HC Deb 22 February 1983 vol 37 cc786-8
3. Mr. Allan Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what discussions he or his Department has had with the Sefton metropolitan district council about a proposed school voucher scheme.

10. Mr. Aitken

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he has now reached a decision on voucher schemes for schools and sixth form colleges; and if he will make a statement.

12. Mr. Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he proposes to introduce further measures to extend parental choice of school.

Sir Keith Joseph

It is known that I am considering a number of possibilities, including vouchers, for extending parental choice and responsibility in school education. As I have said before, I have yet to reach conclusions on this. Informal discussions have been held on my behalf with elected members of a number of authorities about the possibility of pilot voucher schemes. Official consultations would have to await firm proposals.

Mr. Roberts

Is the Secretary of State confirming that he has had informal discussions with Conservative members on Sefton council? is that why they are secretly discussing the possibility of a pilot scheme in Sefton? Will he assure the people of Sefton that there will be no attempt to introduce such a pilot scheme in Sefton before the general election?

Sir keith Joseph

I cannot corroborate or deny discussions with individual authorities— [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—because they have been informal discussions with elected members on the basis of confidentiality, which I am not free to breach. Nevertheless, I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Chapman

I welcome a pilot scheme to test the validity of such a dramatic innovation in our education system. However, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many people wish to see a pilot scheme in a London borough as well as in a predominantly rural area and in urban areas outside London?

Sir Keith Joseph

The Government have taken no decision on this as yet. I shall certainly bear my hon. Friend's point in mind if a decision is made.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

In view of the Secretary of State's accountability to the House, why will he not give the names of the local education authorities involved? Secondly, will the scheme that he is now discussing include private schools?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am not discussing any particular scheme. I am considering a number of options. I am not free to give names, because the discussions into which a representative of mine entered were on a confidential basis. The Government have made no decision yet.

The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Williams) and the Labour party seem to oppose wider choice in education as in many other things. They abolished direct grant schools. The Conservative party favours wider choice, and not just for the well off and/or the clever. If I can find a practicable way to widen choice, I shall certainly propose it to my colleagues.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the arguments for the voucher scheme is the Government's dissatisfaction with state schools? Will he also confirm that he has chosen to have discussions with certain authorities because, in the Government's view, the schools in those areas are the least adequate?

Sir Keith Joseph

I should have thought that it was common ground throughout the House that we want schools to improve their standards. Some have more scope for that than others.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Can my right hon. Friend even guess why Opposition Members are so worried about the extension of choice if they believe that the present schools are those that any parent with free choice would choose?

Sir Keith Joseph

My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Mr. Kinnock

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that choice, to be effective in a democracy, must extend to everyone and that it must be a real choice not limited by size of purse? Does he recall his own immortal statement that the poor are poor because they do not have enough money? If he proposes, as apparently he has proposed to the so-called family policy group, whose papers I have, to make access to essential facilities more dependent on personal payment, will he not be adding deprivation of freedom to poverty of income, thus tightening the noose of disadvantage as well as destroying liberty? As a self-professed libertarian, how can he possibly defend the commercialisation of education, the expense of a voucher system, the uproar that it would cause and, above all, the disadvantage for those with neither the wish not the means to take advantage of it?

Sir Keith Joseph

The voucher scheme may or may not prove practicable, and it may or may not be proposed by the Government; but the concept is designed to provide those who have not the money to feel able to choose a school for their child with just that facility.