Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 4th December 2003.

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Debate resumed on the Motion moved on Wednesday last by the Lord Ashley of Stoke, as amended on Tuesday—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, but regret the decision of Your Majesty's Government to abandon the search for cross-party consensus on constitutional reform and to launch unilateral proposals for changes to this House that could gravely weaken the House; and call on Your Majesty's Government to respect the formal undertakings given to this House, to withdraw their current proposals and to undertake meaningful consultation with Parliament and the senior judiciary before proceeding with legislation."

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development) 11:07 am, 4th December 2003

My Lords, last Wednesday, the Prime Minister set out the Government's strategy for legislation and reform. Today I shall focus in particular on the planned legislation. The programme for this Session will enhance economic stability, further reform and improve public services, and create a fairer, more secure and more just society. I shall delineate some of the issues relating to about half a dozen of the Bills that will come before your Lordships' House.

The fire and rescue services Bill, which will be introduced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, will be the first substantial piece of legislation to modernise the fire service for 50 years. It will reflect the White Paper published in June and the findings of Sir George Bain's independent review of the fire service. We believe that the Bill will create a service better able to protect the public and to respond to changing demands. The Bill will create a new duty for fire and rescue authorities to respond to serious civil emergencies, ranging from flooding to terrorist incidents. It will also create a duty to promote fire safety, recognising the role that fire-fighters have long played in preventing as well as fighting fires.

The Government will shortly publish a new national framework for consultation which will provide the clear, strategic direction that the service requires. Within that framework, the fire and rescue authorities will have greater flexibility to set priorities locally, and will work together at a regional level.

Last Session the Government introduced a draft Housing Bill. It has been consulted on and considered by various Select Committees. The Bill will be introduced for consideration this Session. It will help to create a fairer and better housing market and to protect the most vulnerable tenants, particularly in the private rented sector. Many of the most vulnerable in our society live in poor private sector accommodation. The Bill will give local authorities new powers to license selectively private landlords where there is a particular problem such as anti-social behaviour. Houses in multiple occupation represent some of our worst properties; they are often badly managed and in a poor physical condition. Therefore, we intend to fulfil a manifesto commitment—a double manifesto commitment because I believe that it was in the manifesto of 1997—to introduce a licensing scheme for the highest risk houses in multiple occupation.

The Housing Bill will also continue the modernisation of the right-to-buy scheme, tackling abuses and reducing profiteering. We have added to the provisions already contained in the draft Bill to continue this process. So the Bill has changed since it was introduced in draft form. That responds in some way to the recommendations made by the Select Committee in the other place and the Home Ownership Task Force. It is our duty to ensure that we get value for money and high standards from funding for new affordable housing. The Bill provides for the Housing Corporation and the National Assembly for Wales to pay grant to organisations other than registered social landlords.

There is plenty of evidence to show that nine out of 10 people are very unhappy with the process of buying and selling a home. Therefore, we intend to make provision for the introduction of home information packs. Research so far indicates that making key information available right at the start of the process will make home buying and selling easier, more transparent and more successful. Currently we are discussing with consumer and industry stakeholders the possibility of a phased introduction of home information packs as part of a national rollout.

We shall also consider the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. The delivery of new housing and sustainable communities will require a flexible and quick planning system, as set out in the Green Paper in 2001. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is part of a wider strategy to reform the planning system. We believe that it will help to make the system fairer, faster and far more predictable for all concerned. The Bill will bring, clarity, certainty and a new sense of strategic direction to the planning system. It will support and speed up investment in major infrastructure and regeneration. Most importantly, the Bill will put sustainable development at the heart of the system of regional and local plans. As part of that, the Bill will strengthen community involvement and the opportunity for local people to make their views known and to have their say on the future of where they live.

We intend that the Bill will also include changes to Section 106 dealing with planning gain. At present it is a complex and slow process. Sometimes it takes longer to negotiate than the planning permission itself. The proposals for that change were set out in the consultation document that we published on 6th November. I freely admit that these proposals will be before Parliament before the close of the formal consultation.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, that is a shame.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development)

My Lords, that is a great shame, as the noble Baroness says, but nevertheless in a sense this Bill is unique. It has been carried over from one Session to another so that it can receive proper scrutiny from both Houses of Parliament. Indeed, it has not finished its process in another place. Next week it will receive its Report stage and Third Reading and will come to your Lordships' House early in the New Year when we can debate it and add our scrutiny to the massive amount that it has already received in the other place, having been recommitted back to a Standing Committee following the Summer Recess.

The Government will also in due course introduce a higher education Bill, setting out the strategy for the future of higher education to ensure that the country's deserved reputation for excellence and equality of opportunity is secured for the future. The Bill is a vital tool to achieve this strategy. It will permit higher education institutions that commit to protecting the needs of disadvantaged students the freedom to set fees of up to £3,000. That will ensure a new stream of assured investment under their own control, greater financial autonomy and the opportunity to compete more effectively both within the UK and internationally.

The higher education sector has many institutions committed to widening participation from all sectors of society. The Bill will build on this solid foundation and ensure that progress continues by creating a director of fair access. The director will be charged with ensuring that institutions that take advantage of the freedom to charge higher fees also make greater efforts to encourage participation in higher education by people from non-traditional backgrounds. The Bill will also enable the creation of a new arts and humanities research council, which will put funding for arts and humanities on the same footing as funding for science and technology.

I discussed some of these issues with colleagues in the other place in the Tearoom earlier this morning. The big issue down in the other place is variable fees. I took the opportunity to remind some of them to go and talk to Open University and part-time students or students in further education. They all know about variable fees. It is not a question of inventing the wheel. So we must not get hung up on the wrong issue.

We will also introduce a children's Bill. Consultation finished earlier this week on the Green Paper entitled Every Child Matters which sets out proposals for helping every child to achieve his or her potential. Much of the change set out in the Green Paper of course is not about legislation. The most important challenge will be to bring about a shared culture in services; so that those working with children, young people and their families do not see themselves as being simply concerned with one narrow aspect of a child's or a family's needs. An important part of getting better outcomes for children is to make sure that services are designed around the needs of children and young people.

The Bill will establish a children's commissioner to develop ways of understanding young people's views and feed them in effectively at local and national level. Legislation needs to clarify accountability for children's services, to meet some of the challenges set out so clearly in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie.

However, the issue is not just about children at risk. To meet our aim of improving outcomes for all children we need to target them earlier and more effectively to prevent any problems accumulating. That means bringing together the planning, commissioning and delivery of all services that affect the lives of children, young people and their families. It will largely be left to local discretion, but legislation will set some important building blocks in place. We shall strengthen arrangements for child protection by making local safeguarding children's boards statutory bodies, and ensure that all local authorities put in place a director of children's services and lead member for children and young people. These will be backed up by the new duties to ensure co-operation and that all agencies have a responsibility to promote the welfare of children and young people.

The Bill will support the practical aspects of joint working by seeking to remove legislative barriers to information sharing. That was another problem highlighted in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. It will also support an integrated inspection framework to assess how well services work together to improve outcomes for children.

There will also be a draft school transport Bill for consideration. Although I cannot say when, this will be published during this Session in draft form for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government believe that children should be able to travel to school on foot, by bicycle or—if they live too far to walk or cycle—on the bus, wherever it is safe to do so.

The school transport Bill will ask local education authorities to trial new approaches to school transport intended to cut car use on the school run. It will disapply the existing school transport legislation in six to 12 areas in England, allowing up to 20 local education authorities to establish new models of school transport provision. We believe that the Bill will demonstrate our commitment to sustainable travel, our confidence that local education authorities have the capacity to design local schemes meeting the needs of local communities, and our determination to modernise public services.

There will also be a traffic management Bill for consideration. Congestion is a source of frustration. As we all know, it makes journeys slow and completely unreliable in some cases. The Bill will enable roads to be managed in the interests of road users. It will allow us to deal with the causes of delays and congestion and hopefully to make better use of road space. Therefore, we hope we shall be able to reduce the problems that delay journeys. It will enable the Highways Agency to patrol roads and deal quickly with incidents; and local authorities will appoint traffic managers whose role is to keep traffic flowing.

We have already put in place a substantial policy framework to address challenges to our environment at home and internationally. We are well on the way to meeting our Kyoto and national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no doubt about it: rural and urban air quality is improving and rivers and bathing waters are cleaner than ever. We are well placed significantly to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. The recent reforms of the common agricultural policy mark a breakthrough in our efforts to align agriculture with greater protection and enhancement of the environment.

There are three priority areas for environmental protection over the coming year. We shall rigorously follow up the Energy White Paper to address the threat of climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of global warming continues to be among our greatest challenges. We will continue to protect our natural environment and resource base, addressing important issues such as diffuse pollution from agriculture. We will build on the framework published earlier this year on sustainable consumption and production. That has the potential for significant economic savings from greater resource productivity and to lead ultimately to a break in the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation.

The Government are committed to a strong rural policy. I know that there is strong debate about that in the other place, but there are far more Members representing rural constituencies on the Labour Benches in the Commons than on the other Benches. Much has been achieved so far. More than 200 of the 261 commitments in the rural White Paper have been achieved or are ongoing.

We are ensuring equitable access to public services for everyone in rural areas, which we know is a key challenge to all concerned. We need to concentrate resources on disadvantage wherever it appears, and that is a key element of our rural strategy.

The recently published Rural Delivery Review conducted by my noble friend Lord Haskins presents a compelling analysis of the present rural delivery landscape as confusing and too bureaucratic and centralised to meet future challenges. We have welcomed the report and already made a start on reviewing rural funding streams. Much work will be required to take the proposals forward as a whole and the Government will publish a practical implementation plan next spring.

However, organisational reform is not an end in itself; it is a means to deliver improvements on the ground for business, farmers and wider rural communities. It is also about devolving decision-making from the centre to the localities and empowering those at that level. Equally, it is about ensuring continued independent policy advice to government on important issues such as biodiversity and rural concerns. Our approach to implementation, in partnership with all concerned, will preserve and strengthen that aspect.

We will set out in much more detail how we intend to meet that task when, early next year, we publish a refreshed rural strategy and our detailed plan for taking forward the Rural Delivery Review.

The legislation and our wider programme in this area of the gracious Speech is intended to create sustainable communities, improve our education provision and transport services and maintain our constant vigilance on the rural agenda by rural-proofing all legislation that issues from Whitehall. Every department is still accountable to the Minister for rural affairs and the independent bodies to ensure that we have covered all the points that have been drawn to our attention. That represents a comprehensive and powerful agenda for change, backed by significant resources.

