HC Deb 18 May 1994 vol 243 cc877-87

'(1) For section 1(2) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, there shall be substituted— (2) The duty imposed on an education authority by subsection (1) above shall include a responsibility to secure that educational provision is available for pupils between the ages of three and five years, either by—

  1. (a) the provision of nursery schools or nursery classes, according to guidelines issued by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools,
or, where the authority considers the provision of such schools or classes to be inexpedient,
  1. (b) it shall be their duty to manage the provision of pre-five educational services in other establishments such as day nurseries, pre-school playgroups, independent nursery schools and daycare centres within their area, with specific responsibility for securing the quality of staff training, accommodation and resources according to guidelines issued by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools,
  2. (c) any additional expenses incurred in pursuit of this duty shall be paid by the Secretary of State out of money provided by Parliament.".'.—[Mr. Wallace.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Wallace

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, we may take new clause 31—Statutory provision for nursery education'It shall be the duty of each local authority to draw up a scheme for the statutory provision of pre-five nursery places for all eligible children in that area and to specify a date for the implementation of such a scheme which will be submitted to the Secretary of State for final approval.'.

Mr. Wallace

It appears that, like London buses, Liberal Democrat new clauses and amendments come along in twos and threes after a long wait.

I think that it is generally agreed that there should be more nursery provision in Scotland and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom. Last December, the Prime Minister stated his ambition over time to move to universal nursery education". Welcoming the publication of a statistical bulletin last month, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), said:

The Government is committed to an extension of nursery and other pre-school provision in the public, private and voluntary sectors to allow a full range of options for all parents of pre-school children. That motivation—which I suspect is shared by all parties—is well founded. In recent months, reports of United States studies have shown that those who have had a nursery education are less likely to be unemployed or to resort to crime in later life. Every £1 spent on nursery education today gives a sevenfold return in years to come.

Apart from the benefits to society as a whole, nursery education provides individual children with an important benefit, unlocking a potential that can develop and blossom in future years. It gives them a different type of educational experience from that provided by school—a type more appropriate to their age. It may well also give an early warning of learning difficulties or other behavioural problems, thus allowing such problems to be tackled more effectively when the child is younger. It can also lay the foundations for a sound education, contributing in due course—we hope—to higher levels of numeracy and literacy.

Although those are all worthy objectives, one of the problems is insufficient provision. In a written answer to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) on 3 May, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) said: It is estimated that 57,600 children under five years had places in local authority education or day care establishments at 31 March 1992."—[Official Report, 3 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 489.] That was only 18 per cent. of children under five. As for the levels of provision of state nursery education in the member states of the European Union, it appears that only Portugal has a lower level than the United Kingdom.

Mr. Foulkes

One cannot say more than that.

Mr. Wallace

The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me too much.

Provision in Scotland differs widely, from more than 51 per cent. in Lothian and Glasgow to only 16 per cent. in the Highland region and 3.3 per cent. in Argyll and Bute. There is no provision at all in the Western Isles: I thought that I had better add that information before the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) jumped to party conclusions. That suggests that access to the current range of nursery education is little more than a lottery, depending on where people live. From the earliest age, children in Scotland are given unequal opportunities. The new clause would impose a statutory duty on local authorities throughout Scotland to address the problem.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he accept that, in the imperfect world in which we live, there is one certainty—that nursery education should be available to all children with special needs?

Mr. Wallace

I would endorse that without qualification. I should like provision to be universal, but if there is to be priority it should certainly be accorded to such children.

Nursery education is not the only means of serving young families and the educational needs of young children. There is a consensus that there should be a range of provision—playgroups, workplace nurseries, private child care and nursery arrangements and creches. All those have a contribution to make. Again, however, we need only look at different parts of Scotland to observe wide variations in provision, in terms of both availability and quality. The new clause addresses that aspect of pre-school education: it would give local authorities a statutory duty to manage the range of opportunities that should be available. I hope that, in that way, we could establish throughout Scotland the quality and availability of places for under-fives that are widely agreed to be necessary to get them off to a good start.

There's the rub—by which I mean finance. I quoted the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West earlier. He also said: These ambitions … must be tempered by reality and can only be brought about as resources become available. Some 20-odd years ago, Baroness Thatcher—then Secretary of State for Education—made a similar commitment, but did not will the resources. It is well known that my own party has not only made a commitment but been prepared to say that funds should be available to ensure that it is realised.

