Astrology, alternative medicine, quackery and psychotherapy – Librans confer at House of Lords Question Time

The third question this morning in the House of Lords Question Time managed to cover astrology, alternative medicine, the views of Prince Charles, mumbo jumbo and quackery, provoked an intervention from the Astronomer Royal and from myself on psychotherapists and so-called “Schools” of psychotherapy and other therapies.

The question and the subsequent supplementaries demonstrated concerns from all parts of the House that alternative therapists need to be regulated in order to protect the public from unscrupulous practitioners and highlighted the importance of better understanding of real (as opposed to pseudo) science by the public and young people in particular.

The full exchanges were as follows:

“Alternative Medicine: Astrologers


11.21 am

Asked By Lord Taverne

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, following their proposals to regulate practitioners of alternative medicine, they plan to regulate astrologers.

Baroness Thornton: No, my Lords, the Government have no plans to regulate astrologers.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the charity Sense About Science. The forms of alternative medicine which the Government propose to regulate have as much scientific basis as astrology. As official regulation is likely to give such practices a spurious scientific reliability and respectability, is it not unfair to leave out astrologers? More seriously, will the Government note that august bodies of proper scientists—the Medical Research Council, the Royal College of Pathologists, the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and other eminent professional bodies—strongly oppose the proposed regulation? Will the Government ignore the assiduous lobbying for pseudoscience from Clarence House?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am aware that the noble Lord is making a wider and serious point about alternative therapies. At present there is no statutory regulatory system in the United Kingdom to govern the practice of complementary and alternative medicine, with the exception of chiropractitioners and osteopaths who are regulated by statute. We are undertaking a consultation exercise to determine whether and, if so, how to regulate the practitioners of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. The Science and Technology Committee of this House suggested that we should address that issue. No other complementary therapies, including medical astrology, are within the scope of this consultation and we have no proposals to regulate in any of these other groups.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. I remind the House and the noble Lord who asked the Question that the purpose of regulation is to protect the public, and that is what we try to do. However, in order to help me do my job better, can my noble friend give me a definition of medical astrology?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, medical astrology is traditionally known as iatromathematics and is an ancient medical system associated with various parts of the body, diseases and drugs and the influence of the sun, moon, planets and the 12 astrological signs. For example—I did the research on this issue myself—the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and I share the same birth sign, Libra, which apparently rules excretory functions through the kidneys and skin. I could go on about lumbar regions but noble Lords will get the picture. I am happy to say that the underlying basis for medical astrology is considered to be a pseudoscience and superstition as there is no scientific basis for its core beliefs. The Government remain neutral on this issue.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister share my view that this is an uncharacteristically flippant Question from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne? Does she accept that statutory regulation is not a badge of rank but exists, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has just said, to safeguard the public? The key regulatory bodies—the Health Professions Council and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—have both concluded that acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioners should be subject to statutory regulation.

Baroness Thornton: The noble Earl is quite correct and I concur with him that this is a very serious matter. Although we do not specifically promote or endorse the use of complementary or alternative medicine, we have to appreciate that a high proportion of the population actually uses these medicines, and our concern, as my noble friend said, is to protect patients. Responsible complementary practitioners adhere to codes of ethics, know the limits of their competence and make appropriate referral of patients to orthodox practitioners where there is potential risk to their health and well-being. However, the noble Earl is completely correct—we have to look to how best to safeguard patients in respect of those complementary medicines such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicines that have the potential to cause harm. Therefore we need to take serious action to make sure they are regulated in the correct fashion.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I confess to being an Aquarian, and share my birth date with Copernicus and my Auntie Ivy, although I have to say that my Auntie Ivy had much more influence on me than my birth sign. However, on a more serious note, does the Minister agree that the popularity of mumbo-jumbo such as astrology and many forms of alternative medicine is due to the fact that people have very little scientific education at school? Will she say what this Government, in their 10 years in power, have done to further education in science and mathematics?

Baroness Thornton: We have done a great deal for further education in science and mathematics, although that is not exactly what this Question was about. I agree with the noble Baroness that of course people often turn to things like medical astrology because they do not understand the basis of whatever ailment it is they are looking at, and that can be a risky thing to do. However, I simply do not accept this Government have not put a significant amount of investment into mathematics and science in our schools.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords—

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have not heard from the Cross Benches yet.

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords, I declare an interest as Astronomer Royal, and therefore as someone who could enhance his income hugely by becoming an astrologer and offering horoscopes. Does the Minister agree that, even though were we in India it might be appropriate to regulate astrology because government ministers there, one is told, are heavily guided by it, in this country to do so might imply that the problem has rather more seriousness that it really deserves?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Lord is completely correct.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should indeed have no truck with pseudoscience? As it happens, I have some sympathy with the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, raised about the teaching of science and mathematics. None the less, there are, as Hamlet observed,

“more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy”,

and some very respectable branches of medicine were once alternative in their day. Therefore, it is important that we keep an eye on the things in which people invest confidence, and make sure, as my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley observed, that they do not cause harm.

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend is right. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies have proven to be effective, cost-effective and safe. Decisions about which treatments to commission and fund, for example, are the responsibility of the NHS locally, and indeed primary care trusts often have their own policies about funding complementary medicine such as osteopathy or chiropractic. Indeed, we are funding research into complementary therapies, for example in the care of cancer patients.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I speak to the Minister as a fellow Libran. Is she satisfied with the quality of regulation of therapies such as psychotherapy? Is it still the case that anyone can set themselves up as a college of psychotherapy or any other therapy, and offer diplomas and apparent validation to practitioners whose skills may be negligible?

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend raises an important point, which the House has discussed in the past year. I had a huge postbag about that; I was inundated by suggestions from psychotherapists of all different kinds on this issue. My noble friend is quite right that there is an issue, and the department is looking at it.”

