HC Deb 19 March 1996 vol 274 cc233-48
Ms Estelle Morris

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 1, line 6, after '(1)', insert 'Subject to section 7(1A) below,'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 26, in page 1, line 6, after 'may', insert 'by regulations'.

Government amendment No. 27.

Amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 16, at end insert— '(3A) Any arrangements made under section 1(3) above which specify the age of children shall be made by regulations.'. Government amendment No. 28.

Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 17, leave out 'shall' and insert 'may'.

Government amendment No. 29.

Amendment No. 6, in clause 7, page 2, line 41, at end insert— '(1A) The power to make arrangements under section 1(1) above shall be exercised by order and no such order may be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.'. Amendment No. 38, in page 2, line 41, at end insert— '(1A) Any arrangements for the making of grants under section 1(1) above shall, where those arrangements make provision for the amount of grant payable in respect of a child, be exercised by order and no such order may be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.'. Government amendments Nos. 30 to 32 and 34.

Ms Morris

The purpose of this rather large group of amendments is to ensure proper annual debate on the grants that are made under the legislation. As we have said, the Bill gives the Secretary of State for Education and Employment many powers. Not only does she have the power to dictate how a local community will make provision for its early years education, but Ministers can make arrangements about grant criteria, voucher values, the framework within which grants are to be administered and what action should be taken after an assessment of the scheme. All that can be done at the moment without recourse to Parliament.

Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 specifically refer to parliamentary scrutiny of the value of the grant, and that would be done in a way that is similar to the current scrutiny of the amount that is put into the assisted places scheme and the student grants and loans scheme. There is considerable similarity between the arrangements for the assisted places scheme and the nursery vouchers scheme. Both involve significant transfers of revenue from local government to central Government and out again. In addition, the nursery voucher scheme can certainly be seen as a significant change in local government finance.

In the interests of good legislation and democracy, it is not acceptable for crucial aspects of the Bill to be decided and controlled by Ministers and Ministers alone in the Department for Education and Employment without proper scrutiny by the House and the other place. The House has a record of being able to scrutinise legislation. It jealously guards that right and exercises it on the assisted places scheme and the student grants and loans scheme year by year. There is no reason why it should not be able to exercise that right in the context of the amount put into grants as part of the nursery voucher scheme. The amendments will allow proper scrutiny by the House and that is right and proper.

Mr. Robin Squire

The Bill sets out the broad framework and the necessary legal underpinning for the grants. It defines what they can be used for and refers to allowing the use of a child benefit database and defining inspection regimes and so on. As I have said—it may even have been in debate with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris)—the grant arrangement will include a great deal of administrative detail.

It is clearly not sensible to make all these matters the subject of legislation, whether primary or secondary, and I do not presume that the hon. Lady would suggest that. Time-consuming amendments would be needed for the slightest change and that would be absurd. It would also limit the flexibility of grants that would be paid to a range of types of institutions.

Government amendments Nos. 27 and 28 set out the child's age and describe the eligible institutions in the regulations. I shall be brief in speaking to the amendments because I am sure that it will not take much to convince hon. Members that they are eminently reasonable and respond to points that were made to me in Committee. In that context, I note and welcome the fact that Opposition Members agree with the Government to the extent that they have tabled a similar amendment to amendment No. 27.

In Committee, my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) and for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) tabled an amendment that sought to put the description of children eligible for nursery education grants into regulations rather than arrangements. They graciously agreed to withdraw that amendment following my commitment to table an equivalent Government amendment on Report—amendment No. 27 fulfils that commitment.

7.30 pm

Clause 1 defines nursery education for the purposes of the Bill by specifying the upper age limit of children who can be covered by nursery education grants. It would be neither necessary nor appropriate to include in the Bill a lower age limit or any other description of eligible children. That would greatly restrict flexibility in future, but amendment No. 27 would cause the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to make regulations to specify what I might call the lower age limit of children eligible for nursery education grant, although the lower limit need not be a specific age.

As the House is aware, we propose that, initially, the voucher scheme should cover only four-year-olds. The amendment would mean that if, for example, the scheme were extended to cover three-year-olds, fresh regulations would be needed and Parliament would have the opportunity to debate that change, if it so wished.