7.45 pm
Mr. Dalyell

Earlier this month, many of us received hospitality from the Scottish Pre-School Play Association in the Members' Dining Room. One question was foremost in the minds of the association's members: what would happen to pre-school and nursery education if the regions ceased to exist? How will the Minister answer that question?

Mrs. Ewing

I support new clause 28. New clause 31, which stands in my name, has a similar intent.

I think it very sad that previous local government legislation removed the statutory duty on local authorities to provide nursery education. We are attempting to ensure that local authorities give priority to such education.

The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) referred to special needs. As you well know, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as other hon. Members also know, I have a special interest in the matter. I believe that the early recognition of problems that children may have could best be ensured by making statutory provision for nursery education in all our local authority areas and by providing qualified and trained personnel to support children with special needs.

My training in special needs was on how to deal with children who were perhaps in their teens. It has always seemed to me—I think that this has been borne out by subsequent research—that if a child's problems are spotted early enough, that child will not become one of the difficult teenagers with whom many teachers must now deal. I believe that, as well as providing nursery education—particularly for children with special needs—we should ensure that those working with them receive the necessary training and support.

Of course, I should like every child to have the chance of nursery education. Very young children are like little sponges, absorbing a good deal of information and education and then blossoming. I agree that youngsters should go to school as early as possible and that the necessary facilities should be provided. We must also recognise that we live in a changing society. In my area, and, I suspect, in many other parts of Scotland, women are now often the family breadwinners because of the lack of employment. Therefore, it is important to provide nursery education so that women can reach out to their careers and become breadwinners. At present, far too many are on low wages and cannot afford private nursery facilities. We must remedy that problem in general. Women have an important role to play and the support of nursery education is important to them in terms of their family life.

Money has been mentioned, and the Government always say that we cannot afford nursery education. Yet yesterday we saw a paper on defence saying that we must crash ahead and buy as many Trident nuclear warheads as possible, as fast as possible. Yet in Scotland we cannot provide nursery education for our children. I ask the Government in all seriousness, "What are your priorities—nuclear warheads or children?" We have already argued today about the need for a children Act for Scotland and the need to recognise the problems that children face, yet the Government's priority appears to be spending our money on the weapons of death.

Finally, I remind the Minister of what the Prime Minister wrote in his document "Access and Opportunity". He said: Scotland has a long and proud tradition of academic excellence. It is on this firm foundation that the Government have sought to build their reforms of education and training. We have backed these reforms with greatly increased resources. As a result, parents and their children now have opportunities that were simply not available to previous generations of Scots. Those words ring hollow.

Mr. Davidson

It would be appropriate if the Minister said that he intended to move towards universal pre-five provision rather than, as I suspect will happen as a result of the reorganisation, cuts in pre-five services. The effect of the reorganisation will be that local authorities will be obliged to cut all the services that are not statutory. In those circumstances, the pre-five service, which is an important part of the provision in many areas, will be reduced. The Government should now publicly recognise the importance of the value that children get from pre-five provision.

Many hon. Members have touched on the subject, but I shall concentrate on the support that pre-five services provide to parents, especially single parents. Over the past year or so, the Government have spent a great deal of time lambasting single parents for being a charge on the community as a whole. Many single parents desperately want to work, but cannot make child care arrangements that would enable them to do so.

In my area, nurseries have been provided as part of the Govan initiative project, which has enabled many single parents who would otherwise have been unable to do so to go to work and to support their families, thus avoiding being a charge on the community. The Government should consider the cost of the reorganisation and ask themselves whether the people of Scotland would prefer that money to be spent on providing universal pre-five services or on a reorganisation that nobody wants. I believe that Scottish people would rather have pre-five services for all the children who need them.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked about pre-school provision after the reorganisation. The funding allocated for nursery education in the local government financial settlement is based on the numbers of children of nursery age in each authority area. So provided that the new authorities give the same priority to nursery education as do the existing authorities, there is no reason why they should not continue the service. Clearly, maximum continuity is desirable.

The Scottish Office position is that we seek an extension of nursery and pre-school provision. Our long-term goal is a full range of options to satisfy the requirements of all parents of pre-school age children. We have a good track record, but our ambitions must be tempered by reality. They can be brought about only as resources become available. We have to report considerable achievement.

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will realise, since the Government came to power the number of children attending nursery schools has increased from 31,700 to more than 48,000—an increase of 52 per cent. Moreover, taking under-fives provision generally—I include nursery schools, day nurseries and pre-school playgroups in that grouping—authorities could, should they wish to target a particular age group, cater for almost 80 per cent. of the three and four-year-old population in Scotland.

