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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, it is my privilege to pay tribute to the interesting and entertaining speech of the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg, who I see is a fellow resident of the beautiful county of Cheshire. The noble Lord has been in the gambling business all his working life and knows a good bet when he sees one. Your Lordships might therefore find encouraging the fact that he has bet on joining this House at a time when we are threatened with redundancy.

The noble Lord is very well known for the energy and generosity of his charity work, and in business he has shown enormous dynamism and shrewd judgment which I am sure will be brought to bear on our deliberations in this Chamber. However, noble Lords may not know that he is also a cricket lover, and he has chosen to play on a new wicket here. I therefore wish him many sunny days, straight bowling and plenty of boundaries during his new career in your Lordships' House.

I too have a new job. My noble friend Lord McNally has reshuffled his Front Bench, so I am to share the education brief with my noble friend Lady Sharp as spokesman on schools and early years, and shadow Minister for Children. It is in that context, since the children brief is so broad and cross-cutting, that I intend today to make a brief canter around the course of the issues relating to children in the gracious Speech.

Because transport is one of the suggested topics for today, I start with the School Transport Bill. While we support the principle that local authorities are usually in the best position to know what works best in their area, this Bill is worrying because it will take away the entitlement to free school transport for hundreds of thousands of children, and presents the danger of doing the very opposite of what it seeks to do; that is, to reduce congestion and pollution of the environment that is caused in many areas by what is known as the school run.

While we are very supportive of the provision of good quality bus-based school transport and praise the "safe routes to school" initiatives for walking and cycling, we oppose the introduction of charges for school transport. It is a stealth tax on working families. We are concerned that parents of large families, or those who live a long way from school, will choose to use their cars for the school run instead of paying for bus services.

The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who will be dealing with the Bill in this House, generously gave us a meeting last week. I asked him how the 20 pilot schemes were to be evaluated and whether saving money would be one of the criteria. The Minister responded with a firm denial. I hope that I will be able to give him an opportunity to repeat that from the Dispatch Box in the very near future. There are only three valid criteria for these pilot schemes: equality of access to the school of the parents' choice, wherever the child lives; ensuring that poorer families do not lose out on access to the best schools; and genuine protection of the environment.

We also expect an education Bill. This is expected to include provisions for state-funded independent schools in the interests of more choice. It will provide no choice for children in rural areas where there is only one school within reach. As the Government have failed to meet all their targets at GCSE and key stage 3 this year, their first priority should be to address the serious issues raised by Mike Tomlinson in his report into the fundamental changes required to secondary education. The Government's choice agenda is really selection and fees by the back door, and increased testing and targets do nothing but add to teachers' workload and increase stress on children. We want to see reduced class sizes, improved teacher training and career development, and reform of the curriculum, particularly that between ages 14 and 19 to allow all pupils to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life.

The Bill is also expected to reduce the role of local education authorities to strategic partners. We are opposed to that because we see LEAs as crucial in managing things such as the new wrap-around care initiatives in schools, so that services are organised and accountable.

On streamlining schools inspections, finally the Government are admitting that endless inspections do not improve standards, but we do not need superficial cost-cutting measures. We need a fundamental change in the way Ofsted operates. Schools must be trusted with the responsibility for maintaining standards. The point of inspections should be to audit school improvement and offer constructive advice, not to increase stress on teachers and students and take valuable time away from teaching. I am very concerned about any inspections that do not include the observation of a lesson.

During the passage of the Children Act 2004, the Government insisted that inspection would be a lever to ensure that schools participated in the wider local children's agenda. Therefore it is essential that any streamlined inspection scheme should inspect against the five outcomes identified in Every Child Matters and that schools are not only inspected against academic performance, but also on how they contribute to child safeguarding, welfare and development as a whole.

Throughout the passage of the Children Act 2004, my noble friend Lady Sharp and others raised concerns about the lack of specific inclusion of schools within the frameworks and duties established to improve children's well-being. This new Bill focuses on further autonomy for schools. I hope that it will translate clearly from LEAs to schools the duties put on them by the Children Act 2004.

However, there are measures in the expected Bill which we welcome, including additional financial support for 16 to 19 year-olds engaged in training and education, and the expansion of the Teacher Training Agency.

We understand that draft legislation is to be published to safeguard the welfare of children in circumstances of parental separation and inter-country adoption. We give this a cautious welcome. We on these Benches believe in the principle of equality of parenting responsibilities where it is safe to do so, but consider that the needs of the child should come first in all circumstances. This may mean that it is not always in the child's interest to split access equally between both parents if the stability and security of the child's home and school life might be compromised. Each case should be assessed individually, preferably with a team of professionals who are familiar with the details of the family's case and background. We also very much welcome the Government's proposals to introduce more mediation between parents to overcome disputes and to avoid conflict, so minimising any negative impact on children.

We also welcome the expected Disability Discrimination Bill, with its proposals to extend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to public bodies, and to introduce a new duty on those bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. One of the most critical issues is which public bodies are to be included. The recent consultation document, Delivering Equality for Disabled People, suggests that bodies will be specified in regulations. We welcome the proposal to extend the Disability Discrimination Act to criminal justice system functions but are very concerned at the suggestion that schools may be treated differently. Schools are singularly the most important public sector agency that impacts upon children's lives and have a critical role in promoting disability equality.

The new duty to promote equality should incorporate the five outcomes for improving the well being of children set out in the Children Act 2004 and must set out clearly the inclusion of all public bodies in its provisions, including schools.

We also expect an equality Bill. These Benches are very supportive of the proposal to create a single body to tackle discrimination and disadvantage for all and, in particular, the decision to include human rights in the remit of the new body. In fact this has been Liberal Democrat policy for many years. My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood will say more about this later in the debate.

This is an opportunity to place age equality on an equal footing with other equality issues and to deliver a fairer deal to children and young people. Given the weak powers of the new Children's Commissioner on the matter of children's rights, it is crucial that standing up for the rights of children is central to the work of the new commission. It is important for the new commission to monitor and advise on children's rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There are two measures which I should like to have seen included in the gracious Speech. One is the scrapping of student top-up fees and tuition fees. The Government broke their promise on top-up fees. The Liberal Democrats would have removed unfair tuition fees for university education in England, building on our achievements in Scotland which have already had a significant effect. This should ensure that no one is deterred from the chance of a university education because of fear of debt.

I should also like to have seen included a measure to ensure that, at least while they are at school, children have a healthy, balanced diet. It is unfortunate that most of the products that come out of vending machines in schools are high in sugar, high in fat and low in nutrition. I should very much like to see action to change that.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham made an excellent maiden speech. Like him, I am encouraged by the Government's support for the voluntary sector. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many children's organisations within the voluntary sector which do so much good work.

We have before us a legislative programme which will have a great effect on the lives of children in this country. I shall work energetically and constructively with the Government and spokesmen from all other Benches to improve the Bills before us in the interests of those children.