I do not intend to repeat the summary of the Bills; we will have plenty of time to discuss them. I commend the Bills and the package to the House.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 11:22 am, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining the Bills relating to today's debate, which were announced in the gracious Speech. As a significant number have emanated from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, it has fallen to him to open the debate on behalf of the Government and for me to respond now on behalf of the main Opposition.

I disclaim at the outset any responsibility for dealing with any matters concerning education, which will be addressed by my noble friend Lady Blatch when she winds up the debate for this side. That will include any comments on the children's Bill and the school transport Bill, with which I shall not deal. My noble friend Lady Byford will in her inestimable way speak on rural affairs and some other matters.

I have entered a vow of silence on education, except in one regard. We did not have an opportunity to debate the local government finance settlement in this place, owing to other important business. Had we been able to do so, I should have wanted to probe the Government on their massive ring-fencing of education grant—for the instruction by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that all grant should be passported through to schools is just that: ring-fencing, something that the Government have always said that they will reduce, but have not in this instance. Education authorities have no option but to give that part of the grant settlement directly to schools—even if, in some cases, it amounts to the totality of the grant that they receive in support of all services. For at least 12 councils, that is the reality.

The absurdity of that situation is that what cannot come from the block grant must come from the council tax payers. If a substantial part—or, indeed, all—of the grant is already circumscribed by government diktat, the local authority has no alternative but to raise its council tax to pay for all its other requirements. I should have liked to ask the Minister whether the threat made by the Minister for local government to cap councils whose council tax increases are above an as yet unquantified percentage was intended to be implemented before or after the amount of the grant passported. For, as can be seen, some councils will have to raise all their required additional resource from the council tax payer.

My determination to raise that now has been reinforced by the report of the Audit Commission published today, which has finally blown the Government's fig-leaf cover that local authorities alone are responsible for large rises in council tax by confirming what anyone involved in local government—especially in the south-east—would have told them for nothing: that it is the Government who bear responsibility for those rises because of how they have shifted resources from the councils in the south of England to those in the north.

The commission points out the blindingly obvious: that large tax rises equate to low grant and lower rises to higher grant. It points out that it is government priorities, such as education, increases in National Insurance contributions, expenditure on highways and services to the elderly, which, however necessary and meritorious they are, have broken the camel's back. Against that background, it believes that the Government's proposals to return to capping cannot be supported.

The report bears out all local authorities' assertions about the Government's propensity to fiddle the grant and lay extra expenditure burdens on local authorities which, because of the gearing, are never truly compensated for by grant. If such addition to expenditure is justified, local authorities should not be excoriated and penalised by Ministers. No doubt we will return to that report, but for now the Minister, when winding up the debate, should come clean and admit that the ring-fencing of education grant will add—indeed, as this is the second year it has happened, it has already added—to local authorities' pressures and lead to significant increases in council tax.

I shall tread no further on my noble friend's territory, but now address the future programme. As the Minister said, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill has barely emerged from its scrutiny in the other place. It has limped along in an extraordinarily protracted way since its first introduction there, early this year, ending in its being recommitted to Standing Committee in October.

The ink is not yet dry on the latest provisions to be included in it, to which the Minister alluded; namely, those relating to the proposed changes to Section 106 of the main Act to allow for tariffs to meet developers' planning obligations and the new requirements for Crown Estate to seek planning permission for any of its developments. Both those areas will require careful attention. There are inherent dangers in the first proposal that insufficient resources will be recouped by local authorities to provide for the community benefits for which they are intended. In the case of the second, there is a potential under the legislative provisions for many Crown Estate applications, because they are of significant size, to be referred directly to the Secretary of State for determination—thus defeating the objective of having approval given at a local level by taking to the centre the decision-making process.

We remain concerned about the plans for regionalising development plans, the relevance of regional spatial plans and their relationship to local framework and development plans—particularly in London, where the draft London plan is not in the form of a statutory development plan. We are also concerned about the role of county councils—or their lack of role—through statutory involvement in the preparation of regional spatial strategies. That is particularly important, as those strategies will encompass many areas over which county councils currently deliver services. Over 80 per cent of local government services are carried out by county councils. They bring together transport, education, housing, health and employment, which are enormously important areas of local government responsibility.

We are also concerned about the undermining of elected representatives in the determination of applications, with the insistence that 90 per cent of applications be devolved to officers. That is an extremely important area. Electors expect their representatives to have a major role in planning. Already about 80 per cent of applications are devolved, but those remaining are contentious and need the overview of elected representatives. We need to look at the issue clearly. As the Minister said, we will have an opportunity to begin those discussions early in the new year. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield did not expect to have to be present today, because of the change of Minister, and apologises for his absence. He and I look forward to the forthcoming debates.

We also look forward to the consideration of the draft housing Bill, the new fire Bill and any other Bill that arises from the Deputy Prime Minister's Pandora's Box of tricks, including the civil contingencies Bill, which will cross many departmental responsibilities. Although we will not be responsible for dealing with that Bill, we will take considerable interest in it because of its potential impact on local government.

The draft housing Bill has been around for some time, but it will now include proposals for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, with which we have sympathy, and for sellers' packs, with which we do not. The latter proposals have found their way back into legislation, having been decoupled from the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 because they were so controversial, and they would have sunk that Act if they had been proceeded with. They are no less controversial now and are opposed by nearly every professional organisation, including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors—ironically, the one profession that would benefit most from their implementation. The Minister can be assured of a sharp and questioning discussion on those matters alone.

The Minister also mentioned the right to buy, another controversial issue, particularly given that the discount has been lowered so much, especially in London, that the scheme is almost a thing of the past. Both the housing Bill and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill have a significant role in the Government's plans for sustainable communities. The plethora of consultation documents on revised planning guidance notes, regulations and reports from, for example, the Home Ownership Task Force, will need to be taken into account during the discussion of both Bills. The amount of housing, where it goes, the infrastructure to support it, and the conflict with proposals for new airports in the south east, in particular, are matters of great concern. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill and the housing Bill are relevant to all those issues, and local determination of developments is salient to the results.

The fire and rescue Bill follows hot on the feet of the Fire Services Act 2003. All of us will breathe a sigh of relief that the Act was redundant before it started, that the hours we spent on it had not been required and that the majority of fire-fighters have now agreed to the terms of the settlement. That is good news that will enable consideration of this Bill, which contains many sensible proposals, to be carried out in an unfevered atmosphere, unlike its unlamented predecessor.

The Government are obsessed with regionalisation. There is, therefore, a rationale from their point of view for continuing the absurd regionalisation of the fire service. As with housing, planning and government, it removes discretion and decision-making from local communities and their elected representatives. It will have serious consequences for the delivery of a responsive and high-class fire service—surely the purpose of this Bill.

Sadly, too, the Government have failed to grasp the nettle by legislating to establish an independent mechanism for determining fire service pay to ensure that fire-fighters are properly rewarded for their invaluable and dangerous work. Their incorporation as a fire and rescue service, with all that that implies, makes that a grave omission. The history of the recent dispute leads one to believe that intervention in pay bargaining by, in this case, the Deputy Prime Minister should be avoided at all costs.

The absence from the legislative programme of a regional assemblies Bill is puzzling. Plans for elections to assemblies are roaring ahead in the three northern regions. People are being encouraged to take up positions related to elected regional assemblies without the slightest idea of what is involved, but with a government-launched and slanted information campaign in full swing. During the passage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, we debated the absolute need to publish a Bill in good time, prior to the elections, and for unpartisan information to be available to the electorate on regional government powers and responsibilities. Now we learn that the Deputy Prime Minister believes that the Bill should not be considered until after the elections. How about the electorate being asked to buy a pig in a poke?

This will be a packed Session. With the Bills outlined in the Queen's Speech and others already appearing out of the woodwork—there has already been a First Reading of Bills that we did not expect—there is much to be done. I look forward to the Session ahead.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 11:38 am, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining clearly the areas of the gracious Speech that we shall debate today. I shall begin by discussing the Bills from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the main areas on which I speak for these Benches. I shall also touch briefly on the associated areas of energy and the environment, and shall take the opportunity to register our regret where we see serious omissions in the gracious Speech. My noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford will, with her usual ability, discuss education.

I begin by discussing housing, as it is the area on which I speak most in this House. The Bill is based on the draft housing Bill, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, has been around for some time. There is much to welcome in the Bill: the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, an issue that has been discussed for 10 years; the selective licensing of private landlords in areas of low demand; a new health and safety rating system to replace fitness standards; reforms of the right to buy to prevent abuse of the scheme; and, I hope, rights of succession for unmarried partners, including same-sex couples.

As the Bill passes through the House, I am sure that we will have interesting discussions on much of the detail of those issues. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, we on these Benches are not in favour of the home information packs proposed in the Bill. We do not believe that they will achieve the Government's aim of speeding up house sales. That sector of housing is where we have the least problem in the country. The results of a pilot scheme in Bristol were not convincing. Considerable developments are taking place in home buying and selling, such as the National Land Information Service with e-lodgement at the Land Registry and proposals for electronic conveyancing. They will ease the process of buying and selling homes far more effectively than the proposals in the Bill for home information packs.

From my experiences and those of my family—I am sure that others in this House will back this up—the difficulties of buying a house centre on trying to deal with those lending money for mortgages and those dealing with the legal matters, who never stick to timetables and never return phone calls. The proposals will not help that. In addition, the real problem with buying and selling even under these proposals is that the deal is signed and settled only when contracts are exchanged at the last minute. People can withdraw at any time beforehand. It is the market supply that is important. The home information packs will therefore not solve the problem.

It is good to encourage people to market their homes properly, especially to draw attention to the energy efficiency of the properties that they are selling. However, we believe that such packs should be voluntary. Rather than insisting that people have them, we insist that they make it clear when they do not have one.

There are serious omissions in the housing Bill. I agree with bodies such as the Law Society, the citizens advice bureaux and Shelter that would like to see the inclusion of a statutory scheme to deal with tenancy deposits. The Law Society puts this very well:

"The proper management of deposits is a significant issue. If disputes about deposits are not resolved satisfactorily, tenants may not have the necessary funds to move onto the next property in the private rented sector"— a sector that we all want to see develop. The Law Society continues:

"This affects people's mobility and may exacerbate homelessness. In addition research has shown that help with deposits leads to low-income families securing better-quality housing".