Amendment No. 28 covers a slightly new area in terms of responding to comments in Committee, but, as hon. Members will recall, I made it clear that I was keeping an open mind on the things that should be in the Bill and the things that should be covered by regulation. The amendment would require the descriptions of providers eligible to receive grant under these arrangements to be specified in regulations. A couple of hours ago, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made passing reference to that. The exception is local education authorities in respect of their schools. I have made it clear on a number of occasions, and "The Next Steps" document also makes it clear, that, to be eligible to receive grant, a provider must be one of the following: a maintained school, a local authority day nursery, a finally registered independent school or an institution registered under the Children Act 1989.

The identity of those eligible to receive grant is an important part of the policy both for parents and for providers. Parents need to know and understand which providers can accept their vouchers, and providers need to know whether they can accept vouchers if the provision that they offer is sufficiently good.

Mr. Kilfoyle

Will the Minister explain just one simple thing? If we have an annual debate on the assisted places scheme, why cannot we have a similar annual debate on the provisions made for nursery vouchers?

Mr. Squire

There are significant differences. The most obvious one is that the assisted places scheme operates on an individual by individual basis, in mat the benefit, as it were, that the parent attracts is related to his or her income. With nursery vouchers, we are talking of a standard amount regardless of circumstance. There are other differences, but nursery vouchers are more akin to grants for education support and training, for instance, which are again a standard sum.

By introducing Government amendment No. 28, we have met the concerns of the hon. Member for Bath and others outside. In the same way as changing the age range of children covered by the vouchers is not an administrative detail, so changing the list of institutions that are eligible to receive grant is not an administrative detail. Both should therefore be set out in regulations. As a result of Government amendment No. 28, that will be so. I think that, on reflection, Opposition Members will agree with that.

Amendment No. 38 puts the amount of grant in regulations. Here we reach the matter that the hon. Member for Yardley referred to. It is essential that grant arrangements should specify the amount, timing, frequency and method of payment of nursery education grants. Providers need that information for planning, but to specify the amount of grant in regulations, and especially in regulations subject to affirmative procedure, would be inappropriate.

The amount of grant payable to any particular provider will depend simply on the number of vouchers that they redeem. The calculation of grant will be a matter of simple arithmetic. There is no need for that to be covered by regulations, just as the amount of grant payable in any particular case is not covered by regulations under section 100 of the Education Act 1944 or GEST regulations.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I am still unclear. Will the Minister take this a little further? Surely we do not deal with the individual circumstances of a recipient when the House debates the assisted places scheme or, obviously, the voucher scheme, given that there is a flat voucher fee. In principle, therefore, what is the difference between the two? We are not dealing with individual amounts, which necessitate account being taken of people's circumstances.

Mr. Squire

I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman or the House. I was not suggesting that we debate individual circumstances in assisted places scheme debates. I was seeking to show that the comparison that the hon. Gentleman drew relied on assuming that there was a strong similarity between that scheme and the voucher scheme. There are several differences, one of which I highlighted. Another is that a voucher does not become legal tender until it is accepted by a provider and so it is a different beast from the sum granted in the assisted places scheme, but the hon. Gentleman and I are able to have different opinions on this and the world will, I hope, continue to revolve.

Mr. Kilfoyle

The implication of what the Minister has said is that, somehow, the recipient of assisted places scheme financing receives it, but that is not legal tender either. Presumably, parents receive a letter saying that they are entitled to a certain amount of education, the rates for which are set out annually when we debate the cost of the assisted places scheme. How is that different from the voucher? With an assisted places scheme, we are not dealing with tender any more than we are with a voucher scheme.

Mr. Squire

I sought to point out that the difference was that, in the voucher scheme, we are invariably talking about a fixed sum that, as I conceded and as all hon. Members recognise, becomes money when a provider agrees to make a place available. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the assisted places scheme sets out the scale of remission of fees that parents will receive according to their income. That makes it rather a different kettle of fish. It does not mean that one could not envisage circumstances in which voucher grants would be comparable with those on the assisted places scheme, but it is not an immediate, natural link. Having considered it, I could not be convinced that the hon. Gentleman's example made sense in the way that the two examples that I have given—one conceded in Committee and one in the House today—made sense.

They represent a significant departure. If it wanted to, the House could reasonably expect to be able to debate them under the usual provision.

As all Committee members are aware, all the grant arrangements will be set out and published. As I have said, the key aspects will be in regulations. The usual arrangements for accounting to Parliament for public expenditure will continue to apply.

