HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc821-2
Mrs. Organ

To ask the secretary of State for Education and Employment what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the nursery voucher scheme. [188]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

We have done an assessment and have found that the bureaucratic and administrative costs of the voucher scheme are unacceptable, that the loss of places in the voluntary sector and the closure of private providers are unacceptable and that, therefore, the voucher scheme urgently needs review.

Mrs. Organ

I offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his appointment. I thank him for his reply. It has, indeed, been a damaging scheme. It has caused early years education providers in the Forest of Dean huge amounts of unnecessary work, while not extending provision, and it has caused the closure of an excellent playgroup in Churcham. What assurances can my hon. Friend give parents and providers in England that we will soon be rid of the scheme?

Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the voucher scheme will end as from the end of the summer term this year. The ill-conceived scheme will be set aside in favour of a new start for early years education based on a partnership between the voluntary, private and education authority sectors, which will work together to draw up development plans at local level and to ensure that, instead of bureaucracy, we can provide free places for all four-year-olds and eventually for all three-year-olds as well. The money will be ring-fenced; that provision will be based on the development plans put to the Department so that we can establish early years forums in which all people can play their part in fulfilling their pledge to give children free places rather than a paper promise.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his team on their new positions. I hope that they enjoy their work at the Department for Education and Employment.

The right hon. Gentleman will know by now through departmental briefing that the administrative costs of the nursery voucher scheme amount to just £5 million. Would he like to tell the House how many places for four-year-olds that sum will deliver and how soon and how far it will take the right hon. Gentleman towards the guarantee of a place for all 600,000 four-year-olds?

Mr. Blunkett

I thank the right hon. Lady for her normal courtesy and welcome her back to the Commons. I hope that I can return the courtesy that she paid me.—[Interruption.] Which she did.

The voucher scheme's bureaucracy is more than simply the £5 million to which the right hon. Lady referred. The £3 million alone that went on advertising the scheme has already been spent, but the new money that was allocated and will be applied directly to the provision of free places is available to us. Therefore, from September we hope to make substantial progress towards the guarantee that we have given, on which the previous Prime Minister reneged, of a free place for all four-year-olds.

Dr. George Turner

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his appointment and on his statement to the House today. I am sure that he will be well aware that the people of Norfolk who participated in the piloting of the nursery scheme will be highly delighted to see it abandoned. As the former chair of the education committee in Norfolk, I know that, although some good was done, the special circumstances meant that there was considerable waste. Will my right hon. Friend please repeat today the promise that he has made in the past to ensure that the people of Norfolk are not put at any disadvantage because they participated in the piloting of the scheme?

Mr. Blunkett

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend the assurance that all existing places will be safeguarded so that those who have redeemed vouchers will be able to carry them through into the autumn where places exist this summer, as part of the new partnership with the voluntary and private sector. What is more, we will start the process of piloting early years centres to draw together nursery education and early years care and ensure that parents are involved in the process of family learning.