There is a missed opportunity in this Bill on that issue. I would also like the Bill to have improved the conditions of those who live in park homes—an issue that I have spoken about in this House that I do not have time to go into in detail today—and to have introduced a statutory duty to facilitate the provision of sites for gypsies and travellers.

On the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, in a Green Paper in 2001, the Government promised a clear and comprehensive planning system capable of reaching decisions that command public confidence. I have received briefings from several bodies, many of which feel that the planning Bill, despite being amended, is not keeping that promise very well. What we object to most about the Bill is that it is wrong to take strategic planning powers from the presently elected planning bodies and give them to unelected regional bodies. Until there are elected regional bodies, county councils must retain a statutory sub-regional planning role.

The present system set out in the Bill involves a plethora of framework schemes, documents and statements that do not help the Government's aim of speeding things up and making things simpler. The planning system needs reform, but we need to take away the Government's excessive powers of intervention and devolve power back down to local communities. I listened with interest to what the Minister said. When I looked at the Bill, I did not think that it achieved that. The Minister said that local people would get a good opportunity. I hope that he is right.

I would like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister about another issue. I understand that Kate Barker has been working for the Government on housing. She will be publishing details of her conclusions next week and I have heard that she may recommend changes to the planning system. If that is so, how will the Government approach the issue, given that the planning Bill is well advanced in the other House? Will we go through another system, with lots of new clauses being introduced in this House? On the 106 agreements, there is a lot of concern that I am sure we will discuss in great detail about whether the Government's proposals have been carefully thought out and whether the results will achieve the Government's aim.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and I spent many hours discussing the fire service in the last Session. Nevertheless, the new Fire and Rescue Services Bill is welcome. We are generally supportive of it, especially because it examines fire safety. However, safeguards are needed to ensure that the powers do not mean that accountability is taken away locally. Some of the proposals could lead to that.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, we regret that things are missing from the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the gracious Speech. As she pointed out, there is no draft Bill on regional planning powers. The Minister will remember that we discussed this in some detail when the Regional Assemblies Bill was passing through this House. On 7th April 2003, the Minister said,

"as I repeated several times, we shall do our best to introduce a draft Bill before the referendum takes place".—[Official Report, 7/4/03; col. 27.]

However, there was some confusion when the Deputy Prime Minister spoke in another place earlier this week, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, pointed out. At one point he said:

"He must be well aware that I have promised that after the referendum takes place a Bill will be brought before the House", to spell matters out. But later on he said:

"We have promised the House . . . a Bill in the July before the referendum".—[Official Report, Commons, 1/12/03; col. 248.]

Will the Minister have a conversation with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to clarify this matter for us at some stage? It is extremely important that, when people are voting on these massive changes, they know exactly what they are voting for. It is true that local government reorganisation is going very well. It is well advanced and people have some idea about that, but they do not know about the powers.

We on these Benches are most disappointed with omissions relating to environmental matters. The Government claim to put the environment at the heart of their agenda but, once again, the reality is rather disappointing. There is a nuclear bail-out Bill, but we would like to see much more legislation on the environment to deal with the problems of waste, traffic and energy consumption, which are all increasing. In the past, legislation affecting those areas has been left to Private Members' Bills. Energy efficiency in the home, waste, recycling and fuel poverty were all dealt with by Private Members' Bills. It is high time that the Government enabled us to discuss these matters in a proper way and not by that system. I regret that my noble friend Lord Ezra is not here to talk about those issues in greater detail, but he will put forward his views clearly at the Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

We understand that, next week, there will be some announcements about the Comprehensive Spending Review. There was much about the environment in the energy White Paper. I hope that the Government will show us that the environment is at the heart of their agenda, given our disappointment with what was in the gracious Speech.

I shall touch briefly on one other environmental matter, although my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford will talk about it in more detail: school transport. I acknowledge that the Government recognise the consequences of having too many children going to school in the car. But oh, dear. From what I have read—I admit that we have not seen the detail—the plans appear to have been drawn up by people who live in cities. They do not live in rural Northumberland, otherwise, if what I have read is right, they would not have made those proposals. Many children in rural Northumberland have to go more than three miles to school. For them, in effect, there will be no free education, something on which we have prided ourselves in this country. I hope that, by the time that the proposals reach the statute book, some compensation will have been made, to make sure that some children in rural areas do not miss out.

The Minister spoke eloquently about the Government's desire to help people in rural areas. There was little in the speech. The Minister promised us another rural paper, but there is a serious problem.

The big issue in local services is council tax. There was no mention of radical reform in the gracious Speech. This morning, on Radio 4, I heard the Minister, the right honourable Nick Raynsford, blaming local government, and I heard the right honourable David Curry for the Opposition blaming the Government. The debate was illuminated for us by the Audit Commission, which pointed out that the real problem was that 75 per cent of funding for local government came from central government, which makes life difficult. Everybody this morning avoided the issue of capping. I get angry when I think about capping; I have seen both sides change their mind, depending on whether they were in government or out of government.

It is time that we reformed local government finance properly. We need a tax that is based on people's ability to pay. People will know that we think that there should a local income tax. We are already being told that it will not work and that we have not considered the details carefully. We have considered the details, and we continue to do so. There is detailed research on the matter. There are various countries, quite different in nature, in which local income tax works successfully.

Time does not permit more detailed analysis today. In the coming weeks, as we go through the Bills, there will be more detailed scrutiny. There are some good proposals and some that need more scrutiny, but sadly, as I said, there are some glaring omissions.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Labour 11:53 am, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I apologise for not being in my place at the start of the debate. I was somewhat thrown off my perch by being designated as a maiden. It is a rewarding privilege to be able to address your Lordships' House again, after getting my voice back. The warm welcome that I have received has been most invigorating.

The gracious Speech did not make much mention of the rural agenda, but it is a time of fundamental change in the countryside. I take as my text the opening words of the gracious Speech:

"My Government will maintain their key commitment to economic stability and growth".—[Official Report, 26/11/03; col. 1.]

That is exactly what rural areas have needed for the past few years, as they have operated with product prices below the cost of production.

It is a time of fundamental change, consequent upon last June's agreements in the European Union on the change of payment system. Payments are no longer based on production subsidies. There has been much debate on how the payments will affect rural areas. They will make a fundamental change in the way in which people adapt their business to go forward on a sustainable economic basis. We all want agriculture to stand on its own two feet alongside other industries.

The decisions relate to the two systems of payment—historical payments and area-based payments. Debate has raged throughout the agriculture industry, and there has been much polarisation. Both systems will mean that many people will be severely disadvantaged, depending on how their farming system relates to the system that is adopted.

We should try to devise a hybrid system under which the disadvantages that anyone will suffer under either system are minimised as far as possible. We should understand the payment system as a method of moving from a position in which there is a system of support to one in which there is no system of support. Consequent to that, we should try to mirror, as far as possible, the subsidies that went to people on the basis of their production profile, so that they will not be disadvantaged immediately but will be able to adapt their systems as quickly as possible.

It has been stressed that we must consider the longer term. In an agricultural context, it is difficult to interpret the systems in any long-term way with regard to the agricultural cycle. In any case, they will, over time, shrink, because of modulation and depreciation due to inflation. We should manage the systems as far as possible to mitigate hardship in rural areas and should look for a new entry-level scheme, under which we go forwards rather than backwards. We should appreciate the value of agriculture and try, in some way, to put a measure on it. We should reward those who try to bring environmental benefits to society.

Another consequential issue that is on the rural agenda is how we make agriculture sustainable in the longer term. That brings us to the supply chain code, under which producer groups in the supply chain feel at a distinct disadvantage in terms of economic power. We must look forward to enforcing the code more strictly, perhaps by introducing an ombudsman.

I also look forward to discussing in your Lordships' House the changes that will result from the report prepared by my noble friend Lord Haskins on rural delivery. I agree fundamentally with my noble friend that delivery must be devolved to the regions. However, I know that there is great concern that the changes to fundamental structures that have already been made in the move towards regionalisation will, when added to the plethora of existing agencies and delivery systems, cause confusion about who is meant to be implementing what.

I hasten caution to my noble friend to proceed at a careful pace so that the normal good functions of government are upheld at all times. With those few words, I look forward to the future debate in your Lordships' House.

Photo of Lord Palmer Lord Palmer Crossbench 12:00 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, it is a great privilege on behalf of the whole House to welcome back the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and to congratulate him on his second maiden speech today. We have much in common: we were born in the same year, we are both farmers and we have both served on Sub-Committee D. But when I lived in Liverpool, we did not support the same football teams. I am delighted that we have another rural affairs supporter on the government Benches, who I hope will "never walk alone". I hope that we hear from him often and, indeed, for a long time to come.

It is with sadness that I once again take part in the debate on the gracious Speech. From what Her Majesty said, this will be the last such occasion that I shall have to take part. My sadness is deepened that yet again there was no mention of anything remotely to do with the rural economy, although as President of the British Association for Bio Fuels and Oils, I was heartened to hear the words,

"My Government will also introduce legislation on energy matters to establish a Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and to promote secure sustainable supplies and a safer environment".—[Official Report, 26/11/03; col. 3.]

However, I have to say that I was a little bemused to hear the Minister's opening remarks and his reference to greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

With the announcement of 23 Bills in the gracious Speech, we are obviously in for a long and contentious time. As one newspaper headline announced,

"Blair promises something to annoy everyone".

With the leave of the House, I wish to repeat a few sentences that I made in the debate on the British countryside back in June.

"The powerhouse of the countryside has to be a healthy, sustainable and profitable agricultural industry. This is why root and branch reform of the CAP is so urgently needed and why the current MTR review, now known as the Fischler report, must deliver, as it is a constant worry to all of us engaged in agriculture".—[Official Report, 11/6/03; col. 216.]

I am aware that farmers have the reputation for crying wolf, but their problem is very real and inhibiting reinvestment. Farming incomes are lagging way behind the rate of inflation. Forty years ago, to buy a medium-sized tractor, one needed to sell 23,000 litres of milk or 11 prime cattle or 144 prime lambs. Today, that farmer would need to sell at least twice the produce to buy the same machine. It is interesting to note that 40 years ago, 40.8 per cent of the national weekly wage was spent on food. Today, just 16 per cent of the weekly wage is spent on food.

Malting barley is worth half today what it was 20 years ago. I often wonder how many Ministers or, indeed, Defra officials would relish the idea of returning home to announce to their families that their income had been slashed to half what it had been 20 years ago. Surely, these figures emphasise the serious plight of farming today in the United Kingdom.