Young, British and Muslim – “Hearts and Minds” are complex

I have attended many meetings and events in Portcullis House, the office block for MPs built at a cost of £2 million per office over Westminster underground station, during the last ten years.  However, the one I went to yesterday undoubtedly stands out as the most emotionally powerful of all.

The occasion was a performance by the Khayaal Theatre Company of its production “Hearts and Minds“.  This was sponsored by Phyllis Starkey MP, who is Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Communities and Local Government that is currently conducting an inquiry into the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme.

The play addresses the issues facing young British Muslims, in terms of identity, citizenship, community cohesion and extremism.  It has been performed in numerous schools and colleges around the country and – no doubt because its content has been based on extensive discussion with young British Muslims and inspired by real events – has clearly struck a chord with its audiences.

Comedy alternates with raw emotion.  The interactions that young people of all cultures have with their parents, with their teachers and with each other are explored.  The conflicting feelings that the young protagonists have as they wrestle with the dilemmas that they face growing up in Britain today are laid bare in all their complexity.

If anyone believes that there are simple answers to how “hearts and minds” can be won over to reject violent extremism, what is needed to embrace a tolerant approach to difference or indeed what comprises “Britishness” and nationality, they should watch this play.

I am pleased that so many school-age young people have been given the opportunity to see this production.  The debates that it generates amongst them can only be helpful to sustaining a cohesive society in which difference is not only tolerated but valued.

My only regret was how few Parliamentarians were in the audience (and yes I know there was a lot going on with the PBR and all that) – apart from Phyllis Starkey and myself, I only spotted one other member of either House (a fellow Labour Peer).

Internet “Green Cross Code” for primary school children

I am delighted to hear that the Government is going to make internet safety and security part of the core curriculum for primary schools.

This is being described as the internet equivalent of the Green Cross Code on road safety.   This neatly continues the use of the road safety metaphor adopted by the House of Lords inquiry into personal internet security which I took part in and which reported in 2007.  The idea of better IT citizenship training was also a concept developed there.

Concerns about the vulnerability of children on social networking sites was in addition a topic that I pursued in the debate I sponsored in the House of Lords earlier this year.

Given the early age at which children are now IT-literate and regular users of the internet, this proposal is long overdue.  Predictably, some teachers are already complaining that there is too much in the curriculum already, but unless school education is relevant to modern needs it is all the more likely that young people will be alienated from the classroom.  And in any event they face real dangers on the internet, unless they are warned, just as much as kids face real dangers on the roads.

As an American once said”If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ …” – the House of Lords debates modern language skills

Today is  a general debate day in the House of Lords and Baroness Coussins has put down a motion calling attention to the contribution of modern language skills to the United Kingdom economy.  Often such debates produce a high quality of speeches and many valuable ideas.  Today’s debate is no exception.  The mover’s speech was followed by a speech from the Liberal Democrat front-bench, given by Lord Watson of Richmond, who is also Chairman Emeritus of the English Speakers Union and who quoted the American Senator on the subject of the language of Jesus Christ.  Their two speeches are quoted below:

“Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this topic today and look forward to hearing from all noble Lords who will be speaking—and, of course, to the Minister’s response. It is most fitting that we shall be hearing from possibly the only bilingual government Minister, although I was relieved to discover when I checked the Companion that he will be obliged to use his English rather than his Welsh.

I am proud to be a modern languages graduate myself and I declare an interest as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. The group is supported by CILT, the National Centre for Languages. CILT and others have provided me with a great deal of information for which I am most grateful. I also pay tribute to the work done over many years by the late and much-missed Lord Dearing.

Professor Michael Worton’s review of modern language provision in English universities was published last month. He came to the stark conclusion that unless the decline in modern language learning is reversed, anglophone Britons will become one of the most monolingual peoples in the world, with severe consequences for our economy, for business competitiveness, for international reputation and mobility and for community cohesion at home.

English is one of the great world languages, and we benefit enormously from the desire and willingness to learn it on the part of so many other people—as do they—but its prevalence should not be overestimated. Only 6 per cent of the global population are native English speakers and 75 per cent speak no English at all. One telling indicator of the relative influence of English is its declining share of internet traffic. English material on the web has fallen from 51 per cent in 2000 to only 29 per cent in 2009. Over the same period, the amount of material in Chinese rose from only 5 per cent to 20 per cent.

There is much evidence that the operational language needs of employers are not being met and that this is damaging both to competitiveness and to the employability of our young people in particular. Research by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce showed that 80 per cent of English exporters were unable to conduct business in a foreign language and that 77 per cent of them reckoned they had missed or lost business because of it. By contrast, exporters who proactively use language skills, and the cultural knowledge that goes with them, achieve on average 45 per cent more sales. Research by Cardiff University’s business school suggests that the UK economy could be missing out on contracts worth up to £21 billion a year because of the lack of language skills in the workforce.

CBI surveys have highlighted the frustration of UK employers. Sixty per cent are dissatisfied with the foreign language skills of school leavers, and I should perhaps say at this point that there is plenty of evidence to show that learning a foreign language greatly reinforces literacy in English too. Over a third of UK businesses want people specifically for their language skills, but increasingly are forced to recruit overseas to meet their needs. Seventy-two per cent of UK international trade is with non-English-speaking countries, but only one in 10 of us can speak a foreign language and only 30 per cent of us say we can even understand a conversation in another language. Three times more French, German and Spanish students go on Erasmus-funded placements abroad as part of their degree than British students, giving themselves a competitive advantage in a global labour market. I hope the Minister will undertake to remind universities to inform all students, not just the linguists, how they may benefit from the Erasmus scheme.

