HL Deb 22 July 1996 vol 574 cc1217-25

1 Clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert— ("(2A) No arrangements may be made under subsection (1) above in respect of grants payable under this Act on or after 1 April 1997 before the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament an evaluation of the operation over a period of twelve months of any grants for nursery education in the area of any local education authority made during the financial year 1996/7.')

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

1A Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason No. 1A.

The amendment which we passed in Committee seeks to require my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an evaluation of the operation of phase 1 of the nursery education voucher scheme, over a period of 12 months, before making any arrangements for phase 2.

The Commons have now considered this amendment and have disagreed with it, Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient". I urge your Lordships to agree with the Commons.

We have considered very carefully indeed the points made in this House. We too believe that the nursery education voucher scheme should be evaluated—so much so in fact that we are already undertaking evaluation exercises and we are reaping the benefits and learning the lessons to inform phase 2 of the scheme.

First, we commissioned a survey of parents in the phase 1 LEAs. We made the results of that survey available in the Library of both Houses two weeks ago. The findings are as follows. First, 60 per cent. of parents interviewed rated the scheme positively. In Norfolk, where the survey found that parents were most likely to know the key facts about the scheme, 87 per cent. of parents rated it "quite good" or "very good". Parents have not had difficulty with the applications; 72 per cent. found the forms "very easy to complete".

These findings echo the findings of a survey undertaken by the Pre-school Learning Alliance which surveyed its member playgroups to see how parents in phase 1 are benefiting from the scheme. That survey found as follows: 80 per cent. of groups think that parents value vouchers; 27 per cent. of the playgroups had increased the number of sessions they offer, even in the first term of operation.

Since your Lordships last debated this issue, the results of a second survey in the phase 1 areas have been completed. We have surveyed the views of providers and the results of that survey have been placed in the Library. The findings are as follows. The providers found registration easy and 60 per cent. found the administration "very easy" or "quite easy". Three-quarters found voucher redemption "very" or "fairly easy", and a similar proportion found the self-assessment schedule helpful.

Your Lordships have also been concerned to ensure that only good quality nursery education is supported through the scheme. Perhaps I may give the House some of the findings of the providers' survey in this respect. Four in 10 providers agreed that quality of nursery education would improve in their area in the longer term. Over half of the providers in Norfolk were of that view. Nine in 10 providers favoured the desirable learning outcomes and one in five thought they would make good quality provision even better. More than eight in 10 providers welcomed the inspection proposals and almost all had a good grasp of the inspection criteria.

This is all very good news and in my view demonstrates that our proposals will mean a significant levering up of the standards of nursery education on offer.

As we have said throughout the passage of this Bill, the Government believe that the scheme should be evaluated. But let us consider the real motive behind the amendment that we discussed on another occasion. It is not to ensure full evaluation; it is to postpone implementation of the scheme. That delay is simply not necessary and it is damaging.

I hope that all I have said so far will allow the House to see that the amendment is not necessary because we already have full and thorough evaluation plans in hand. But the amendment is damaging because, quite simply, it deprives children of the benefits of vouchers.

In April 1997 more than half a million children will be eligible for nursery education vouchers. This amendment will deprive those children and their parents. The Government's position is clear. We want to allow those children to use those vouchers. We want to give parents the wherewithal to exercise choice of nursery education provider for their child. We want to start addressing the levering up of the quality of provision by introducing inspection and by providers starting to use the SCAA desirable learning goals. We want to give those parents who are hard-pressed to meet even the modest cost of pre-schools, the opportunity to use their voucher. And we want to do all this as quickly as possible. There is no possible reason for delay.

I shall conclude my remarks by reminding the House of the key principles underlying the nursery voucher education scheme: first, parental choice; secondly, raising educational standards; thirdly, the injection of substantial amounts of new money.

With those key principles in mind, together with the opportunity for those half-a-million four year-old children next April to benefit from good-quality nursery education, I urge the House to agree with the Commons. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason No. 1A.—(Lord Henley.)

5.45 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, it is a long-standing convention of your Lordships' House that if a Bill originating in another place is examined and amended by your Lordships' House, and that amendment is disagreed to when the Bill returns whence it came, that is the end of the matter.

I admit that the Companion to the Standing Orders allows that even when the disagreement of another place is on the grounds of privilege, as is the case with this amendment, it is permissible for an amendment in lieu to be tabled in your Lordships' House which, if it were passed, would require the other place to think again and vote again. But the tradition is that to take this extreme action is against the ethos of this House. It is rocking the boat; it is not cricket; it is not done. We are the non-elected, revising and debating Chamber, and if our advice is rejected then the will of the elected body should prevail.

