HC Deb 18 October 1995 vol 264 cc334-6
2. Mrs. Ray Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland which local authorities he has consulted about the voucher scheme for pre-school provision in Scotland. [36030]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

All of them.

Mrs. Michie

When the Secretary of State announced the voucher system, which, incidentally, he did in a press statement and not on the Floor of the House—I hope that that sort of thing will stop once we get a Scottish Parliament—he said that it would meet the distinctive needs and circumstances of the Scottish educational system. Can he explain how it will be distinctive and how it will avoid following slavishly what is being introduced south of the border?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Lady may not have yet had an opportunity to read the submission from her own local authority of Argyll, which has offered to help the Scottish Office with piloting this facility and which has made a number of constructive suggestions on how we can take it forward in a Scottish context. One of the representations that Argyll made was that we should not start the scheme in Scotland until August and I am happy to confirm to the House that I am prepared to take up that suggestion.

Mr. Stewart

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Labour-led East Renfrewshire shadow authority—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—has wisely applied for the pilot scheme for vouchers for nursery education. Does he agree that East Renfrewshire is particularly apt for inclusion in the pilot scheme because of the existing combination of public sector provision, private sector provision and voluntary provision within the boundaries of the local authority?

Mr. Forsyth

The House will have noted that Opposition Members cheered at the name "East Renfrewshire", but refused to cheer at the authority's wish to allow parents in East Renfrewshire the opportunity to get vouchers to the value of £1,100 to buy nursery education for their children. I am sure that the whole House has noticed that Opposition Members look pretty glum. They, of course, cannot stand the idea of parents having choice in the matter. I note that my hon. Friend would like East Renfrewshire to be one of the authorities that pilot the scheme and I am sure that his constituents would welcome that. Unfortunately, my constituents in Stirling have to cope with a Labour authority that takes a dogmatic view and would deny parents that choice in nursery education as a result of its opposition. I will certainly consider my hon. Friend's representations carefully before deciding which authorities should pilot the scheme as, of course, we have more councils in Scotland wishing to pilot this innovative idea than we have numbers of pilots to run.

Dr. Moonie

Will the Secretary of State ensure that an area such as Fife, which provides well above the Scottish average level of nursery schools, for three-year-olds and for four-year-olds, will not suffer as a result of the introduction of any voucher scheme?

Mr. Forsyth

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a great deal of influence in Fife. Anything that he can do to get the local authority to take a positive view of the scheme will, of course, be helpful in ensuring that his constituents get the best possible service. I very much welcome the positive view that Fife has taken on another matter—its involvement in Rosyth 2000, which is so important for employment in Scotland.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is humbug for people to go round Scotland saying that more money should be spent in education and then to take the first opportunity they can, as with this scheme where more public money is being used, to try either to boycott it or to encourage others to do so? It is especially noticeable that Scottish nationalists do that.

Mr. Forsyth

I entirely agree. Every one of the Opposition parties would much rather have local authorities deciding for parents what nursery education is made available. Only this party believes that parents should choose. Such is the Opposition's dogma and opposition to the scheme that they are actually prepared to turn away additional resources of £30 million and more simply to ensure that the local authorities tell the people what to do instead of allowing the people to choose.

Mr. Welsh

Surely nursery places should be a natural part of Scotland's national unified school system, serving 99 per cent. of Scotland's children. Why is the Secretary of State proposing changes that will fragment the unified system and divert funding from it in the long run? He proposes opted-out schools and opting-out vouchers when the only opt-out that the Scottish people want is from his socially divisive schemes.

Mr. Forsyth

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman realises how ridiculous he looks making the case for a self-governing Scotland, but being against self-governing schools. The hon. Gentleman should realise that power to the people means giving people choice and not making them fit into systems in the way in which he suggests.

Mrs. Fyfe

I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State to his new job, especially as he has been promising to listen. In that case, has he listened to the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, which found that 88 per cent. of parents surveyed said that their first preference was a local authority nursery school place, because of the high quality guaranteed in local authority provision? If he is listening to those parents, why does he not hand over the £30 million to local authorities to give people what they want? Why does he not listen to what they say that they want?

Mr. Forsyth

Because the difference between the hon. Lady and me is that I think that parents should be able to decide. She thinks that groups such as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council should decide. Even if it is right, I shall give parents choice and they will be able to choose to spend their vouchers in local authority provision, or in voluntary or private sector provision. The difference between the hon. Lady and me is that she wants to tell parents what to do and I wish to give them the choice.

I have been listening to the hon. Lady, and she takes a different line from that of her leader and from what I heard said at the Labour party conference. There, we heard that Labour was in favour of testing and of modifying grant-maintained schools, but the hon. Lady says something different north of the border; she says that Labour policies are still to be developed. The truth is that she stands for old Labour—real Labour.