Having had the privilege to sit on Sub-Committee D for the last three years and as a farmer, I am extremely worried about the MTR of the CAP. Only last week there was a frightening headline,

"Mass exodus from UK arable".

It went on,

"as much as ¼ of the UK arable land could be removed from production as a result of the MTR of the CAP, according to a new study".

In round terms, that is well over 1 million hectares—1 million hectares. With such an exodus nobody seems to have thought of the added costs of social security and housing benefit for the thousands who undoubtedly will be made redundant. The deficit to our balance of payments is frightening, as undoubtedly we will have to import more of our food. Surely, any economist with the minimum amount of intelligence would say that this was utter madness.

I turn now to what I would like to consider as a glimmer of light from the gracious Speech—a glimmer for farmers and, indeed, for the nation as a whole. It is one that I have mentioned countless times on the Floor of the House and I make no apology for doing so yet again; that is, legislation on energy matters to promote secure, sustainable supplies and a safer environment.

Ten days ago the European Union environment Ministers adopted legislation to allow member states to scrap duty on biofuels from January next year—not 2007 or some date after that, as so often applies to EU legislation, but next year. Germany has already signalled its intent to stay on the zero tax route. The reason that I started to get so involved in biofuels was that I found it irksome that my oil seed rape grown in Scotland was exported to Germany and turned into biodiesel. It must surely make sense for us in the United Kingdom to have our own vibrant biofuel industry. All sectors of our economy have a part to play in meeting our Kyoto targets.

The UK is moving towards a net import position for road fuels under increasingly unsettled international conditions. I mention turmoil in the Middle East as perhaps a poignant reminder. It must be prudent to build up a viable if modest domestic biofuel production capacity to increase UK fuel security. This would also be extremely popular politically.

The CO2 savings from biofuels are agreed at between 50 and 70 per cent better than fossil petrol and diesel and some 30 per cent better than road fuel gases, which have a 40 pence per litre rebate. Hence a blend of only 5 per cent can deliver a 3 per cent CO2 saving. There are also well proven air quality benefits from biofuels.

Use of set-aside land for biofuel production would increase rural productivity. There need be no conflict with conservation interests if appropriate headland, woodland and spinney management is incorporated into biofuel production. A recent paper put to the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership by English Nature and the RSPB suggested that rape seed for fuel would have a positive effect on biodiversity. Current legislation should be sufficient to allay all other environmental concerns.

Low biofuel blends can reach the customer very easily through the existing fuel distribution network (unlike gas) and without expensive engine conversions. In addition, the efficiency of fossil fuel combustion is increased by biofuel blends by up to almost 20 per cent. The assets of mainstream agriculture via conventional crop production will need to be brought into play to meet the likely need for biofuels, but at absolutely no extra cost to the prime producers. This must be a major added-value bonus.

The UK has to submit to the EU its biofuel target for December 2005 by July 2004. We must ensure that when setting this target, Her Majesty's Government allow for the contribution from mainstream farming and not just waste cooking oils, as at present. If the full weight of UK agriculture was brought to bear, we could achieve the initial EU 2 per cent target in 2006 and 5.75 per cent by 2010, with a serious gain to our domestic energy supplies and a valuable reduction in CO2 emissions. The creation of a biofuels industry will create new employment and consequent tax revenues. These should go some way to balance the cost of the relevant fuel duties.

The proposed legislation could be one of the most exciting Bills ever brought forward by any government. The Government support the principle that the polluter should pay. If biofuel inclusion was made mandatory, at 2 per cent inclusion, the cost of a 30 pence per litre rebate would be only some 0.25 pence per litre on the balance of fossil petrol and diesel over and above the 20 pence per litre rebate already in place for biodiesel and promised in January 2005 for bioethanol. Such an arrangement would ensure a whole new energy-creating rural industry. I deeply commend this principle to Her Majesty's Government. Two million tonnes of energy-saving liquid biofuels from British farms is an early and a practical target; 1 million tonnes from land now lying idle under set-aside and 1 million tonnes from the 3 million tonnes of wheat which, most years, is exported.

I am particularly disappointed not to be able to take part in the Second Reading of the Energy Bill on 11th December, but I look forward to its subsequent stages.

Turnip Townsend revolutionised British agriculture 190 years ago. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, could become known as "Biofuels Whitty". He could not only rejuvenate agriculture, but give us a cleaner, safer environment and a rural scene that our grandchildren will be happy and proud to live in.

Photo of Baroness Goudie Baroness Goudie Labour 12:10 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I welcome the gracious Speech and the proposed energy legislation. Cleaner, greener power is surely something that we all wish to see being promoted. Therefore I very much welcome the new Energy Bill which will help to develop more environmentally friendly sources of power. I also welcome the contribution that it will make towards dealing with the United Kingdom's nuclear legacy.

The major contribution that the Bill will make is to help to create a low-carbon economy. It is vital to ensure that, before long, a substantial proportion of the UK's electricity will come from renewable sources. The energy White Paper published earlier this year marked a milestone in energy policy, while the White Paper, Managing the Nuclear Legacy, published last year, paved the way. The new Energy Bill will implement what is required.

Many of the Bill's provisions are technical, but none the less they are vital to ensuring competitive and reliable energy supplies. I should like to highlight three aspects of the proposals. First, there is to be support for sustainable energy by enabling projects for wave and tidal power schemes, and for offshore wind farms to be built beyond our territorial waters.

Secondly, provisions will secure the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK's civil nuclear sites, along with the effective management of nuclear waste by creating for the first time a single body with complete responsibility in this area, the nuclear decommissioning authority. Thirdly, so that energy markets are made more competitive, the Bill will provide for the establishment of a single, wholesale electricity market, bringing greater choice for customers in Scotland and providing all generators and suppliers with access to the British-wide market.

These policies are not merely for the "here"; they are also for now. They represent a strategy for the long term and a strategy for the three pillars of environmental protection: reliable energy, competitive markets and affordable energy for all. It is a strategy that will enable future generations to reap the rewards of cleaner, greener power.

Photo of Lord Wakeham Lord Wakeham Conservative 12:13 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, as both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord preceding her talked about energy, I recall that I was formerly a Secretary of State for Energy. Somehow I wish that I had devoted my remarks today to energy matters rather than to education, on which I am going to speak.

However, I want, first, to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, on his second maiden speech. That in itself is, I believe, a controversial statement in some parts of the House, but nevertheless he made a fine exit from the Chamber through no fault of his own. I hope that he will not make quite such a quick exit through the fault of his noble friends, but that remains to be seen.

I declare an interest as the Chancellor of Brunel University. However, on this occasion I speak for myself and myself alone. I was never lucky enough to go to university and I started work when I was 17 years old. However, perhaps I should admit that, like the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Prescott, I was once a student of Ruskin College, Oxford, although I suspect that I ended up with rather different conclusions than he from that education. Therefore I approach the subject of higher education with a degree of humility.

I welcome the reference made in the gracious Speech to a Bill to change the funding of higher education. Whether that Bill will go far enough remains to be seen, but I have great confidence in the Secretary of State for Education, whom I have known for many years. Further, as a former Chief Whip, if I was to say that he is a pretty good thug, that is meant as a compliment and not as a criticism. So we will have to see how he gets on with his noble friends as regards the Bill.

However, I think that some things are clear: our higher education sector is falling behind the rest of the world, and there are many ways in which that can be tested. For example, we simply do not win our share of Nobel prizes that a population of our size would expect. Since 1980 the United States has won 34 Nobel prizes for physics, while we have not achieved a single one. What is also clear is that we spend far less on educating our students than do our competitors. We spend 30 per cent less than Australia, while the United States spends something like three times as much. We are near the bottom of the league of OECD countries.

In my opinion, universities have relied for far too long on the taxpayer for the bulk of their income. As a result, they have developed far too many of the bad characteristics of state-run enterprises: lack of investment, a student/staff ratio which has doubled from nine to one to 18 to one over the past 10 years, and low staff salaries. We have nothing like the endowments enjoyed by American universities. I gather that some 39 American universities benefit from endowments of more than 1 billion dollars. I know of no British university which can match that. The Treasury is right to call for further initiatives in this area, but in doing so it must ask the question whether additional fiscal incentives will be necessary, certainly in the short run. I think that there is a very strong case for providing incentives in the short term.

If it is agreed that more resources are urgently needed, then it is absolutely unrealistic—a pipedream—to think that the Government are going to provide them. They have their priorities and I fear that higher education is not one of them. Per capita spending on health has increased by 64 per cent while spending on higher education has decreased. In any case, the current system of funding through the Higher Education Funding Council, giving each university a quota of subsidised places, does not encourage the best use of resources. It means that no matter how well or how badly universities treat their students, every one gets a fixed allocation of subsidised places. In my view, that is not the way to encourage excellence.

The system is also coming to the end of its useful life because it is not compatible with offering the kind of choices that students will increasingly demand, in particular if they are contributing more themselves. A significant increase in tuition fees payable by graduates will accelerate the demand for better universities and, most importantly, more relevant courses, which will be a good thing. I shall certainly study the Bill when it is published and I hope that I shall see provisions to ensure maximum flexibility in the fees to be charged and capacity for payments of bursaries to those who have difficulty in paying those fees. Investment in a good university education, with repayment terms that are both fair and generous, will increasingly be seen as the best investment of a lifetime.

The lack of resources available to British universities is also clearly reflected in academic pay. We lag well behind the salaries offered in other countries and most universities have reported increasing difficulties in recruiting staff.

In conclusion, I give two more reasons why a Government initiative in this area would be welcome. First, we need to educate more of our young people rather than fewer, and we need to educate them better. If there is any doubt about that, we need only look at what our international competitors are doing. Secondly, higher education is the best path to social mobility. It provides the fairest and most acceptable way to maintain a dynamic society. Education through a high-quality university system is the best way to ensure that Britain is a country in which talent is nurtured and rewarded.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 12:20 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, several references were made in this year's gracious Speech to the Government's policies and legislation on environmental issues which should continue and strengthen their current actions in this field. As an environmental scientist and activist—I declare an interest as a professor, a director and chair of two NGOs—I should like to comment on this programme, which has a generally intelligent approach and utilises the political, administrative and economic methods at the Government's disposal.

There should of course be improvements, especially in the joined-up action of government agencies and departments. As any local politician will tell you—and I used to be one—getting right the environmental issues is vital to political success. While in the UK there are many active non-governmental organisations, we have no MPs from green parties. In European countries the reverse is found.

