, is the role of transport. The use of cars for rural dwellers is essential for every-day living. It is not a luxury. There must be a degree of flexibility for local councils to decide on their own needs, whether it be the provision of public transport or support for community buses.
The continuing closure of small abattoirs has brought increased difficulties for many farmers, not only those who produce in niche markets; that at a time which has seen farm incomes drop by 90 per cent over five years. According to MAFF, the total income from farming is forecast to fall by 27 per cent in 2000. Other noble Lords have referred to the dire state of farm incomes. Equally worrying are the bank borrowings by the agricultural industry, amounting to some £10 billion, while investment levels are at their lowest since the 1970s.
Those are indeed sobering statistics and they do not reflect the foot and mouth outbreak, which has already driven depressed farmers into devastating despair. I, too, was most moved by the contribution of my 338 noble friend Lord Monro, who is only one of several people in this House to experience the loss of all his animals. Whole communities have seen their farming future destroyed before their eyes and for some it is truly the end of the road as they seem unable to cope or see a future for their chosen profession. I want to record my thanks, and I am sure those of all Members of the House, to those who helped farmers during the past very difficult four months, whether they are professionals or volunteers.
The successful ending of the epidemic must be the Government's prime task. Incidents are still occurring and the recent one in Brecon, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, is disturbing. The disease was supposed to die out in the warmer weather but that is not happening. That increases our fears about what may happen in the autumn.
Several noble Lords and many of my noble friends have called for a public inquiry. If nothing else, the Minister will go away knowing very well the feeling of this House about the need for a public inquiry. Indeed, during last week's Statement I suggested that nothing less would do. In addition, several means of helping our farmers have been suggested. The NFU in its briefing suggests three key points which the Government might address. The first includes a much tighter enforcement of the rules on personal meat imports and a campaign to raise travellers' awareness of those rules. Secondly, there should be more frequent inspections by the EU Food and Veterinary Office of third countries which export animals and plant products to the EU. Thirdly, there should be appropriate controls on the growing trade on the Internet of agricultural products to which several noble Lords have referred.
I referred to a particular matter last week and I raise it again because it has not been solved. Compensation is definitely required for those who are experiencing consequential loss, particularly those 'who have a 30-months scheme. They are unable to have their animals rendered. That is because of the 'Goverment's stance and their handling of the foot and mouth crisis.
I turn to the future. I have a shopping list of matters to which other noble Lords have referred. My noble friend Lord Kimball referred to the practical problems as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic. He also raised a specific question as regards set aside land, more of which has become involved and which may incur more penalties.
Sustainable agriculture needs reform of the CAP, as does the fisheries policy. The two must go together. The World Trade Organisation talks are extremely important. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, the noble Lords, Lord Kimball and Lord Plumb, and many others, referred to it.
There are ever-increasing burdens caused by EU directives. Our producers have to bear them although they are not enforced by other EU countries or they are considered "a national tax responsibility" rather than one being passed on to the producer. For example, there is the climate change levy, which is going to hit our horticultural producers.
339 Even the Government's own Inputs Task Force chaired by Sir John Marsh concluded that overregulation produced trade barriers to our farmers. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskin, Better Regulation, is excellent. It produces many positive suggestions. These are all in hand, but we have not seen them and we do not know what is happening about them.
Other noble friends, and in particular my noble friend Lord Peel, referred to the role of tourism and the need for local decisions. Several other noble Lords referred to the importance of labelling to our consumers to make a knowledgeable choice about what they buy.
There are other things which the Government could be doing. We hope that they will bring forward the possibility of pig exports. Other noble Lords have referred to the huge problem which will arise this autumn because of the number of sheep as a result of the export market being closed to us. I wonder whether the Government have considered providing help with a private storage scheme. I believe that was referred to by my noble friend Lord Kimball.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to the retirement scheme, which we have spoken about in this House before.
In her speech my noble friend Lady Blatch stated that we broadly welcome the Government's proposals on education, which will give greater freedom to schools and will allow them to select pupils where appropriate. We are apprehensive that, while the Government recognise the need for schools to have that freedom, they may be reluctant to release the reins. Adequate core funding through education authorities to schools is crucial to that end.