The Foreign Office has reported complaints from some companies bringing inward investment to the UK that they have to source qualified engineers from their home markets because UK engineers do not have the relevant language skills, and a good grasp of the parent company’s home language is an important skill they expect from people in technical or management jobs.

French and German are top of the list of languages that employers want but, as new markets open up in the Far East, Central Asia and Latin America, significant numbers also want Mandarin or Cantonese, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Most employers do not require complete fluency. They want conversational ability, which will give a good impression, help to build relationships and make new contacts. Basic language competence is important for retailers, secretaries, receptionists, marketers, transport and healthcare workers and many others. Between now and 2012, when we host the Olympics, we need to be sure we can provide a multilingual service in all these areas, as well as finding 300 specialist translators and interpreters. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will encourage businesses to invest in language training for 2012 and beyond?

The supply of interpreters and translators brings me to another aspect of this debate that I want to raise. There is a chronic shortage of English mother-tongue interpreters and translators at the United Nations and at the European Commission and Parliament. In Brussels, meetings are having to be cancelled because no English interpretation is available. Since the last round of enlargement, demand for native English speakers has increased substantially, but 20 per cent of the Commission’s English translators will retire in the next five years and recruitment is slow. In 2007, 70 more were needed but it got only 24. The picture is no better for interpreters, of whom a further 200 to 300 will be needed over the next decade. This crisis must be addressed to prevent further negative impact on the EU’s work and before the reputation of the UK in supporting international institutions is undermined.

However, a crisis always brings an opportunity, part of which is the language industry. This August, the first ever study of the size of the language industry in the EU was published. It covers not only interpreting and translating but language teaching, language tools, subtitling and dubbing, web localisation and so on. Many other sectors, as we know, are struggling, but the language industry is in robust health, with an estimated value of €8.4 billion in 2008, which is on target to double to €16.5 billion in 2015. The report makes recommendations to help businesses to seize the opportunities to benefit from multilingual competence. SMEs, for example, are advised against assuming that localising a website into the language of a target country is sufficient to generate sales, and member states are urged to introduce compatible statistical measures to help foreign language planning.

I understand that there will, for the first time, be a question on language in the 2011 Census. Will the Minister say what that question will be and how it is expected that the information will be put to good use? Will he also confirm that his department is familiar with this study and will do its utmost to ensure that British businesses and UK citizens are encouraged and enabled to benefit from their fair share of the opportunities and prosperity offered by the language industry?

There is also the important domestic issue of interpreting. Many people are being prevented from working at a level that is commensurate with their skills, and many others are being deprived of the basic human right of knowing what is happening to them when they are at their most vulnerable: in hospital, in court or in a police station. This is because the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting—the DPSI—is in jeopardy. There are about 1,000 candidates a year, and demand has never been higher. Around 50 different languages, combined with English, were on offer in 2009, ranging from the traditional languages of western Europe to the languages of the enlarged EU, such as Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish; the languages of the Indian sub-continent; and those of countries that are or have been in conflict, such as Kurdish, Serbian, Pashto and Somali.

However, the courses that teach the diploma are threatened by a lack of funding. The course has been taught in the FE sector with funding allocated by the Learning and Skills Council, but the current priorities of the LSC are for education and training at basic and lower levels. The DPSI is rated as level 6, which is equivalent to an honours degree, and so is losing out. The consequences of this will be insufficient affordable courses and fewer fully qualified public service interpreters against what is already acknowledged as a national shortage. Will the Minister undertake to look again at this and see what can be done about adjusting the funding criteria of the LSC to prevent something from happening that is so much at odds with the Government’s policies on community cohesion and social mobility?

If languages are part of the solution to economic recession, at least a little green shoot is visible in primary schools. Ninety-two per cent now offer some language teaching, and it will be compulsory from 2011, but we really cannot just wait for today’s seven year-olds to come through the system. The Government and the universities must respond positively and quickly to the recommendations of the Worton review. A third of modern language departments have closed in the past seven years, and according to Professor Worton there is a strong sense in the universities that the importance and value of languages are not properly understood either by government or by potential students.

Professor Worton calls on the Government to up the ante on expectations for secondary schools. I hope that the Minister will agree to take this up with his DCSF colleagues, in particular the need to upgrade to a mandatory target the current very vague hope that 50 to 90 per cent of students should take a language until they are 16. We know that this is completely ignored by the vast majority of state schools, which do their pupils a great disservice by excluding them from one of the skills that would maximise their employability.

The principal recommendation for the Government in the Worton review, however, is to upgrade their own messages about the importance of languages and to work with others across all sectors to communicate them. I warmly welcome the announcement that the Minister of State, David Lammy MP, will chair the new forum, in which government, HEFCE, the universities, CILT, schools and employers will all work together on this, but could the Government please be more consistent and remember languages all the time? It is quite astonishing and extremely disappointing that the new national strategy, Skills for Growth, published only two weeks ago, does not contain one single mention of language skills. I hope that I have given enough examples today to convince the Minister that a strategy that says its objectives are economic growth and individual prosperity is seriously incomplete without language skills being integrated into it, and I ask the noble Lord whether he will take urgent action to amend it.

Languages are often forgotten when the so-called strategically important and vulnerable subjects are discussed. Science, technology, engineering and maths always get top billing and I do not seek for one moment to detract from their importance, only to achieve a higher profile alongside them for languages, which have been equally designated within the SIV definition.

Another important message that teenagers, teachers, parents and careers advisers need to hear is the finding of a survey of earnings three and a half years after graduation, which showed that modern linguists earn more than graduates from any other discipline except medics, architects and pharmacologists.