Environmental policy should be based on thorough science and a technical knowledge of the environment and its potential for both sustaining life and mitigating disasters. Everyone now recognises that sustainable environmental policies can be put into practice only if they are well understood and accepted by communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, emphasised.

New approaches to consultation and public involvement are being tried all the time. The report of Professor Grant's seminars on the use of genetically modified organisms in the UK makes very interesting reading, especially as it concluded that people's greatest concern was that they could not trust the scientific data. Similar concern has been expressed by environmental groups, by foreign countries which are worried about low-level radioactivity in the UK and by the fishing industry in regard to fish stocks. Does Defra—perhaps in concert with the Office of Science and Technology and the research councils—have a strategy for ensuring greater confidence and transparency in government research? This could be achieved, for example, by ensuring that all scientific work is properly peer reviewed in scientific literature, which, as I understand it, is not the case with some high-profile governmental reports.

The Government should also ensure that more resources are devoted to environmental monitoring as well as to basic environmental research. This point was made strongly by senior environmentalists at a recent conference on the Arctic.

The third strand of environmental policy is that it is an essential part of economic growth in a modern society. I was astonished that at a recent press conference to announce the huge international programme to clean up the Russian Arctic a journalist even asked whether economic growth and environmental clean-up were compatible. Some noble Lords may have heard the old expression of "Where there's brass there's muck" or "Where there's muck there's brass". This should now be interpreted quite differently by progressive industries as "Making brass from the muck"—but, preferably, we should avoid making the muck in the first place.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government's commitment to encouraging enterprise will focus on the huge potential everywhere in the UK to develop environmental projects, especially small and medium-scale enterprises. The biofuels aspect was referred to by my noble kinsman, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. The problem of waste is an excellent example of where local and regional governments can contribute to building up international capabilities.

The balancing of environmental, housing and employment decisions is an essential part of planning, as several noble Lords have said. How will the new powers help in this difficult role where too many wrong decisions have been made in the past, especially in regard to building on flood planes?

It is not the style of the gracious Speech to scare us, but, as with the health and security issues referred to in this year's Speech, environmental issues should concern us very seriously indeed. Climate change, which is being considered in Milan this week, is accelerating and its effects are touching ever more people, businesses and countries. The Russian Minister whom I met yesterday in Moscow confirmed that Russia has not decided against signing Kyoto. That was a press briefing too far by certain people.

We have learnt that there were more than 20,000 excess deaths this year in Europe as a result of the summer heatwave. Fortunately, such deaths were largely avoided in the UK through the good long-range forecasts of our meteorologists and a highly responsive health service. Floods are likely to increase and probably high winds as well.

On the one hand, the Government are working to mitigate climate change through alternative energy and perhaps nuclear power—although they could be a little more proactive in that regard—and, on the other hand, the proposed legislation for civil security is welcome. This is one aspect of adapting to climate change. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will clarify the responsibilities of central, regional and local agencies, as well as European and UN agencies, all of whom are making valuable contributions.

We know about Chernobyl and I understand that the oil from the "Prestige" has now reached Guernsey. The legislation should ensure a more integrated approach that is common to different types of disaster and to security alarms. Social science research—for example, at the University of Middlesex—has demonstrated that the planning and immediate response at local level could be improved as different kinds of disaster have many common aspects in the best method of response.

Politically, the Government need to be equally focused on ensuring that the environment is healthy and comfortable. Good air quality in urban areas provides a huge bonus for health, especially for those with asthma. One hopes that the Government will consider the effect it will have on runners in the London Olympics in the summer of 2012, as Beijing has already for the summer of 2008 in collaboration with UK consultants. What will the Government do, through regulation and the encouragement of local authorities, to ensure that local planning and advance technology vehicles assist in the further progress of cleaning up the air in our cities?

Finally, measures are absolutely necessary to reduce noise—especially in residential areas—to continental levels, in particular the noise produced by traffic and aeroplanes. These measures should reflect planning, technology and social behaviour. The UK, I am glad to say, is no longer the sick man of Europe or the dirty man of Europe, but we might become labelled as the noisy man of Europe. One wonders whether the gracious Speech will need extra amplification in this regard in future.

Photo of Lord Chorley Lord Chorley Crossbench 12:27 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I do not intend to follow the "noisy" path of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, but I shall confine my remarks to environmental issues. I should have liked to speak to the planning Bill but time is so short that I must press on to my main theme—that is, the Government's renewable energy policy and, specifically, onshore wind power and draft Planning Policy Statement No. 22.

The first point I wish to make is that wind turbines are both inefficient and intrusive. Moreover, wind is unreliable—it comes and goes unpredictably—and it is harnessed in the wrong place. The Government's target of 10 per cent by 2010 will require, according to the Minister at a recent Question Time, 3,000 to 5,000 wind turbines. Presumably by 2020 it will be at least double that. That is a huge number of wind turbines.

As a consequence, this means that the National Grid will have to be rebuilt because the electricity will be generated in the wrong places and in very small dollops. The regulator has put the cost of rebuilding the grid at more than £1 billion. Notwithstanding this, the Government clearly seem to believe that wind is the only show in town and they are happy to bend normal planning rules to promote it. That is my concern.

I said that wind farms are intrusive. They are hugely intrusive. The new generation wind turbines are bigger than St Paul's. Anyone who has seen the wind turbines in Cornwall, Wales or the edges of the Lake District and thinks that they are rather attractive has not seen anything yet. They are on a scale which completely dwarfs our upland landscapes. They are huge industrial structures—there is no other word for it—which are quite alien to our countryside.

If you mark out on a map of Cumbria the wind farms now operating, under construction or under evaluation, there are more than 20 sites ringing the national park. How many there will be in the years ahead, I have not the faintest idea. But as of today a noose is encircling the national park and the proposed Planning Policy Statement No. 22 specifically aims to encourage it. Paragraph 12, which is entitled,

"Buffer Zones and Local Designations", states:

"Regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should not create 'buffer zones' around international or nationally designated areas and apply policies to these zones that prevent the development of renewable energy projects. Nor should local landscape and local nature conservation designations be used in themselves to refuse planning permission for renewable energy developments".

National parks are not, to adapt the poet Donne, "islands entire of themselves". They are set in a wider context of geography and landscape. That applies equally to AONBs, which I remind noble Lords under the 1949 Act have equal landscape value to national parks. One simply cannot divorce them from their surroundings at the convenience of an administrative boundary. What about the people who live and earn their living in the boundary areas of the national parks? They have already suffered from foot and mouth disease, particularly in Cumbria, and their future economy is now likely to depend on a judicious mix of niche farming and tourism. I have in mind the excellent Curry report which hints at a possible way forward. The serried ranks of these huge structures are hardly likely to be attractive to the tourism on which such areas will depend. They are anathema.

Therefore, I urge the Government to look again at the drafting of PPS 22. Am I alone in finding it ironic that in a recent news release on 5th November, which ran the headline,

"Planning must work for the environment", the Minister went on to say:

"The purpose of the consultation is to explore how locals and central government can work together"— noble words—

"to deliver renewable energy without unnecessary blight to the countryside"?

Furthermore it is argued, and it is implicit in PPS 22, that this is in the interests of sustainable development which betrays to me a very serious misunderstanding of what that phrase means—a much abused concept. On the whole nowadays it tends to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. I think the Red Queen had something to say about that in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

I conclude with a final point. There are many applications for wind farms in Cumbria and no doubt there are many more to come. Each is likely to be fiercely fought over by the local inhabitants. It seems absurd to hold perhaps a dozen—or maybe more—public inquiries, in many instances in overlapping areas. Surely there must be a better way forward. Would it not be fairer and more sensible to establish a reasonable amount of wind farm energy to come from Cumbria outside the national park and its buffer zones and then to settle the individual sizes and locations by a single inquiry? Would it not also be fairer to arrive at the Cumbrian share by apportioning the national renewables obligation by reference to the geographical distribution of population in England? In the north there is a good deal of resentment. Why should those in the north supply power and ruin the countryside for the sake of the south? It would be interesting to see if we had a 350-foot high wind farms on the edge of the Chilterns, possibly near Chequers. Why should Cumbria be blighted for the convenience of the south-east?

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative 12:34 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, although my remarks will refer to livestock and dairy products, the thrust of my argument concerns the European Union and it would have been more appropriate to have delivered them yesterday, but because of hospital treatment that was not possible. I am most grateful for your Lordships' tolerance which has enabled me to make my remarks in today's debate.

I have not done very much research on this topic. I have sat here in my place at Question Time and noted that, on 3rd November, my noble friend Lord Higgins inquired about,

"powers to prevent the export of live horses for slaughter".—[Official Report, 3/11/03; col. 518.]

On 12th November the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London inquired about,

"progress in . . . negotiations with the European Commission to introduce a 5 per cent rate of VAT on repairs and maintenance to listed places of worship".—[Official Report, 12/11/03; col. 1351.]

Finally, on 13th November my noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm inquired,

"Whether there are any plans by the European Union to ban the use of the descriptive term 'yoghurt' as used in the United Kingdom".—[Official Report, 13/11/03; col. 1568.]

Those three matters do not seem to me to be the commanding heights of the economy. They seem to be exactly the kind of matters that we should be able to decide on our own account, using our own institutions of this Parliament and thus to fashion our relationships within Europe, trying to breathe some life into the concept of subsidiarity—an ugly and meaningless word, spawned at the time of the Maastricht Treaty. I regret that in the gracious Speech there is no commitment to try to crusade to make a reality of subsidiarity, so that the three items that I have mentioned almost casually could quite properly be where they should be in the context of European decision-making.

When thinking about the historic sequence of events in Europe, I make this reflection having observed the words of Aristide Briand, the French prime minister after the Locarno decisions, when he said:

"A Locarno nous avons parle european. C'est une langue nouvelle qu'il faudre bien que l'on apprenne".

I can distribute the English text for any sceptics who feel it is required. It seems to me that we are seriously out of focus in our approach to Europe. We are now discussing the prospects of a constitution. I have no objection to there ultimately being a constitution or some formula that will govern the relationships of a Europe that is enlarged to include the applicant countries and holding in trust the likely further expansion to include countries like Croatia, Turkey and maybe others. However, we have a more immediate challenge which is to try to rid ourselves of a burgeoning bureaucracy that does little to enhance the cause of Europe. We need in the name of realism and of idealism a commitment to see that the nation states—

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. On his point of burgeoning bureaucracy, which is smaller than the number of officials employed by Surrey County Council, does he not welcome the provision in the European draft constitution to give, for the first time, to the national parliaments some opportunity to pronounce and effectively to intervene when there are matters that are properly dealt with at national level? Is that not a great advance for Europe?