I also welcome the Government's recognition that some pupils at the age of 14 should be allowed to pursue a vocational training scheme. It will give students a more relevant launch into the world of work. However, I hope that the Government will not overlook the complexity of the funding arrangements where school students are educated in more than one establishment. Funding for the further education colleges must be sufficient for the extra workload that they will bear, but not at the expense of school budgets. My noble friend said that I would refer to the subject. It is crucial for many of the councils. For example, when the rate support grant was announced in Leicestershire, £1,200,000 was removed under the area cost adjustment formula and given to London and the South East. A further £500,000 was given to metropolitan authorities under a new "ceilings" and "floors" interpretation. That is a total of £1,600,000, which severely affects Leicestershire's education budget. It was then told that a further £52 million was available for the poorest funded authorities. Expecting a share approaching £500,000, it received only £100,000, whereas Labour-controlled authorities such as Durham were awarded £2,800,000 and Northumberland and Worcestershire each received £1,400,000. Something needs to be done about it, 340 because all of us with children seek to educate them to the highest standards. All of us want good schools which provide opportunities and training to young people to enable them to play their fullest role in the challenges that lie ahead. Equally, no one who has listened to the debate can have failed to recognise the need for clear government thinking on how they view the countryside.
Much is expected from the new department. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has a huge responsibility if he is to succeed in bringing together all the different strands which have been touched upon today. My noble friend Lord Selborne posed the question: does the Minister see his department as a facilitator'? Does he understand the urgent need to move CAP/WTO talks forward with speed, that "no" is not an answer, and that something must be done?
In his opening remarks the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, stated that standards must go up. We agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, has taken up her new responsibilities at an exciting time, and speeches have been made on all sides of the House in support of the Government's move. We wish the noble Baroness well in her new challenges.
My noble friend Lady Blatch said that expectations were running very high. The Government will be judged on their results. We believe that the jury is out. The message sounds good but what counts is what happens. The conversion of this Government to the need to give schools greater freedom is just as important as the need to free our farmers so that they can compete on a level playing field. It is important to lift the extra costs that they bear and the responsibilities that they carry if they are to succeed. We are extremely proud that we have always produced food to the highest standard of quality.
Over the past four years the Government have failed to deliver, to communicate and to care. They failed to control the recent outbreak of foot and mouth and to show leadership in the regeneration of our farming community. Some believe that in the case of foot and mouth the Government failed to tell the truth.
If the Government care for all the people—I am sure that they do—they must show sensitivity and pick up some of the worthwhile suggestions made in the House today. Time is not on their side; sadly, for many farmers time has already run out. To give a free vote to Members of Parliament on whether to ban hunting with dogs will do nothing to solve the rural crisis.
There is so much that needs to be done. Today's debate is just the beginning of the real needs and hopes to which our farmers aspire. People who live and work in rural areas hope that the Government will understand the situation and move forward with great urgency.
§ 10.34 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this very wide-ranging debate. As always, during debates on the Queen's Speech everybody 341 complains about the bizarre combination of topics. Nevertheless, that is the way that we do our business. I shall begin by focusing on education, very much strengthened by the fact that by my side is my noble friend Lady Ashton on whose behalf I accept and appreciate the compliments which have been expressed around the House. Education is one of the main planks of the Government's commitments this Session, and my noble friend will do a great job in your Lordships' House.
I welcome the widespread support for the reforms of secondary education, which were announced in the Queen's Speech. They will create a more diverse education system and unleash the energy of successful heads and teachers in successful schools, so that standards will improve. I note the concern about teachers, to which I shall come in a moment. We must ensure that we raise standards for all children in all parts of our school system.
Some of the speeches relating to education were wide-ranging, especially those of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, whose welcome for the reforms I deeply appreciated. I agree with him entirely that our schools are an essential part of the community and bringing the community into schools is an essential part of the process. We need to ensure that the education provision in the community enhances both it and the performance in schools. I therefore welcome the support of the noble Lord for our proposed changes in secondary schools.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch, Lady Sharp and Lady Walmsley, among others, referred to problems over the supply of teachers. We recognise those problems. But the overall figures are somewhat comforting. We are taking practical steps to encourage more people to enter into and—more importantly—to remain in the teaching profession. Those steps include training bursaries, golden hellos, welcome back bonuses and, not least, three successive above inflation pay rewards.