At Committee stage of the Nursery Education and Grant Maintained Schools Bill, your Lordships passed an amendment which required that no grant should be made until Phase I of the scheme had run for 12 months and an evaluation of it had been brought to Parliament. That amendment was duly debated in another place, after dinner, late in the evening of last Wednesday, 17th July. I listened to the debate. I was not greatly edified by it. At the end of it, however, our amendment was disagreed to by 270 votes to 251, and the reason given, was: Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons". This is of course as superficial as it is specious because our amendment was designed to save expenditure, not to waste it. But in this particular convention the Reason given does not have to be, in itself, reasonable in any way.

So the problem before us on Thursday, 18th July, was whether to express our dissatisfaction by tabling an amendment in lieu and forcing a Division today, which would at least register our very real sense of anger at the way this Bill has been treated, or to abide by the convention, bow to the will of the elected Chamber, fold our tents and steal away. After discussion, the view was taken that we should follow the latter course, and so I stand before you with nothing more than a neatly folded tent.

This action—in response to the convention of your Lordships' House and nothing else—should not be interpreted as in any way a weakening of our implacable opposition to nursery vouchers. I said at Third Reading that, in our opinion, nursery vouchers are a waste of effort, a waste of time and a waste of money. I would not alter one word of that and, in saying so, I know that I have the support of the whole of the Opposition and, I suspect, very many of those on the Cross Benches. I speak also for the vast majority of governors, headteachers, teachers and parents of the schools concerned, who are appalled at the unnecessary and divisive bureaucratic nightmare which this pointless procedure will produce.

I know that because of the gigantic postbag I have received. I speak for many other Members of these Benches, and of the Cross Benches, and of the Benches Spiritual. It has gone so far that this last weekend my personal telephone number at home was found by a large number of people, who have rung me up in fury at the rumour that we were not going to divide the House again on this issue today. Several of them were under the impression that we were in a position of power and could overturn the amendment again. It took a considerable portion of the Sabbath day—I regret to say—to disillusion them about that. They see this scheme for what it is—an open attempt to bribe the eligible voters just before an election by stuffing a paper promise of £1,100 through their letter boxes. For anyone to say that the majority of parents want this scheme is quite frankly rubbish. The proof will be found in the ballot boxes. If nursery vouchers are ever issued nationally—and I pray God they will not be—the Labour government will honour those that have been issued but scrap the nursery voucher scheme. That is a promise, and unlike this Government we shall keep our word.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I rise more in sorrow than in anger, as they say. I am sad that what I think the noble Lord, Lord Morris, described as the powers that be in the Labour Party have decided not to pursue this matter further. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, explained carefully and clearly why that is. I understand why the Labour party in particular would have an interest in ensuring that what he described as the conventions of the House—I think they are more correctly described as the conventions between the two Front Benches—should not be upset at this time. I do not want to say any more about that. I do not want to embarrass the noble Lord, Lord Morris, any more, because he and I have worked closely on this Bill. I have come to respect his views and I think I know what his views are.

However, it is not just a matter of personal sorrow and regret that we cannot take this matter any further. It may be no consolation to the noble Lord to know that he was not the only one whose telephone was disturbed. I, too, was tracked down at home. Perhaps, unlike the noble Lord, I have an answer machine which helps in that it refers people to my secretary, who was also tracked down. We received the same lobbying. Someone went to the considerable trouble of finding a fax number to send me a fax before the weekend. It is not someone from my part of the world or someone I have ever heard of before. As far as I know I have not heard from this person before although, like many other noble Lords, I have received so many letters I may well have done so. The fax was sent to me immediately after the decision in another place. It stated: I feel very strongly that parents will feel let down if the Commons are not challenged on their overthrowing of your amendment for evaluation". I think that person speaks for a large number of people. That certainly has been the reaction that I have encountered since last Thursday. Sadly, she concludes the fax by stating, Excuse my interference when I am only a parent but we feel so strongly". This Bill is all about parents, and their children who are as yet too young to hold their own independent views. For that reason I am sad that we are now coming to the end of the process.