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative

My Lords, within the ambit of a seven-minute speech, I think that it is very generous of me to give way. However, I would welcome that prospect if subsidiarity, which was promised at Maastricht, had in fact delivered anything tangible as a consequence. Nevertheless, we will travel together and we will argue together, and I hope that we will come to mutual conclusions.

I conclude as I had intended by saying that it is not just practicality but idealism which requires us to see that the nation state is at the centre of our European relationships and has the authority to carry out the things that are most appropriate for it.

Photo of Lord Beaumont of Whitley Lord Beaumont of Whitley Green 12:40 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, while totally agreeing with almost everything that the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, said, I should like to revert to the environment and indeed to deliver the Green Party's own Queen's Speech since I am serving notice that I intend to introduce legislation on these subjects in your Lordships' House failing the Government taking them up.

The first subject is unadopted roads. I asked a Question on this in your Lordships' House on Tuesday. Although I received a straight reply to the question, "What are the Government going to do about them", which was, "Nothing", I received less than a straight reply from the Minister when in my supplementary I pointed out the evils of pests, dangers of accident and crime and the general environmental degradation involved and that the Government's solution—that local authorities should act—was no solution at all since they were not going to act seeing that there were neither incentives for them to do so or penalties if they did not do so and that in the nature of things there were therefore no votes in it.

I am also hoping that your Lordships will allow me to introduce a Bill next Tuesday on air traffic reduction. The Bill will propose a reduction in emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen monoxide and greenhouse gases due to air traffic as well as reducing pollution around airports and in the upper atmosphere. The intended effect is to reduce the amount of air traffic and thus eliminate the demand for new runways to be built.

The Government have predicted that the demand for air travel will treble over the next 30 years and that new runways must be built to meet that demand. That is an old-fashioned "predict and provide" policy. "Predict and provide" was abandoned for roads policy after it was reported that more roads would simply attract more traffic and would not end congestion. Predict and provide is not a sound policy for air transport either. The Green Party is not alone in this field. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in its 18th Report on Transport and the Environment, said:

"an unquestioning attitude toward future growth in air travel, and an acceptance that the projected demand for additional facilities must be met, are incompatible with the aims of sustainable development".

Aviation is the most highly polluting transport mode on Earth and its pollution constitutes a major hidden cost to the economy. Aviation is also subsidised directly and indirectly by the taxpayer and is a major drain on the UK balance of payments. The most important, but least obvious impact of aircraft is the contribution to climate change. When burnt, aircraft fuel is converted to carbon dioxide and water. The global warming effects of carbon dioxide are well recognised and much attention is now being paid to the issue. However, carbon dioxide emitted by aircraft on international flights is excluded from national targets for the Kyoto agreement. The costs of UK aviation's contribution to climate change are estimated at well over £2 billion a year in 2001.

Aircraft emit large quantities of pollution on their landing and takeoff cycle. The most important pollutants are concentrated on Heathrow and places like that. Small particulate matter is less a problem from aircraft, the majority around airports coming from the road traffic and fixed sources such as power plant. However, the health costs of air pollution from the aviation sector are estimated at more than £1.3 billion per year. But the impact that most concerns those living near airports is noise, particularly—but not only—night flights. When I was a vicar in Kew, the services in one of my churches had to be paused periodically because of the overhead flights. It did not make for particularly easy preaching or indeed for reading of the Word.

Professor John Whitelegg, in the Green Party's Aviation's Economic Downside report, stated:

"The overall hidden economic costs of the European Union's aviation sector are currently estimated at £14.3 billion a year—of which the UK alone accounts for £3.8 billion, or 26 per cent".

That does not include the costs of aviation accidents and accident services.

Aviation is under-taxed compared with most other sectors of the economy. Flight tickets, aircraft and aviation fuel are all zero-rated for VAT which costs the Treasury vast sums. All those costs and subsidies are increasing rapidly as the aviation sector grows. The application of a fairer tax regime on aviation could cut UK passenger numbers to 59 per cent of the figure forecast for 2020.

We want rigorous action to curb the growth of the aviation sector through a seven-point plan: the European-level charge on aviation; an end to all public subsidies to aviation; investment in less polluting travel alternatives; research into and promotion of further alternatives to business air travel, including more video conferencing, tele-presence and so on; optimisation of air traffic control; changes in land use planning law; and a public education programme. The Bill which I propose to introduce into your Lordships' House will implement the first of those; that is, air traffic emissions charges.

The Greens in the London Assembly—where the Green Party is fairly represented, unlike in Parliament—believe that Heathrow's hidden costs of £520 million should be reclaimed through a combination of fuel taxes, emissions charges and congestion charging. The air traffic reduction Bill will be just a first step towards getting the aviation industry under control. It would reduce pollution from air traffic and remove the need for new runways.

In environmental terms, these Bills are needed. If the Government will not act, then the Green Party must.

Photo of The Earl of Mar and Kellie The Earl of Mar and Kellie Liberal Democrat 12:47 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, during the last years of the Conservative government I became familiar with the process of speaking in the debate on the Queen's Speech and using the expression, "I regret that there is no mention of . . . ". The subject that I wanted then was, of course, the return of a Scottish Parliament, which has subsequently been achieved. For the next few years I did not feel the need to use those words. Now, however, I wish to do so again. So here they are. I regret that there is no mention of the devolution of the whole railway in Scotland.

I am impressed by the actions of the Scottish Parliament in dealing with the parts of the railway that are devolved. Those are, of course, the ScotRail passenger franchise, freight facilities grants, new railways, Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive and the other passenger transport authorities as they evolve. So far, the Scottish Parliament has decided what sort of a passenger railway is required, and the current franchise renewal process has a subsidy of £210 million attached to it. At the same time, the executive has bought about 20 new trains—Class 170 Turbostars—for the passenger railway. That means that almost all of the Class 150 Sprinters can be cascaded into English and Welsh franchises. It is also worth remembering that ScotRail and Strathclyde PTE have no Class 140 Pacers in use. For anoraks, there is one Class 140 Pacer set in Scotland, on the private railway in the Dufftown area.

My principal argument is this. Scotland can decide, and has decided, what sort of passenger railway it wants, excluding, of course, GNER and the two Virgin franchises, West Coast and CrossCountry. My argument for the devolution of the freight railway and for the track and infrastructure is based on my answer to the question: is the railway in Scotland a peripheral regional railway or a national railway? My answer is, emphatically, that it is a national railway. With the precise exception of the three cross-border franchises already mentioned, the Stranraer to Newcastle and the Caledonian sleeper services, the vast majority of passenger trains start and finish in Scotland.

I agree that there are also cross-border freight services, and I encourage that. That is a long-term benefit of the Union treaty. However, when I come to consider the track and infrastructure, that is when the argument is strongest. With the exception of the East Coast Main Line and the West Coast Main Line, all the other Scottish main lines are classed by Network Rail as principal secondary routes, and are thus starved of investment. That is not because the Strategic Rail Authority does not like Scotland but because the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail have to concentrate on the south-east of England, which is undoubtedly their busiest area.

Devolution of the track and infrastructure in Scotland would allow the Scottish Parliament to receive additional funding through the block grant for the whole railway. Scotland could then decide for itself what kind and quality of a national railway system it wants, as do our neighbours in Ireland and Norway.

The prospect I conclude with is that of Virgin Pendolinos and GNER Mallards running at 140 miles an hour in places in Scotland and then slowing down for the English sections. Similarly, high speed running could be achieved in places on the principal routes from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness.

Nothing I have said today undermines the devolution settlement. It would merely devolve responsibility for railways to the same degree as is already devolved for roads in Scotland. The Government have produced a tightly drawn Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill. This could be redrawn so that modifications could be made to Schedule 5, Section E2, rail transport, or, indeed, a separate Scotland Act order could be proposed.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 12:52 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I shall address the needs of children and young people rather than higher education which will be debated by many other noble Lords. I must declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. I believe very strongly that if the health, social, emotional, educational and economic needs of children were addressed, many problems relating to, for example, anti-social behaviour and offending would be tackled. This Government have made noble attempts to deal with child poverty, family welfare and underachievement, and that should be welcomed.

The welfare of children crosses many boundaries, and I know that some noble Lords, including myself, have found it difficult to decide in which debate to speak. That is perhaps a good sign. The gracious Speech included a number of Bills that will have an impact on children's lives and there will be much debate around particular issues. Child trust funds will provide an endowment for all children and more for those from poorer families and the child protection Bill will have an impact on the way in which services for children are organised. The Asylum and Immigration Bill also has implications for children and families. The Domestic Violence Bill should provide greater protection to victims and witnesses, many of whom will be children.

Children, of course, do not come in distinct parts with one labelled education, another health and so on, and, of course, there are many different types of children: children from different home backgrounds, different races or cultures; looked after children; children with disabilities; young carers; children of asylum seekers and travellers; and children of different gender and sexual orientation. It is not an easy task to cover all needs but it is our responsibility at a national and local level to do our best. I strongly support the creation of a children's commissioner for England as a champion for children.

In the brief time that I have available today I shall put forward some views on three matters: first, on some of the new structures proposed to benefit children; secondly, on citizenship education and, thirdly, on education for parenthood. I shall base my remarks largely on a consultation exercise carried out in five parts by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children with Members of both Houses of Parliament, the statutory and voluntary sector and with young people themselves. In doing so, I must pay tribute to the energy and commitment shown by the children's group administrators based at the National Children's Bureau and to all those who took part in the consultation which gave us the substance of the group's response to the Green Paper, Every Child Matters.

First, I turn to new structures. It is good to see proposals to extend the statutory safeguarding duties and responsibilities held solely by local authority social services departments to other professionals and agencies. A clear message needs to be acted on—that all services at a local level, including housing, education and prison services have a duty to care for and protect children. Statutory local safeguarding boards should ensure that there is capacity within the community to safeguard children. The creation of the post of Director of Children's Services could provide a single simple structure for accountability. I recognise that details need to be worked out, in particular which services the director will manage directly. The appropriate sharing of information proposed in the Green Paper is essential in order to protect children. How and when that information is shared will be crucial. School-based intervention services could be powerful in detecting emotional and behavioural difficulties. When I was first in teaching there were school counsellors in many schools. I think that we should bring back counselling services for young people.