The last message from the Worton review that I want to flag up, and which I would be reassured to know the Minister was prepared to discuss with the universities, is the way in which admissions policies can influence the take-up of languages. I very much regret that my own university, Cambridge, recently abandoned the requirement for all students to have a language qualification as a condition of entry. This was motivated by the desire to widen access, but how much better would it have been to adopt the model agreed by University College, London, which has introduced a language requirement, irrespective of degree subject, with the proviso that students who cannot comply, possibly because their school did not provide or encourage it, must agree instead to undertake a language course during their first year at university. This seems a much more constructive way of underpinning the importance of languages without risking elitism, and it should be applauded and copied.

I believe that every young person in the 21st century will need a measure of modern language competence, whether specialist and learned or basic and conversational, every bit as much as they will need IT skills, English and maths. You could call it a utilitarian asset but it is much more than that. It is also the key to intercultural understanding, to the fun of participation, to the pleasure of literary discovery and the gateway to a more civilised co-existence with other people. I beg to move.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her most excellent and comprehensive speech and, in particular, I second her question about why language skills were omitted from the Skills for Growth strategy.

I declare two interests which may be relevant to this debate. First, I am chairman emeritus of the International Council of the English Speaking Union, and I wish to say something about the role of the English language. Secondly, I am president of the British-German Association, and I wish to refer to German language learning in British state sector schools.

The only area where I may have a slight nuance of difference with the noble Baroness concerns what is happening to the growth of English at present. It is worth reminding ourselves in this debate of the unique position of English as a global language, because it has great relevance to the British economy. The truth is that the four languages in the world spoken by the greatest number of people are, as one might expect, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and English, but of course English is there for a different reason from the others. It is there because of the number of people who are not native English speakers using the language. The number is extraordinary and continues to grow because English has a huge momentum of expansion. To give an example, over 200 million people in China are learning English. Indeed, it is not really possible for anyone to enter a university in China without a foreign language qualification, and over 98 per cent choose English as the language they should learn. That is an enormous driver of English and therefore extremely important.

The international expansion of English began 400 years ago with the first permanent settlement in Jamestown. At the time roughly 3 million people were using the English language globally, mainly in the British Isles and the West Indies, and we are now reaching a figure of something like 2 billion English language users worldwide, with the figure still increasing. It is worth remembering that.

Should we do anything other than rejoice at this phenomenon? Rejoice we should, because if English was not in this position, economically we would be far weaker than we actually are. However, there is a reason for having some reservations and doubts about this. A problem is that the dominance of the English language encourages us to commit an own goal because it encourages us not to bother with other languages. The following story is no doubt apocryphal, but I enjoy it. In the 1950s, a US senator testifying on the Hill about the inadequacy of foreign language learning in American schools was becoming increasingly irritated by his cross-examination. In the end he banged the desk and said, “Gentlemen, if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us”. We must not fall for that sort of folly.

The failure to get to grips with foreign languages has many consequences, and in introducing the debate the noble Baroness focused quite rightly under its terms on some of the economic consequences, but it is also worth referring, as indeed she did briefly, to the cultural impact. I think it was Goethe who said that you cannot possibly understand your own language unless you can speak someone else’s. That remains a profound truth, and the enrichment at the cultural, intellectual and even spiritual levels of being fluent in another or several languages other than English is very great. But, as the noble Baroness pointed out, there is increasing measurement of the economic cost of the relative inadequacy of foreign language learning in Britain. While I cannot add any data, I want to cite one or two examples.

It is particularly dangerous, when travelling in countries within continental Europe where English is highly prevalent—for example, Germany—to assume that because people are speaking to you in English, that that is their preference and that they are saying the same things as they would be saying to you if they could speak in German. I had a good example of that some years ago with the Siemens company when attending a major company seminar in Berlin. The whole seminar was conducted in English. But when I came out during the coffee breaks, everything was happening in German, and I was able to listen to what the Germans were actually saying about the session from which they had just come—which had been held formally in English, even down to the PowerPoint illustrations. Their take on the session was quite different, and that was because of the difference in the language.

I have mentioned that the British-German Association is involved with German language learning in schools. We have a scheme called Youthbridge which is now active in over 50 schools in England. I should like the Minister to note, because it might be of some practical help, that we have found that by far the most important single initiative in increasing the enjoyment of another language in those schools—in this case German—has been the purchase we carried out of Astra satellite dishes so that the children can get German television. That has shown those children that there is a huge society not many miles away from them which, while indeed a different language is spoken, shares with them a great wealth of experience, variety and lifestyle. That has made the language real in a way that teachers told us would be difficult otherwise to put across.

It is also interesting that Youthbridge receives no government funding; it is funded entirely by British and German companies, who clearly understand its importance. It is against that background that the decision in 2004, which we debated in this House—I remember expressing dismay at the time—to suspend compulsory foreign language learning after the age of 14 for GCSE was quite clearly a mistake. What has happened since bears that out. The number studying French in British state schools has fallen by more than 30 per cent since 2004. We are now in the ludicrous situation that of the number of children learning foreign languages, only one in 11 is learning German, for example, and one in nine is learning French. That is not good enough. Given the huge economic importance to us of both the German and French markets, that is an own goal that we cannot tolerate.

On the role of English in the European Union, a recent survey showed that 86 per cent of all officials who work for all the institutions in the European Union have English as their preferred second language. It is interesting to me, as an enthusiast of the European Union, that underlying Euroscepticism is a strange combination of insularity and insecurity—and one of the reasons for the insecurity is a feeling that they are not talking our language. However, the truth is that they are talking our language overwhelmingly, certainly within the new member states. So, in the economic and political context, English has a strong position. Of course, the relationship changes if you also are offering the other person’s language.

We should rejoice in the unique position of English but seek the competitive advantage of, in addition, having other languages. If we cannot achieve both, we seriously underplay our own strengths and limit our opportunities. In replying to the debate, I hope the Minister will make clear to the House what the plans are for foreign language learning for over-14s and whether the 2004 decision can be decisively reversed.”