Teacher numbers are rising and are at their highest level since 1984. There are 12,600 more teachers than there were at the beginning of last year. Recruitment for the future of the profession is also substantially up. Although vacancies are also up, the total teacher numbers are up by far more than the number of vacancies. It is important that there is a positive trend, but we need to do more to retain and motivate teachers joining the profession.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised the issue of AS-levels and asked what we were doing to review the way in which they have been introduced this year. My right honourable friend, Estelle Morris, has announced a review of the implementation of the reforms after their first year. The review will focus on the examination and assessment process of the new system and we shall receive a report from Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in mid-July. We shall then have to reflect on our next steps. We shall need to ensure that the new qualifications maintain their rigour while not placing unreasonable burdens on teachers and students.
342 The proposed Bill and the White Paper will support the creation of a more diverse education system to transform and deliver secondary education. Diversity and differentiation are an important part of what we intend to offer to secondary pupils. It is not entirely a conversion to the approach adopted by the previous government—I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. We are not looking for élitism, but we want diversity and equality in the provision of opportunity for all children. To paraphrase the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, we want all schools to be special schools. We want pupils and parents to identify with what a particular school can offer, but we do not want to differentiate in a hierarchical sense between one form of school, which is a special school, and others which are not. We intend to encourage schools to develop specialism, but we do not intend to create a two-tier system of education.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the noble Lord has just said something which is wholly inconsistent with what we understood to be the policy. Our understanding was that 50 per cent of schools would be specialist schools, but the noble Lord has just said that the intention is that all schools will be specialist schools.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the noble Baroness did not follow what I said. I said that all schools should be special schools, which was also what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, implied. There will be particular schools that will be encouraged to develop specialisms. That is where the 50 per cent figure derives from. But that is not creating a two-tier system. It means that within the overall inclusive system some schools will be more specialist than others.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, there is a difference between specialisation and élitism. What the party opposite is always trying to seek within its education policy is élitism. That is not what we are about. We are improving the choice to pupils, to schools and to parents by encouraging schools to develop specialisms. What we are not attempting to do is to create division within the secondary part of our education system. Indeed, it is important that the selection process is limited. Only 7 per cent of the specialist schools that already exist select by aptitude. None selects by ability. It is important that we differentiate that from certain other proposed models of secondary education.
Another contentious area of our proposals relates to private sector involvement in state education, particularly in relation to secondary schools. Our focus in this respect, as in other areas of the public services, is on what works and not on an artificial distinction between public and private provision. The public sector will be very much in command of the education system. We want the state education system to use private sector methods and personnel where necessary but also to engage in partnerships with faith organisations, voluntary organisations and so on, and 343 also with the private sector where that will raise standards. There is expertise in the private sector which we wish to mobilise here, as we do in other parts of public service delivery. We have already seen how private sector involvement can have a positive role in raising standards through the sponsorship of education action zones. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked when we would get an assessment. We shall get an initial report in July.
The involvement of the private sector and of partnership and diversity, particularly diversity with the faith schools, is an important part of the provision of both choice and diversity within this overall approach to secondary education. We very much appreciate the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, and the reaction of the Church to that. We wish to develop those partnerships.
Another dimension of the role of teachers has been emphasised. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to bureaucracy, to the administrative load on teachers and to the need to reduce bureaucracy and give teachers more freedom and more time to teach. We have already moved some way in that direction. We would want a state education system where there was greater freedom for creativity and therefore a relaxation of some of the administrative burdens on teachers. We agree with the Haskins report in this context and in relation to agriculture. We want greater freedom for head teachers and successful teachers and we want head teachers and governors to have new ways of innovating in order to drive up standards in schools. We shall therefore give greater autonomy to local schools and within that relieve the bureaucratic burden that falls on teachers and senior teachers in particular.