The Government have declared their intention to explore ways of adding still further to the choice available to parents. We are determined that that will—

Mr. Wallace


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

No doubt the hon. Gentleman wants to ask me about resources. Those are under consideration. Clearly it is a matter of top priority that the matter be considered most carefully.

We are determined to extend choice not only in the public but in the private and voluntary sectors. We have to guard against the danger that by favouring one element we may cause another to fall by the wayside. I know, for example, of the Scottish Pre-School Play Association's concerns that that should not happen.

New clause 28 refers to the report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools published on 21 February. That report supports our policy of choice and gives advice on the education of children under five in Scotland across the full range of provision. I believe that it will set the tone for pre-five education in the future and I commend its conclusions and recommendations to all parents and professionals involved in the education of young children.

The report provides a range of options, and does so with a specific intent. It leaves providers to decide what is most appropriate for their area. It would certainly not be appropriate to respond to that report by limiting the flexible use of the advice given in the report by imposing a statutory provision that it must be followed regardless of particular circumstances, as the new clause would do.

Moreover, the effect of new clause 28 would be to make education authorities responsible for the management of educational services provided in establishments in the voluntary and independent sectors—in playgroups and private nursery schools. As I have said, our aim is for diversity and choice. New clause 28 recognises that that is a correct approach and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. However, safeguards through the involvement of education authorities under the Children Act 1989 and through the inspectorate report mean that the position is well protected as things stand. I should also make it clear that new clause 28 is defective in that it talks in terms of "educational provision" without clarifying what that means.

New clause 31 is defective in that it does not specify the meaning of "statutory provision", of "pre-five nursery places" or of "eligible children". It would also place the duty on the local authority as a whole rather than on the education authority—a somewhat unusual proposition. More important is the fact that the purpose of new clause 31 is obscure. Arrangements for the provision of nursery education by education authorities are flexible and can be provided for all children whatever their age. As I said earlier, decisions on such matters are very much for authorities to make in the light of local circumstances. Why, then, should we provide only for "eligible children ", whatever that may mean, or for the intervention of the Secretary of State?

I find that strange—

Mr. Wilson

Surely the Minister must accept that there must be some statutory minimum, so will he specifically address the point that I raised? I am not arguing the case for children with special needs as against that of other children, but surely it must be right to make some provision in law for the children who are clearly most in need of pre-school education. Surely the Minister cannot maintain that there should be no statutory obligation to provide for any children at all.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was present earlier, when I said that under the Education Act 1980 education authorities are required to secure that there is made for their area adequate and efficient provision of school education and further education".

Mr. Wilson

School education?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

That is a matter of resources, as well as of the good will and intention of the authorities. A variety of different types of provision is presently on offer. As has been made clear by the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, it is in the public interest that the provision that they give should continue.

Mrs. Ewing

Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I was about to deal with the hon. Lady's new clause. She wished to involve the Secretary of State in local decisions. It is strange that she should want to do that, unless she believes that the Secretary of State knows as much as education authorities about the need for nursery schools in particular areas, having regard to such considerations as the availability of other forms of pre-school provision, or the specific needs of certain parts of an authority's area.

For those reasons, I invite the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland to withdraw his new clause and the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) not to press hers.

Mrs. Ewing

I believe that in a nation the size of Scotland it should be perfectly possible to have a national strategy for nursery education, as my new clause suggests.

In the context of the provision for children with special needs in every community in Scotland, is the Minister satisfied that adequate provision is being made and resources provided to ensure that there are speech and occupational therapists and all the various groupings that are required to ensure that each child has his or her needs met? I am certainly not satisfied, and I suspect from the tone of the arguments of other Opposition Members that those needs are not being met anywhere in Scotland.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Social education needs are extremely important, and we have enormously expanded the resources for those with learning difficulties and acute learning difficulties. We acknowledge the importance of the support services in this connection and we expect that many authorities will wish to retain a comprehensive range of services within their own boundaries. In other cases, authorities may take advantage, for example, of the options for provision by joint arrangements with another authority, or through contracts with the voluntary sector.

It is clear, however, that the duty will remain with the education authority to whose area a child belongs. With regard to the size of authorities, Borders is a smaller authority than many, but it has an excellent record in that connection. We have not decided whether that will be the situation in the future in relation to children with special educational needs.


