§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jonathan Evans)
No specific submissions have been received by my right hon. Friend. Applications for registration from more than 400 establishments in the private and voluntary sectors illustrate our view that the scheme will give parents a real choice in the education that they want for their four-year-olds.
§ Mr. Flynn
That was a typically disgraceful non-answer. Does the Minister recall that he has already revealed that the total number of submissions that he received in favour was one while the number against was some 4,500 plus 60 petitions? Does that not explain the desperation of the Prime Minister, who is so opposed to democracy and choice in Wales that at the weekend he described political opponents as dogs? Does that not show that he is against any sort of democracy or vote in Wales because he will come out badly in the general election and in the vote on devolution? That is why he is trying to deny Wales a vote on devolution. The people of Wales have spoken 5,000 to one to say that nursery vouchers are 606 unnecessary in Wales because we have a splendid record of achievement on nursery education. They are therefore unnecessary, unwanted and wasteful.
§ Mr. Evans
The opponent of choice is the hon. Gentleman, who made it clear at Question Time a month ago that he is opposed to the assisted places scheme. He has also made it very clear that he is opposed to our nursery voucher scheme, which is all about extending choice. To take up his point about the number of submissions—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) would listen for a minute, he might learn something. If he is interested in the number of parents in Wales who are responding positively to the nursery vouchers scheme—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says "One", but to date 28,000 parents have made applications for nursery vouchers—that is more than 80 per cent.
The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) refers to the number of submissions sent to the Government. The Government have conceived the concept of nursery vouchers, have taken it through the House and are currently implementing it. It is therefore not at all surprising that people do not write to the Government asking them to introduce the scheme, because we are introducing it already. The hon. Gentleman might ask his hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend whether the Labour party has received submissions in favour of the scheme. Only the other day I received a letter—not from a relative, or even a supporter, but from an uncommitted voter in my constituency who heard what she described as the flippant remarks of the hon. Member for Bridgend and has decided to become a supporter of mine. Perhaps I may invite the hon. Gentleman to come to my constituency more often.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway
Is not nursery education an essential part of the life of all people and especially of children as a preparation for future life? Will not the nursery voucher scheme give parents choice of institution, school, and so on in a way that the Labour party has never liked? The Opposition do not like choice for parents: they like to be able to tell them where to send their children—and that is why they are wrong.
§ Mr. Evans
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and in the growing decibels from Opposition Members we hear how opposed they are to that choice. The introduction of the nursery voucher scheme is leading to an increase in provision in their own constituencies. We were told by hon. Members from the Flintshire, Wrexham and Denbighshire education authority areas that they already had 100 per cent. provision; yet I learn that the Labour councils in those areas propose an increase from quarter-time to half-time provision, thus doubling provision for four-year-olds in those areas. Only Labour's wonky calculator could double what has already been described as 100 per cent. provision.
§ Mr. Martyn Jones
I do not think that the calculation is wonky, given that the Government have found about 607 £3 million to employ a private contractor to run the system when that sum could dramatically increase the number of places in Wales.
§ Mr. Richards
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the nursery voucher scheme is conditional on desirable learning outcomes, which will have the effect of raising education standards not only in the maintained sector but in the private and independent sectors?
§ Mr. Evans
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We already know that pre-school play groups are very much in favour of the scheme; it is interesting that their views are dismissed or not taken into account in the various representations put forward by Opposition Members. Yes, we are concerned to give the private and voluntary sectors the opportunity to offer additional choices to parents. All across Wales, we are seeing increased provision generally—both in the maintained sector and in the private and voluntary sectors—as a result of the scheme. The cacophony of noise from Opposition Members is an illustration of the fact that they have no recognition of parents' wishes in this respect.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths
There were about 100 people at the conference. If the Minister regards a 1 per cent. response in favour of his nursery voucher scheme as a success, he obviously has a long way to go before his party will be successful in Wales. Is he not also being jesuitical in the extreme in saying that 28,000 responses to the nursery voucher scheme mean parents favour it when in fact if they do not apply for vouchers they will get no education at all for their four-year-olds?
Can the Minister now explain why he has consistently flown in the face of the overwhelming majority in Wales, who regard the nursery voucher scheme as an expensive and unnecessary exercise in right-wing Tory dogma? Is it because, as with so many of their other education policies, the Tories are targeting the needs of the few as against those of the many? Indeed, the Prime Minister admitted that when he said in a speech that the Tory Government had been failing the many since 1979.
§ Mr. Evans
The representation that the hon. Gentleman received, which he has flippantly dismissed here today, is expressed in these terms: the person concerned, who sent me a copy of her representation, says that she was saddened by the hon. Gentleman's flippant dismissal of the voucher scheme. In fact, all opposition to the scheme has been generated by Opposition Members—
§ Mr. Evans
The fact is that the hon. Member for Bridgend is happy with the previous position, which 608 allowed very limited nursery provision in Wales. Provision is now increasing and being extended, allowing much more variety in both private and voluntary sector provision. Opposition Members are wholly opposed to choice of that kind.