I have to admit that I am not a natural linguist – something that I regret.  I passed an O-level in French, but that did not give me much of a capacity to converse easily or freely in the language.  However, it is clear that in so many contexts the UK’s position would be enhanced if more UK nationals were fluent in other languages.

Fifteen years ago, when my oldest son was at a North London comprehensive, the school concerned offered a GCSE course in geography.  Nothing exceptional in that, except that the exam was conducted in Spanish, so that candidates had to demonstrate both a GCSE knowledge of geography but also of Spanish.  It was an excellent way of encouraging the learning of modern languages (I am not sure that it encouraged geography, as the school did not offer a GCSE course in geography in the English language as an alternative).  At that time, most schools required at least one modern language to be taken to GCSE level and many universities required it.  Listening to the debate, I was convinced that we should go back to those days.

In his reply, Lord Mervyn Davies, on behalf of the Government, stressed the progress that has been made with 92% of primary schools now offering some modern language teaching and the Government’s plans to strengthen the modern language component of the curriculum in secondary schools.  His full reply was as follows:

The Minister for Trade and Investment (Lord Davies of Abersoch): My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. I did not speak English until I was about seven years of age, so it is very much my second language. I also declare that I am chair of the council of the University of Wales at Bangor.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for providing an excellent opening to the debate and I thank all noble Lords for the huge range of opinions that they have expressed on this issue.

Before I joined the Government, I worked in a very diverse corporation. It had 75,000 people but only 1,300 were British and I saw the value of understanding other people’s cultures, faiths and attitudes. Working in Kuala Lumpur, I was struck, in particular, by the fact that the average number of languages spoken by members of staff was five. That is where the competition is, and the competition is intense.

The UK currently has a huge diversity of languages and cultures. It attracts 340,000 international students from more than 200 countries. Contrary to opinion, the World Bank ranks the UK first in Europe and in the top five globally for ease of doing business. We have been the fourth largest recipient of foreign direct investment flows, and the stock of inward foreign direct investment as a proportion of GDP is the highest of any G7 nation. Therefore, we have a huge range of international companies investing in the UK and they bring with them an enormous number of people and staff, who generally speak more than one language.

English on its own is not enough for us to stay competitive. It may well be the global language or one of the global languages but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, 75 per cent of the world’s population does not speak English and it is the first language of only 6 per cent. English comes a close third to Spanish, which has 330 million speakers, and long behind Mandarin, which has approaching 1 billion speakers. However, the world is changing. As has been said, English used to account for more than half of internet traffic; now it accounts for only 29 per cent.

The world is interconnected: barriers to trade are coming down and the movement of people is facilitated by cheap air travel. The UK is very much part of a global economy and we therefore need to raise our game to compete successfully. We are going to have to adapt to the skills that are required to compete internationally, but we are also going to have to adapt to the changing trade corridors around the world, which means new language skills. Perhaps I may pause here and say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Harrison that we should not scorn the Welsh.

This morning I was speaking at ACAS. There were about 75 heads of human resources present from government and corporates, virtually all of whom—74 out of the 75—said that modern language skills are hugely important if we are to stay competitive.

Languages increase cultural awareness. As has been said, with the emergence of the economies in Latin America and Asia, the ability of British people to speak Mandarin and Spanish will become increasingly important. My noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds highlighted how important that will become. However, it is also important to reflect on what the CBI has said—that 74 per cent of employers are looking for conversational and related intercultural competences rather than language fluency. We should never forget that 50 per cent of our exports in the UK are to Europe, so European languages are important, too. Our key role in Brussels has also been mentioned.

Although French and German still top the list, a significant proportion of companies require speakers in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Russian. Therefore, the Government are revitalising the key stage 3 curriculum and are no longer restricting schools to teaching the working languages of the EU first, providing secondary schools with greater flexibility to teach world languages. By March 2010, materials for key stage 3 students will be available in French, German, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Already one in seven secondary schools teaches Mandarin, and Spanish is the second most taught language after French.

I was struck by a recent report from researchers at University College London, who studied the brains of bilingual people. They found that learning other languages develops the area of the brain that processes information—the grey matter. So, much as exercise builds and tones muscles, the good news is that languages build brain power. However, the bad news is that you need to start young. The same research found that older learners will not be as fluent as those who learn earlier in life.

That finding very much supports the Government’s approach of getting children enthused about language at an early age. There is no neglect on this issue in government. It is absolutely critical that we push for early learning, as it is very important to learn languages early in life. We are making languages a statutory part of the national curriculum in primary schools from September 2011. Over 92 per cent of primary schools already teach languages, which is up from 44 per cent in 2003. We have trained more than 4,500 primary teachers with a languages specialism and we are giving £32.5 million in funding to local authorities to support the delivery of primary languages.

It was mentioned that languages are important for international business. However, they are also important for the Diplomatic Service. Since I have been in government, I have visited 29 countries and I am off to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. I am struck by how important a role our multilingual diplomatic staff play in supporting not just the Foreign Office but business generally. It is absolutely critical that they keep that competitive edge. The FCO invests heavily in language training for staff going overseas, particularly for the more difficult languages. There is also a standing conference for civil servants in particular departments—for example, the Ministry of Defence—and continuous attention is given to this in government. It is important that that stays.

Why do more women than men learn languages? It is true that we need to get more people learning languages, but we have to get a wider group of people learning them. We need to change society’s attitude towards learning languages. Languages are more popular with girls and women. In higher education, roughly two-thirds of language students are women. We need to tackle this by making languages more appealing to boys. Similarly, languages are seen as slightly elitist and are associated with independent schools, Russell Group institutions and higher socio-economic groups, which are disproportionately represented when it comes to language learning. We want children and young people from all backgrounds to be learning languages, so language learning needs to become more diverse. The Government are acting to make that so. We are seeking to address the gender imbalance through making course content more flexible in order to engage boys more effectively, developing communications materials aimed at boys and creating new online resources for them.