Mr. Wallace

We have had a useful opportunity to get the Government's position clearly on record, and we have had a lot of pious expectations and statements. Clearly, the point is that there are no resources, and authorities will not be able to deliver in anything like the way in which they ought to. I do not think that we will achieve anything by putting the matter to the vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, a new schedule—Area Tourist Boards

Area of Tourist Board Comprising area of
Shetland Shetland Council.
Orkney Orkney Council.
Western Isles Western Isles Council.
Highland Highland Council.
Grampian City of Aberdeen Council;
Aberdeenshire Council;
Moray Council.
Tayside Angus Council;
City of Dundee Council.
Fife Fife Council.
Perthshire Perthshire and Kinross Council.
Area of Tourist Board Comprising area of
Argyll and Bute Argyll and Bute Council.
Central Clackmannan and Falkirk Council;
Dumbarton and Clydebank Council;
Stirling Council.
Glasgow and Clyde City of Glasgow Council;
Valley Inverclyde Council;
Renfrewshire Council;
East Renfrewshire Council: East
Dunbartonshire Council;
North Lanarkshire Council;
South Lanarkshire Council.
Edinburgh and Lothian City of Edinburgh Council;
East and Mid Lothian Council;
West Lothian Council.
Scottish Borders The Borders Council.
Ayrshire and Arran East Ayrshire Council;
North Ayrshire Council;
South Ayrshire Council.
Dumfries and Galloway Dumfries and Galloway Council.'.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to the amendment, leave out from "Glasgow and Clyde Valley" to "South Lanarkshire Council" and insert

'Glasgow City of Glasgow Council;
Inverclude Council;
Renfrewshire Council;
East Renfrewshire Council;
East Dunbartonshire Council;
Clyde Valley North Lanarkshire Council;
South Lanarkshire Council.'.
Amendment No. 4, in clause 167, page 112, line 31, leave out 'may be specified in the order' and insert

'specified in Schedule (Area Tourist Boards) to this Act.'. No. 191, in clause 171, page 117, line 32, leave out 'in their area'.

Mrs. Michie

I should say at the outset that I do not wish to prejudice any other colleague, particularly in the highlands, who may wish to see a change to the proposed tourist board arrangements. That includes the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), and the amendment in his name.

It was with considerable astonishment, and not a little dismay, that the announcement of the revised tourist board structure was greeted by myself and the people of Argyll and Bute. As we all know, there has been no member from the highlands and islands sitting on the committee and that has been a grave omission.

I am grateful for the opportunity now to move the amendment, for which I seek the support of the Minister and the House. The amendment would include in the Bill the list of area tourist boards as announced by the Secretary of State, but add to it one more, to be named Argyll and Bute, which would be coterminous with the new local authority area.

Previously in Argyll and Bute, there were four tourist boards, but it is now accepted that there should be one. But never in our wildest dreams—or is it nightmares?—was it considered possible that the Secretary of State would agree to Argyll and Bute being lumped in with Stirling, Clackmannan, Falkirk, Dumbarton and Clydebank and being given the unwieldy name of the Loch Lomond, Stirling and Trossachs, Argyll and Bute tourist board. What a mess.

Granted, for the traveller seeking to discover Scotland, those are names to conjure with, but Clackmannan has little in common with Colonsay or Coll. In its original submission in response to the Scottish Office and Scottish tourist board consultation papers, a working party representing a wide range of tourist interests in Argyll and Bute clearly expressed the view that there must be one tourist board to cover the new local authority area. Therefore, there was deep frustration at the inability to have a meaningful dialogue on the matter. Consultation is a two-way process, but there has been none of that in this case.

Not only is Argyll and Bute one of most gloriously beautiful parts of Scotland—many hon. Members have spent happy and relaxing holidays there—but it is unique, because of the number of islands within its boundaries. There are some 550 islands, of which 28 are inhabited. It covers an area of 2,500 sq m and has a coast line longer in distance than that from Calais to Gibraltar.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

May I endorse what the hon. Lady is saying about her constituency? She may remember that, when I was on holiday in her constituency, she came to hold a surgery in Colonsay. Although I did not avail myself of the opportunity—I spent the time on the golf course instead—that is a ringing endorsement of the hon. Lady's attitude towards her constituency.

Mrs. Michie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I remember him visiting Colonsay and playing on the golf course—in among the sheep, as I recall.

By its nature, Argyll and Bute is crucially different from the urban conurbations with which the Bill would link it. It does not have the same day-visitor identity as Loch Lomond and Stirling castle. Its prime objective is to attract people more to resort destinations than to tourist areas. That relies not just on road and rail transport but on ferry and air travel to the islands and remote mainland havens. Surely the setting up of a new structure should always follow a decision on the purpose and the function. One decides what one wants to do and how one wants to do it and then one creates the structure.