We accept the need to keep teacher workloads to manageable proportions. We very much recognise the complaints in that regard. That is why we have agreed to the School Teacher Review Body recommendation to take the lead in commissioning an independent study of teacher workload. We recognise that that is one of the reasons why we need to improve the motivation and performance of teachers. Furthermore, we shall give teachers additional teaching assistants. More than 25,000 teaching assistants were in place this January and we have said that there will be at least a further 20,000 classroom support staff by the end of this Parliament. We are relieving the burdens on teachers in that way.
Relief for individual teachers is one thing; the encouragement of leadership within schools is another. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn was particularly concerned about the quality of leadership in schools. We are anxious to develop that as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, put it that the three legs of this effort are formed not only by the Government and by teachers but also by motivating the children themselves. The noble Lord and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn were particularly concerned about the disaffection with 344 school which in part may depend on parental background, although I would not entirely share the conclusions reached on that by the noble Lord. However, clearly there is a need to engage parents in the schooling of their children more than is the case at the moment, as well as to motivate children more positively. In early years terms, the Sure Start programme has proved to be a success and we shall build on that success.
Another point raised in relation to the school curriculum was that of sport. I apologise to my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen. At the point when she made her contribution it was necessary for me to take some exercise and thus I failed to hear her remarks in their entirety. However, I returned to the Chamber towards the end. It is important to recognise that, across government, we are committed to delivering adequate time and resources for school sport. My noble friend Lady Ashton has said that she is herself specifically working on this, so we are in good hands as regards improving facilities both in schools and, it is hoped, continuing our commitment to sport after school.
A number of points were made about higher education, most of which related to funding arrangements and the question of tuition fees and the degree to which it has been alleged that they have put off young people from poorer backgrounds from entering higher education. There really is no evidence to suggest that the new student support arrangements are deterring students from entering HE. The total number enrolled has risen in each of the two years since the scheme was introduced.
The number from poorer households in the lower socio-economic groups has remained constant, although we wish to increase it, but we have not seen a blip as a result of the change in the student support system. It is still true that only 17 per cent of young people from lower socio-economic groups enter HE compared with 45 per cent from the middle and upper groups. That is one of the central problems facing the Government in terms of their higher education policy, but it is also a question of resources. Some of those resources are met by the new student support system. Furthermore, poorer students do not pay tuition fees because they are income assessed and low-interest loans are available to help them to meet their costs. We believe that once the new system has bedded in, it will be appropriate and will help to meet some of the resource problems in universities and higher education institutions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about higher education pay and the report from the Bett committee. I should say that that committee is to report to employers rather than to the Government. I do not think that at this stage it would be appropriate for us to comment on how that is going to be taken forward.
In relation to higher education, secondary education and primary education, this Government's watchwords will be standards and delivery. My noble 345 and learned friend Lord Falconer said the same at the beginning of our debate. That applies to the rest of our public services provision.
shall move to the area of responsibility covered by my own department. Again, I should like to accept and add to the appreciation of the role played by my noble friend Lady Hayman over the past two years. The new department represents a major realignment of environment, agriculture and food responsibilities. I very much appreciate the general welcome given by most speakers in terms of the establishment of the department. It will have a wide range of responsibilities, but they all relate to sustainability and sustainable development.
The name of the department attracted adverse criticism from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, and others; namely, that the word "agriculture" does not appear in the title. I believe that the creation of the department upgrades and broadens the role of agriculture and food production rather than narrows and downgrades it. It is now at the centre of an approach vertically to the food chain and horizontally to rural development, whereas previously we had a Ministry which was concerned primarily with food production and did not look at the role of agriculture within the wider environment and the wider community.
The fact that it has been placed in a department which also includes the whole range of environmental activities is very important for the future. The issue of agriculture needs to be taken in parallel with our approach to the environment as whole, both rurally and more broadly. My department will therefore be responsible across government for driving forward environmental issues in relation to everything from farm production through to climate change.
A number of noble Lords referred to the relative roles of my Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, and that of the Deputy Prime Minister. The bulk of policy in regard to climate change, the delivery of the climate change programme and our approach to negotiations will rest with our department. Clearly, the Deputy Prime Minister, with his huge experience and his success in obtaining the Kyoto agreement in the first place, will lead the negotiating team on occasions—as may the Prime Minister on occasions—but the executive responsibility for delivering the whole gamut of our climate change programme, a number of aspects of which have been referred to today, will rest with our department.
