§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire)
The cost of administering the nursery voucher scheme from April 1997 will be determined by a competitive tender.
§ Ms Hodge
Will the Minister confirm that, in the four pilot authorities, the Government intend to give the 973 management consultancy Capita the job of registering playgroups and nurseries? Capita, by its own admission, has no educational professional expertise. In similar circumstances, would the Minister dream of using Capita to recruit generals or admirals to the defence forces of Britain? Is not such a policy a complete betrayal of our children's future? Is it not a move driven by right-wing dogma and a scandalous waste of an opportunity to provide quality nursery education?
§ Mr. Squire
Virtually everything that the hon. Lady said is wrong. Where she looked at her crystal ball, it was cracked—presumably she brought it with her from Islington.
As to the inspection regime, she will have to wait a little longer and then she will receive the full facts. It is pointless to speculate about the matter at the moment. The hon. Lady is charged by the Labour party with responsibility for under-fives issues, and we are waiting agog for a statement from her or from her party as to precisely how it plans to introduce its commitment to universal nursery education. When and if that commitment appears, I shall take the hon. Lady's criticisms seriously. In the meantime, we are clear that the scheme will be driven overwhelmingly by parental choice.
§ Mr. Viggers
Is my hon. Friend aware that I represent a constituency which already has excellent educational provision for four-year-olds? While I strongly support the nursery voucher scheme, which will provide extra resources and spread nursery education, will my hon. Friend confirm that he will give priority to ensuring that the existing educational establishment for four-year-olds—where one exists—will not be destabilised or prejudiced?
§ Mr. Squire
I welcome my hon. Friend's support for the concept of the nursery voucher scheme and willingly give him that assurance. I remind him that we are talking about an expansion of provision for four-year-olds, and common sense dictates that good existing provision that is more likely to expand. I see no reason why it should contract.
§ Mr. Steinberg
Will the Minister explain, as I genuinely do not understand, how nursery vouchers can provide extra places in the state sector if there are no places to begin with? Will he explain what he said to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers)? In areas with good nursery provision, will not the vouchers be top-sliced from the grant and therefore decrease rather than increase the number of places available?
§ Mr. Squire
The hon. Gentleman, perhaps understandably, is thinking of everything being determined by providers. With regard to his second point, I remind him again that, if an authority is currently providing X number of places for four-year-olds, provided that it continues to provide that number in the first year of the universal scheme, it will lose no money. If it provides one extra place, it will gain. As to his first question, we are looking for a range of providers—certainly including LEAs and existing nursery and infant schools—to expand their provision. I should tell the hon. Gentleman—purely as a factual statement—that I have received several letters from schools in LEAs that were not part of phase 1, bemoaning the fact that they cannot expand their nursery provision next year.