Government amendment No. 30 deals with powers to make transitional arrangements. It is a technical amendment. The Government think it wise to include the usual provision for power to make transitional arrangements in regulations under the Bill. Frankly, the circumstances in which they might be needed would be relatively rare.

Government amendments Nos. 29, 31, 32 and 34 are drafting amendments that simplify the references in the Bill to regulations. The Secretary of State will of course lay all such regulations before the House in accordance with normal parliamentary procedure.

The Government accept the case for including some aspects of the grant arrangements in regulations and have demonstrated that by tabling amendments that will provide for both the description of children who can be covered by the grant and the list of providers who can receive grant to be set out in regulations. I have not been convinced that the amount of the grant, still less the grant arrangements in their entirety, should be set out in regulations. If the matter is pressed to a Division, I urge hon. Members to reject amendments Nos. 5, 26, 9, 2, 6 and 38.

Mr. Don Foster

The Minister deserves to be congratulated. As those hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee will be aware—and it is important that the House is also aware—the Minister has responded to a request in Committee that at least a large amount of information about the scheme be made available to the House annually. I want to place on record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his positive response to our request.

In a letter to me within the last couple of days, the Minister said that he had been giving thought to what information should be made available and put in the departmental report. He acknowledges that much of it will be statistical or historical, but says that it will be none the worse for that. He said:

  • "I have in mind the following broad categories:
  • Value of the voucher (including any regional variations and areas covered by different value vouchers)
  • Number of Vouchers issued
  • Number of Vouchers redeemed
  • Total Resources made available through vouchers
  • Number and type of validated institutions
  • Number of inspections carried out of each type of institutions under new legislative provisions
  • Number of institutions from whom validation withdrawn
  • Sums of money received into consolidated fund, and from what source."
That is a wide range of areas to be covered by the report, so I am grateful for the Minister's response.

Of course, all that draws to the attention of the House the very large number of issues that will be put into effect by the Bill. It also draws attention to the very wide powers that will be given to the Secretary of State under the Bill and the arrangements to make regulations on these and many other issues. It is because the Bill gives so much power to the Secretary of State, over a wide range of issues that are not detailed in the Bill, that considerable disquiet is felt in many quarters about what is happening. That is why there have been various attempts, through the amendments, to provide an opportunity for hon. Members regularly to be able to contribute to the thinking about any changes, to debate them and to vote on them.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) said that, under amendment No. 5, the regulations would be debated under the affirmative resolution procedure. She believed that that was a perfectly reasonable suggestion. She drew a number of significant parallels—although they were rejected by the Minister—between the Bill and the assisted places scheme. Hon. Members will be well aware that, for example, section 17(6) of the Education Act 1980, which set up the assisted places scheme, requires all arrangements to be made by regulations. Section 35(2) requires regulations to be made by the affirmative resolution procedure of both Houses of Parliament.

The Minister said that there was not enough similarity between the assisted places scheme and the Bill to go down that route. He protests too much in attempting to show that there are huge differences between the two. After all, the assisted places scheme began by taking money away from local education authorities. That is exactly what is happening with the nursery voucher scheme—money is being taken away from LEA budgets to operate the scheme. As the hon. Member for Yardley said, the sums of money involved in the voucher scheme are significantly greater than the sums involved in the assisted places scheme.

7.45 pm

The Minister is not convinced that the similarities are great enough to use the same procedures. Will he therefore look carefully at amendment No. 26, which adopts a slightly different way to bring the regulations before the House on a regular basis, but using the negative resolution procedure? That would require hon. Members who opposed a particular part of the resolution to pray against it in the usual manner. It would mean that Members of Parliament, who do not have a great deal of spare time, would pray only against matters about which they felt very strongly. There would be no unnecessary time wasting, but hon. Members would have an opportunity regularly to debate issues about which they felt strongly.

Mr. Robin Squire


Mr. Foster

I shall happily give way to the Minister. I was about to say that it would be nice if he intervened to tell us whether he thinks that that way of doing things would accord with the democratic procedures of the House, especially given his unwillingness to include in the Bill even a statement that the Secretary of State will take responsibility for the details. I happily give way and hope that the hon. Gentleman will be positive.

Mr. Squire

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman wants to drown me in praise, as he did earlier, or cover me with whatever the reverse of that might be. He conceded that two Government amendments will allow for precisely what he has described to be dealt with by negative resolution if the House so agrees in due course. Apart from the amount of grant itself—and on that matter I can add little to the earlier exchanges between myself and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle)—can the hon. Gentleman say what other areas he has in mind that might be covered in the way he suggested? I am interested in considering them.