The purpose and function in this case is to make tourism, which is a vital industry in Argyll and Bute, flourish and be successful. There is already a great deal of co-operation between the existing public and private bodies. It is only logical, therefore, that there should be one local authority, one enterprise company and one tourist board. A detailed study of the financial viability of such a board concluded that the potential grant-funding and the likely savings in expenditure would indeed make it financially viable. That confirmed an earlier report commissioned by the Argyll and Islands enterprise company.

If the amendment is not accepted, the downside is that there would be without a doubt a significant drop in tourism and in the associated income. There would be an increase in administration costs in an effort to maintain the identity of the area and—I know this for certain—there would be an upsurge of small groups seeking to promote their own particular corner. Many of those who are closely involved in the work of the tourist boards would simply walk away because of a sense of isolation and non-compatibility with the Government's proposed huge board. To make a rural tourist board successful, those involved need to feel a sense of belonging and ownership.

The Secretary of State has already accepted the logic of having separate island tourist boards. Argyll and Bute is little different and has, over the years, built up a distinct industry. We must remember that it is subject to objective 1 status and will be eligible for EC funding. The European Community has identified tourism as a crucial growth area. It would be ironic if the Government, having turned Argyll and Bute into a single-tier local authority and removed it from Strathclyde, which the Prime Minister once unwisely described as a monstrosity, put it back into another huge area.

The amendment is supported by many organisations —Argyll and Bute district council, the Bute and Cowal tourist board, the West Highlands and Islands of Argyll tourist board, the local enterprise company—and by the chairman of the Scottish Confederation of Tourism. To achieve cohesion and a sense of purpose in promoting the distinctive, historical, cultural, social and economic features of the area, I urge the Minister and the House to take the sensible course and accept the logic and desirability of an Argyll and Bute tourist board.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) argued that we should reconsider the proposal for an Argyll-Stirling tourist board. The amendment would remove the flexibility of action that we intend in relation to future changes in tourist board area boundaries. We hope that it will not be necessary to alter those boundaries, but if, for whatever reason, change is required at some time in the future, we need the power to be able to achieve that change quickly and easily. Such a proposal is contained in the Bill—a change can be achieved by an order made under clauses 168 and 169—but if we agreed to the amendment, the Bill would have to be changed.

In its advice, the Scottish tourist board was strongly of the view that a board which comprised the new Argyll and Bute, Stirling, Clackmannan and Falkirk unitary authorities would be a major player in Scottish tourism. Contrary to what has been claimed, the STB believed that such a board would cover a marketable area with considerable synergy between mainland Argyll—[Hon. Members: "Synergy?"] Yes, synergy. There would be considerable synergy between mainland Argyll, rural Stirling and Clackmannan, with Loch Lomond, which I am sure the hon. Lady would agree is a destination of international renown, as the central feature.

I agree that the considerable market appeal, coupled with the gateway status of Stirling, will bring induced benefit to less visited areas such as Clackmannan, Cowal and Kintyre. It would also provide a stronger mainland area to service the remote and fragile Argyll islands. Of course, it would be expected to be financially viable.

Analysis of current funding shows that two separate areas would be financially weak in comparison with many of the other boards and underlines fears already experienced in Argyll and Bute that a separate board for the area could not compete or survive. I am aware of the report, to which the hon. Lady referred, on an Argyll and Bute tourist board. However, I am not convinced by its claims that an Argyll and Bute area tourist board would be financially viable. We are aware that in the recent past the West Highlands and Argyll board has experienced financial difficulties and, as a consequence, has received substantial financial assistance from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish tourist board.

Against that background, Argyll and Bute district council's report strikes too optimistic a note. Some of its claims for the new Argyll and central Scotland area tourist board are completely misplaced. Therefore, with regret I cannot support the hon. Lady's amendment. I recommend accordingly that the House rejects it.

8.15 pm
Mrs. Ray Michie

I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. He has a number of facts wrong and he has been misinformed. The Scottish tourist board was wrong to give the Scottish Office and the Minister that advice. It did so without consulting people in Argyll and Bute and without conducting any sort of dialogue or discussion with them. For the Minister to say that Stirling and Clackmannan is a gateway to Kintyre or Oban is just not credible.

I find it extraordinary that the Minister should maintain that an Argyll and Bute tourist board, which would include Helensburgh, would not be financially viable and that he is rejecting the report by the local enterprise company. I hope that he will reconsider the matter and that it will be considered again in another place. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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