There is much that is worthwhile in the review of services and I shall look to the Minister to clarify how the system will hang together and how, for example, children's trusts can be most effective. Should they not, for example, reach into youth justice?

I now turn to the school system and comment on citizenship education and education for parenthood. It is interesting that both those topics arose in every one of the five consultation exercises carried out by the all-party group. The young people present were themselves vocal on these issues, particularly on citizenship education. It was felt that citizenship education should include classes on parenting, finances and politics and should be very practical and be taught by specialist teachers or relevant outside organisations. It was felt that citizenship education is about getting young people involved in their community and about skills for life. There was some cynicism on the part of the young people about citizenship education being a soft option relegated to filling in worksheets and answering factual questions far too often. I suggest to the Minister that we need some actual examples of good practice from schools that are taking this area seriously. Citizenship, together with personal, social and health education, can provide some solid foundations for children and young people who are less confident and knowledgeable about life skills. In turn, this can enhance academic achievement.

Supporting parents and carers forms part of section three of the Green Paper. The consultees felt that parenting skills were often taught only when something had gone wrong. Promoting parenting services should be seen as a routine part of life and not as a stigma or sign of failure. Such education should surely begin in school and not just for the less academic, as it certainly used to be, but for all pupils. Many will become parents a few years after leaving school with no knowledge of what that will entail. It does not always come naturally, as we know to our cost. Parenting skills may be more useful to pupils than many other lessons undertaken, may be more memorable and may benefit their children in turn, thus helping to resolve the notorious cycle of deprivation.

I look forward to working with the Minister on the children Bill. Could I also ask her to collaborate with colleagues in discussing the areas that I have raised today? They are but part of a much wider jigsaw. The jigsaw has in the past had pieces missing or been too difficult to put together. Can we strive now to make the systems and structures which affect children more cohesive and powerful at a local and national level? This is a great opportunity which we should grasp with enthusiasm.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench 1:00 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, the topic that I would like to address is higher education. I declare an interest. I held the role of vice-chancellor of Oxford University from 1985 to 1989, and was a deputy chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, as it was then called. In that role, we were confronted with a permanent shortfall in money and a winding down of government support. I speak in a totally non-political position. Those were the days of a Conservative government who did not provide adequate money for the universities. That situation continues today. I remember on one occasion I adapted the poem and said, "Does the road wind downhill all the way?". The answer to my question was yes—every year less money was available.

I shall talk a little in a moment about Oxford, but I am aware that many other universities have suffered singular deprivation as a result of funding shortage. The latest to come to my attention is Durham, where, as some noble Lords will be aware, the department of east Asian studies is on the point of being closed down, with a loss of impetus in an area that needs special protection. That sort of news is tragic.

I shall develop my two themes, which are that more money is needed and that we should not be ashamed of or mock the excellence of certain universities. I particularly have in mind the charge against Oxford and Cambridge of being elite. I would prefer to substitute "very good" for that. They are aiming to match the standards set by the best American universities. Unless we match those standards here, we will slip.

I shall give an Oxford figure for funding. In the money that comes in to be spent on teaching, there is a shortfall of £23 million a year. I dare say that the Cambridge figure is not very different. There has to be cross-subsidy from other parts of the income. It is said that the universities are not doing enough to help themselves. Currently, Oxford is raising about £163 million from research and contact with industry. In other ways, we have been running a campaign to raise money on a fund-raising basis from sources all round the world. I was connected with that when it began in 1988.

The shortfall of money makes it imperative that there be an additional supply. If the only route that can be found for that is top-up fees, let it be top-up fees. In my perception, it is not unreasonable that the students who benefit from the education that they receive should be called on at a later date to repay the debt. The repayment is not required until they are in an earning position.

We can argue about whether the point for payment should be at a salary of £15,000 or £20,000 per annum and about the detail, but in principle students are getting a pretty good deal. Money is paid up-front on their behalf, with a nil interest rate and payback when they are in a position to do so. If they cannot do so—if they are primary school teachers, care workers or in some dedicated form of work that produces a very low income—the day may never come when they have to repay. Again, that seems entirely fair. If they benefit from the education and are able to earn much larger salaries than ordinary people, I do not for the life of me see why they should not be called on to make repayment under a fairly worked-out scheme.

That is my first point—that more income is needed and that I do not see in principle any deep-rooted objection to what is proposed. The argument has been raised that the fees will be a deterrent—that children from a poorer background will say, "That is not for me", and that their parents will warn them against university. I am not sure that there is any compelling evidence for that. It is an assertion at the moment, with certain parts of the media asserting that it is the case. It is not borne out by the Australian experience, and is not a rational argument. Time will show whether it is true or false.

One cure or remedy for the argument is that the universities will have to be particularly astute in having proper bursary provisions and schemes in place to help those who are really disadvantaged. A lot of that is already happening. I am sure that noble Lords will not ignore the fact that universities have been widening access and making provision for those who have very little money. Harvard recruits on quality. It goes round the United States, picks the ablest students and then says, "What are your financial needs?". If a student has wealthy parents, nothing is needed. If they have no money at all, Harvard provides. There has to be a back-up bursary system working alongside. That is being worked out.

I do not have long to speak on my other theme, but noble Lords will see what I have in mind on the question of universities being elite. It is absolutely essential that we have excellent universities in this country that have an international reputation. I was involved quite often at Oxford in recruiting people, particularly some very fine scholars from America. Two factors really got them to come to Oxford. One was the quality of the academic community with which they would be associated. In other words, they would be coming to work with people at the same peer level as their own in America. The other—I say this without any feeling of shame—was the magnetism of the college system, the form of life that could be provided for someone in the humanities by being a member of a college. Those were the twin attractions that enabled one to persuade Americans to come to Oxford at a much lower salary than they could command elsewhere in the world.

I hope that, whatever scheme is introduced, the Government will place a large measure of trust in the universities to run their own system. Let them pick the students whom they want. Let them develop the disciplines and subjects that they think best suited and that they want to develop. The fewer controls and restrictions placed on them, the better. I am not saying that suggestions cannot be made or guidance offered and so on, but it is imperative to allow the academic communities to run their own system as they know best.

Those are my thoughts on the matter. We should look forward to increasing the excellence of the universities, and should not be ashamed of having two or three that are particularly distinguished. The aim should be to bring the level up for all universities. Intrinsically, we have the basis of a marvellous system and some wonderful teachers in the university system throughout the land.

Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench 1:08 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Neill, both literally and thematically. First, I shall say a word on our socially uneven participation in higher education, especially in the 19 Russell group universities. In her answers to recent questions of mine, the Minister has told me that those universities are admitting more students from the relatively small independent and grammar sector than from the huge numbers attending comprehensive schools. Indeed, in two of the Russell group—Oxford and Cambridge—only about one fifth of new students come from comprehensives; well over half come from independent schools—54.5 per cent in 2002.

This imbalance is something that universities have been struggling to rectify for decades. In part, the problem is down to comprehensive pupils lacking the self-confidence or ambition to apply to top universities—lacking too the support and encouragement of their teachers to do so.

In his memoirs, Wings of a Man's Life, my late friend Gorley Putt writes of his constant frustration as admissions tutor at Christ's College, Cambridge, in the 1970s. Year after year, he and his colleagues made enthusiastic recruiting visits to big comprehensives up and down the country. I quote his words:

"'We don't allow our kids to apply to Oxbridge', I would be told. They tried to prevent me even from meeting possible candidates".

This is an area, surely, which the new office for fair access should look at, if only to see how widespread are such appalling attitudes.

But of course the chief reason for the abiding imbalance in admissions is the failure of comprehensives to come anywhere close to independent schools in pupil achievement at A-level. In answer to another of my questions, the Minister told me that in 2001 and 2002, the proportion of students getting straight As at A-level was 5 per cent at comprehensive schools but 23 per cent at independent schools.

It will take a long time to get state secondary schools up to scratch, though the specialist schools—now nearly 1,500 of them—are showing the way. It is their aim to do well not only in their specialism—be it science, technology or foreign languages—but for this to rub off on the rest of the national curriculum.

There are examples to show that this is working. Members of the Wolfson Foundation education panel were struck last month by the William Howard School in Cumbria. This has the status of a specialist school in science. But in last year's exams it had huge numbers getting GCSEs and A-levels in two foreign languages. One was of course French, but 80 youngsters got their GCSEs in Italian, which is almost an endangered species in British education.

With more schools like this, and with aspiration to match, we will come closer to the "world-class education" promised in the gracious Speech and to a better balance at university. But I am not holding my breath.

I turn now to the issue of university finance, which, as my noble friend Lord Neill said, is urgent and indeed critical. I declare an interest as a Fellow of UCL. Over the past 20 years, state funding per student has fallen, in today's money, from about £10,000 per student to about £5,000. We now make a loss on every undergraduate we teach. Where till recently we had a university system that matched the best in the world, few would have the confidence to make such a claim today.

It is to the Government's credit that the seriousness of the position is well understood and is being addressed: as it is in Australia, with Brendan Nelson's Bill now before the Canberra Parliament. The proposal here to allow universities to charge supplementary tuition fees up to £3,000 is a welcome step in the right direction, but let no one think that it is other than a modest step. The current Economist uses the word "trivial". It is not trivial, but it would become so if the plan were to be watered down to a lower level than £3,000 or compromised by being made universal across all institutions and all fields of study. Then our problems would be made worse rather than better and the Government would have fluffed the chance of making a step-change towards the policy, repeatedly stated by Secretary of State Charles Clarke, to introduce competition between universities and between courses within universities. I quote from his website last week, and the same words were used in his speech in the House of Commons yesterday, at col. 536 of Hansard of 3rd December. He said:

"A flat-rate fee is simply unjust . . . to charge the same amount across the board irrespective of the demand, nature, or quality of the course and the potential rate of return for the student".

To object to this with talk of creating a "two-tier" university system is to be seriously at odds with reality. We actually need—in fact we actually have—not a two-tier system but a finely graded multi-tier system. Differential fees are essential to reflect and promote such gradience, essential too if we are to have honest transparency and plain common sense in the costing of higher education.

This being so, it is for consideration at Second Reading of the forthcoming Bill whether we cannot move a little towards the corollary by some modest tweaking of the £3,000 limit. Might not universities be given the freedom of virement within a total of £3,000 per admitted student, so that they could vary supplementary fees within an institution-wide average—I stress that—of £3,000?