Mr. Foster

I think that the Minister and I are beginning to go down the same track. There seems to be some agreement and there may be a positive resolution before the evening is out which will help us to find a way forward. The Minister asked what other areas I had in mind. I would include, for example, not simply the amount of money, but the grant criteria that would operate. We would want to discuss the nature of the settings in which provision is to be made.

Mr. Squire


Mr. Foster

The Minister is no doubt about to say that the grant setting is already included. We may wish to widen the definition if we are to consider the use of modern technology and other things that may arrive in the not too distant future. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would want a debate, followed by a decision, about the inspection arrangements. They are not currently included.

There seems to be some coming together of both sides of the House and I am grateful for that. Perhaps as the debate progresses there may be more. The real concern for many hon. Members is that the Bill gives a great deal of power to the Secretary of State without a real opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. Unless our amendments are accepted, when the Bill reaches another place, the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee will have a field day.

Ms Estelle Morris

I am amazed that the Minister has turned down the opportunity for even more debates such as those that we have shared over the past few months in Committee. But he seems to have wasted that opportunity, which is disappointing. The Bill involves much detail, and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has given us a list of subjects that should have proper parliamentary scrutiny. Like him, I feel that those are issues that their Lordships may address when the Bill reaches them. But, for now, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 7, after 'education', insert 'in England'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 19, in clause 8, page 3, line 17, leave out 'or Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales,'. No. 20, in clause 10, page 3, line 30, leave out 'and Wales'.

No. 21, in schedule 1, page 4, line 14, leave out from 'England' to end of line 16.

No. 22, in page 4, line 27, leave out from 'England' to end of line 29.

No. 23, in schedule 2, page 5, line 38, leave out from 'England' to end of line 40.

No. 24, in page 8, line 23, leave out ', civil servants in the Welsh Office'. No. 25, in page 8, line 25, leave out 'or the Welsh Office'.

Mr. Dafis

The amendments would exempt Wales from the provisions of the Bill. I tabled them for several reasons—first, because many people asked for an exemption for Wales. The Parent-Teacher Associations of Wales specifically asked for one, and that is an important sign, because its members are not the educational establishment but the very people for whose children nursery and other educational provision is intended. Moreover, that association speaks with the same voice as the overwhelming bulk of opinion in Wales—not just the local education authorities but educationists, parents and the public at large. They all overwhelmingly oppose the introduction of nursery vouchers.

As for the voluntary sector, Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin opposes the idea in principle, and fears the Bill's effects on Welsh-medium education. Can the Minister give us any assurances on that aspect? The Select Committee report asks the Welsh Office—if, indeed, the scheme is applied in full—to monitor closely the effect of vouchers on Welsh-medium education.

The Welsh Language Board recently published the results of a survey showing that 50 per cent. of parents in Wales would choose Welsh-medium nursery education if the option were available. That is a fact of far-reaching significance. How do the Government propose to ensure that that wish of 50 per cent. of the parents of Wales can be met as we increase nursery school provision?

It must be admitted that the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association supports the scheme in principle. After all, it has a particular interest in doing so, because the scheme would make playgroups a more attractive option in comparison with local authority nursery classes than they are now. But even that body has expressed important reservations, because it is concerned that the scheme's benefits may be eroded if insufficient resources are made available. If that happens, it does not see how it could make the necessary capital investment in improved provision.

Mr. Win Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, because the report from the office of Her Majesty's chief inspector said that about three quarters of the settings in which playgroups operated were not of a sufficient standard. The Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association expressed strong concern about the need for capital funding if playgroups were to be eligible for the scheme. And so far as I know, the Minister has given no assurance on the subject.

Mr. Dafis

No, indeed. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, even though he has used up the next sentence of my speech. It would certainly be interesting to hear whether the Minister is prepared to give any kind of undertaking.

I emphasise again what the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has already said—that the inspector's report on nursery provision in Wales emphasised the high quality of provision by local authorities in nursery schools and classes, and showed how superior it was, by and large, to the provision in the voluntary and private sectors. There was consultation on the Welsh Office proposal, but although there was no suggestion of any support, the Government insisted on going ahead in the face of overwhelming opposition.