My noble friend Lord Hunt, in particular, referred to the importance of tackling climate change in the immediate and medium-term timescale, and the need to put that issue centrally in the Government's approach to policies as a whole. He raised a number of points. Our support for the environmental NGOs is substantial—indeed, they were one of the first groups with which Margaret Beckett and I met. Across this area of government as a whole, DEFRA will be leading.
My noble friend raised various points about the marine environment. Again, we will be the co-ordinating department in that regard.
346 He also raised the more local issue of flooding and the problems arising from the wettest autumn on record last year, during which 10,000 premises were flooded. In my department, the Environment Agency and those areas of MAFF which previously had responsibility in regard to flooding will be brought together. The Government will not, of course, be the insurer of last resort in this area as in others in relation to flooding. By and large, premises are insurable and it is not a sensible time for us to engage in compensation for the flooded areas. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that water management and flood defences, both inland and coastally, are brought together and delivered in the light of what looks like being an increase of the pressure and the likelihood of flooding in both contexts.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to the energy review—as did the noble Lord, Lord Wade—the role of renewables and the role of CHP, which are very much central to our delivery of aspects of the climate change programme. The noble Lord asked about energy production and industrial emissions of CO2. Emissions of CO2 have been substantially reduced on the domestic side. On the transport side, there are still substantial policies to be implemented. They are all there in the climate change programme but we need to make sure that they are fully implemented and followed through.
The division of responsibility for transport from the department is more for administrative than policy purposes. It is very important that transport plays its part. Again, DEFRA will take the lead, with our colleagues in the transport department, in developing a more environmentally sensitive means of transport. In particular, we will encourage a shift from CO2 emitting vehicles to more fuel efficient and less polluting vehicles. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to sustainability more generally. He reminded us that sustainability is not only an environmental and economic matter but also a matter of moral and social sustainability. It is very important that we keep those dimensions in mind. Whether we are talking about rural development or more generally, the social pattern is an important dimension.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred as he often does to the role of biofuels in helping to "square the circle" in terms of the need for transport and transport fuels within, broadly speaking, current technology and the possibility of doing that using biofuels of all kinds and dramatically reducing CO2 emissions. It is important that we do that. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, as he acknowledged, moved some way in that direction in the last Budget and indicated that we were looking at fiscal and other measures which will go further down that road. I know of his particular concern about rape-seed based biodiesel. That is clearly an area that we shall need to continue to exploit. If it proves to be successful both economically and in terms of carbon emission lifecycle, then it is clearly beneficial not only to the environmental objectives but also as a form of diversified crop which is already there for a beleaguered agricultural sector.
347 I move on to the rural and agricultural sector as such. I am slightly surprised at some of the comments about the gracious Speech which almost implied that some of the big commitments contained in it—for example, to help education and the fight against crime—were somehow not relevant to rural areas. In my experience, those are precisely the matters about which people in rural areas complain. They do so as much as, and in many cases more than, they do about the problems of the agricultural industry.
It is important when we are addressing rural policy and rural development that we see the delivery of services and economic and employment prospects for rural areas beyond agriculture as playing an important part. The rural White Paper was greatly welcomed by most noble Lords. I assure the noble Baroness that it is being followed through robustly. It will provide a framework for the delivery of better services, maintaining local businesses, providing affordable housing in rural localities and providing support for market towns and for the provision of public services generally. Also, to answer a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, it will strengthen the role of parish and town councils in providing services. We shall issue a further consultation paper shortly. They have a role in the specialist provision of rural transport to meet particular local needs.
In terms of the agriculture sector, it is important to recognise that what is needed is not a whole swathe of new legislation—which is what the Queen's Speech is mainly about—but an approach to eradicating foot and mouth disease as rapidly as possible and the development of an exit plan both for the agricultural sector and for the rural economy as a whole which is sustainable.
In terms of dealing with foot and mouth, it is important that the House recognises the degree of effort that has been put in by the farming community, by former MAFF officials, by many from the private sector, by the Army and by volunteers from many government departments and local government in attempting to deal with this problem. This has been an internationally unprecedented spread of the disease. We have learnt lessons as we have gone along. I do not believe that there was much alternative to substantial culling, both for preventive purposes and immediately any contact was detected. It has meant that very large numbers of animals have had to be killed. That has put huge pressure on the disposal system, which has in itself on occasion caused some environmental problems. All of those have been efficiently tackled by ex-MAFF, now DEFRA, staff and by the others involved in that system.