This would involve no additional cost to the Exchequer and universities would be able—indeed, almost forced—to test their claim of superior provision by challenging lower fees at a rival university and charging, say, £5,000 a year for courses with a good "rate of return" (say, law or accountancy) while choosing to attract students to maths or nursing with a low (or no) supplementary fee.

But for the present it is enough to ask the Minister whether those two admirable aims in the gracious Speech—

"a world-class education system", and,

"Universities . . . on a sound financial basis"—[Official Report, 26/11/03; col. 1.], are not merely connected but contingent. Can we have the one without the other?

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 1:17 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government, in response to the report of my noble friend Lord Laming on the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, introduced in the gracious Speech the children's Bill that we have already discussed. I warmly welcome that, as I welcome the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill which will, I hope, contain important safeguards for children. I am concerned about the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill and I should be most grateful to the Minister if she could state as early as possible the likely impact of Clause 7 on children of asylum seekers.

Her Majesty's Government, in their Green Paper, Every Child Matters, acknowledge that the purpose at which they aim with the children's Bill will not be achieved unless the childcare workforce issues are addressed. I hope that your Lordships will therefore permit me to concentrate on the wider agenda of the childcare workforce covered in the children's Green Paper, an area for which the Minister has special responsibility.

The vacancy rates for child and family social workers nationally stand at about 15 per cent and in London at about 20 per cent. The vacancy rate for residential childcare workers stands at about 11 per cent and in London I believe that the figure is 15 per cent. Those compare with a vacancy rate for teachers of below 1 per cent nationally and 2 per cent in London. That illustrates the challenge that faces us. We are short of midwives, and health visitors are very stretched in their work. Recently at a meeting with the Minister for Children, an early-years educator—a nursery nurse, I believe—said to the Minister that many of her colleagues are leaving to work at Tesco, Waitrose and other retailers because they receive better pay and conditions there.

We are short of good fosterers. Another 6,000 are required in England and Wales and, despite the Government's efforts, it is hard to imagine how those vacancies can be filled. It is encouraging to learn that there has been a 10 per cent increase in the recruitment of social workers in the past year. It is also encouraging to hear that more social workers are trying to obtain post-qualifying qualifications. It would be helpful to know how the retention rate for social workers now stands.

The Green Paper, Every Child Matters, was originally envisaged as being cost-neutral. I am pleased to hear that, in certain areas, Her Majesty's Government have decided to invest more in implementing the Green Paper.

The most important part of the childcare workforce involves parents. We should all be very grateful for the Government's action in promoting parenting. I think, in particular, of the outstanding programmes for supporting parents whose children have committed offences and the positive outcomes in terms of reoffending. I welcome the additional funding that is being made available in that area. However, my noble friend Lord Northbourne is concerned that the £25 million that will be available over three years—I hope that I have that figure correct—will not be adequate to meet the need that exists. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, spoke very eloquently on the issue of parenting schools.

Every Child Matters examines how we might benefit from positive strategies in other fields by learning from what has been done elsewhere—for example, in teaching and other professions—and applying those lessons to the recruitment and retention of social care professionals. I welcome very warmly what the document says about developing common core training for childcare workers.

I also welcome the introduction of a children's workforce unit and the acknowledgement that the developmental nature of children needs to be understood by all those who work with children. If that is applied properly, I believe that the group of workers who may most benefit will be residential childcare workers—those who work in children's homes. They value teamwork above almost every other aspect of their work. They feel that they can best assist the children when they work successfully as a team. Sadly, those children are often so troubled that that impacts on the team and can affect the carers' co-operative efforts.

Such workers also often feel overlooked by other professionals—teachers, social workers and mental health professionals—because of their poor training. They still suffer from the cloud of the sad history of abuse in children's homes, including those in north Wales. Therefore, it is difficult for them to work as part of a wider team. They value teamwork in their own children's homes but it is hard for them to work with other agencies. Therefore, I value what the Green Paper says about encouraging multi-agency work and developing a common culture of childcare. I hope that children's trusts can be a tool by which partnerships are increased with health, education and other agencies, thereby building the confidence of this group of often hard-pressed staff. Eventually, I hope that that will lead to expanding the positive experience of children who go through children's homes.

We need to do more for the carers—the parents and grandparents. I believe that that was illustrated very strongly to parliamentarians when they listened to Mrs Scholes, who told of her son who recently committed suicide in a young offender institution. He had suffered a long history of sexual abuse and had been through a difficult time. His parents had separated and, following a custody battle, he was taken into care in a children's home. He self-harmed, cutting himself across the face many times. He was sentenced to custody and the court advised a secure children's home. He ended up in a YOI and hanged himself.

Many people who enter our over-crowded penal system have sad histories of family dysfunction. I very much hope that the wider workforce measures that are coming forward will help to promote improved outcomes for such children. I should appreciate it if, in her response, the Minister could say—as I have not given her warning of this question, perhaps she will write to me—whether her department is putting forward a robust application in relation to the Comprehensive Spending Review for increased remuneration and support for those who work in such areas.

Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative 1:26 pm, 4th December 2003

My Lords, I want to address the issue of keeping Britain's livestock healthy on the basis that healthy livestock in our community leads to a healthy rural economy and forms part of the economic stability and growth of the rural environment.

We are all aware that in recent years British livestock agriculture has suffered devastating outbreaks of animal disease, such as classical swine fever, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth disease. We are all privy to the dramatic social, economic and environmental consequences that those have brought about. Some are still with us—for example, tuberculosis in our cattle and in badgers.

The Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food that followed those disease outbreaks made the following recommendations:

"In view of England's abysmal animal health record in recent years, DEFRA in conjunction with the Industry need to devise and implement a comprehensive animal health strategy".

I believe we all agree with that. It raises the obvious question of what must be done to implement the recommendation.

The lessons learnt from the outbreaks to which I have just referred have been commented upon in several reports and discussions. However, to my mind, it is paramount that we put in place measures and structures to ensure that those devastations do not occur again. It would be fallacious to imagine that entry into the United Kingdom of highly infectious and contagious diseases will not occur again. The global movement of people, animals and food products is such that it would be miraculous if disease were not to accompany it. I shall give an idea of the scale of the movement. Some 750,000 airline flights land in this country annually, bringing in 72 million passengers annually. Even if a very small proportion of those were to carry infectious disease of one kind or another, we would be in deep trouble.

The Phillips report on BSE made two important points. One was that,

"an effective system of animal disease surveillance is a prerequisite to effective control of animal disease".

The other was that,

"an effective system of passive surveillance will depend on farmers and their veterinarians having the incentive and the facility for drawing instances of animal disease to the attention of the State Veterinary Service".

It might be noted that the first case of BSE in cattle was spotted by a veterinary surgeon in general practice.

A variety of consultative documents resulted from the various inquiries that have been held into the foot and mouth outbreak. They have identified needs for animal health and welfare strategies up and down the country. They advocate a partnership between vets and farmers to deliver them. However, a general problem in livestock farming is its profitability. That is coupled with a major decline in the number of veterinarians visiting farms on a regular basis owing to that reduced profitability. Farmers do much of the veterinary work themselves. This all results in a major reduction in on-farm veterinary work. For example, now only 9.4 per cent of veterinary practitioners' time is spent working on livestock farms, compared with 20 per cent in 1998, which was only a few years ago. This results in a vicious circle in which there are not enough positions available in veterinary practices to accommodate people wishing to be large animal practitioners, incomes are lower, work is harder and often entails longer hours than those in companion animal work. Nevertheless, large animal practice work is still much in demand by new veterinary graduates, especially by women, if they can find it.

The State Veterinary Service has an important role to play in surveillance and delivering good animal health. We are aware of a decline over recent years in its personnel numbers, as was indicated in the foot and mouth outbreak. The implications are clear. We need greatly to enhance its manpower numbers. The way forward may well be, as envisaged by Defra, for the State Veterinary Service to become a Next Steps executive agency. That will mean improved accountability through the clear separation of responsibility for policy and delivery, as recommended in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, on delivering government policies in rural England. If that is to be the case, adequate funding for manpower and services must be available for this new concept.

How do we change the situation so that we have a healthy livestock industry in this country rather than one threatened by disease? The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently published its report Vets and Veterinary Services. It put forward many of the needed developments. An important comment is that all in livestock agriculture should take responsibility for championing animal health and welfare. An example of that is the National Animal Disease Information Service (NADIS), which is an independent body of, at present, 40 veterinary practitioners who formed a sentinel practice network in 1995. It regularly collects information and dispenses it to other veterinary practices and the press, both nationally and locally. This is an example of the profession helping itself, rather than going cap in hand and asking for funds for this to be done. It is an important development. The Commons committee has suggested that the work should be boosted by inputs from Defra and other organisations connected with agriculture.

The need for surveillance is exemplified by the sea of livestock diseases around us, some of which are transmissible to man. A recent example is the highly pathogenic avian flu epidemic that struck the Netherlands. Prompt attention by the European authorities in Belgium, Denmark and Germany stamped out that disease. Fortunately, it did not reach this country, although it may well have done.

A constant theme throughout the lessons learned from inquiries is the need for research, more veterinarians in research and more veterinary research. My noble friend Lord Selborne, who is not in his place at present, chaired a committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. It produced a very important report which strongly emphasised the importance of getting more veterinary research into veterinary schools. I am happy to say that, several years after that report was published—much delayed but nevertheless it has been published—£25 million has been made available over a period of five years to boost veterinary research, training and teaching in the veterinary schools. That is a most welcome shot in the arm. But it is important to recognise that that should not be the end of the support and that it should continue for a number of decades.

There are certain areas in which research is particularly important, such as diagnostic tests to allow for rapid diagnosis of animal disease instead of having to send specimens through the mail. Another example is the nature of improved vaccines; vaccines that will produce life-long immunity to important diseases such as foot and mouth disease. The need for such vaccines is urgent since never again should we approach disease control with the only option being the slaughter of tens of thousands of animals.

Preparedness for the unusual is vitally important. We know little of why disease entities suddenly appear. An example of course is the recent SARS epidemic out of China into Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world. But there are likely to be more—coming we do not know when or how—as the agents rearrange their genetic make up and take advantage of a human or animal niche to proliferate.

As I have said before in this House, the price of freedom from these diseases is eternal vigilance.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I beg to move that further debate on the Motion for an humble Address be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 1.37 to 2 p.m. for Judicial Business and to 3 p.m. for Public Business.]