My next reason for tabling the amendments is that legislation on education matters should always be specific to Wales. That is a matter of principle. The Bill does not apply to Scotland; that is the regular pattern of things. I simply ask: if the Bill does not apply to Scotland, why should it apply to Wales? In all kinds of areas, we must move towards parity with Scotland.

Circumstances and tradition in Wales are radically different from those in England. That is why we need a parliament with primary legislative powers in Wales—a phrase which I often utter these days—to give us the right kind of provision in all kinds of areas. I shall return to that subject later.

The principle applies to nursery education and the provisions of the Bill in particular. I shall not at this stage rehearse the ways in which the situation in Wales is different, or set out what our priorities should be for early years education. I did that on Second Reading, and what I said is on the record. However, I urge hon. Members and everyone else interested in the subject to read the report by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on the nursery voucher scheme in Wales.

That report is carefully prepared and written, and it presents a pretty devastating condemnation of what is happening. In the first place, it points out that Because of the investment already made by local authorities in Wales in under fives education, the benefit to Wales … will be much less than to England. That is perhaps not altogether condemnatory, but my next quotation from the report certainly is. The report states: It seems extraordinary to us that the Government has determined on introducing a voucher scheme for four year olds without first ascertaining the full extent of current provision. In our questioning of Ministers, we had discovered that there had been no process of identifying the extent or nature of existing provision.

The Select Committee report also mentions the danger that provision for three-year-olds might be reduced as a result of the introduction of the voucher scheme. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that, too.

What I have said about the existing situation in Wales does not mean that we should be complacent. That danger, too, was mentioned in the Select Committee report. On Second Reading, I said that it was possible that much of the existing provision, of which we are so proud, would not be altogether appropriate. I mean, for example, the practice of providing for under-fives in primary and infant school classes. It is clear that the kind of education menu provided for children there may not give the intense learning experiences that constitute the real value of pre-school education before the age of five.

The report from the office of Her Majesty's chief inspector refers to that possibility. It says that LEA nursery schools and nursery classes provide high-quality pre-school education, but it makes a clear distinction between those and infant reception classes. We need appropriate high-quality provision for pupils in the early years, with properly qualified staff, and we should be talking about a strategy for moving in that direction.

That means that we need change in Wales. We must not get ourselves into that familiar frame of mind in which we constantly react against change. That is why we need the powers to make the changes that are relevant to us. We need a policy for the development of early years education in Wales. I described such a policy in my speech on Second Reading.

We need not only the means not to apply the Bill in Wales—to opt out—but the means to be proactive and creative. I know that the hon. Member for Bridgend is going to speak. I would like to hear from him how the Labour party, if it forms a Government after the next general election, will enable the people of Wales to fashion an education system that suits our circumstances and priorities. It is a matter not just of not doing something but of being positive and constructive.

For example, how will Labour's assembly be proactive and not merely enable us to opt out of damaging provisions such as this? I do not see how Labour's current proposals, with secondary legislative powers at best—and perhaps not even those, according to the Labour leader—will give the people of Wales such powers. I covered that quickly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will now proceed to other matters, but perhaps the hon. Member for Bridgend can offer me some encouragement.

If ever there were a case of Wales being dragged in England's wake in a way that is irrelevant to our needs, it is this. The Select Committee report concludes, even though it is expressed with some understatement, with the devastating comment: We are not convinced that in this case the possibility of taking Wales along another path was considered very seriously. I am convinced that it was not considered at all. The report continues: It is hard to believe that, if acting alone, the Welsh Office would have seen a voucher scheme as the most effective means of improving educational provision for four year olds in Wales. That is pretty devastating. It is a perfect example of Wales's needs being ignored and our prospects being damaged by inappropriate legislation driven by other people's ideology and priorities.

I tabled an amendment that would have required a pilot project to be conducted in Wales in 1997–98 before introducing the full scheme. It was not selected, but I draw the Government's attention to it as a fallback from this amendment. It is still open to the Government to offer such a compromise and I appeal to them to do so, if they are not prepared to accept this amendment. The Select Committee recommended that there should be a pilot scheme. Will the Minister at least agree to have the matter debated in the other place to find out whether that would be reasonable? That would make good sense. There will be a general election before the scheme is properly implemented.

8 pm

Mr. Richards

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dafis

There will be one before the scheme has been properly implemented—a matter of months, at best, after the scheme begins to operate.