It is important that we learn the lessons from this outbreak. I correct the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who suggested that it was the previous government who set up the BSE inquiry. It was in fact this Government who did so. That was 10 years after the first identification of the disease. We need to ensure that the specialist resources are still there. The disease has still not been eradicated. There are still outbreaks and there are still hot spots where we need to eliminate 348 the disease if we are to avoid the possibility of it still being present several months hence. We do not wish to divert attention from that into an inquiry at this point. However, as my right honourable friend has said, we need to make it plain that once the present outbreak of foot and mouth comes to an end the Government will want an inquiry. We shall want an inquiry which is conducted as speedily as is consistent with a thorough examination. We shall want to ascertain which matters were handled well and, where errors occurred, what we can learn for the future if such an emergency were to recur. I therefore assure the noble Lords, Lord Kimball and Lord Moran, and others who pressed for an inquiry that one will take place. However, the form of that inquiry will be announced at a later point.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the form of the inquiry will be announced at a later stage. There have been problems with some previous inquiries which have taken years to complete. We wish to have a thorough inquiry to which everyone can contribute, but I am afraid that the House will have to wait for a later announcement on the exact form the inquiry will take.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I appreciate that he wishes to reserve the position with regard to the form of the inquiry. However, will he eliminate a Select Committee inquiry? This point has been raised before. As I said to the Minister last Thursday when we discussed the Statement on foot and mouth, if there is a Select Committee inquiry former Ministers are not allowed to give evidence. It would be a case of the existing Ministers giving evidence. No Minister in the new department has handled the matter. It would help the House to be told whether a Select Committee inquiry can be eliminated.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I suspect that the Select Committee in another place and indeed the Public Accounts Committee in another place may well wish to conduct their own inquiries into the foot and mouth outbreak. The inquiry to which I refer is one sponsored by the Government rather than by either House of Parliament.
We must recognise that there are many things that we can still learn as we proceed with the eradication of the disease. I meet regularly with the NFU, and shall do so again tomorrow, to consider its suggestions as to how we tighten up our measures to deal with the hotspots and import controls, as was mentioned.
It is important that we take action on all those fronts. As has been mentioned twice or three times in this debate, it is also important that we recognise the problems which will arise in the autumn in connection with sheep movements. Those will present us with yet another dimension to this situation. We must also recognise that export markets will not come on stream quickly either for sheep or other livestock. We shall attempt to move matters forward as rapidly as possible 349 in terms of the EU and other international trade outlets, but the reality is that we shall be faced with the loss of export markets. Even when the restrictions are lifted, as we witnessed in the case of beef, it will take us some time to get back those markets. We have a serious medium-term problem as well as the immediate problem.
However, the farming sector has a third and even deeper problem which existed before the current outbreak of foot and mouth. Farm incomes have greatly declined over the past four or five years, partly as a result of parity of sterling but also as a result of other substantial and probably irreversible changes both in international trade and consumer taste and choice. Ministers in the new department therefore recognise that we need to talk carefully to farmers, to those involved in other parts of the food chain and to environmental and consumer groups about what the future of farming will comprise. We need to take full account of the distress and the concerns that are felt particularly in the infected areas but also more widely in the whole of the farming community which have been caused by the current outbreak and the subsequent restrictions.
I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford that we shall visit farming communities up and down the country. We shall meet farmers, listen to their comments and try to understand their views on where farming should go. However, it is important that, while we recognise the immediate problems, we should hold frank discussions. It is important to recognise that farmers will have to face up to further changes. They have endured many changes over decades but British agriculture will probably have to face up to some fairly fundamental changes in the not too distant future. Return to normality does not mean a return to the status quo. We shall not go back to the state of farming of four or five years ago. That means that we have to have a fundamental review, not just of the disease, but, even more importantly, of the future directions of farming and the food chain as a whole. The kind of issues to be addressed are diversification, specialisation, how we can meet tighter environmental standards and changing consumer demands, and the balance of the food chain and how farmers and the final outlet of the food chain can co-operate more closely to the greater benefit of farmers.
