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DTLR secretary Stephen Byers was under political siege last night after he was accused for the second time in 24 hours of having misled the commons. On Monday, he told MPs he had not threatened to strip the rail regulator, Tom Winsor, of his powers if he tried to bail out the beleaguered Railtrack with more taxpayers' money. Yesterday, however, Mr Winsor told the commons transport select committee that Mr Byers had warned him he would introduce legislation to remove the powers if Mr Winsor offered Railtrack further financial help. On Tuesday, Railtrack chief executive John Robinson challenged Mr Byers at the CBI conference. He said Mr Byers's account to parliament of how the company had accepted it should go into administration was at odds with his own notes on these events and meetings. At prime minister's questions, Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith asked Tony Blair if he still had confidence in the secretary of state for transport, local government and the regions. The prime minister simply replied, 'yes,' reports The Independent(p1).


A temporary relaxation of licensing laws will allow pubs in England and Wales to open all night on New Year's eve this year. The automatic extension could prompt protests from people living near pubs and bars, who will have little time to oppose 36-hour drinking in their neighbourhood. The commons deregulation and regulatory reform committee is today expected to approve department for culture, media and sport plans for a blanket relaxation of licensing laws on 31 December, clearing the way for a parliamentary order allowing pubs to open for 36 hours continuously over the New Year. Many in the drinks trade feared that the DCMS, which now handles licensing, had left it too late. A similar plan ran out of time last year when the home office - then responsible - failed to table the order within time, reports the Financial Times(p4).


Tests for the country's brightest pupils were announced yesterday as part of government plans to fast-track gifted children through the examination system, reported The Times (p11). The first World Class Tests, aimed at the to 10% ability range, will be taken by a thoudand pupils in Britain and other countries later this month. The initial papers will have questions on mathematics and problem-solving.

Education secretary Estelle Morris saw the tests as a 'vision for the future', in which their would be greater emphasis on ability-based teaching. Critics said that they would put extra pressure on children. The tests are voluntary. They have been developed jointly by examiners in Britain, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. By next year 100,000 children in those countries will be sitting the papers - allowing international comparisons. To begin with, nine and 13-year-olds will sit the two one-hour exams, one on paper, the other on computer. Ms Morris, however, is keen to let individual aptitude determine the age at which they are taken.

Next summer Advanced Extension awards - world-class tests for 18-year-olds will be introduced, with merits or distinctions available in 16 subjects. Critics say the AE exam could lead to a two-tier system, with only the most academic schools able to teach to the required standard. At the same time, only a few GCSE subjects will remain compulsory for 14-year-olds who are deemed to be better suited to work-related courses. Less academic pupils will be encouraged to take vocational GCSEs.

The new tests come on top of national exams at 7,11, 14 and 16, with AS levels at 17 and A2s at 18.

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