Labour is committed to scrapping the scheme in Wales, which is why my unselected amendment was relevant. It is not responsible to introduce such a revolutionary scheme. It is a demand-led instrument for developing education provision rather than a process of putting resources into provision. It changes the whole approach to the funding of education. It is not responsible to introduce such a scheme at such a time. However, a pilot scheme could be run and we could examine the situation to find out whether there was justification for such a change in the funding of education. I appeal to the Government to act responsibly in the matter and either accept our amendments or at least give us the fallback compromise.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Although we did not table specific amendments relating to Wales, our new clause 3, which dealt with the conditions under which a local authority could continue to operate its own provision with the consent of the members of the council and after consultation with the parents and other providers in its area, would have covered Wales.

The situation in Wales is different from that in England. In Wales, more than 90 per cent. of four-year-olds are already in maintained provision. In a couple of counties, which, unfortunately, are in many ways about to die—Clwyd and West Glamorgan—the figure is nearly 100 per cent. The lowest provision is in Gwynedd, at 77 per cent. It is clear that the Welsh counties, without any financial support from the Welsh Office, have been good providers of education for four-year-olds.

That provision is backed by that of the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association and Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin. Although most of their provision is not for four-year-olds, they have some children of that age and, through their training schemes for their workers and volunteers, they have been at pains to raise standards.

The key point is the waste of money that the voucher scheme involves in Wales. For less expense than the additional money that the voucher scheme will cost, the Government could provide funding for local authorities to provide the extra 5 per cent. or so places that we need, and there would be no problems with the level of provision in Wales. Of course, there are still other problems and there will be problems under the voucher scheme.

The excellent report of Her Majesty's inspector in Wales was made on the basis of a year-long set of inspections in 1994 and 1995 in which 120 schools and 22 playgroups were inspected against an educational framework and bearing in mind the onset of the voucher scheme. The report's 23 pages showed clearly that the best-quality education—this was almost universal—was in nursery schools and classes. A little way behind came the reception classes and mixed-age infant classes that catered for four-year-olds. Quite a long way behind that came the playgroups.

That is not because the playgroups were failing to do what they intended but because in the past they have not tried to meet the formal educational objectives that schools in the maintained sector have been set. I pay tribute to the playgroups, the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association and Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, for being prepared to take part in the inspections. They gave themselves a framework against which to judge whether they would be ready to take part in the nursery voucher scheme.

The issue in Wales is the quality of provision, and raising that quality, without getting involved in the bureaucratic paperchase of the voucher scheme. The inspector's report made it clear that the strong points of provision were often down to the support given by the local education authority. For professional development and in-service training, local authority courses were vital in helping to raise teachers' standards. The report also showed that the local authority guidelines and advice notes to schools on curriculum planning meant that there were high standards in the maintained sector for curriculum planning. There should be no doubt: Wales does not need the scheme.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) mentioned the fact that the Welsh Office consultation had not produced much support. He could have said even more clearly that, as a result of one of his questions, it was shown that not one of the 1,100 responses supported the Government's voucher scheme. The Welsh Office put that down to mass misunderstanding; if it had been a teacher in front of a class of pupils, he or she would have been labelled unsatisfactory by an Ofsted inspection. If the Welsh Office says that everyone, without exception, misunderstood what it published about its scheme, it is just trying to wriggle out of the fact that its scheme is unpopular in Wales.

The inspectorate in Wales carried out a thorough investigation. The report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs made it clear that, having asked hundreds of questions of people who submitted evidence to it, there was no evidence to suggest that anyone in the Welsh Office had thought that the scheme was the way to fill in the 5 per cent. of places not yet provided in Wales. I hope that, even at the eleventh hour, the Minister will admit that the Welsh Office was grabbed by the scruff of its neck and dragged into the voucher scheme, come hell or high water, so that the bad record of English Tory councils was not over-exposed in the debate on how to improve provision.

I hope that the Minister will accept that Welsh county councils have an excellent record of provision and that the nursery voucher scheme will make no improvement that could not be achieved more cheaply and effectively, simply by providing the money directly to the local education authorities of Wales.

Mr.DavidHanson (Delyn)

I must place on record the excellent service that Clwyd county council provides in nursery education in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), the Under-Secretary of State. Clwyd county council provides nursery education for three and four-year-olds at an almost universal level. The amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) provide what is needed by my constituents and by people throughout Wales. There is no desire in Clwyd—indeed, in Wales—for any nursery vouchers. There is universal nursery education provision, and the people do not want and do not need the Government's scheme.