It will require some willingness to change. The farmers' leaders recognise that; much of the farming community recognises that. There is not as yet a consensus as to the exact dimension. As noble Lords have said, it may be different in different parts of the country. However, a willingness to change has to be faced.
Within that context, there are considerably wider issues particularly relating to the CAP and the World Trade Organisation, as the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said. It is key that over this period when we examine the future of farming we also establish our negotiating position and our objectives within the WTO negotiations and, even more importantly, within the review of the common agricultural policy which will take place next year. There is more optimism on that 350 front than there has been previously in relation to the shifting position in other countries, in particular Germany, and, up until its last election, Italy. It is important that we address that. We also need to take on board our own environmental concerns, consumer concerns and so forth. Organic farming may well play a part. But, as noble Lords have said, that is not the only sustainable form of farming and we need to address all aspects of improving the production as well as what we produce.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, referred to other changes of the environment in relation to the role of the FSA and the need to bring in environmental standards more generally. I concur with what he said. I also concur with what was said with regard to ensuring that the changes are well based in science. We must approach such potential changes in relation to GM and other issues not only on the basis of scientific evidence but also of the changing views of consumers and wider environmental interests.
I have now left no time to deal with my former department and the areas of regional affairs, local government and transport. Briefly—my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer is taking on my previous role and that of my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and he will have plenty of time to speak at the Dispatch Box—we shall bring forward proposals on reforming the planning system. Some of the stories that noble Lords have read are not entirely accurate. But improvements are needed, as was suggested, in the agricultural diversification area. They are also needed in relation to large projects. We shall also come forward with proposals on housing, to which the noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock, and Lady Hamwee, referred, in relation to the homeless and the bed and breakfast syndrome—areas where there are serious problems—and in setting tight targets and following them through in relation to homelessness and rough sleepers.
Questions were raised early in the debate with regard to regional government, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. We are actively considering the way forward on elected regional assemblies. The main point relates to the will within the various English regions. There is an issue as to how one proceeds where there are regions which are largely not unitary structures. However, the structures can change as well as the opinion in support or otherwise of regional assemblies. I can give the noble Lord, therefore, no unequivocal comfort in relation to the North West. If the people of the North West wish to move down the road of regional assemblies, other adjustments may need to be made. We regard the development of regional assemblies, when the people want it, as an important extension of democracy, not the introduction of an additional and unnecessary tier. Indeed, it may do something to help reconnect the people with the politicians if we can bring closer to them some of the decisions which are taken currently in Whitehall on planning, transport and the environment. This is not an attempt to take power 351 away from local authorities but to give some of the power that currently rests here back closer to the people.
The noble Lords, Lord Bradshaw, Lord Berkeley and Lord Faulkner, spoke at length about railways—and very expertly too. My right honourable friend Stephen Byers is addressing the problem this very day, and I suspect that my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer will be back to tell your Lordships about it at a later stage. There are clearly serious problems with the railways and on broader transport issues.
I think that I have dealt with most of the points that have been raised.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, after such a wide-ranging debate it is clearly impossible for the Minister to answer all the questions that have been put to him. Will he assure the House that he will do us the courtesy of writing directly to those who have asked a direct question that he has not been able to answer in his wind-up speech? I say that for three reasons. First, it is a matter of courtesy. Secondly, at least it would give all those who have participated some gratification to know that either he or his civil servants will have read their speech. Thirdly, it will reduce a plethora of written Questions that might otherwise follow.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I always scrutinise the noble Earl's speeches to see whether I need to write to him, principally to avoid the written Questions that he 352 is now threatening me with. I certainly undertake to do that. There are a number of questions to which I can give specific answers.
I can give only a generalised answer on hunting, which is the other issue that I have not touched on. The manifesto and the gracious Speech have made it clear that we shall give the new House of Commons an early opportunity to express its view and enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. Speculation on the mechanism should not be taken seriously. There has been no decision on that, but there is a commitment that the House of Commons will be given an early opportunity to make its view known. We shall take it from there.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rooker, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.
§ Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.