Although an impressive 92 per cent of primary schools already offer languages, from September 2011 all schools will be obliged to provide language learning as part of the national curriculum. Languages are already compulsory for children aged 11 to 14 and there we are revitalising the curriculum to make it more engaging.

As the Minister for Trade, I have to say that Britain has many strengths. Britain is a country that is highly creative and innovative, strong in science and research, inquiring and adventurous, yet when it comes to foreign languages we seem to have a bit of a mental block. Why do we not have the same success? It cannot be for any innate lack of capability.

The Government recognise the value of languages and are doing a huge amount to support language learning. We have a national languages strategy, which is about increasing the number of people learning languages from primary through to postgraduate level, and from 2011 we are introducing a languages and international communications diploma. We are also developing a communications campaign aimed at young people to point out what a difference language can make to their future and their lives. We have classified languages as strategically important in terms of higher education and we are investing in them through the Routes into Languages programme.

Since I became involved in this, I have been genuinely disappointed at the take-up of ERASMUS. When you look at the number of students going out internationally, you see that we have around 5.6 per cent of the market share, while around a 10 per cent share of the students are coming into the UK—we have around 10,000 students going out internationally and 20,000 coming in. We need to fix that. It is something that I need to do with the vice-chancellors. We also need to look into the issue of European interpreters. I will take that away.

The demand for degrees in some languages is growing, even if overall numbers are down. Language degrees in England fell from 3.2 per cent in 2003 to 2.7 per cent in 2008, but the numbers enrolled on joint language degree courses were up 5 per cent. What is also interesting is that the numbers for world languages have risen. Spanish degrees have risen by 13 per cent, Chinese by 36 per cent and Japanese by 43 per cent. Many students are opting to learn languages alongside their other specialisations. Some 30,000 students are taking a language module as part of their degree and more than 25,000 are doing language courses in their spare time.

We need to inspire young people to study languages in higher education. The £8 million Routes into Languages programme, funded by the DCSF and HEFCE, has created a consortium of schools, colleges and universities to work together in order to stimulate demand for language learning in secondary and higher education. Some 67 universities and more than 1,200 schools are involved, with over 27,000 school pupils taking part in activities. UCL’s policy was also mentioned. It is obviously for each university to decide on its admission policy, but what I would say is that UCL is showing strong support for language learning and I commend it for that.

Both today and on other occasions there has been criticism that languages are not compulsory at key stage 4. We do not believe that compulsion is the right approach. As Lord Dearing noted in his 2007 review of languages, a one-size-fits-all approach is not right for all pupils, and forcing 14 to 16 year-olds to study languages will not in itself raise standards or motivate pupils. We are considering a range of options for boosting take-up at key stage 4, including making the benchmark mandatory. It is interesting that Lord Dearing thought that the priority was to make language learning more exciting. I think that the decision in 2004 was made really to increase flexibility in the curriculum for vocational opportunities. We are already taking action to incentivise learning at key stage 4, such as the revised key stage 3 curriculum, the online Open School for Languages and, as I said, our communications campaign.

I was struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, on Youthbridge, which I will take away, and I agree to meet with the organisation. But it is not all down to the Government. The corporate sector needs to step up to provide more language learning for its employees. It makes good business sense and will make firms more competitive. My noble friend Lord Harrison mentioned that some companies admit that they are losing out. A Europe-wide study of 195 SMEs found that 115 of them had lost a contract through lack of language skills, with an average loss of business over a three-year period of £325,000. We need to join the chambers of commerce, the CBI and trade associations, together with some of the major corporations, to put in place a significant push and drive on this. As the Minister, I will take that forward and look at the scale of the language sector and its importance to British industry, and we will work with UKTI on the issue. Coupled with that, mention has been made in the debate of scholarships, and I will also take that away as an issue.

Language increases cultural awareness. One of the great benefits of language learning is the insight that it gives to other cultures, which can be vital when doing business overseas. Employers want people who can multitask and who are multiskilled. They want people who are numerate and literate, have IT skills, can work well in a team and are results-focused. Also, research shows that learning a foreign language early aids literacy and the learning of English. Employers want people who have foreign language skills and an international mindset. The great thing about studying languages is that it helps to build many of these skills.

In the Government, we realise the huge importance of the subject. We need partnership with universities, with business and with a variety of associations and we need to give a prod to the corporate sector. But the key is to get youngsters excited about language and to start them on the journey early. We have a series of actions in place, one of which is a response to the Worton report. David Lammy has said that he is willing to chair a new forum consisting of universities, schools and employers to develop a clearer communications strategy on languages.

Finally, on Skills for Growth, the whole document is built to be demand-led. Only yesterday I chaired a meeting with 16 of the major corporations in the UK at which we were discussing what skills they require to be competitive. It was very clear that language learning is something that they need and therefore we need to respond to. I thank all noble Lords.”