I have been astounded at the level of opposition to nursery vouchers in my constituency and throughout the rest of Clwyd. Political parties are often accused of stirring up issues, but I can honestly say that parents, parent-teacher associations, school governing bodies and local authorities feel strongly about—and are even resentful of—the actions of the Welsh Office in proceeding with the proposal.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a 1,000-name petition from parents at Greenfield primary school in my constituency. Next Friday, I am going to Ysgol Glanrafon to receive petitions from parents in Mold. Next Monday, I am to receive a petition from every school in Hint. Those are not the actions of people who are politically motivated, but the actions of those who seek to defend the nursery education that their children have received for future generations.

The Minister should know about nursery education in the county of Clwyd; he represents one fifth of that county in the House. For him to come to the House tonight to argue against the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North is to put in danger the nursery education that is provided in that council at an almost universal level.

There is a genuine fear among parents of children—both those who are at nursery school now and those who are rising to go to nursery school in future—that the voucher scheme will destroy all that is good about nursery education. It will not add anything to nursery education in Wales but will put at risk all that is good.

I plead with the Minister to accept the amendments and reconsider the issues. I see that he shakes his head, but he will reap the rewards of the amendment when he comes before the people of Clwyd, North-West at the next general election. When he does so, I feel sure that the local Labour candidate will prise from him the seat that he holds today. People in my county demand and need nursery education, and the Minister should accept the amendment.

8.15 pm
Mr. Richards

If I were the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), I should be looking over my shoulder, because Councillor Karen Lumley will soon be upending him at the next general election.

If ever there was a group of amendments that was politically motivated, this is it. I say that to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) in all honesty and seriousness because, as he said, this is a matter of principle for his party. I sympathise with him politically, because his party makes no secret of the fact that it wants independence for Wales in all things—education, nursery voucher schemes and the rest. I respect him and his party for the unequivocal position that they adopt across the spectrum of political life. That is more than I can say for the Labour party.

I have looked at all the amendments, including amendment No. 17, and I have found that neither the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) nor any of his Front-Bench colleagues who speak on Welsh affairs have put their name to any of the amendments. That is the party that wants an assembly in Wales to discuss Welsh affairs—its policy on the subject does not bear scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North raised some serious points. He asked about monitoring the effects on Welsh-medium education—to which my answer is yes. He then asked how the Government would meet the wishes of Welsh parents with regard to nursery education—my answer is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We shall offer parents the choice, so we shall discover whether we are meeting their needs in terms of the provision of nursery education.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about resources and raised the issue of capital funding. The Government will not be providing capital funding directly, but the voucher scheme contains an element for capital funding. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, he will see that the voucher scheme offers an income stream, against which providers can borrow.

Opposition Members continually talk about new build. As they have all been involved with Labour-controlled authorities, they can think only in terms of new build, but the voucher scheme—the income stream that it offers—does not necessarily mean new build; it can mean adapting or refurbishing buildings that currently provide nursery provision.

I shall talk later about the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, about four-year-olds and about the proposal's alleged effect on nursery provision for three-year-olds. Today Opposition Members have told us that there is no need for a voucher scheme in Wales and that there is already excellent provision for three and four-year-olds. The Opposition have asked why we should have additional bureaucracy; they have said that the cost of administration will be handed to local authorities and that the scheme will threaten provision for three-year-olds and jeopardise LEA planning.

I shall briefly deal with those matters. However, I must point out that we did not hear from any Opposition Members why parents in Wales should be denied the right to choice and to diversity, which are offered in England. Wales has good provision for four-year-olds, with some 90 per cent. of them receiving some form of education in the maintained sector. That is a record of which we should be proud and I congratulate the education authorities in Wales on that.

I am at one with the comments of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in this respect: we should not be carried away by that record. The actual provision varies in different parts of Wales—from 75 per cent. in Gwynedd to almost 100 per cent. in Clwyd and West Glamorgan. Even when local authority provision is at the highest level, that does not mean that parents necessarily have much choice about the sort of provision that they can have for their children.