I wish to say just a few words about what the Minister said in his opening remarks. He accused us of using the amendment as a delaying tactic. The amendment may have caused a short delay, but that was not its principal purpose. Its principal purpose was as stated; namely, to ensure that there is a full evaluation. People out there who describe themselves as "only parents", people who teach in the schools, head teachers, governing bodies, local education authorities and even those within large parts of the voluntary sector, simply do not understand why the Government have set themselves against your Lordships' amendment to undertake an evaluation after a full year. It seems to them to make no sense whatsoever to have a pilot phase in the first place if it is not then to be fully and properly evaluated.

We have said all this before. I do not wish to take up valuable time in saying it again. However, as we have not fully debated evaluation in this House, certainly since the amendment was defeated, I hope the Minister can say a little more about what sort of issues the further evaluation he has now promised will cover. I hope he will say when it will be available and where it will be available. I am sure it will be available in this House but it needs to be more widely available. I conclude as I began by professing more sorrow than anger. I am sad. This is a sad end to a sorry business. Above all, I believe this whole voucher scheme is an enormous wasted opportunity to bring about an end which all of your Lordships wish to achieve but which this scheme will not achieve.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, I too find this a deeply disappointing occasion for many in the education service. Of course I do not like the mechanism of vouchers as a way of increasing provision because, for all that it involves choice of a kind, it serves to fragment and complicate the system and move even further away from the concept of a local community of schools. I believe that this has served us better than most current commentators will allow, and that it would have been the better route by which to increase publicly-funded provision.

But it is not as if we were attempting to wreck the voucher scheme. In Committee we sought, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, emphasised, to ensure that this would not be one of those reforms that, in common with others in recent years, would have to be remodelled later in the light of experience, by providing for a proper evaluation period so that the thing was more likely to be right first time.

I cannot believe that this is a bad principle. The Minister said he wanted to bring in vouchers as quickly as possible. How often have we heard that ill-advised phrase in recent years? I am often horrified at the neglect of sound evidence for the basing of educational policy. Dogma, hunches, reference back to one's own golden school-days, are not good guides to what is best for the citizens of tomorrow. I do not say that the present party in power is uniquely prone to these, but the sheer volume of its reforms means that we have had our fill of them in the last 16 years.

The Government, as ever, are convinced they are right on the issue in front of us. I only hope for the sake of the children that the scheme will work out for the best.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I too express regret that here is an objective on which everyone in this Chamber could have agreed; namely, that it is desirable that all children of four years whose parents wish them to have access to a variety of nursery provision should have that access. However, the golden opportunity has been lost because the Government have decided on the means of achieving that provision in the face of overwhelming criticism from over 80 per cent. of parents whose children in this age group already attend their local schools and who have exercised that parental choice for which this Government claim credit; namely, choice in access to nursery education.

For those parents who would prefer not to exercise that choice, the Government could have introduced a scheme. The only change that this voucher scheme introduces is giving money to those who choose an alternative, for example a playgroup in the voluntary sector, or those who choose to pay for private provision. For once I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, who has said that if we have limited public funds they should be targeted at those most in need. For those parents who want access to their local maintained, voluntary aided or voluntary controlled nursery school, the £1,100 will not pay for that. The opposition has not come from Members on these Benches, but from hundreds of people involved in pre-school provision for four year-olds. Letters have been received from dozens of people representing thousands of others who have expressed deep concern. There is agreement that four year-old children should have such access if their parents wish; and that that access should not damage the existing provision for three year-olds or the quality or quantity of the range of education on offer at present.

Vouchers are not popular. I have yet to meet a parent in the pilot area whose four year-old child goes to the local school who has a good word to say for vouchers. The parents who believe that vouchers are popular are those who do not have access at present and believe that the voucher is a guarantee of a place. I hope that in the coming few months, the Government will not put forward a voucher as representing a place. It does not. If the local school is overcrowded and there is no provision, the voucher is worthless. One cannot exchange it for the provision that one desires.

There is, too, the messing about with local government finance. During various stages of the Bill, one of the Minister's supporters from the Benches opposite, in response to a challenge about changes in local government and local government finance, said rather proudly, "Yes we did pass all that legislation; and, yes, it was all necessary". I refer to the poll tax. The poll tax was a much worse mistake. There is strong hostility to the proposal in the Bill.

The second golden opportunity that has been lost is the failure by the Government to recognise the benefit of partnership between central government and local government but, more importantly, at local level to ensure that all children's needs are met. Market forces do not meet the needs of the child who may be difficult to provide for, or the child in an out of the way place. It is sad that governors and teachers up and down the country, the people of Wales who have expressed objections, and (I suspect, although I cannot prove it) the people of Northern Ireland where all four year-olds are in school, are being consulted about extending the voucher scheme. A full year will be necessary to consider the effect on local government finance, and the problems that the proposal creates for the very governors to whom the Government have handed the responsibility of the funding. Why do the Government not listen when concerns are expressed about what is being provided?