That Was The Parliamentary Session That Was

Parliament has been prorogued. The 2008/9 Parliamentary Session ended on 12th November 2009 and the new Session begins with the Queen’s Speech on 18th November 2009.  I suspect the 2008/9 Session will be remembered for the expenses and other scandals that engulfed both House rather than for the legislation enacted during it.  However, some major Bills were passed and became Acts of Parliament.  These included the:

  • Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act:  this provides a statutory framework for and a right for 16-18 year-olds to apprenticeships; gives employees a right to request time-off for training; gives local government responsibility for funding education and training for 16-18 year olds; changes school inspection arrangements; creates a new parental complaints service; and strengthens accountability.
  • Banking Act:  this provides a permanent system for dealing with failing banks; and gives the Bank of England a new “financial stability” objective.
  • Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act:  this changes the rules on naturalisation; gives new functions (and new duty to safeguard children) to the UK Border Agency; and introduces powers to control all those arriving in the UK from the rest of the Common Travel Area.
  • Business Rate Supplements Act:  this gives upper tier local authorities (in London, the Greater London Authority) the power, following consultation, to levy an additional business rate for economic development purposes (including Crossrail in London).
  • Coroners and Justice Act:  this reforms and updates the law on coroners; extends the laws on child pornography to cover non-photographic images; increases the flexibility on hearing evidence from vulnerable witnesses etc.
  • Health Act:  this gives statutory force to the new NHS Constitution and sets out the responsibilities of patients and staff; introduces direct payments for health services to give patients greater control over the services they receive; makes provision for more information on service quality to be made available to patients and others; and introduces new measures to protect young people from the harm caused by smoking.
  • Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act: this makes provisions to encourage the greater involvement of people in local authority decision-making; creates an obligation on councils to respond to petitions; establishes a new body to represent the interests of tenants; and places a new duty on local authorities to assess economic conditions in their area and to work with Regional Development Agencies to produce a single regional strategy.
  • Marine and Coastal Access Act:  this reforms the law on marine regulation, fisheries management and marine conservation; and enables the creation of a walkable route around the English coast.
  • Parliamentary Standards Act: this created the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
  • Policing and Crime Act: this strengthens police accountability; creates an offence of paying for sex with trafficked or coerced women; tightens regulation of lap-dancing clubs; and amends police powers for dealing with young people drinking in public.
  • Political Parties and Elections Act: this strengthens the powers of the Electoral Commission; alters the definition of election expenses; and requires greater clarity on the source of political donations.
  • Welfare Reform Act: this abolishes Income Support and moves all claimants on to either Jobseekers’ Allowance or, if sick, on to Employment and Support Allowance; introduces a new regime of sanctions for non-attendance at JobCentres; and provides additional powers for the enforcement of child maintenance arrears.

In addition, the House of Lords spent seven full days debating the Postal Services Bill, which would have enabled a minority stake in the Royal Mail Group to be sold whilst ensuring that the Group remained in public ownership, would have transferred the Royal Mail’s historic pension deficit to the Government and would have created a regulatory regime for the postal services sector under OFCOM.  In the event, the Bill, having passed all its stages in the Lords, was introduced in the House of Commons and then abandoned.  The Bill has now fallen with the end of the Parliamentary Session. Three major Bills that have had their Second Reading debates and some Committee discussion in the House of Commons have been the subject of Carry Over motions, which means that they have not fallen with the end of the Parliamentary Session and their progress through Parliament can be resumed in the new Session.  These are the:

  • Child Poverty Bill:  this would give statutory force to the Government’s 1999 commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, placing a duty on Ministers to meet income poverty targets and requiring the regular production of a child poverty strategy.
  • Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill:  this would end “by-elections” to replace the remaining hereditary peers that sit in the Lords when they die; would make it possible for members of the Lords to resign or to be suspended/expelled; introduce a new Parliamentary process for the ratification of Treaties; establish a statutory basis for the running of the civil service; end the Prime Minister’s role in appointing senior judges; introduce new rules on protests around Parliament and a variety of other constitutional adjustments.
  • Equality Bill:  this would harmonise and extend anti-discrimination legislation; would place a unified duty on public bodies; extend discrimination protection to the membership of private clubs; require employers to review and publish gender pay differences within their organisations; extends age discrimination legislation outside the workplace; and much else besides.

The number of defeats suffered by the Government this session is the lowest in any full session since the Labour Government was elected in 1997.  This session the Government was defeated on 24 occasions (out of 89 votes in total).  Last session there were 29 defeats.   By contrast there were 45 Government defeats in the 2006/7 session and 62 in the 2005/6 session.  To put these numbers in context: the last Conservative Government under John Major suffered only 62 defeats in the entire 1992-97 Parliament.

Labour now has 212 members in the Lords and is the largest Party, but this only amounts to 30% of the total membership of 705.  There are 190 Conservative peers (27%), 183 cross-benchers (26%), and 71 LibDems (10%) – the remainder comprise 26 Church of England bishops/archbishops and 23 non-affiliated or other. The reality of these numbers is that the Government does not have an automatic majority to carry through its legislation.  At any one time, the opposition parties can combine to defeat the Government, particularly as a significant proportion of the cross-benchers will usually vote with the opposition, depending on the issue.

After exposing “his most personal details” police officer leaves the firearms squad

I see from the Evening Standard that a member of CO19, the Metropolitan Police’s specialist firearms command, has had to stand down/withdraw*/quit the command after his profile on an adult dating site came to light.

Apparently, on the site he appears as “funboybobby”, had posted pictures with his weapon displayed and as the Standard puts it:

“In some photographs the CO19 officer appeared aroused while in another he showed off a tattoo above his bare bottom.”

A Met spokesperson said:

“We expect firearms officers to display the highest standards of skill, professionalism and judgement on a daily basis.”

I would, of course, hope that all officers display the highest standards of skill, professionalism and judgement.  The spokesperson then continued:

“This case highlights serious concern about the officer’s judgement.”

Indeed!  I would hope that everyone understands the dangers of putting too much personal information on social networking sites – see my earlier comment following the debate I initiated in the House of Lords.

Or as the Standard reports:

“One source close to CO19 said officers could not lay themselves open to blackmail: “Armed officers keep surveillance on terrorists and serious criminal suspects. It is not appropriate that their most personal details should be open for anyone to view.””

Although, I am not quite clear which personal detail the source had in mind in this case ….

Also, the question arises how did Metropolitan Police management find out about “funboybobby”?  Were they trawling the adult dating site in question?