The Government's commitment to extend nursery provision to all four-year-olds goes hand in hand with their wider policy of increasing parental choice and diversity of provision. Not only are we seeking to achieve 100 per cent. provision in Wales, but we want it to be achieved in a way that gives parents much greater scope in the type of provision that they can choose for their children. In that, there is no difference between England and Wales. That is what has led us to bring forward the voucher scheme; that is why we are determined that parents in Wales should not be denied the opportunities being offered to people in England and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Several Opposition Members have expressed opposition to the voucher scheme. Why is there significant opposition to the voucher scheme in Wales? There is a significant amount of misunderstanding about the proposals. That is hardly surprising, given the scaremongering tactics of, and misleading material distributed by, what might be considered responsible bodies. It is little wonder that parents put their names to petitions and to pro forma letters that are printed by the hundred by schools when local education authorities encourage them to do so.

Bodies such as the Carmarthenshire Head Teachers Federation and the Clwyd Federation of Primary School Head Teachers have sent letters and material to parents in schools that are blatantly misleading, suggesting that LEA schools will be obliged to move from full-time to part-time provision, that parents will have to pay to make it up to full-time provision, that school budgets will be cut and that provision for three-year-olds will be reduced. That is misleading, mischievous and incorrect.

We have been told that the cost of administering the scheme—in effect, the contractor's cost—could have been given to LEAs to top up existing provision to achieve 100 per cent. cover. Why do Opposition Members think that only the LEAs have the right to provide education for four-year-olds, that LEAs always know what is best for children and that parents should meekly accept what is on offer and be grateful for it? I repeat, for the benefit of Opposition Members, that the Government believe in choice for parents, but that there is a price to pay for giving them that choice—and that is a price we are prepared to pay.

I refer to the threat to provision for three-year-olds. The threat is in the minds of those who conceive the voucher scheme only as a means of depriving local authorities of funding, of those who still do not seem to comprehend, despite all the assurances that we have given, that we will transfer no more than the value of the voucher—£1,100—from local authority funding per four-year-old place. I remind hon. Members that LEAs can continue to spend more than £1,100 per four-year-old place if that is what they want, and the funding made available for three-year-old provision will not be affected. There is no reason why the voucher scheme should affect provision for three-year-olds.

Any thinking LEA would say to itself, "If we increase the provision for three-year-olds, surely that will lead them to continue in the maintained sector when they become four-year-olds." In other words, there is an incentive for local education authorities to increase the provision to three-year-olds.

I welcome the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. It has made many interesting comments and I congratulate it on considering the voucher scheme thoroughly and expeditiously. I shall comment on its report in due course. I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North has said. I do not agree that the Select Committee's conclusions and comments on the voucher scheme are devastating.

I refer to the issue of a separate pilot phase for Wales. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the purpose of phase 1 of the pilot scheme was to look at procedures and mechanisms for the voucher scheme, and no more than that. We can learn as much from phase 1 in England as we could have done had we had a phase 1 in Wales. I made it perfectly clear, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, that had anyone come forward and offered to run the pilot scheme in Wales, we would have seriously considered the offer. However, because of the political control under which, sadly, local education authorities operate in Wales, no one came forward and offered to run a pilot scheme.

Mr. Dafis

Is the Minister saying that the only purpose of the pilot scheme in England is to look at procedures, not to look at the effect of the voucher scheme on existing provision? The second factor ought to be a part of the consideration for the voucher scheme. If it were the case, there would be every justification for having a pilot scheme in Wales.

Mr. Richards

The primary purpose of the pilot scheme is to look at procedures and mechanisms for implementing the voucher scheme. Clearly, there are secondary issues, such as monitoring of the impact of the voucher scheme. That is self-evident. That gain is external to the introduction of the voucher scheme.

I urge hon. Members to reject the amendment.

Mr. Dafis

I am disappointed that the Minister has not been prepared to make any concessions, particularly on the pilot scheme. I trust that that issue can be proposed and discussed in another place. I hope that there is more flexibility at that time. The Government ought to listen carefully to informed public opinion in Wales and provide us with that significant concession. Having said that, and in the full confidence that the matter will be discussed in the other place, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 27, in page 1, line 9, leave out from 'for' to end of line 16 and insert 'children (whether at schools or other premises)—

  1. (a) before their first school term starting after their fifth birthday (or, if they do not attend school, before such broadly corresponding time as may be prescribed), but
  2. (b) after such earlier time as may be prescribed (whether by reference to their having attained a particular age or any other circumstances).'.

No. 28, in page 1, leave out lines 17 to 21 and insert— '( ) Grants may be made under arrangements under this section—

  1. (a) to local education authorities in respect of nursery education provided at schools maintained by them, and
  2. (b) to authorities and other persons of such descriptions as may be prescribed in respect of nursery education provided by them.'.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

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