My worry among others is this. Let us consider Wales, and Northern Ireland where the Government are consulting at present. The vouchers are still being brought in in areas where all children are in schools. I am deeply suspicious that it is the beginning of a thin edge of the wedge. I cannot see any reason to be pleased that the Government chose to claim privilege as a reason. I accept the legitimacy of the other Chamber. I accept that finance is involved in the Bill. But we could have been celebrating one of the few achievements of partnership, unanimity and consensus. Instead I take part in the debate on the Bill with a heavy heart. If I had been told even three years ago that this Government would come up with a proposal for nursery education that brought in new money and that it would leave me with a heavy heart I should not have believed it. Perhaps I should have believed anything of this Government.

6 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I have not taken part in the discussions although I have listened to them all. Perhaps I may say one thing. The sad aspect is that even if the voucher scheme is the most enormous success, and enormously popular, should the Labour Party ever be elected, it will abolish it.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, can unfold his tent because he has other business beyond this, and I hope to see him for that. Perhaps I may say this in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. She seemed to be criticising another place for claiming financial privilege. That is entirely a matter for another place. It is not a matter for us to question. The fact is that it has claimed financial privilege and there is an end to it.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris complains—I believe that it was slightly unfair—that the debate after dinner in another place was somewhat unedifying. Perhaps I should remind the noble Lord of the form which the debate took on this amendment in this House at Committee stage. I seem to remember that the noble Lord got to his feet and said, "I beg to move", and that was the sum total of the debate on the amendment. If the noble Lord will remember, we earlier debated the subject of evaluation; and the Committee came to a view which was completely contrary to the view to which it came after the rather odd procedural gambits of the noble Lord at ten o'clock that night. We had the rather unedifying spectacle of the Committee of this House making a decision on the same matter with completely contrary views on the same day. Perhaps that is a matter that we should consider. It is something that this House should not try to do again. I appreciate that in moving this first amendment, the noble Lord rather sotto voce informed the Committee that he would be coming to other amendments later, despite the fact that they were grouped with that amendment. But the noble Lord knows perfectly well, with his hand on his heart, as I know, that the whole of that first debate was on evaluation. He knows perfectly well that the Committee came to a clear decision on evaluation. It was not a decision that he liked, and so he came back to the issue at a later stage and used devices which I think were not entirely edifying.

My honourable friends and right honourable friends in another place, as did his honourable and right honourable friends, had an edifying debate last week on this subject. They came to a clear conclusion that they did not want this amendment. That is why it has come back to us; and that is why I ask the House to agree with the views of another place.

I wish to add a word or two about evaluation. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about evaluation. We have said a great deal about evaluation both in this place and in another place at all stages of the Bill. We take that evaluation seriously. It will cover a wide range of aspects of the scheme. It will become available from now and over the autumn. So far as possible all of it will be published, and inspection evidence will be available from late autumn. There will be a survey of parents and of providers. We have already mentioned those. There will be an analysis of the issue of vouchers and an analysis of the redemption of vouchers. I believe that lessons are already being learned. I do not think that it will be necessary at this stage to continue to make the points that we have made at Committee and other stages as to how thorough that evaluation will be.

We believe that it is important, as I said, that half a million four year-old children have the benefit of those vouchers, as do the children of Norfolk, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Wandsworth at present. They should have the benefits of those vouchers and of the good quality nursery education with the inspection that will come with it, which will lever up standards, as soon as is reasonably practical, which is next April. That is why I now ask the House to agree with the Commons in their rejection of Amendment No. 1 for the reason given in Amendment No. 1A.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, so that the record may be correct perhaps I may point out that at Committee stage in your Lordships' House the first amendment in the first group was on an order, not on evaluation. The Government chose to read that group otherwise after we had given them the grouping in the middle of the previous week.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is being somewhat disingenuous. We had a group into which all those amendments were put. It was obviously open to the noble Lord, as he will remember from the form of words that appears on the top of the groupings, to move them at a later stage if he so wished, and he exercised his right. However, if the noble Lord reads through that debate, he will find that every single argument put forward from this side and the other side was entirely on evaluation, and nothing but evaluation. That is what the Committee of the House decided at something like 4.30 on that Monday afternoon. For some odd reason, the Committee came to a different conclusion on the same subject later on. The noble Lord knows that. I commend the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.