*searching for a term without triggering a double entendre

One hundred primary school children “Make IT happy” and take over a House of Commons Dining Room

Earlier this week, as Chair of the Panel of Judges, I took part in the awards ceremony for Make IT Happy, the annual UK wide competition celebrating the positive and creative ways that the UK’s Primary schools are using technology.

About one hundred primary school children – representing the schools that were the Regional Winners – packed the Members’ Dining Room of the House of Commons (usually accompanied by their MPs) to receive their prizes from (in a nice bit of bi-cameralism) from the Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman.  The children’s excitement was palpable, as I read out the names of the National Winners – you can see how excited here.

The reality was that any of the Regional Winners could have won a national prize – they were all so good.  So congratulations to all the Schools and all the children involved.

Here are a few quotes from the children:

–          “This has been the best day of my life so far, the London Eye was scary, I got loads of photos for my mam to see”

–          “I had a great day out in London and I went to where the Prime Minister works and met students from other parts of the country.  I saw where the Queen lives from the London Eye”

–          “I had a fun day and was proud to win the money for my Primary School to buy new stuff”

Visit to the 2012 Olympics site – will early handover bring budget problems?

I joined a visit by the House of Lords All-Party London Group to the 2012 Olympic Park site this morning.  The transformation of the site since I last went is impressive.  The shape and structure of the Olympic Stadium, the Acquatic Centre and the Velodrome are all clear, as is the outline of the Olympic Village and other facilities such as the International Media Centre.

It is easy to see why the International Olympic Committee are so pleased with the progress that London is making towards July 2012.  I remember visiting Athens four months before they hosted the 2004 Olympics.  With just sixteen weeks to go the Athens site felt just as much of a building site as Stratford does with thirty-three months to go.

Some of my colleagues slightly overwhelmed our guides with their detailed questions (“Where do the sewers go?”; “What limits are there on architects using their involvement in Olympic projects for their own marketing?” etc).  Nevertheless, all were impressed with the progress being made, the sheer scale of the project, and the efforts being made to make the project environmentally and economically sustainable (a large number of jobs and apprenticeships have gone to local people, transport is being improved so that virtually all visitors to the Games will go by public transport etc).

(Incidentally, the Olympic Delivery Authority organises free bus tours for anyone who wants to go – not just interested members of the House of Lords. To book a place phone 0300 2012 001.)

Progress has been so good that I understand that the Olympic Development Authority now intends to hand the Olympic Park over to LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) earlier than expected.  This may well be unprecedented.  It was certainly not budgeted for.  As a result, LOCOG will have to find tens of millions of pounds extra to cover the security and management costs for the Park for the extra months.

Any sensible counter-terrorism strategy must involve a “PREVENT” component

The Guardian today carries an excitable article from Vikram Dodd headlined “Government anti-terrorism strategy ‘spies’ on innocent“.  The article breathlessly reveals that:

“The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism.”

Except, of course, that is the point: the purpose of the programme is to prevent people from being lured into violent extremism – so to intervene and support the people concerned, you first have to identify them.

The article goes on:

” … sources directly involved in running Prevent schemes say it involves gathering intelligence about the thoughts and beliefs of Muslims who are not involved in criminal activity.”

Exactly – the idea is to intervene before the individuals concerned become violent extremists and become involved in terrorist activity.

The purpose is to divert vulnerable individuals from being attracted to violent extremism and thereby to prevent terrorism – something that I expect most sane people would believe is a good idea.

I vividly remember when, in one of the hearings that I chaired as part of the major consultation exercise carried out on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Authority, “Counter-Terrorism: The London Debate“, a mother asked “What can we do, where can we go if we are worried about how one of our sons is becoming attracted to extremist beliefs?”.

The purpose of the Prevent programme is to be able to answer that question.  Where an individual is identified as being at risk of being lured down the path of violent extremism to offer that person help, advice and support to divert them from that path.  It may mean offering alternative activities or it may mean providing an Imam who can argue verse for verse about the meaning of the Koran.

Each individual will be different and the response that will be most likely to mean that they reject violent extremism will need to be tailor-made.  So to be effective, different agencies – schools and colleges, the police, local authorities, Mosques, voluntary organisations – have to work together, share information and co-operate to produce the appropriate response for that individual.

Preventing ill-health is always better (and for that matter more cost-effective) than curing and caring for patients when they become ill.  In the same way, preventing individuals from becoming terrorists must be better than catching them and imprisoning them once they are already terrorists.

To have a counter-terrorism strategy that simply relies on the effective pursuit of active terrorists by the police and the security service and on ever more draconian physical security measures is short-sighted and potentially – and potentially disastrously – ineffective.

No-one pretends that the Prevent strategy is easy, nor that all of it will work as it is intended to work.  However, not to have a Prevent strategy – or to be put off from pursuing a Pervent strategy by scare-mongering articles – would be a far worse mistake.

Michael Gove and I are both reactionary old f*rts when it comes to history teaching – and that doesn’t mean we’re wrong

My regular readers – both of you – will be aware that I have reactionary old f*rt tendencies when it comes to history teaching in schools, particularly when I meet children who believe that Nelson’s Column commemorates Nelson Mandela and that Waterloo is posh slang for toilet.

However, it turns out that I am not alone in my views: they are shared by (may even have been copied by) the Shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove.  Alerted by Paul Waugh’s blog – one of my must-reads each day – I have now read Gove’s full speech and in it (almost lost amongst a lot of tendentious nonsense) he says:

“There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements.

Which is why the next Conservative government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.”

On this at least he is right, although I would take issue with some of the omissions from Gove’s list of “essential items” in the core history curriculum that Paul Waugh got him to provide.  I don’t see that any account of Britain’s history can be complete without addressing the British Empire and its legacy, nor any study of the UK in the twentieth century without covering the social revolution brought about by the post-War Attlee Government.